Master Planners say Higher Density Residential — and Taller Buildings — are Key to Reinvigorate Wilton Center

Preliminary analysis and recommendations call for a new, relaxed approach to zoning and amenities

The Wilton Center master planning process continues to chug forward on schedule. With the outreach and research phases of the project complete, the town’s master plan consultants from BFJ Planning presented their findings and preliminary recommendations during the Wednesday, June 1 meeting of the Planning & Zoning subcommittee. The presentation and the discussion that followed set the stage for a draft master plan that BFJ plans to deliver to the subcommittee in late July. The entire project will wrap up in September.

Notably, the subcommittee indicated a preference between the two available options for changing Wilton’s zoning code in light of the master plan, opting for a new, hybrid form-based zoning code for Wilton Center. A form-based code, as opposed to a more conventional zoning model like the one currently in place, focuses on the physical shape of new developments and their relationship to the public realm. This model tends to encourage mixed uses (where residential and commercial spaces are co-located together), pedestrian connectivity, and the cultivation of a sense of place. The alternate strategy would have been for BFJ to simply update Wilton Center’s existing, more traditional zoning code.

Findings from the Outreach and Planning Process

Although some details need to be refined, the results of the outreach and research phases of the planning process affirmed many of the intuitions and assumptions expressed by subcommittee members and members of the public.

Market Analysis

The market overview, conducted by BFJ’s project partner Urbanomics, found that Wilton Center’s high cost of rent and relatively sparse shopping population make it difficult for the town to compete with neighboring business districts. Tina Lund, principal at Urbanomics, explained a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma for building a successful downtown: commercial tenants want to see dense residential and lively foot traffic before committing to new properties, but residential tenants are attracted to vibrant downtowns that are already full of shops and restaurants.

And ultimately, she said, “If retailers can pay less in rent and get more business elsewhere, it’s not even a question for them.”

Her analysis also found the residential vacancy rate to be “effectively zero.” During a meeting with a local realtor earlier this year, there was a single apartment unit available for rent in the entire town of Wilton.

Lund also presented an updated analysis previewed earlier, which judges the popularity of Wilton businesses against those of nearby towns according to their Yelp review ratings. The Commissioners asked for Urbanomics to provide more detail at the next meeting about how these ratings from Yelp are weighted, and in particular, what impact local population size and demographics between the towns might have on the analysis.

Lund’s recommendations based on Urbanomic’s study of the economic conditions in Wilton Center are to:

  • Create additional local demand by allowing multifamily residential development in Wilton Center
  • Seek out unique cultural attractions — both permanent and temporary, aimed at attracting all ages
    • Examples: Climbing walls for adults and children, smash rooms, indoor skydiving, theaters, etc.
  • Create flexibility in zoning to meet new trends
  • Follow through on placemaking and landscaping improvements

Parking Analysis

Next, Mark Freker of BFJ presented the findings of a traffic study undertaken this spring. He began by outlining that Wilton Center itself has 1,622 parking spaces, with an additional 472 at the southern end of the Kimco Property and 217 at the MetroNorth station. Wilton Center offers only private parking, which is controlled by business owners; there is currently no municipal parking option.

Measuring the number of cars parked in Wilton Center between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Freker found that Wilton Center’s parking facilities barely reach 50% capacity even during peak times. On Fridays, the average occupancy was 44% of parking spaces in use; on Saturdays, the number is even lower at 36%.

In light of these findings, Freker recommended that the town explore opportunities to adjust parking requirements for new buildings in Wilton Center and rethink existing parking space as a way to accommodate additional development.

Public Opinion Analysis

Before getting into these two analyses, though, Jonathan Martin, project manager for the master planning process at BFJ, revisited the feedback received during the March 31 public hearing.

Martin summarized the feedback as “supporting the recommendations of the POCD [Plan of Conservation and Development]” released in 2019. He noted broad support for a more active and walkable Wilton Center, with greater amenities, improved walkability, and open gathering spaces. However, several subcommittee members objected to the phrasing of one finding, in which Martin had stated that there was “not tremendous public support for higher density and residential in Wilton center.”

P&Z Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini asked whether that characterization referred to the comments from the public hearing alone, or in conjunction with the much more extensive public input process that helped shape the POCD. Martin confirmed that he was referring only to the public hearing, but that it is important to note that business owners and property owners in Wilton Center were much more likely to support higher density and residential uses in the area. He agreed that the POCD recommendations and the public feedback that helped shape them were more reflective of a broader range of local perspectives.

Chair Rick Tomasetti requested that the note be “clarified and revised” for public record. He also posed that the framing of some of the public input polls offered during the training session may have swayed respondents. Martin agreed with these concerns and confirmed that he would correct the language.

Recommended Planning Approach

Martin went on to present BFJ’s preliminary recommendations for reinvigorating Wilton Center, putting the hotly-debated topic of density into even more stark terms.

“The market demands at least four stories in Wilton Center, possibly five with a fifth story setback, and residential uses in Wilton Center proper,” he said bluntly. Under current zoning, buildings up to 3.5 stories are permissible in the area. He also urged the subcommittee to consider simplifying the town’s regulatory process, which some business owners referred to as “arduous,” a claim that P&Z Commissioner Chris Pagliaro challenged.

Landscape architect Geoff Roesch then walked the subcommittee through a series of observations and recommendations about Wilton Center. He reiterated the major challenges facing the area: the absence of a central focal point and a sense of place, the fragmented pedestrian circulation, limited wayfinding, and the lack of a public gathering, attraction, or event space using an overview map.

Although the subcommittee seemed receptive to the general findings, Tomasetti pushed Roesch’s team to revisit the recommendations and consider the task at hand. “You solved some of our problems, but you didn’t solve our biggest problem,” he said. “This might tidy some things up, but I don’t see where this plan has embraced all of the spines—Danbury Rd., the Norwalk River, the train tracks, the future riverwalk, and River Rd. How do we play up these cross-connections and incentivize the people redeveloping properties to clean them up and make them more connected?”

Roesch agreed to revisit the plan with that in mind and to update the study area to include the southern end of the Kimco property, which lay beyond the bounds of this initial prepared diagram. The group also requested, at the suggestion of subcommittee member Barbara Geddis, a three-dimensional representation of these plans to better contextualize the changes being proposed.

Next Steps

Frank Fish, Principal at BFJ Planning, outlined the next stage in the master plan process. In addition to the choice about whether to move to a form-based zoning code for Wilton Center, he underscored a major decision to be made about future density and use in the area.

“Regardless of which zoning approach we take, the marketplace demands four-story heights and residential uses in Wilton Center,” he said, reiterating Martin’s earlier comment.

The Commissioners expressed openness to these changes, however, Geddis urged Fish and the group to use building height limits rather than story limits. “What’s a story? Nine feet? Ten feet? Twelve feet? Architects cheat on that all the time.”

Fish also floated the idea of a tax abatement program for cultural attractions like the suggestions made earlier. Wrinn noted that a decision about tax abatements would not come from P&Z but from the town government more centrally.

BFJ will return to P&Z on Wednesday, July 20 with a series of updated materials, including:

  • 3D modeling of proposed public realm changes in Wilton Center
  • New design diagrams for improving connectivity within Wilton Center and building stronger connections between Wilton Center proper and the Route 7/Danbury Rd. corridor, which is also included in the study area for the master plan
  • Examples of hybrid form-based zoning from other towns and cities
  • Draft master plan