Village District Design Commission Favors “Alternative” Design for Wilton Heights [PHOTOS]

Baypointe Stamford building picture shown to Village District Design Committee

After many weeks of being told to make his project look more historic and traditionally New England-like, the developer of the Wilton Heights redevelopment proposal for 300 Danbury Rd. got surprisingly positive feedback about an alternative, revised design scheme for the project from members of the Village District Design Committee at their last meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 18.

That encouragement for a somewhat more updated design seemed to break from what the developer had previously heard from the VDDC. Based on that response–and similar feedback from some Wilton Planning and Zoning Commission members–the developer has plans to introduce revamped, updated designs next week.

Prior Criticism of “New England Village” Design 

During past meetings, members of the Village District Design Consultants Committee–sometimes called the ‘architectural review’ committee–had criticized the Wilton Heights project’s design for being ‘too eclectic’ with a mixture of styles that they felt didn’t hew strictly enough to traditional New England design elements–for example, with window sizing, mixed materials and trim. During previous discussions, Committee members challenged the project’s aesthetics, and had frequently encouraged the project’s architect and developer to keep traditional and historic design in mind.

During the Dec. 18 meeting, Committee chairman Rob Sanders even reflected on how much feedback and direction his committee had given to the Wilton Heights team, at one point commenting, “After all we’ve put you through,” and later saying, “we’ve been a thorn in your side.”

Up until now, the existing project proposal for the mixed-use commercial and residential development has included two buildings designed to appear as if they are multiple separate structures that were built over time in a village setting (see renderings below). They were designed to resemble historic Federal-style and shingle-style gabled buildings and one brick mill-styled building. The structures will have two-and-one-half stories of residential space above one story of neighborhood-type retail broken into 5-10 separate businesses. There are 74 residential units currently planned as well as parking on the front, side and underground of the buildings.

Encouragement to “Go Bolder”

But Wilton Heights’ developer Paxton Kinol also recently received feedback from the Planning and Zoning Commission, with some P&Z members contradicting the Village District Design Committee. Instead, they encouraged Kinol to consider bolder design that possibly breaks from historic and traditional elements and incorporates more contemporary esthetics, to make more of a ‘statement.’

On Dec. 18, Kinol told the Village District Design Committee members that’s an approach he’d prefer.

“If we were left alone and were not trying to design something that fit in Wilton Center, we would go for something that’s a little stronger, specifically we would go with three mill buildings in a row. You can see three sister buildings that happen to be connected with something parallel, which is kind of a modern connection between the mill buildings. You’re kind of mixing more modern and historic,” Kinol explained.

He then showed the VDDC pictures of other projects he has built elsewhere–Baypointe in Stamford, a larger project, and Stonington Commons in Stonington, CT, which was a conversion of a former Monsanto factory–but similar in design to what Kinol would prefer to use. He also showed the Committee black and white elevation drawings showing how the photos related to the different sections of the proposed Wilton Heights buildings.

Kinol’s Stonington Commons, in Stonington, CT, is another similar project on which he worked, and was something to which he referred during discussions about the design of Wilton Heights:

Kinol’s Baypointe Stamford, another project which he referenced during discussions with the Village District Design Consultant Committee:

He continued and described his preferred concept:  “We would have proposed three brick Mill buildings with large black windows running perpendicular to Danbury Road and would have connected them with modern structures parallel to Danbury Road.”

(In a written statement yesterday to GOOD Morning WiltonKinol said he would have originally proposed this bolder look, “…if the zoning language and architectural review language had not pushed us towards this historical downtown type look.”)

Kinol explained to the VDDC that the larger windows used in the building design in two photos he showed them help “really bring down the scale of the buildings” from a distance.

Positive Response to Mill-Style Photos–and Idea of Change

The VDDC members seemed to respond positively, specifically to the photos of the brick mill-style buildings, above.

In fact, during the meeting, VDDC member Laura Noble Perese said the photos reminded her of the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, which she said, “…looks incredible, as a great example of one Mill building.”

Kinol said he’d taken all the feedback and comments into consideration in order to propose the new direction.

“Some of the comments we’ve received over time, are, ‘How do we make this development kind of stand out more, that you’ve arrived somewhere?’ We’ve talked in here about a tower element, or something to let you know you’ve arrived in Wilton Center. One of the ways to make this, in my opinion, more iconic, are three of the same buildings, you will know, ‘Hey, I’ve arrived. Everyone will know in a very short time where that is,” Kinol said.

VDDC member Sam Gardner seemed intrigued with the new concept, saying he had struggled with the original design that tried to ‘recreate Main Street with this accrual of buildings.’

“It just didn’t all add up. Now a building like this that has its own character that is played out from one end to the other, just seems a whole lot more stronger than the Main Street where you’re just squeezing all these different styles together, which didn’t work. I was having trouble with it,” Gardner commented, adding, “This has the potential to be a really strong presence, it’s not fighting itself. I’m much more excited about this.”

