Q&A: Paxton Kinol, Wilton Heights Developer

After Monday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, during which there was a (continued) public hearing on two applications that have been made for the Wilton Heights Development at 300 Danbury Rd./Rte. 7GOOD Morning Wilton asked for an interview with Paxton Kinol, the project’s developer. The project has taken on somewhat of a ‘mythic’ stature among people who are following this closely, especially in the way it’s described–from ‘If this doesn’t get developed, the only projects that will get developed are 8-30g affordable housing ones,’ to, ‘This will become the gateway to Wilton Center and get those Rte. 7 drive-through commuters to stop and realize there’s a town here where they can spend their money.’

It’s sort of hyperbole on both sides, but still, with a location at the intersection of Danbury Rd. and Ridgefield Rd., the project is a visible and important one; whether or not it eventually does get developed will set a tone for how Wilton will navigate development in town and the implication for how the town can diversify its tax base. We thought talking with Kinol would be a way for readers to get to know more about the person who’s driving the project and the vision he has about what the development would be.

We met at one of the buildings he’s built in Norwalk, the Berkeley at 500 West Avenue. Kinol showed some of the units he says are like what is envisioned for Wilton Heights, with similar loft spaces, outdoor balconies, double master bedroom layouts and quality building touches (higher-end window frames, for example). We then sat down to talk in the building’s common space, a sleek, stylized room with a textured slate tile wall and a West Elm-like decor.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  The impetus for this interview came after what you said at Monday’s meeting. Your monologue about what developers think about in coming to Wilton. What is our reputation in the developer world?

Paxton Kinol:  Well I worked for a company who had sued Wilton for more than 10 years to get a development approved [Avalon Wilton on Danbury Rd.]. The first Avalon, Avalon Springs, many people don’t realize, was approved locally. It was a 20% affordable, 80% market rate. The town realized that it needed some below-market rate housing. That River Road, in Wilton Center was the place to do it.

River Rd. was not nearly as developed as it is today back then. It was a quiet place, the movie theater and Chico’s and all that stuff was not there. That was a grove of trees that was really beautiful. It was interesting–the first development in Wilton Center was approved. And then the second one, on Danbury Rd. was denied at least twice.

GMW: Which seems sort of backwards.

Paxton Kinol:  Compared to what the people say today it seems backwards. But I think it was the right thinking right? I believe in developing and redeveloping downtowns and expanding downtowns, and allowing the four-acre homes to be four-acre homes, and to carry the tax burden within the downtown and have that basically benefit the rest of the town.

I grew up in small towns. I lived mostly in homes on several acres. I like that model. Whether I’m redeveloping in downtown Stamford, we’re doing the same thing in Norwalk here with Loehman’s Plaza and the neighboring area which, basically the town grew larger than the type of development that was in this immediate neighborhood, and was a great opportunity.

In that case, [before] the building across the street was paying $160,000 a year in taxes. Last year [after development] it paid $2.2 or $2.3 million a year. So, it’s a huge increase in the tax base, without affecting, in Norwalk’s case, Silvermine or Cranbury or the waterfront neighborhoods. We basically want to bring that same idea to Wilton.

The reason we came to Wilton was that so many people were moving out of Wilton into downtown Norwalk. We came, we had the idea, we explored…there were about 12 properties available between Orem’s and Cannondale and so we stuck to Rte. 7 and looked up and down, and we narrowed it down to three. We talked with the town–we first talked with [town planner] Bob Nerney, once or twice, and then we had a meeting with [first selectwoman] Lynne Vanderslice. And through showing drawings from other developments–we had done a village center in Woodbridge, CT, and we used those renderings as the theme for what we thought should happen in Wilton–we said, this is our idea. We talked about the three sites that we had narrowed it down to.

GMW: How long ago was that?

Paxton Kinol:  That was last fall. So we came up with the idea, maybe late summer, and then very quickly narrowed it down. We read all of the zoning regulations. And when developers read Wilton’s regulations, you read 20% below-market rate housing in all of these 55-and-older zones. To a developer, he’s hearing ‘anti-development.’ ‘We’re writing these regulations but we really don’t want this development.’

