Two Danbury Road Developments, Two Different Reactions from Wilton’s Architectural Review Board

The ARB deems one "out of context" while the other is "a great gateway to town"

Last evening, Thursday, June 3, Wilton’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) conducted a review of the latest plans by two developers pursuing major projects along Danbury Rd. — with mixed results.

Noteworthy not only for their size, but the two projects would also be highly visible along Wilton’s most traveled road.

One project is a 173-unit apartment complex at 141 Danbury Rd., the former site of the Melissa and Doug corporate office, and the other is a Connecticut Humane Society (CHS) facility at 863-875 Danbury Rd.

An architectural review is just one step in the lengthy application process. Both applicants have already made multiple appearances before various Wilton boards and commissions in their march toward project approval by the town. That final approval is far from certain, with both projects asking for some accommodations and variances from Wilton’s current zoning regulations, such as in building size and parking requirements.

And while one of the applicants passed the latest ARB review with flying colors, the other may be going back to the drawing board.

141 Danbury Rd.

This is the second review the ARB has conducted on the developer’s plans for 141 Danbury Rd. As currently envisioned, the multi-family apartment complex would have 173 units on the 4.2-acre site.

The application materials and latest plans can be found on the town website.

The design plans have evolved significantly from a pre-application review that took place earlier this year, when the building was envisioned to be 188 units, with three stories.

Earlier feedback on the preliminary plans from the Planning and Zoning Commission encouraged the developer to enlarge and enhance the green space at the rear of the property along the Norwalk River. That change came with a very noticeable tradeoff, namely, a taller building (even with slightly fewer units than the original plan).

The developer’s team now describes the building as 4 1⁄2 stories, a description to which the ARB quickly objected.

“Call it a five-story building,” said ARB chair Rob Sanders.

While the upper-level “loft” and terrace areas may not meet a building code definition of a “floor”, the ARB unanimously felt that characterizing it as anything but a five-story building would be inaccurate for its purposes.

“We’re here to talk about appearance. We’re talking about a very tall building,” said ARB vice chair Sam Gardner.

The developer’s team responded that the building falls within the height limit in the DE-5 zone in which it is located.

The team’s legal representative also tried to deflect criticism: “We fully recognize this would be one of the tallest buildings, if not the tallest building in Wilton at this point, but we’re responding to the calling card in your POCD which is really encouraging multi-family housing.”

ARB members strongly objected to that interpretation of Wilton’s Plan of Conservation and Development as a justification for the design.

“This is out of context of what the POCD calls for,” Sanders responded. “This is a five-story building sitting above a parking platform” and “a stretch of what the POCD articulates,” he said.

Sanders echoed other ARB members who felt the rendering (shown above) could be considered “misleading” on the visual impact, understating the grade rise at the entrance to the complex, and in effect elevating the building from the viewpoint of Danbury Rd.

But beyond just the building height, the ARB members were generally quite concerned, even bluntly critical, of the proposed plans.

As Sanders said, “The word of the night is context,” he said, quickly adding, “And scale.”

The word “context” was first brought up in the applicant’s opening remarks, when a member of the design team alluded to the proposed development being designed (they felt, appropriately) in the context of the larger Danbury Rd. environs, including other commercial and residential buildings.

But the ARB members were in agreement that the project’s proposed architecture was out of context, contrasting it to the developer’s original plans which had only three stories, a pitched roof, and a more traditional feel, albeit with a larger footprint.

ARB member Laura Perese felt the visual contrast with the surroundings, namely the historic Lambert Corner across the street, would be “jarring,” and used descriptors like “corporate looking” to describe the plans.

ARB members John Doyle and Kevin Quinlan, who both expressed some appreciation for the rigor of the architectural work, were similarly unenthusiastic about the aesthetics. As Doyle said, “It doesn’t feel like Wilton to me somehow. It’s missing a uniqueness for Wilton.”

“There needs to be a stronger response to context,” Sanders said. “Our role as a design advisory committee is to suggest [for example] a different articulation of the exterior, or a different volumetric development of the site. This does not feel contextual. It is significantly out of context.”

The discussion of scale and context seemed to overshadow some of the other plan elements. The proposed materials would include brick, fiber cement panels/siding, and metal railing, all in various shades of gray and brown tones.

