Notable changes are coming to Kimco Realty’s redevelopment plans for its Wilton River Park campus at 15 River Rd. and 21 River Rd. in Wilton Center, following feedback from the Planning and Zoning Commission in December.
On Dec. 13, P&Z held a pre-application hearing for Kimco’s project to redevelop the southern half of its Wilton Center campus. After years of widespread vacancy, Kimco outlined its plans to raze the existing structure at 21 River Rd. and construct a 160-unit multi-family residential complex on that site and a portion of the existing parking lot. Those initial plans would have largely eliminated retail space at 21 River Rd., which is currently home to Wilton Hardware, River Road Gallery, and Starbucks, as well as several empty storefronts.
Last week, Kimco submitted to the town’s Planning and Zoning Department an updated proposal that is expected to be introduced during the Commission’s Monday, May 23 meeting. Representatives from Kimco also reached out to GOOD Morning Wilton to discuss the revised proposal in advance of the P&Z meeting.
The revised plan eliminates five apartment units and the planned open space in front of Building 1A, the replacement for 21 River Rd. In exchange, Kimco will be adding back in more than 7,000 square feet of retail space, for a total of 9,500 square feet. The new proposal also reimagines the physical design of the site — both the architecture, which had been criticized by the Commission for feeling insufficiently “village-like,” and the surrounding streetscape.
Although the new design retains some of the sidewalk-level retail that the Commission (as well as First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice) signaled support for, the trade-off appears to be the loss of public gathering space across from Schenck’s Island.
Whether that exchange will be well received by town officials remains to be seen.
A Push to Redevelop in the Midst of a Master Planning Process
During the December presentation, Nicholas Brown, Vice President of Development for Kimco, cited several challenges facing the property, which he reiterated in the conversation with GMW. Of Wilton Center itself, Brown echoed many of the observations made by BFJ Planning, the firm hired by the town to manage the Wilton Center master planning process that is currently underway.
“We see certain commonalities in strong village shopping districts: walkability, engaging streetscape, and convenient parking,” he said. “A lot of those components are lacking [in Wilton Center] — it’s very vehicular-centric, not as pedestrian-friendly. The layout is disjointed and there are few options for outdoor dining with ambiance. It’s lacking community gathering spots and doesn’t have significant foot traffic. There are just not enough bodies to support all of those businesses.”
As for the town’s master planning process, Brown said that BFJ Planning had sat down with Kimco for a direct discussion about the process and the economic conditions they have experienced, which he called, “a great outlet for sharing ideas.” However, he added, “We want to make sure this doesn’t just become an academic exercise. How will it be implemented, phased, and paid for?”
As for why Kimco would prefer to move ahead with a redevelopment application before the master plan has been completed, Brown explained that Kimco’s own exploration process for the site was already underway by the time the town’s planning process began. However, he noted that Kimco has been following those conversations closely.
“We’ve really gained a tremendous amount of constructive feedback and commentary from watching the process,” he said. “And we feel that the project that we have in front of us right now is much improved from where we started.”
Feedback and Changes
One improvement Kimco has made to its initial design that seems inspired by the master planning discussions conducted so far is a reimagining of sidewalk-adjacent parking at the 21 River Rd. site. A lack of sidewalk-adjacent and parallel parking in Wilton Center is one element that both the Commission and BFJ have cited as a challenge for creating a walkable downtown.
During the Feb. 24 meeting of the Master Plan subcommittee, P&Z Commissioner Chris Pagliaro had pointed out that, unlike Post Road in Darien or Main Street in Ridgefield, Wilton Center’s roadways are too narrow to accommodate parallel parking. Referring to 21 River Rd., he said, “A lot of people think that little parallel parking area is silly, but I think it’s great. I actually walk into those front doors.”
P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti had agreed, adding, “What’s silly is the extra buffer.”
Kimco’s initial proposal for 21 River Rd. had retained that leafy median and the twelve parallel parking spots at the site, which would have bordered a publicly-accessible greenspace in front of the new complex. Renderings showed benches, plantings, and hardscape with spaces for sidewalk trees. The project’s architect, Brian O’Connor of CUBE 3, had explained during Kimco’s Dec. 13 pre-application hearing that the design sought to “give that greenspace back to the public realm in a more meaningful way.”
