From a bucolic meadow to a sleepy downtown to the side street along a federal highway, the Planning and Zoning Commission discussed development projects that spanned Wilton’s diverse environs in the Monday, May 23 meeting.
Following lengthy discussion on the Commission’s first item agenda — a special permit application by the Wilton Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to use a historic barn on its 183 Ridgefield Rd. property as an educational center — attention turned to three topics that have attracted a great deal of public interest.
For more details on the Wilton Land Conservation Trust’s application for 183 Ridgefield Rd., read GOOD Morning Wilton’s coverage of Monday evening’s discussion, here…
The Commissioners received a second presentation from Kimco about plans to redevelop the southern half of the 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.
The latest proposal varies significantly from the plans that were initially presented to the Commission in December. GOOD Morning Wilton published a comprehensive summary of these changes, the most notable of which are a nearly four-fold increase in retail space, expanded sidewalk-adjacent parking, and a new architectural direction that aims for a more “village-like feel.” The new proposal also forecasts additional changes that Kimco would like to make in the future to improve pedestrian circulation and create more mixed-use space.
Nicholas Brown, Vice President of Development for Kimco told GMW earlier this month that these changes were informed by feedback from the P&Z Commissioners during the December hearing as well as discussions underway in the town’s master planning process for Wilton Center.
The new proposal presented Monday evening received praise across the board, with several commissioners noting that while much work remains to be done, this second proposal is a significant improvement on what they had first seen in December.
Pagliaro called the new presentation “one heck of a response.” Tomasetti praised the layering of the streetscape in front of 21 River Rd. which now includes roadway, parking, bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and outdoor dining space. He urged them to continue to play with the architectural direction and encouraged Kimco to explore a design with varying building heights, a suggestion several other commissioners seemed to agree with.
Both Tomasetti and Commissioner Florence Johnson pushed Kimco to think more creatively about the layout of the complex. Tomasetti asked about options for a public plaza just north of 21 River Rd. and the possibility of repurposing unused parking areas during summer months for outdoor gatherings. Johnson proposed that when the time comes to plan for additional buildings in the interior of the campus, Kimco could look into connecting some of the retail space around Stop & Shop to be adjacent to the supermarket building itself, breaking up the monolith of its standalone structure.
The commissioners also engaged in a discussion about the loss of Bow Tie Cinemas and a broader push to bring more amenities into Wilton Center.
“People are hungry for experiences right now,” Johnson said, suggesting Kimco look at other attractions that could find a place at the property if the cinema is no longer an option. She cited a successful indoor mini-golf course in San Francisco as an example of new programming that might draw a crowd.
“I know we can’t force applicants to have certain tenants, but there need to be attractions that happen here, not just shops and restaurants,” Tomasetti said. “In the master plan discussions, we’re looking at ways to incentivize certain amenities, maybe through parking reductions or increased FAR.” Floor-area ratio (FAR) is a measure of the overall size of a structure. Increasing FAR effectively means increasing the allowable size (though not necessarily the height) of a building, beyond what zoning would normally allow.
Also referring to the master plan process, Pagliaro said, “Some of the strongest public comments we have received came from high school students. To paraphrase, they told us, ‘we go to other communities because there is nothing for us to do in our downtown.’ What does that mean for Wilton? We need amenities for our citizens. Even if it takes a public-private partnership, that should be investigated.”
The redevelopment project is still in the pre-application stage, which means none of the evening’s discussion is binding, either for the applicant or the Commission. Kimco is expected to return to P&Z with a formal application later this year.
Short-Term Rentals (SROs)
Following a series of complaints about a specific property on Bald Hill Pl., Town Planner Michael Wrinn proposed that P&Z review the town’s regulations that affect short-term rentals, such as those offered by Airbnb and VRBO. He suggested as a first step that P&Z staff investigate and report back on how other nearby towns are regulating SROs.
Tomasetti asked Wrinn to quantify how many properties in town offering short-term rentals have received complaints, noting that he is “leery of limiting someone’s right to do something on their property.”
“As far as how many properties create issues, it’s a small number. But the ones that do create a problem, create a real problem,” Wrinn said. He added that in addition to renting homes for short-term stays, there are now sites that allow homeowners to rent out their pool for an afternoon, another activity that has led to complaints from neighbors.
He noted that the Commission has received two letters on the issue, which will be posted online shortly. One letter is in support of SROs and one in opposition.
“It’s a polarizing issue but we need to address this sooner rather than later.” With the support of the Commission, P&Z staff will begin gathering information and report back.
The Commission also held a preliminary discussion about the North Seven complex under consideration by the town of Norwalk, a series of seven towers along Glover Ave. near the junction of Grist Mill Rd. and Route 7. Collectively, the proposed buildings would be as high as fifteen stories tall, with 1,300 dwelling units and 28,000 square feet of retail. A group of Wilton neighbors, Residents Concerned About North 7 Development, has already organized on Facebook, with 175 members so far.
Although the project lies far enough from the border of Wilton that the town is not involved in an official capacity, the Norwalk Zoning Commission has invited comments from P&Z, “because of the scope of the project.”
Wrinn flagged concerns about both the traffic impact of the complex and the building heights. In particular, he raised an issue about the timing of the planned traffic improvements and the potential for spillover traffic onto Belden Hill Rd. and smaller streets in the vicinity.
Tomasetti considered how the development would affect other long-term changes underway in Wilton, including new multi-family residential developments that have already been greenlit and the master plan effort to revive Wilton Center as a commercial destination. “How many new units can the market absorb? On the flip side, how can we proactively draw occupants of these units into our community and into our retail. It’s a trade-off.”
Referring to the abandoned project to extend the Route 7 connector north toward Danbury, Pagliaro said, “this all circles back to our own failure to develop properly.”
Wrinn suggested that P&Z send a letter of reply back to the Norwalk Zoning Commission stating the Commission’s initial concerns ahead of the scheduled June 2 public hearing. Given that a public hearing for a project this significant is unlikely to close after one evening, the Commission and P&Z staff can then follow up with a more formal position. The commissioners agreed to proceed.
The next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission will be held on Monday, June 13. The next meeting of the Wilton Center Master Plan Committee is scheduled for Thursday, June 23.