Subcommittee’s Message to Consultants: Wilton Center Master Plan Needs More Work

The Greater Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee held a special meeting last month on Wednesday, July 20. Although the agenda described the evening as a work session with consultants at BFJ Planning, Chair Rick Tomasetti opened by explaining that the meeting would serve as an opportunity for the subcommittee members themselves to discuss the project deliverables so far and the group’s overall vision for the project.

The consulting team had delivered three documents for review, which the Commission discussed one by one:

Subcommittee members Sam Gardner and Barbara Geddis also presented a PowerPoint on what they called, “an attempt to capture Wilton’s essence.”

With the master plan process set to wrap up in early fall, several Commissioners expressed concerns about the amount of progress completed and underscored the need for greater breadth and depth in much of the analysis.

“I’m starting to feel a little bit of the pressure thinking that there is a timeframe for this to wrap up,” said Subcommittee Member and Planning & Zoning Commissioner Chris Pagliaro. “All I have seen so far is what I know. Maybe that’s because I was part of the POCD. But instead of forward creativity with these conversations, I just keep looking at data that is in the rearview mirror.”

At the outset of the discussion, Tomasetti made a broader point that the consulting team’s presentations so far have been “very focused on Wilton Center district itself.” The study area for the master plan, which is mapped for reference in the draft existing conditions report, reaches far beyond Wilton Center to what the town has called the Greater Wilton Center Area. This boundary stretches across the Norwalk River to Danbury Rd., where it runs from Wolfpit Rd. up past the intersection with Pimpewaug Rd.

“It’s something we need to address,” he said.

Reached for comment by GOOD Morning Wilton, Town Planner Michael Wrinn framed the subcommittee’s comments as part of the normal feedback process in a project like this.

“I’ve been through a lot of master plans,” he said. “If you find someone who hits all the numbers on the first try, that’s very surprising.”

“The subcommittee is passionate about this, they want to see this done right, rather than done fast,” he added.

Wrinn reported that the consultants have gotten the notes and additional materials shared during the evening’s meeting. Updated documents are expected in late August or early September.

Draft Existing Conditions Report — Issues and Opportunities but not Enough Detail

A map of the various zoning districts within the study area was the first topic to come under discussion in the review of the existing conditions report.

Geddis kicked off the conversation by stating, “We have a chaotic number of zoning districts. The lack of clarity is evident.”

Referring to the consultants, Tomasetti responded, “Their take on it is that this should be an overlay. I don’t see us rezoning the R-1As [the residential zones that border the study area], but at some point, those of us on P&Z need to get a handle on the difference between DRB [the Design Retail Business District zone] and GB [the General Business zone]. Other than a few items, I don’t see a lot of difference here. I think it’s something we could merge together and figure out.”

The subcommittee then turned to a pair of maps on pages 29 and 30 of the existing conditions report which depict potential development sites, major property owners, existing and upcoming infrastructure, and a bullet list of general comments heard during the master plan discovery process. Geddis called the page “the Rosetta stone” of the master plan process.

However, she pointed out that the draft report is missing several comments. “There is a whole lot about Wilton proper that isn’t represented here.” Her presentation developed with Gardner that would be shown later in the meeting seemed to underscore these absent topics.

Gardner suggested that the consulting team break the study area into zones, allowing for a more granular look at the Issues and Opportunities.

Geddis and Pagliaro critiqued the way flood zones are depicted in the report’s environmental constraints map, concerned that the map showing FEMA Flood Hazard Zones needed further explanation and might even be misleading.

“If I looked at that as a layman, I would say this is insane. It must be said by those of us in the field, this is just typical for our aquifers in Fairfield County; this is everywhere. Zone X and Zone AE, you can build in these areas,” Geddis said.

Pagliaro agreed. “Nobody should be saying you can’t build there because of the flood plain,” he said. “I make my living doing waterfront development.” He went on to explain several mitigation measures that make building within flood zones possible and showed maps of nearby communities with fully developed flood zone areas.

“There are plenty of resilient and sustainable solutions on how to put walkways and buildings next to waterways in flood zones,” said Gardner. “Let’s put it out there.”

Draft Traffic and Parking Report — Plenty of Data but an Incomplete Picture

The subcommittee briefly reviewed the traffic and parking data, which had been made available in past meetings. Both Tomasetti and Town Planner Michael Wrinn pointed out the need for firm recommendations based on this data, including projections based on future build-out, and underscored the lack of clarity in some of the findings.

“In terms of the analysis, we need to understand what this points to. Intuitively, we know we’re overparked, but I want to understand where the surplus is. Is that unused 49% of our parking all behind Stop & Shop? They’re not telling me that,” Tomasetti said.

“The irony is that we spend so much time talking about Horseshoe Rd., River Rd., and Old Ridgefield Rd., yet we don’t have any idea how many cars drive them,” Pagliaro added.

He also produced a rough figure-ground diagram he created depicting Wilton Center with the parking colored in yellow and the buildings colored in red.

“That is an abundance of asphalt,” Pagliaro pointed out. “This tells you what the problem is. It shows you how disconnected the buildings are. It looks like Rome if the yellow were buildings.”