Because 20% is just simply too much for a locally-approved development to afford. For every 10% below market rate, the price that you could pay for the land goes down by 20%. So hearing 20%, you are basically saying developers have to take a 40% reduction on land value. And typically that’s just too much. The developers and land sellers, land owners, can’t make a deal.

We read the Wilton Center zone regulations, which are newer, and it had no below-market rate requirement. And we said, ‘Bingo, the town is signaling to the world that it wants development within it’s downtown.’ Which is what we do.

This [site] also had an overlay district within 1,000 ft. of the train station. So we said, let’s concentrate within 1,000 feet of the train station. We did have another site, on Rte. 7, between Orem’s and the train station, that was not in that. We found two others, and we decided to drop them and focus on the one that was within 1,000 ft. because we thought that’s what the town was signaling through its regulations.

This [300 Danbury Rd.] site has been available on and off for 20 years. We’ve watched it, we’ve heard all the rumors. If you’re in the real estate business in Fairfield County and you pay attention to major sites, this has always been a major site. We know that drug stores have tried, we know that hotels have tried, we know that multi-family [developers] have tried. But no one tried to put two of those things together on the same property. That’s what we do. We put retail together–more neighborhood retail than anything else–together with multi-family.

GMW: Because that makes the economics work.

Paxton Kinol: It makes the economics work, and in my opinion it makes the multi-family more desirable.

GMW: When you see this finished project in your head…what’s the kind of retail that’s in that building?

Paxton Kinol: It’s designed mostly to be neighborhood retail.

GMW: What does ‘neighborhood retail’ mean?

Paxton Kinol:  The development that we’re proposing is I think what should happen in a lot of Wilton Center over time.

In Wilton we came in and we tried to build to the regulations and we said, there’s a couple of minor flaws that we have to fix. One is we need the attic space to be habitable. So instead of three stories, it’s three and a half stories. Doesn’t really make a material difference to the outside of the building except that you’re increasing the pitch of the roof and allowing that space to be usable. And in my opinion, more attractive because you get gables and dormers and those kind of things.

We knew that retailers want to have a 12-ft. ceiling. You need three and half feet of structure and HVAC. And then you need two floors of apartments. And then the way Wilton and most towns measure is on a pitched roof, is halfway up. Pitched roof from the peak to the soffit. And when you add that extra feet on there and do that math, it’s about 45-and-a-half feet. So we knew day one we needed 46 feet to make it work.

I think it makes it more attractive. It’s not adding any more apartments, it’s just using the attic space. Which most homeowners want to do. There’s lots of these large homes around Wilton that use that attic space as a bonus room or kids’ playroom. We make it a den that residents can use as a home office or a den. A space to, if someone’s doing something in the living room, you can go upstairs to watch TV. Some extra bonus space.

In Norwalk, people pay $1,000 a month more for the apartment with the bonus space and the apartment immediately below it. So it’s telling us that the move-down generation likes that space.

The other thing that is lacking in Wilton and most downtowns is ADA-accessible homes. That is lacking all over Fairfield County. And something we do where it’s all ADA Accessible, it’s all wheelchair accessible. The blocking for the handicap grab bars are in the walls already. So if someone is able-bodied now, but in two or three years sees something changing, they literally can just screw the grab bars up on the walls and it’s all set for them. The distances, the turning radius’ for the wheelchairs, it’s all there.

GMW: How do you envision the retail, when you talk about this being neighborhood retail? Give people a sense of what that really means.

Paxton Kinol: All the retail spaces are 35 ft. deep. That does not lend itself to the big retailers. That is more of the barber shop, the hair salon, the small bakery, the coffee shop, the newsstand. Those kind of old, downtown establishments are what succeeds now. In the age of the Internet, most of the bigger stores are shrinking. Even grocery stores and drug stores are shrinking. The neighborhood stores, they’re doing fine because people still want to gather.

One of the comments that we’ve received on Wilton Heights–that we’ve made the adjustment–people wanted brick patios where they could go get a coffee, go get a bagel and they could sit outside and talk to their neighbors. People have asked for that and we designed it in.