However, with only meager retail space incorporated in the site plan and Wilton Center’s lack of foot traffic, Commissioners had questioned whether non-residents would truly utilize that public space.
Pagliaro had urged Kimco to plan for restaurant tenants and outdoor dining in that space instead. Referencing the Corben District in Darien, which faced pressure to convert retail to residential but also incorporated farmers’ market space and outdoor dining, he said, “I don’t have a problem converting this to housing but we need to do something with these spaces. Make this area part of the community, somewhere people go with their families — not just a place where other people live.”
Now, the new renderings seem to reflect this suggestion, with benches and walkways replaced by café tables lining what appear to be dining establishments. The new design also reimagines the parking along the sidewalk with a new “nose-in” angled design that allows Kimco to nearly the double the available parking spaces for retail customers to 23 in total.
Also during the December hearing, Tomasetti had advised Kimco to look at the entire property more holistically, “Look at the buildings at the north side too, and whether the road between the north and south halves of the site can be integrated better. Don’t just think about these two buildings on this site — that’s going to be a failure.”
In the recent call with GMW, Brown previewed a longer-term vision for the entire Kimco property, which maps out a series of pedestrian connections and pocket parks that he hopes would “give Wilton Center a little more heart and soul.” He shared an initial rendering but noted that the concept is meant to be illustrative at this point and that Kimco has not yet discussed what form these pedestrian connections would take.
Ballparking those changes at around 10 years from now, Kimco is considering not only adding another mixed-use (residential and retail) building (2B, immediately south of Stop and Shop) but also the possibility of razing and replacing the current structure at the southern corner of 5 River Rd. (building 2A).
Brown also acknowledged the hope to potentially connect the plaza with Hubbard Rd. at the northern corner, although the land is privately owned by the adjacent resident and no discussions have occurred.
Finally, the updated proposal also introduces a new architectural design for the complex, the sixth so far. Tomasetti had said of the previous architectural iterations, “No offense, but every one of these designs we’ve seen could have been in Virginia or Texas.”
Brown previewed the new design to GMW. “Previously we had a more contemporary design. Based on some of the feedback that we received, our architectural approach is now more of a New England-inspired traditional architecture, which we think fits a little better with the surrounding community. Our overall concept is really trying to emulate that ‘Main Street’ village paradigm that we talked about.”
Addressing Tenant Relations
During the December hearing, P&Z Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini had questioned whether Kimco had indeed made a best effort to lease the commercial space at 21 River Rd. Referring to her time on the Economic Development Commission before being elected to P&Z, she said, “Your local guy came in and talked to us because we had so many complaints about rent. I have had multiple businesses looking to move into your complexes, existing tenants, and soon-to-be-gone tenants indicating that it is not so easy to communicate with Kimco.”
In addition to the vacancies on the site, she said, “There are some existing tenants in place, including one extremely long-term tenant in that property right now that we are losing. I think that is a shame. Every landlord in town says it’s hard to keep tenants so I don’t know why we would be trying to lose tenants.”
Rotini seemed to be have been referring to Wilton Hardware, which has since announced it will indeed be departing 21 River Rd. for the new Sharp Hill Square complex on Danbury Rd.
GMW asked Brown for more detail on Wilton Hardware’s decision to leave. The current retail space occupied by Wilton Hardware is eliminated in both the initial and the updated proposal.
“We did try to get them to relocate to the other side of the center [at 5 River Rd.], but based on their spatial requirements, we were unable to do that,” he said.
Brown also reported that Kimco has been going ‘tenant by tenant’ within the Wilton Center campus to talk about the project and get feedback. It’s part of what he called “a concerted effort to get out there and to be more communicative as we move forward.”
Brown also responded to a few “frequently asked questions” GMW posed on behalf of Wilton residents about the Kimco site and its future:
What about rumors that Kimco might be looking to sell at least some parts of the complex? Brown responded, “No, we’re not on the market.”
On a somewhat unrelated note, why are there no shopping cart returns in the parking lot at Stop & Shop? Brown wasn’t sure, but he promised to look into whether Kimco has the regulatory flexibility to add them.
The new plans for the redevelopment of 15 and 21 River Rd. are expected to be heard at the next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission, scheduled for Monday, May 23. The Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee will meet later this week, on Thursday, May 19, for an update from the project consultants BFJ Planning.