Monday evening, June 14, Wilton’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission conducted a pre-application review for a proposed 173-unit apartment complex at 141 Danbury Rd., the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office.
This is the second time P&Z has met with the applicant’s project team for this type of informal review, but it’s clear from commissioner feedback, there is still much work for the developer to do before the project has a chance of gaining P&Z approval.
The P&Z commissioners aren’t the only town officials telling the developer he needs to consider revisions. Monday’s meeting followed another pre-application review recently conducted by Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), which raised significant concerns about the proposed building’s height and scale and for being “out of context” with the surrounding area.
How Tall Is It?
Too tall, according to Wilton’s current regulations on building size.
But exactly how much taller depends on how you calculate the height. Currently, Wilton regulations would calculate the height at 65 feet, based on measuring from the average grade level to the highest point of the building.
The applicant argued that using a different calculation would get the height much closer to (though perhaps still not reaching) the Wilton regulation’s limit of 55 feet. This could be done by:
- Starting to measure from the grade at the first-floor elevation (which is higher for the proposed building because it is in a flood plain)
- Using a new measure for the highest point, since the upper level includes some lofted building height as well as significant open space in between lofted areas
“It does feel tall,” said commission chair Rick Tomasetti. “It’s a building type we really haven’t seen in our community.”
Regardless of how it is measured, a focal point of the reviews by both the ARB and P&Z has been the upper level of the building. Characterized as a “half story” by the applicant, the highest level of the building would be lofted areas for those units on the top full floor of the building.
The developer says such lofts, which can be used as home offices, additional bedrooms or den areas, are extremely desirable to tenants and a competitive point of difference for the property.
Each loft would open to a private rooftop terrace for each tenant on the top floor. Since the lofted areas are broken up with open space, they would not technically be called a “floor” though visually they would appear to many observers as a fifth floor.
Tomasetti told the developer, “I think you could make this better.” He urged the team to look for ways to break down the perceived scale of the building and the repetitiveness of the design features. “You don’t have to be right up to Danbury Rd. with 4 1/2 stories,” he said.
The developer seemed prepared for that discussion, even referring to the upper level as being “controversial.” Though the team still hopes to convince the commission of the value of the lofted areas, they floated two alternatives past the commissioners for their reaction.
While one option was to eliminate the lofts entirely, another option (shown below) involved setbacks for the lofted areas to diminish their appearance as a full “story”.
The setbacked lofts seemed more palatable, but the commission still encouraged the development team to address the other architectural concerns. “We hear you loud and clear,” the developer assured the P&Z members.
Is Wilton Ready?
The commissioners were in agreement that the 141 Danbury Rd. location was underutilized and a good opportunity for multi-family development. However, they also generally agreed that there was room to improve the visual appeal of the building over what they were being shown.
Commissioner Florence Johnson, for example, said she hopes to see a final design that is “less monolithic, and more like a village.”
Tomasetti was careful to clarify that the pushback was not because of the proposed density. “It’s about the architecture,” Tomasetti emphasized, not an objection to creating more diverse or higher-density housing.
Commissioners encouraged the development team to give the architecture a less urban, less corporate and less imposing feel, in addition to breaking up the repetitive facade.
Tomasetti reminded the development team that Wilton has “a lot riding on this” project as one of the first developments aimed at the town’s POCD goals. “We have to get a good result,” he said, noting that it would become a benchmark of sorts for future development along the Danbury Rd. corridor.
“Message received,” said Samuel Fuller, the developer, who added that his goal is to create a development that will inspire people to say, “Wow, I want really to live here.”
About the Zoning
The property is currently zoned as a DE-5 Design Enterprise District. The applicant plans to propose a text amendment, or “overlay,” to the existing zoning regulations that would allow the property to be developed for multi-family housing.
Specifically, the overlay is “intended to allow for the conversion or redevelopment of commercial properties, or portions thereof, in the DE-5 Design Enterprise District into multifamily dwelling units for rental or sale. In keeping with the Plan of Conservation and Development, the overlay zone is intended to increase the availability of multi-family housing and smaller housing units diversifying the Town’s housing stock to support a range of life stages. This includes younger working age and older populations whose housing and affordability needs overlap.”
Tomasetti encouraged the development team to create renderings of what a new development might look like under the existing zoning regulations, as a comparison to what is being proposed. Since Wilton hasn’t seen any such development in at least 20 years, Tomasetti said, people might be surprised to see what would be permitted as of right. Such a comparison might show how large a leap the proposed project may or may not be.
Parking Does The Driving
“Parking drives the site plan,” said the developer.
As planned, there would be 313 parking spaces, averaging 1.81 spaces per apartment unit.
There would be parking spaces along some of the building’s perimeter, as well as an underground parking garage. The latest plans take into account earlier concerns raised by P&Z about the appearance of parking areas as seen from Danbury Rd.
As drawn, the parking plans would require a text amendment to the current zoning regulation. In this case, the studio and one-bedroom units would be allocated 1.25 spaces (instead of 1.5 per studio as currently required); two-bedroom units would be allocated 1.75 spaces (instead of two); and three-bedroom units would be allocated 2.25 spaces (instead of two, but eliminating a requirement for one visitor space per every two units).
The developer noted that new state regulations call for lower minimum required parking spaces, but said the number of proposed spaces was based on his team’s experience with suburban complexes similar to this one.
The developer is also asking for an exception to the no-parking-in-the-front-yard rule, “where up to 10 visitor and accessible parking spaces may be permitted” as also shown in the above rendering.
The developer’s intention is to “move forward rapidly” in the hopes of making improvements to the architectural details without a significant impact on the overall site plan.