I do believe that there will be no national stores in the development. We have one box that could be a national store, and we’ve had interest from national stores. I just don’t think it’s the best for the residents above. So I think the best store we’re going to get is maybe a New York regional type high end store.

You do need one anchor. We’ve designed that anchor with two or three different skins on it because we don’t know whether the anchor is going to be 13,000 sq. ft., or 9,000 sq. ft. or 6,000 sq. ft.. And the anchor that we get today, I don’t know if they’ll be in business in five years. So we’ve got to just design the methods of building. We don’t want to design to any one store.

We met with lots of our neighbors, and we met with Preserve Wilton. One woman, who I won’t name, on Preserve Wilton, who said if we put the right mix of stores in there she will shop there five times a day. She doesn’t live in Wilton Center, but she lives close enough that it would be a great place for her to stop on her way home or driving the kids around. So that gives you an idea of what we’re targeting and who.

We have all this interest from stores. We have three little stores and three larger stores that have reached out to us, unsolicited, and we’ve told them all we’re not negotiating. We’re going to get the project approved our way. Because if you did a deal with Walgreens, they have their own special brick. They’re going to try to impose it on you. All these different stores have their own looks. That’s not what we want. We’re developing something to last. Not one specific store or one specific business.

One specific store, one specific business, and who knows? In two years, when we’re finished building, they may not be there. So, it was better for us to go build first, and then fill it up, second.

In my mind, from city hall across the river and the train into Wilton Center, is all Wilton Center, and it should be developed like it’s Wilton Center. If it’s done nicely, it will improve Wilton Center, not negatively impact Wilton Center. It’ll make it this bigger place. You heard about how many people drive by and never know it’s there. There are thousands of cars that go by every day that don’t stop, but when they start to stop at this business and learn about that business and spend a little more time in Wilton …

Places like New Canaan, don’t have major roads coming through, but they have Route 124 coming through and 106 coming through, and in my opinion they’re a better downtown. I think that Wilton still wants to stay Wilton, but I think it wants to trend more that way where it’s more interesting for people to get out of their car, and walk from business to business.

How often do you shop at CVS and Stop and Shop, and drive from one to the other? Have you ever walked from one to the other? Why not? They’re two blocks away from each other. We want to make it an interesting enough place where people actually get out of their car and walk from one place to another.

GMW:  You talk about that New Canaan comparison. In conversations about school budgets and development, Wilton always compares itself with Ridgefield, with New Canaan, and towns like that. Your model has worked there, where newer, multi-family residences have been developed in those downtown center areas and those two-acre (or four-acre in the New Canaan case) single-family properties exist outside. If we continue to see ourselves in that possible model, it’s already right there in those towns. You can kind of envision what it would be like.

Paxton Kinol:  Compared to those other two towns, Wilton’s taxes have gone crazy. It’s the lack of downtown, the lack of commercial. The residential homes in Wilton are not going down in value because they’re not desirable. They’re going down in value because their taxes are going up. When people pay a mortgage, it’s either paying on the principal and interest or paying on the taxes.

Wilton has on Rte. 7 real opportunities it’s not taking advantage of. This is one step in the right direction. This development doesn’t solve all of the problems. This is one step along the path to improving the issue.

Connecticut overall has the problem, Fairfield County has a problem. We’re not going to solve those problems. But we can make it better for people who are in Wilton and if we could allow opportunities for people who are in Wilton who want to stay, to stay.

I was just reading an article in New Canaan where they said that 1,600 people in New Canaan are over 77 years old, and are basically mostly stuck in their big homes. I’m sure that they would love to move out and live in the downtown and see their friends, and I think that’s the same opportunity we want to provide in Wilton. We can make Wilton Center better and not impact all the surrounding areas.

GMW:   You’ve talked about the off-site development. I want to help people visualize what it will be.