Perhaps the most favorable feedback from the ARB pertained to what the landscape designer called “the secret garden”. The area along the back, west side of the development along the Norwalk River would include lush native plantings, open lawn areas, sitting areas, walking pathways, and three “lookouts” onto the river, while also offering beautiful views from within the development.

Though not under the purview of the ARB, zoning regulations will be another hurdle the developer will have to pass. The property is currently zoned as a DE-5 Design Enterprise District. The applicant plans to propose a text amendment, or “overlay”, to the existing zoning regulations that would allow the property to be developed for multi-family housing.

Specifically, the overlay is “intended to allow for the conversion or redevelopment of commercial properties, or portions thereof, in the DE-5 Design Enterprise District into multifamily dwelling units for rental or sale. In keeping with the Plan of Conservation and Development, the overlay zone is intended to increase the availability of multi-family housing and smaller housing units diversifying the Town’s housing stock to support a range of life stages. This includes younger working age and older populations whose housing and affordability needs overlap.”

As planned, there would be 313 parking spaces, averaging 1.81 spaces per apartment unit.

As also shown in the rendering below, there would be parking spaces along some of the building’s perimeter, as well as an underground parking garage. The development team emphasized that most of the parking would not be visible from the road, given the slope, planned excavation and landscaping of the site.

The parking plans would also require a text amendment to the zoning regulation. In this case, the studio and one-bedroom units would be allocated 1.25 spaces (instead of 1.5 per studio as currently required); two-bedroom units would be allocated 1.75 spaces (instead of two); and three-bedroom units would be allocated 2.25 spaces (instead of two, but eliminating a requirement for one visitor space per two units).

The developer would also be asking for an exception to the no-parking-in-the-front-yard rule, “where up to 10 visitor and accessible parking spaces may be permitted” as shown in the above rendering.

Connecticut Humane Society

This is the second review the ARB has conducted on the proposed CHS facility, which is intended to serve as an animal shelter, veterinary clinic and “community engagement center.” A pre-application review by the ARB took place on March 6.

The application materials and detailed plans can be found on the town website.

The narrative submitted by the applicant tells of “the organization’s aspirations for developing a facility reflective of [its] values — providing a professional and compassionate environment to support the adoption and treatment of animals.”

CHS’s goals for the project are “to create a welcoming and safe atmosphere in a modern and forward-looking building” but “more human and graceful than a big ‘modern box’ … warm and friendly, with a sense of scale and materiality that was respectful of the building’s setting against a wooded hillside.”

The application also noted, “The exterior materials of the building were influenced by the site in Wilton to blend with the natural setting, characterized by sweeping topography and lush trees”.

The current plans reflect the earlier feedback of the ARB regarding parking. After the ARB raised a concern about the appearance of the parking lot on the north side of the building, the plans were revised to eliminate eight spaces there. An island was also added to visually “break up” the lot, along with a drystack stone wall that would soften the view from Danbury Rd.

The only concern raised by the ARB pertained to the blue color of the signage. That concern was eliminated when the applicant informed the ARB the blue color (and letter font) were chosen to replicate CHS’s logo.

ARB member Doyle said, “I give it an A+ all around,” a sentiment echoed by the other board members.

Perese added, “I wish it was here already” and Quinlan said, “There’s nothing about the building I don’t like.”

In sharp contrast to what they found lacking in the 141 Danbury Rd. proposal, the ARB members were particularly impressed with the building’s architecture and design within the context of the unusual topography of the property.

The rendering below shows the proposed CHS building within the existing topography, as seen from a southbound (top) and northbound (bottom) view from Danbury Rd. (as seen in the rendering below).

As ARB vice chair Gardner put it, “The building is almost embraced by the landscape.”

A key hurdle for the application will be the size of the facility. Although located on an 18-acre parcel, the proposed building exceeds the square footage allowed under Wilton’s single-acre zoning regulations which apply to that area. CHS is expected to propose a text amendment to the regulation with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Sanders summarized the ARB’s assessment of the CHS plans by saying, “We couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it” and “it’s a great gateway to town.”

Volleyball Facility at Four Seasons Racquet Club

At last night’s meeting, the ARB also conducted a “pre-application review” for a six-court volleyball facility being considered by Four Seasons Racquet Club and Northeast Volleyball Club (NEVBC).

GMW has been covering this developing story. See our latest coverage on the reaction ARB members had to the volleyball club idea, here.

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