P&Z Kicks off 10-Month Wilton Center Area Master Plan Process

Source: Wilton Center Master Plan Review of Study Area (Jan. 20, 2021)

On Thursday evening, Dec. 16, the Planning & Zoning Commission held a special meeting that served as the orientation and kick-off of the Wilton Center Area Master Plan. A broad team of experts from the firm selected to conduct the master planning process, BFJ Planning, as well as its partner firms, Urbanomics and RGR Landscape, presented on the project’s timeline, scope of work, and initial impressions.

Following group introductions, Town Planner Michael Wrinn welcomed the presenting firms and noted that the selection committee looked at multiple proposals submitted in response to the town’s Request for Proposal, and noted that, “BFJ hit high marks for what we were looking for. In particular, they showed they understand the importance of input from the public.”

He then turned the meeting over to BJF’s founding partner Frank Fish, who walked the commissioners through the divisions of labor across the project team: Jonathan Martin will serve as project manager and lead the design exploration, while Fish will focus on zoning matters, with assistance from Christine JimenezGeorges Jacquemart and Mark Freker, will look at traffic, pedestrian experience, and parking elements; RGR Landscape’s Geoffrey Roesch will look at streetscape and green space design; and Tina Lund and her team at Urbanomics will lead the market analysis, demographic forecasting, and feasibility study.

Fish noted that this is not a partnership “thrown together” for the Wilton Master Plan. Rather these three firms have a nearly 20-year history of working together, including several plans of conservation and development and downtown revitalization efforts across Connecticut.

He spoke to the fact that BFJ in particular has worked on downtown planning projects for New Canaan, Glastonbury, Danbury, and Branford, then introduced representatives from each of the partner firms to speak more about their experience and the perspective they bring.

Roesch of RGR Landscape was one of the lead partners in the 2001 Wilton Center Area Master Plan. He also made note of his firm’s extensive experience working in wetlands regions, such as the restoration and conservation efforts in Pelham Park in the Bronx, and RGR’s experience designing public realm amenities including Hudson River Walk in Tarrytown and the downtown streetscape for the Village of Scarsdale.

Lund introduced the concept of the “triple bottom line” that guides Urbanomics’ work. She said they seek to balance financial realities alongside environmental constraints, and community interest and demand.

Martin then turned to the formal presentation, which began with a discussion of project scope and timeline.

“I imagine and expect this process will take 10 months,” he said. “And this is ‘Month One.’ For the first three months of the project, we’ll be conducting fieldwork and reviewing existing plans, including your Plan for Conservation and Development (POCD). Simultaneously, Tina will be working on economic and market overview. Then in months two and three, we’ll be back to you with deliverables summarizing what we’ve learned and making sure we’re on the same page.”

He proposed two public hearings to be held in month six or seven, and again in month nine as the final recommendations are coming together. Later in the evening, Wrinn posed that an additional public hearing earlier in the process would be needed and the project team agreed. Conversations with stakeholders such as major property owners and relevant commissions (Conservation, Inland Wetlands, Architectural Review Board, and others) would begin in month two.

Jacquemart then spoke with the perspective of having participated in Wilton’s prior master planning process. He noted that a series of goals from 2001 are still relevant today, including the foundational desire to change the behavior of people who come to Wilton Center.

Mentioning a “park and walk” campaign his firm introduced in Manchester, VT, Jacquemart said, “We would like to encourage this in Wilton: make it an attractive place to walk around, so that people park once and walk from destination to destination.”

He walked through a number of changes that can encourage this kind of behavioral shift, including extending Hubbard Road south both for cars and pedestrians, encouraging shared parking between shops, and introducing traffic calming measures along River Road.

Martin referenced the POCD, stating that the team “quite admired” the final document and that they are already in touch with town officials, including Wrinn, about the many sites under transition in town, including the changes to Schenk’s Island and major residential projects along the Route 7 corridor.

Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti referenced Monday’s regular meeting of P&Z at which Kimco presented in a pre-application hearing about its plan to redevelop the southern half of Wilton Campus into 160 units of multifamily housing.

“Monday night one of our largest property owners came in, wanting to reduce retail on the southern end of the Wilton Campus property. They want conversion to multifamily residential. We understand Wilton is lacking placemaking. Wilton Center is not the classic New England town green with the ring road and all the shops. I wish it were, but it’s not. There are not a lot of great public spaces to assemble,” Tomasetti said.

Commissioner Eric Fanwick inquired about whether there is a role for BFJ to play in the development proposals already coming before the Commission. “We may need to lean on you,” he said. “Especially as Kimco moves forward.”

Fish responded that the project team would be happy to provide assistance. Of the Kimco proposal he said, “Ideally you want it to be residential mixed-use — residential over retail would be good. But it would be a shame to lose that retail altogether.” His comments seemed to echo First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice’s response when asked about the project in her post-election interview with GOOD Morning Wilton.

The commissioners added a few final comments to inform the master plan process. Commissioner Florence Johnson called for a diverse solution to enlivening downtown that does not rely solely upon pedestrian circulation. “We have a fairly substantial elderly population. Walking is great but not everyone can walk.”

She also underscored the need to consider green building elements and mitigation of run-off water from any additional development.

Tomasetti added to his previous comments that, “This is also a great opportunity to better utilize and protect the river.”

Commissioner Ken Hoffman asked for further detail on the process for evaluating mixed-use viability. “Are you deciding a priori that it would be nice to have a mix of residential and commercial as an aesthetic matter? Or do you take into account the economic consequence of putting more retail in a town with too much retail vacancy already?”

Fish clarified that Urbanomics looks at exactly these considerations. “We did a study like this with Urbanomics in New Canaan as well, looking at their retail base and what works and what doesn’t. No one wants an aesthetic design that can’t be built and that the development community won’t respond to.”

Tomasetti closed the discussion with a reflection on the economic realities of Wilton that might not show up in a formal analysis. “Be mindful a lot of people look at Wilton and our demographic, and they think, wow look at the income level, the cars they drive. But what they fail to recognize is that Wilton is a big geography. At the northern end, a lot of folks can just as easily go to Ridgefield or New Canaan. Where I live, it’s easy to go to Westport or Norwalk. There is a lot of opportunity for our shopping dollars to go elsewhere. You won’t necessarily see that in the numbers, but it’s true.”

The meeting closed with an agreement that P&Z will use the newly-instated intermediate meeting, to be held on the third Wednesday of the month, to focus on the master plan process.

The first such meeting will be held on January 19, 2022.