Paxton Kinol:  The off-site development of traffic is common. It’s making Rte. 7 between the station and Orem’s a more enjoyable place to walk. If you walk on Rte. 7, especially on the northbound side at 6 p.m., cars are going by you at 55 mph. It’s uncomfortable. We want to slow cars down naturally by making it feel a little bit tighter and a little uncomfortable for them to go 55 mph. They feel like they have to slow to 35 or 40 just because they might hit the curb. We want to put in trees so then that they can feel their own speed. We want to put in islands to make it tighter. We want to in general make it more attractive than it is.

In my opinion the state stole Rte. 7 from the town and the town needs to take it back.

GMW: Well you talk about that. Anything that happens on Route 7 has to go through the state.

Paxton Kinol: We’ve hired two consultants. Both work with the state traffic commission every day. They said, if the town wants to do this, in the town with private funds it’s really hard for the state to say, “No.”  They may put requirements on it. They make sure the turning radius are correct, but to actually stop this from happening, it’s really hard for the state to say, “No, you can’t do this. Even though it meets our regulations and you’re doing it through private dollars.”

GMW:  When the argument is that it’s to slow traffic down, that to me seems contrary to what the state will want.

Paxton Kinol:  We’re only slowing it to the speed limit. Right? The speed limit’s 35, I think. These cars are going 55.

You’re not doing anything to break the law. You’re helping people comply with the law without having to have the police sit out there with radar, and pull people over. The other important thing on the off-site is the connection to downtown. So specifically at the interaction Danbury Rd. and Ridgefield Rd. it’s ugly. Right? When you pull up to that intersection, on the north side of Ridgefield Rd., it’s grass and sand. That’s brand new construction. Why isn’t there trees? Why doesn’t it look beautiful.

We’ve drawn in all the landscaping that goes on either side of Ridgefield Rd.. On the south side there’s three trees but there should be six. There’s no walking path connection from the Ridgefield Rd. bridge down to the train station. We’re adding that. The crosswalks are not very–they’re built based on state budget and not on a village budget. We’ve looked at the crosswalks in Wilton Center and we’re bringing [that look] out to the state roads. It’s more of a brick look crosswalk. It gives a little texture when you’re driving your car–You hear it, and it kind of subconsciously makes you slow down.

In the area just south of that intersection, there’s a narrow area where the train tracks and the river come very close to Rte. 7. There’s nothing on the western side. Our designers designed in a guardrail-type fence, that is stone pillars. And again, it’s giving you that sense of speed and making you slow down because the pillars are going by you so fast. You feel like you’re going 55 instead of 35. And you just take your foot off the gas.

The other really important item I think, is islands in the middle. So as you’re coming south from the high school and you come over the hill, you feel like you’re going 100 mph. I speed there all the time. We’re putting an island in the middle before you get to the intersection, with a sign on it that says, “Wilton Center.” It gives you directions to Wilton Center and lets you know you’re someplace. You’re in a village and it’s time to slow down.

Just south of the intersection there’s another island. And if you look right now in the road, most of these islands are painted in yellow lines. But we’re just saying, Put in a curb, tighten up the road. Put in some wildflowers and some trees and make the islands there. It also will help certain intersections for the crossing. Right now they give you 22 seconds to get across. Some older people may not be able to make it the whole way across. They could actually stop in the middle and continue on.

This can all be done with very little money because all of the drainage and the real cost of building the road, has already been spent. This is at the crown of the road, making that a grass or landscaped area doesn’t touch any of that drainage. In fact, it improves it because it absorbs some of the rain water before it’s going off to the side. So these are easy things to do.

As you go down towards the Chevy dealer, there’s that connection to the Norwalk River Valley Trail. If you go there between 12 and 1 p.m., people are crossing there from their work all the time to walk those paths. It’s difficult. It’s wide. We’re putting islands both north and south of that intersection.

GMW: Let’s talk about 8-30G and the affordability component. It seems like the P&Z commissioners aren’t so stuck on the 45-1/2 foot height change, as much they are (and some residents) about the need to include affordable housing. That this project without any kind of affordability component makes the affordability requirement to the town even more difficult.

