On Monday evening, Dec. 13, the Planning and Zoning Commission held a pre-application hearing regarding Kimco’s properties at 15 and 21 River Rd. in Wilton Center. Kimco is interested in redeveloping two underperforming commercial buildings on its Wilton Center campus to build a 160-unit multi-family residential complex. The public hearing for this proposal has not yet opened, therefore discussion was limited to the applicant and the commissioners.
Nicholas Brown, Vice President of Development for Kimco, opened the presentation with a summary of the challenges that the site currently faces. He called the location “the outskirts of Wilton Center” and underscored the site’s inconvenient parking spots and large building footprints that make the commercial spaces less appropriate for small shops.
Brown noted that this southern section of the Wilton Campus (where buildings 15 and 21 lie) is currently more than 60% vacant, compared with a vacancy rate of just 10% in the adjacent Stop & Shop section of the site.
“These vacancies are chronic and persistent. They have a negative ripple effect on the pedestrian experience and market dynamics throughout Wilton Center,” he said.
Despite the many empty storefronts, both buildings do have commercial tenants in place at street-level; 15 River Rd. in particular is home to Wilton Hardware, Snappy Gator, Classically Cate, River Road Gallery and Starbucks.
Later in the evening, P&Z Vice Chair Melissa-Jean Rotini would speak to the pervasive vacancy issues on the site, adding another layer of complexity to the problem: “Since well before this application came in, I have been hearing from multiple businesses looking to move into your spaces. I’ve heard from both current and departed tenants who say it is not easy to communicate with Kimco.”
Turning to the redevelopment plans themselves, Brown framed the idea of turning these underperforming commercial sections of the site to residential use as being “the final piece in a mixed-use puzzle.”
Kimco’s project team walked the Commission through four iterations of architectural design for the proposed structures. The first two utilized a pitched roof design in a shingle style and the latter two a flat roof scheme with a 3/4 split that eliminates some of the height and bulk at the street. He noted that the development sought to use color, material, and scale to give the feel of a townhouse.
Chair Rick Tomasetti weighed in on this design strategy with polite criticism. “I know you’re all talented, no offense, but every one of these designs we’ve seen could have been in Virginia or Texas. Here in Connecticut, we have a certain feeling and a certain scale. None of this fits in. It needs to feel village-like.”
That said, Commissioner Christopher Pagliaro added, “We’re not just looking for gable roofs and fake colonials. The Stop & Shop plaza itself has that and it looks dated and hokey.”
Tomasetti continued with concern that the plans lacked a holistic approach to integrating the site with the surrounding area. “One of the things you’re not doing is you’re not making a great connection to the rest of Wilton Center or your own complex to the north. One thing the Wilton downtown suffers from is that it has developed haphazardly. This isn’t Ridgefield with its strip, and we don’t have New Canaan’s T-configuration. We certainly don’t have anything like the Corbin district in Darien with its truly meaningful greenspaces.”
The topic of losing the existing commercial space continued to be a concern for several of the commissioners. Tomasetti and others noted that P&Z has greenlit several large-scale residential developments already this year, so although Wilton may not currently have a large enough residential base to support the amount of retail in place, that may soon change.
Commissioner Jill Warren challenged the idea that the elimination of these retail spaces, in particular the movie theater space, would make for a more engaging downtown. “You talk about creating a space for people to live, work, and play in Wilton, but what happens when you eliminate everywhere people go to play? As a 24-year-old, I want to go to the movies. I want to go to a Mexican restaurant.”
However, the comments were not entirely critical. Both Rotini and Commissioner Florence Johnson praised the project for incorporating an affordable housing component, although Johnson noted that the 10% affordable target seemed low. She also said that Kimco has a history of maintaining the property “beautifully” and “we want you to know we notice that.”
At one point in the discussion, the Gregory and Adams attorney for the project, Jim Murphy, began to say that he was pleased that Town Planner Michael Wrinn “complimented” the proposal in their meetings together, before stopping himself.
In her post-election interview with GOOD Morning Wilton, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice spoke about her overall impression of the Kimco redevelopment. In the conversation, she expressed a willingness to work with Kimco on the idea of a mixed-use redevelopment plan, but did not suggest that the project had received complimentary reception by the town at this early stage.
“In order to have the vibrancy and diversity of more restaurants, more retail downtown, we need more people living in Wilton and coming into Wilton,” she said. “We want more people to support our retail, but what we don’t want is our retail going away to support more people.”
She also framed the process that is now underway and will continue into 2022. “It’s critical for people to understand you come in with all of your ideas and P&Z gives you feedback. Many times we see people don’t end up putting in an application after that — and we’ve seen in other projects that they get adjusted along the way.”
“I think we’ll see something different with Kimco. I can see two floors of residential with retail underneath it — easily. It just has to be done right.”
The project is expected to be on the docket again at the next meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. All documents related to the pre-application filing are available on the P&Z website.
In my opinion ,any Residential building proposal without covered parking is irresponsible in our climate.
Also believe multi level units need steel and concrete separation of floors and sound proofing and fire protection between units.
You have continued to approve plans without protective parking. Most units in other towns have this.
Good Coverage on Kimco’s long term development plans. This is a vital issue for Wilton Center’s future. I am sure it will receive quality analysis by P&Z. Given the magnitude of the impact on the Center including housing, entertainment, dining, retail and growth of the community, i encourage GMW to continue your news focus here as primary. Thanks.
It was surprising to see that only 10 percent office space is empty. That is not true. My building is 50 percent empty. We need to do more development such as Kimco is suggesting.
I hope they will be allowed to go forward
134 Old Ridgefield Rd.
“Kimco is not easy to communicate with.” They didn’t improve their reputation during the pandemic, either. Vacant retail spaces? Umm, maybe you’re charging too much? In any event, the flat-roof proposals ought to be dead on arrival.
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