Draft Market Overview Report — A Search for Answers in all the Wrong Places

Turning to the market overview, the subcommittee objected to the methodology the consulting team has used to measure Wilton’s local economic performance to nearby communities.

“They need to stop comparing us to anybody other than Ridgefield, Darien, New Canaan, and Westport,” Tomasetti began. “We’re not comparable to Norwalk or Fairfield, we’re not comparable to Greenwich or Stamford, we’re not comparable to Weston or Redding.”

“I’d rather you cross the border into Westchester than show me the top of Fairfield County,” added P&Z Vice Chair and Subcommittee Member Melissa-Jean Rotini.

Tomasetti also critiqued the use of Yelp as the primary indicator of retail performance, suggesting that if social media data is the goal, more accurate, targeted information may be available from Meta/Facebook and Google.

Asked for his take on the market analysis, Wrinn was blunt. “I think there is a lot to be desired.”

“Going into this, the hope was we would be able to come up with some magical number that shows, if we promote residential, then we would be able to support more retail. I don’t see any of that — the nexus between those two,” Wrinn continued. “And if we put this residential out on Danbury Rd., will they come into Wilton Center and use the retail? More work needs to be done here to get to those numbers.”

Referring to the pre-application hearings with Kimco in which the company outlined plans to eliminate long-vacant retail space in Wilton Center and develop a 160-unit multi-family residential complex, Pagliaro said, “I wondered to myself, if they put in these residential units, does that not make us wish we had a retail center like the one they’re tearing down?”

“What do you go to Wilton Center for?” Geddis asked her fellow subcommittee members.

“Food… the drug store,” said Pagliaro. “But what else is there to buy?

“There used to be a hardware store but they’re moving. Classically Kate, Starbucks. I don’t think the local stores are a bad thing, that’s what draws you,” Rotini said, adding, “I know that Chris can’t buy socks, we’ve all heard about it.”

“I can’t buy any clothing anymore,” Pagliaro said.

In a final critique, Rotini pointed out that the analysis is still using 2010 Census data, when 2020 data is available. She asked for an explanation from the consultants on why that decision was made.

River Town: Creating Memorable Places

Tomasetti then turned the screen over to Geddis who walked the subcommittee through a draft presentation she prepared in partnership with Gardner. Titled “River Town: Creating Memorable Places,” the name is inspired by the idea of Wilton Center as being nestled between a ridge and river.

Geddis opened by describing Wilton’s architecture as “clear, authentic, unpretentious, and sparing, but beautiful.” She would later point to an opportunity to mix scale and form to create more interest at the ground level.

“Please update the Village District design guidelines, We are not a colonial New England village, nor do we want to be, nor has this part of Wilton ever been.”   — Barbara Geddis, Master Plan Subcommittee Member

Gardner, who also serves as Vice Chair of the Architectural Review Board and Village District Design Advisory Committee, continued. “Typically the planners and others search for a way to describe our town and they only ever come up with “the New England vernacular.” I’d like to get away from that. Let’s choose words like simplicity and clarity, which can be interpreted as a modern library or a classic church.”

“Please update the Village District design guidelines,” Geddis added. “We are not a colonial New England village, nor do we want to be, nor has this part of Wilton ever been.”

Geddis went on to discuss the role of the Norwalk River in Wilton Center, the potential for a more stately gateway at Center St., and the concept of a commercial triangle between the Barringer Building, CVS, and 77 Old Ridgefield Rd.

An additional concept to eventually reclaim the town-owned property behind the village green and create a connected town center and entertainment space that could stretch to the library was well received by the subcommittee. Gardner proposed a jazz venue tied to the Brubeck Collection with a pedestrian area that could be called “Brubeck Alley.” The group discussed the Bank of America building (117 Old Ridgefield Rd.), the only property not owned by the town in that stretch of land, and contemplated incentives that might make a relocation attractive.

Ending at Schenck’s Island, Geddis critiqued the park’s lack of direction and excitement. Later in the discussion, Pagliaro would agree, calling Schenck’s Island, “BYOF: Bring your own fun.”

Tomasetti added, “Even in the Schenck’s Island master plan, which I was very critical of, the question remained: What is it — is it a preserve or is it a park? I think it should be a park.”

“This is great work,” Tomasetti said at the conclusion of the presentation. “We need to get this to the consultants. I have some comments but you’re drilling down on some of the core issues here as to what we want to be.”

Looking Ahead

The next step in the outlined master plan process is the development of an updated series of reports by the consultants, based partly on the feedback the subcommittee outlined during the July 20 meeting. A second dedicated public hearing with the consultants, as well as a public hearing as part of the Planning & Zoning review of the plan, are listed in the schedule released by the subcommittee.

In conversation with GMW, Wrinn noted that in part due to the subcommittee’s decision to pursue a more complex and nuanced form-based zoning approach, the master plan process will extend beyond its planned conclusion in October to some time closer to the start of the new year.

Editor’s note: due to an editing error, an earlier draft version was published by mistake. The story has been updated to its final, published version.

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