Paxton Kinol:  We’re pretty familiar with it and I gotta tell you Wilton government is very familiar with it. And they realize by losing the affordability of what was Avalon Springs, I don’t know what it’s called today, and one of the other developments, that the chances of Wilton gaining enough multi-family housing to stop 8-30G and get another moratorium is almost zero. The only way that they can do it is the way that, which I think is the right way forward for New Canaan and Wilton. And that is to build multi-family housing on property owned by the town, set whatever affordability limits they want. I can be some low-market, some moderate-market, and gain enough credits by doing that to get another moratorium.

And by the way, it solves the real life problems of providing 55-and-over housing for different income levels that’s walkable to the downtown. It gives the town the cash to build the bridge [linking the train station to Wilton Center, over the Norwalk River]. I’m not proposing the town build it; I’m proposing the town write the regulations, hire an engineer, get the approvals that they want, and then sell a fully-approved site at market rates. Probably a large company will build it. You get quality management. You get the sale of the land, cash. You get the piece of property that’s not currently on the tax rolls, back on the tax rolls and you’ve solved your affordability problem and your senior housing problem at the same time.

If it’s 55 and over it doesn’t impact your school, you can write it in a way, that you’re not generating any school costs. It’s just taxes. All these towns are thinking about it. Because the younger families are not moving in at the same rate they used to, there’s no pressure on the schools.

I just think the population needs to turnover. They’re not turning over because they don’t have someplace to go. If you give them someplace to go that pays taxes and doesn’t use services, it’s a win-win. Multi-family housing does not put pressure on schools. It’s the only other use other than office and retail that pays these strong school taxes. Your three bedroom home, four bedroom home is the worst thing for the schools. You look at the average number of schoolchildren per home and it gets into the multiples. It takes on average five two-bedroom apartments to generate one schoolchild. If we’re talking about 55-and-older housing it’s zero schoolchildren.

GMW:  It seems like you have a group of people who absolutely are for this project who have come in, and it’s a variety of people. There is the man over 55 who spoke at Monday’s hearing, saying ‘I live in the property to the north of 300 Danbury Rd. and I think this is fabulous. I would want to live there if I didn’t already have my place.’ You have newer, younger families who support it.

On the other end, you have people who are just opposed to any kind of development at all. Who say, ‘We moved to Wilton for the open spaces and what Wilton used to be and this is why we chose Wilton. We don’t want the development.’

In the middle you’ve got those people who you’re meeting with and who have said, like the woman you talked about, ‘You put the right mix of retail in there and I’d be there.’ 

You’ve got that reputation on the one hand for listening to what residents want–putting the patio in, adjusting whatever design, aesthetics, what the architectural review board wants it to be like. Yet you do have a couple of people who have spoken up against you loudly at the hearings, who primarily live … 

Paxton Kinol: … at Crown Pond.

GMW: …at Crown Pond.

Paxton Kinol:  I wrote them a letter, saying, ‘We’re used to getting strong neighbor support because we believe that we’re respectful of our neighbors. That we think that this development is as respectful as we could possibly be to our neighbors. We’ve allowed a buffer of at least 200 ft. of woods the entire way around our development.

Frankly, we don’t understand why they’re opposed to it. I wanted to get a couple important points. One is, whether we develop this site or somebody else develops it, it’s a key site. It’s 7.4 acres. It will be developed in the near future. The idea that if they fight it it just will never be developed is, in my opinion, naïve.

It says basically, you should reevaluate our proposal in that light because you may be rejecting something that is actually very good for you and what you’re going to get in return on an 8-30G application is very bad for you.

More importantly than that, if there is some reasonable request that they have, we’d be happy to make it. We’ve received three requests. One was more evergreen trees, which we did. On all sides.

They requested for us to add the patios for people to sit and have coffee and talk to their neighbors, which we’ve done. The third request, when you come down from Crown Pond there’s a walking path, which is a very nice walking path. You come to Rte. 7–it basically connects to Rte. 7 right at our southern property line. We have a retail driveway in. They were worried about crossing that crosswalk as the cars were turning in so we made a second crosswalk on our property to allow those people to basically walk in. They only have to cross the residential driveway and they never have to cross the retail driveway.

They can either continue north on Rte. 7 or when they get to the traffic light there’s basically a walkway back to the traffic light so that they can cross Rte. 7.

