Monday evening, Feb. 8, Wilton’s Planning & Zoning Commission got its first look at a pair of potential new development proposals that could bring two large, multi-family complexes to Danbury Rd. in lower Wilton.
Overall, the Commission was receptive and encouraging about what it saw.
The proposals were presented by Samuel Fuller of Fuller Development, LLC in a pre-application review. Under CT General Statutes, such a review allows property owners and developers to have informal initial conversations about a project with P&Z officials before they submit a formal application. During the informal review, none of the plans, ideas and comments expressed are binding in the event an application is made later.
Fuller has been a developer in the area for almost 30 years, first as a founding partner of Avalon Bay Properties and now independently. He has been behind many large multi-unit residential developments in the state.
Fuller shared proposed development plans for two separate sites:
- a 116-unit development at 64 Danbury Rd. (in the Wilton Corporate Park) consisting of 36 one-bedroom, 75 two-bedroom, and five three-bedroom apartments, plus 80 garage and 91 surface parking spaces, with clubhouse and pool (pictured in the main image above)
- a 188-unit development at 141 Danbury Rd.–the current location of the Melissa & Doug headquarters–with an average apartment size of 1,050 sq. ft., and to include parking, a clubhouse, fitness center, swimming pool, and other amenities (below).
In opening his presentation, Fuller highlighted Wilton’s Plan of Conservation and Development and the town’s objective to increase housing in town by approximately 2,000 new units that would serve a more diverse population (young singles, downsizing seniors, affordable housing tenants), as well as meet other goals.
Fuller said he believed his two plans would help the town achieve its POCD goals. Moreover, both projects would address redevelopment of underperforming commercial properties–another stated goal in the POCD.
He may have buried the lead when he mentioned that the development of just one project–64 Danbury Rd.–would be lucrative for the town as well. Currently, Wilton collects approximately $120,000 per year in taxes on that site; Fuller said that his project, once completed, would provide the town $600,000 per year in taxes.
The same would be true for 141 Danbury Rd., which currently nets the town about $112,000 per year. Fuller said, depending on the density, his development would mean over $1 million annually in taxes to the town.
Similarly, he estimated the developments would also bring approximately $90,000 a year in motor vehicle taxes.
Fuller pointed out that the POCD mentions Wilton would provide “regulatory incentives” in exchange for a project that helps the town meet its objectives – in other words relaxing Wilton’s current zoning regulations and allow him to develop something that otherwise wouldn’t meet zoning board approval.
He told the commissioners he specifically was interested in discussing adjustments in setback and bulk requirements, and incentives for reduction in both parking and density.
Both parcels are located in a Design Enterprise Zone (DE-5). Fuller said he envisioned proposing an overlay zone that would address some of the ideas currently attached to the projects.
64 Danbury Rd.
As examples, he showed conceptual drawings of townhouses that represent significant changes to current zoning setbacks from Danbury Rd. as well as density for the 64 Danbury Rd. project.
Reflecting on the modern appearance of the buildings in the illustrations, he acknowledged that they were conceptual, and did not necessarily represent what any final design would be.
However, Fuller told the Commission that he does intend “to have the most iconic architecture anybody can imagine and have everybody completely psyched about the architecture.”
He added that although the purpose of Monday evening’s discussion was to focus on zoning rather than esthetics, he promised, “You have my word and our commitment that we will deliver really profound, impactful architecture that’s timeless and tasteful and fits within the town and that everybody will like.”
The drawings did reflect Fuller’s need for adjustments to current density and setback regulations. Fuller said that the proposed development required a higher density than what’s currently allowed for economic reasons.
“To make this project work we need this kind of density in order to be able to afford this land. The more density we have the more the town gets to its goal and the more efficiently the town uses its land,” Fuller said.
The density for the 64 Danbury Rd. project, as proposed, is 24 units per acre–what Fuller acknowledged is 2.5 times more than what Wilton’s density regulations currently allow.
Similarly, loosening regulations on setbacks (from 100 feet to 25 feet) would make it easier to fit more units on the property–again, helping achieve a higher density.
“Those kinds of large setbacks affect density, affect affordability, affect developability,” he said, pointing out that high bulk regulations in towns like Wilton do limit the ability to develop affordable housing.
Rick Tomasetti, the P&Z Commission chair, understood the issues Fuller was facing, and where that fits into what Wilton’s POCD-related needs are.
“The area and the bulk do not bother me, it’s exactly what we’ve talked about in our POCD and what we need to do. We need to add density, we need to add population. It’s greater height and area and bulk. It is what it is,” he said, adding, “I don’t have a problem with it.”
What Tomasetti was focused on was what Fuller had turned away from discussing–the architecture. (Tomasetti is an architect.) Referencing other schematic drawings associated with the project that he saw online (below) and that looked more traditionally colonial, he said neither those nor the modern renderings Fuller had shown (above) are what Wilton needs for the first effort at expanding denser and more diverse housing stock.
“We have an opportunity because Wilton doesn’t have a lot of this, that these first few projects will set the standard and set the tone,” Tomasetti said. “I’m hopeful, having this dialogue, in certain ways we can make the parking lots more like streetscapes and less like parking lots.”
141 Danbury Rd.
The noticeably different 141 Danbury Rd. proposal shows a three-story building over podium design, in which the living spaces are built over a parking garage, which is screened to look like it’s underground. (These examples, below, are conceptual and not specific to the proposal.)
With that kind of design, it would allow Fuller to include many more units (45 units per acre) at a more affordable rental price. While there are design options requiring fewer regulatory exceptions on setbacks and parking, Fuller explained that would mean lower density for the developer.
“This is a question–what does the town want? If the town wants to maximize density on land, we can do that. It would require the site to have the double podium. If the town doesn’t want that and wants to minimize density … I’d be very interested to hear from the commissioners: could they get comfortable with a double podium?” he asked.
Tomasetti said he actually thought that Fuller would propose a plan with an additional fourth story, something the P&Z Commission has discussed allowing along the Danbury Rd. corridor in its current effort to create a Master Plan.
Fuller said he could configure the design that way and actually free up some space in the footprint of the buildings.
Tomasetti acknowledged another factor in the discussion about the 141 Danbury Rd. parcel: the property sits opposite Lambert Corner, with multiple historic buildings.
“We have to be sensitive to that, so the architecture of this has to be spectacular,” he said, suggesting that the development could include a structure of lower scale in the front and a taller structure toward the rear of the property.
Again, Tomasetti noted how important this development would be in setting the tone for any future proposals.
“You’re the first to market, so I want this to set the standard. I don’t believe these will be the last projects we look at and I want to make sure we get this right,” he said.
He also suggested that any addition of public amenity and connectivity–access to the Norwalk River Valley Trail or sidewalk improvements for pedestrians–would be welcome and appreciated.
One thing Fuller made clear was that any request by the P&Z commissioners to increase the affordable housing content beyond the 10% proposed would make the projects economically unfeasible.