The Wednesday, Feb. 2 meeting of the Village District Design Advisory Committee (VDDAC) was dominated by debate over one of Wilton’s most promising new restaurants. The discussion underscored a troubling lack of communication and coordination between Wilton’s town agencies, commissions, and advisory groups like VDDAC.
Last May, Rise Doughnuts, the renowned pop-up doughnut shop that previously operated out of Parlor and later the Schoolhouse restaurants, was granted a special permit by the Planning & Zoning Commission to open a fast-food business at the former location of Lang’s Pharmacy in Wilton Center. The founders of Rise, Wilton residents Hugh Mangum and Laura Malone, broke ground on the new site in October and recently poured footings for an accessible ramp that was required and approved by the Building Department.
However, they say it was never made clear to them that the ramp project needed to come before the VDDAC in addition to the Building Department. Once engaged in the process, VDDAC, an advisory committee of the Planning and Zoning Commission charged with protecting the character, landscape, and structures of the Wilton Center Village District, expressed serious objections to the location and design of the ramp.
“I don’t know what to say about you having a building permit for a project that hasn’t been reviewed by our committee,” said VDDAC Chair Robert Sanders. “We have authority on this district and that should be part of the building permit approval. We need to find a way to do this better when a business owner like you arrives.”
Of the current design, which routes the accessible ramp through the dining patio along the south side of the building, with a buffer to account for an existing tree, Board Member Kevin Quinlan said, “I’m sorry to say, it’s the worst place you could have put the ramp. It’s like putting up a fence. It divides the space instead of uniting it.”
Sanders ran through a series of alternative options, including a ramp running along the back fence of the dining patio, which would help mask some of the site’s less attractive areas while preserving the dining patio as a space connected to the main restaurant.
“Part of my confusion, to be totally candid, is we were already been approved by the Building Department for the ramp where it is and we’ve already poured the footings,” said Mangum. “We can’t handle [further changes] monetarily until we get open—the key here is we need to get open. We’ve done everything in our power to submit this early. We’ve played ball. We need clarity on what we need to do and get our path forward.”
In reply, Sanders echoed a conversation he had previously with Town Planner Michael Wrinn about the project. “This space and the Veterans’ Memorial across the street are the only park elements in this end of Wilton Center. It’s too important to just say ‘okay, we gotta do it in a rush and we gotta have a budget.’ I love you but I can’t get away from that.”
He challenged Mangum and Malone to “figure out how to make [the ramp] an amenity.” He wondered aloud whether by widening the railing, the landings could double as gathering spaces for customers in addition to a circulation element.
Board Member Laura Noble Perese expressed concern about the direction the conversation was taking. “Procedurally this is coming to us at an awkward stage in the development of the concept, which is something we’ve brought up before—we have an issue with when we’re brought into the conversation. In this case, it would have been great if we had been brought into the process before money was spent.”
“However,” she noted, “If we’re insisting on something like this ramp in our letter to P&Z that we run the risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good. We risk running off a business that could be very good thing for Wilton with after the fact changes.”
The Committee engaged in further discussion of the ramp, in particular the location of the handrail and any potential encroachment on sidewalk traffic. Mangum and Malone agreed to pursue a temporary ramp installation, which would hopefully allow them to apply for and receive a certificate of occupancy from the town, even as the ultimate ramp design remains under discussion. Mangum noted that, if the ramp issue can be resolved, the restaurant could be ready for operation in a few weeks.
Perese brought the discussion into focus. “From my perspective I think this is such an amazing use for this building,” she said. “One thing we keep talking about is that there is no sense of place in the Village District aside from the library. Even though it’s just doughnuts, based on what you all did at Schoolhouse, this has a very real possibility of being ‘the center’ in Wilton Center in terms of bringing people together.”
Mangum responded, saying, “Rise has become such a community project. We don’t want to just sell doughnuts, we want to spread joy and create a sense of place. It might look ugly right now but I promise you our intention is to make it beautiful.”
GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Mangum and Malone for reactions following the meeting.
Malone expressed that she originally favored the design now being recommended by VDDAC and agrees about the placemaking benefits it would offer. “It would have been awesome if we could have had this conversation with them in the initial lease signing. If Wilton is trying to bring new businesses into town, it would be good for the Board to reach out with their guidelines.”
However, their spirits remain high. “With the exception of the money spent—that part stings—we understand,” said Mangum. “It’s apparent that the Board wants what’s good for Wilton, and also wants to work with us to create a great gathering ground for everyone in town. If there’s an investment to be made, it’s just in providing clearer information online for a new business coming into town.”