I thought it was a good comment. Both the people in the north and south liked that idea. I will say it was kind of interesting in the neighbor meetings, that the development to our north, who are mostly 55-and-older, who have kind of solved their 55-and-older plans but understood the need for it in town, are strongly in favor of our development.

Project rendering, looking at the development from Ridgefield Rd.

From what I’ve heard, about half of Crown Pond is quietly in favor and the other half is pretty loudly against. I just ask them to reconsider their position based on the facts that I see, which is the site is going to be developed.

This development will be very good for Crown Pond home values. They made some comments that it wouldn’t but I think the next person moving into Crown Pond having this development next door, being able to walk down to the stores, having a more enjoyable walk and connection to Wilton Center than it has today, will increase the values.

Crown Pond is a relatively dense single-family development. Usually people who are looking for that are also looking for the connectivity to downtown and to retail. The comments that people have made about the values going down I think are incorrect. It’s the opposite of what’s going to happen.

I ask them to look again at how respectful our development is of them. We spent a lot of money to propose parking that’s going to be underground parking so that the back of the building they’re looking at a two and a half story building.
Paxton Kinol: The families from the south that are complaining they’re looking at a 70 foot wide, two and a half story building, with dormers on the roof that is designed to look just like a colonial, a [inaudible 00:41:16] colonial. What could be better than that? Looking 200 foot through the woods or 220 feet at a colonial facing you?

The 46 feet? The 46 feet is facing Danbury Rd. and the retail parking. That’s not facing the back or the sides. That is much shorter and is more in keeping with single family homes.

We’ve also, especially for the homes in the back, we’ve designed it to be shingle style, two-tone brown so that when they look through the woods, especially this time of year, they probably will not see anything. In the wintertime they’ll see a model tone brown building that blends in with the tree trunks and will not stick out. We kept away from the white trims and those sort of things off the back that would pop as you look through.

GMW: Right. You made a statement at one of the meetings about the signal that this will give to developers if Wilton says no to your project.

Paxton Kinol: Wilton has had a signal of, ‘We’re not open for business.‘” for as long as I’ve been in Connecticut, which is 25 years. In the current zoning regulations that have the 20% affordable are saying, ‘We don’t want development. You can’t afford to build here.’

If they deny an application of a developer that is so neighbor-friendly and so town-friendly people are just going to bring 8-30G applications because it’s the only way to do business in Wilton.

I think that somewhere near three quarters of the town are in favor of development in the downtown. I think that the commissions and certainly the Board of Selectmen is in favor of development within the downtown. It would be a shame for them to shoot down one development and basically make 8-30G the only option.

Explaining the project to the Architectural Review Board

GMW:  As an observer of Fairfield County commercial real estate for such a long time, commercial and residential, do you sense that there is a change in Wilton? 

Paxton Kinol: Absolutely. The last 8-30G application I was involved with in Wilton took more than 10 years to resolve. It was denied at least twice. Going to a public hearing and being asked to include affordable housing in a development was a shock.

I think that there’s a lot of people in town who understand the tax problems that Wilton has and that this is a part of the solution. They understand the need for 55-and-older housing in the downtown, the people stuck in their house, and this is part of the solution.

This is not the only solution. It’s not the whole solution. I think the zoning that we proposed, if it is enacted in Wilton Center and you get more 55-and-older housing above stores, that the stores are of the right height and the right size so that businesses will actually open up and succeed, and you provide the critical mass of people, Wilton could have a really nice future.

I will add that we have been approached by the owners of the Stop and Shop Shopping Center and the Blue Buffalo office building to add multi-family in the same way that we’re talking about on their site. That could be a future.

We basically said to them, ‘We’re not sure if we want to work on it. Let us see how our [300 Danbury Rd.] application goes first.’ I think Wilton will get what it wants if it just can be flexible and work cooperatively with us. We’re certainly trying to work cooperatively and make the adjustments as we can.

It will be terrible if a handful of anti-development folks … I think the petition against the project, last time I checked, was only signed by 29 people. It would be terrible if those 29 people are able to negatively affect the town in the way that they might.