Sanders, who had previously spoken critically of the design during a Planning and Zoning public hearing, called it a “major shift.”

“It’s asking a lot of the public,” he noted, pointing to the town’s Village District Design guidelines, which state that new designs should reinforce and be compatible with existing structures and streetscapes. “I’m not arguing modern versus traditional. This is a new direction.”

He also pondered whether both the developer and the committee was ready to bring such a shift to the town residents.

“There is a new direction to take to the town, that’s considerably more contemporary looking, some would say more commercial looking, and we’re setting the new bar. We’ve talked about where we want to set the new bar, and here it is.”

In describing the idea of three mill buildings linked by more modern connections, Kinol acknowledged that not everyone would embrace a shift, but based on how his prior similar projects were received, it would be an overall positive change for several reasons.

“…with a brick building and stone building were basically a new interpretation of that same idea where there was a stone mill building and a brick building. I think this will stand out, and the apartments will be more desirable from renters’ standpoint, and that the development will be a better looking development.”

Designed to Fit Wilton

Committee member Megan Abrahamsen called the newer design idea “more pertinent to this community,” and reminiscent of the Wiremill in Georgetown, something, she said, “…there’s been so much passion for.”

Just as the previous design has been very closely identified to an imagined backstory–that of a New England village center where different-styled buildings organically grew up over centuries–Committee member Kevin Quinlan suggested that the revised mill-theme design could be tied to a similar narrative.

“This 360 is just a different story line. I could easily see how the storyline could change–now you’re at an area which used to be ‘Mill Row,’ with three mills. And then to build it out, the connecting bars were put together with the mill buildings and they maybe have more of a modern feel as the connectors. I can see the storyline, but if this is the way, there’s a very fine line and you’d have to be conscious of where you go. It could very easily start to look very commercial, and you might want to start to pull back and say, ‘Whoa, we don’t want to be so slick and so commercial,'” Quinlan said.

The interesting thing is–there is actual history that could back up that imaginary narrative. Sanders recounted the number of mills that actually were located in Wilton along the Norwalk River, near Danbury Rd.. “There are literally bricks strewn in the river bed of the remains from the Colonial Mill, that started there in the 18th century and the last of it washed away in 1955, but it was a brick mill. There was a woolen mill on the corner of Seeley Rd. and Danbury Rd., which is gone now. There was a mill on the corner of Wolfpit, that was still a sawmill when I was a kid. There were all kinds of things here that suggest that this could be an honest evocation of the mill village.”

Making the project something that fits Wilton, Sanders cautioned, is the key point.

“Right or wrong, we have stated as our community in our goals, that we respect history, that we like the continuity, that we like the continuous narrative, that we don’t necessarily want to become something completely different. One of the assets is the river and the valley, and the recognition of the fact that the river has always defined this town–it’s why Rte. 7 is where it is, it’s why the crossing point of the river is here, is because it’s where there were mills.” He cautioned about making it too modern just because “it’s the 21st century.”

The Committee members said future discussions would hinge on the materials chosen by the developer and how any redesign would look–but that it was a much stronger, more improved direction over previous plans.

They encouraged Kinol to bring the new approach to P&Z. Acknowledging time constraints for the Wilton Heights application with P&Z, the VDDC agreed to hold a special meeting on Jan. 8 at 4 p.m. to review further changes, and Noble Perese said she would draft a report and recommendations on the project.

New Designs to be Introduced Next Week

Kinol was encouraged how the ideas discussed seemed to resonate with the VDDC members–most of all, the two photos of the brick mill buildings–and how it has now spurred a change in direction for the exterior architecture.

In his written statement to GOOD Morning Wilton, Kinol said he’ll look to strike a balance between historic and statement. And despite the words ‘contemporary,’ ‘modern’ and alternative used in some of the discussions, the meeting minutes and other reports, the new design will still reflect Wilton’s history, albeit with more excitement and cohesiveness than prior drawings have.

“While some commission members liked the modern sections, we were encouraged to make those more of a simple white Shaker style, emulating simple clapboard additions to historic mill buildings. Our design team worked over the holidays and we should have perspective renderings to share sometime next week. The central pavilion was themed to be a stone foundry building to be more enclosed with more stone at the base. This will be a gathering place where the public can sit and have a coffee or hold a small public event.

“We believe the three Brick Mill buildings, with their attractive brick gable ends facing Danbury Rd., will make the architectural statement some of the commission members felt was lacking, while the historical look of the mills will address the concerns of some others. The foot print of the development is not changing but the exterior architecture in my opinion is improved. I believe there will be a large demand from local residents, especially seniors, interested in living in great new ADA accessible apartments with large Mill windows that are walk able to the village and the train station.”

GOOD Morning Wilton will share the new designs as soon as they are available.