What Wilton Center Could Be in 20 Years: River Walk, Municipal Parking, and More as Master Plan Work Begins

On Thursday, Feb. 24, the Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee met with BFJ Planning to hear an update on the firm’s progress. BFJ was selected last year to produce a comprehensive study examining ways to strengthen the Wilton Center Area as an attractive, vibrant, and walkable commercial core for residents and visitors alike.

The meeting opened with an announcement that the first public hearing in the master plan process will be held on the evening of Thursday, Mar. 24. This conversation will follow a session scheduled for Thursday, Mar. 10 in which the subcommittee and BFJ will meet with the Architectural Review Board, Historic District Commission, and key stakeholders to refine the initial findings.

P&Z Commission Member Christopher Pagliaro objected to some of the property owners listed as key stakeholders in BFJ’s consultation list, including Kimco, which recently filed an application with the Planning & Zoning Commission to redevelop a section of their commercial property into a 160-unit multi-family residential complex.

“If Kimco’s pre-application is indicative of what they want this town to be, then I don’t trust their perspective. They have an agenda and they don’t have a vision,” he said, adding, “And I believe the Barringer Building is for sale.”

P&Z Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti responded, “I hear what you’re saying, but just because there might be lack of trust doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear what they have to say. We’re not necessarily trying to get design criteria from them. We want to know their metrics, their rents, their vacancy rates. We hear a lot about the public weighing in, but the fact is, the public doesn’t own any of this stuff. It’s the owners who are impacted. I would not cut them out.”

Commissioners cited several other individuals and groups who should be included in BFJ’s stakeholder list including the Inland Wetlands and Conservation Commissions and the P&Z staff themselves. Town Planner Michael Wrinn confirmed that all of the stakeholders mentioned would be consulted.

However, Tomasetti noted, it is important that the broader mission of the project be communicated to all parties involved. “These plans work best when there is a leader; we can’t be influenced by every little constituency.”

Subcommittee member Barbara Geddis urged BFJ to explore “a true riverwalk, connecting Merwin Meadows to Schenck’s Island.” Frank Fish, Principal at BFJ Planning, noted that on Thursday, March 3, their partnering landscape architect Geoff Roesch would be accompanying the group on a site visit to explore this very concept.

In conversation with Georges Jacquemart, also a principal at BFJ and an expert in traffic planning, the group agreed to study parking usage within Wilton Center at a few key daily intervals.

Tomasetti weighed in saying he felt there was almost no need to require dedicated parking for restaurants within Wilton Center. “Very rarely are our restaurants full at lunchtime; it’s always the evening, when we have plenty of parking available.”

Pagliaro added, “I’m not even sure we should have parking, just municipal lots, except for supermarkets.”

Fish noted that municipal lots come with a certain cost but said the group would explore the option.

Moving onto a discussion of the planned public workshop, Fish and colleagues ran through the agenda and fielded questions about audience engagement techniques.

Tomasetti cautioned Fish, “Don’t underestimate the feedback you will get from Wilton residents. There are plenty of folks here who are highly skilled and do similar things in the private sector — I know I learned a lot during the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) public hearings. This will not be a bullet point you go over; it will be scrutinized and you will get input.”

Several committee members discussed the value of hearing a range of voices from the public.

Subcommittee member Sam Gardner, also the vice chair of the Village District Design Advisory Committee, spoke to that point.

“Often in these exercises, there are some people who are very articulate and some who just don’t have the vocabulary to speak about the built environment. They should be listened to and heard because they put the effort in to be there.”

Wrinn floated the idea of an online survey for interested residents to fill out in advance of the meeting, which was a well-received suggestion.

Pagliaro then kicked off a discussion about who will and will not likely appear at a public workshop on the master plan process.

“I’m going to be the cynic because I was on the POCD [subcommittee],” he said. “Most of the time, the people who come to speak at these things are the ones who don’t want change. We need young people who can see what the town could be in 20 years, not how it was 40 years ago.”

The group agreed that promotion on social media and coverage in local media may help spread the word to younger residents. Geddis also suggested the idea of a stakeholder group made up of Wilton High School students who could help answer the question, “What’s missing in Wilton?”

Christine Jimenez, a planner at BFJ, walked the group through a series of maps depicting current conditions in Wilton Center, including easements, zoning, environmental constraints, and existing and missing pedestrian pathways.

Peter Furst of Urbanomics then presented a series of slides on current economic conditions and ongoing analysis being conducted by the group. He noted that they are studying recent real estate trends (single-family home prices are up 66% since 2019 and rents are up 35%) as well as consumer data via Yelp that has already uncovered two pronounced weak spots in Wilton’s commercial diversity: the town currently lists no businesses that fall into the active life and arts and entertainment categories. Preliminary analysis also shows that the retail businesses that are in Wilton noticeably underperform businesses in nearby towns, according to Yelp.

Jonathan Martin, project manager and senior planner at BFJ, summarized a series of ideas that had been suggested by the group so far or contributed by the firm itself, depicted below.

A final discussion of the evening was inadvertently kicked off when Martin showed a photograph of 151 Old Ridgefield Rd., which houses Sun Spa and NailsBianco Rosso and the Conservatory of Dance, saying, “I can’t imagine anyone objecting to this building.”

In fact, there was plenty of objection to be heard.

“That is one of the most hated buildings in town,” said Pagliaro.

“It is such a failure,” added Tomasetti. “Everything about its relationship to the street and how it’s landscaped is a disaster.”

“It’s a complete and total failure—a Potemkin village built for a stage set,” said Geddis. “It doesn’t work.”

The pile-on turned more nuanced as the group discussed the reasons the building doesn’t succeed.

Gardner noted that he appreciated that 151 Old Ridgefield Rd. is designed to place its parking behind the building, as opposed to a building like Village Market, “which is just a sea of cars leading up to the building.”

The other members of the subcommittee agreed that the parking design was a well-intentioned effort. In fact, Pagliaro pointed out, “The problem at this property is indicative of the problem we have in Wilton Center as a whole, which is that no one walks in this community. The parking is in the right spot for the town, but not for the building.”

He noted that the same building, architecture aside, could be placed in downtown Ridgefield or Darien and the town’s parallel parking would allow people to circulate on the sidewalk and enter through the front door. However, Wilton Center’s streets are too narrow to allow for parallel parking.

Fish suggested the group add a meeting that would specifically focus on zoning issues like this, possibly to include a walking tour between BFJ and the subcommittee, which the subcommittee agreed to.

Looking Ahead

  • Thursday, Mar. 3: BFJ Planning will conduct an additional site visit to Wilton Center with the team’s landscape architect.
  • Thursday, Mar. 10: BFJ and the subcommittee will convene with the Architectural Review Board/Village District Design Advisory Commission for a joint meeting, ahead of the public workshop on Thursday, Mar. 24.
  • Soon: A new website will launch to track the progress of the master planning process and share relevant resources for any Wilton residents interested in weighing in.

The next regular meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 28.