On Thursday, Mar. 31 the Planning & Zoning Commission held the first of three public hearings scheduled as part of the Wilton Center Area Master Plan process. From pedestrian woes and retail vacancy, to opportunities to embrace Wilton’s riverfront and local arts community, the topics covered during the hearing offered a diverse vision of what a master plan could achieve.
The team of consultants tapped to manage the project coordinated the evening’s discussion, opening with an extensive presentation led by BFJ Planning on the work completed so far before turning the meeting over to public comment.
At the top of the meeting, P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti reminded members of the master plan subcommittee that, “the purpose of this meeting is to get the public’s input. We’re here primarily to listen, not here to engage or debate.”
Jonathan Martin, BFJ Project Manager for the Wilton Center master plan, summarized the meetings and research conducted in the first three months of the endeavor. He explained that the project team has nearly completed the first set of tasks, including meetings with key government, advisory, and commercial stakeholders, site visits and data collection, and a review of existing plans and prior research (such as the 2001 Wilton Center Master Plan, the 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development and the 2020 report Historic Preservation Tools for Commercial Buildings).
Tina Lund, Principal at Urbanomics, summarized preliminary findings of the market and economic analysis underway. She noted that Wilton is surrounded by competition, with a surplus of malls and quaint downtowns within a 30-minute drive from the town center. Reviewing yelp ratings, she found 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.
Martin then introduced a series of polls to gauge how members of the public feel today about the goals spelled out in the POCD, two and a half years since its publication. The participation rate for each question was over 90% of those in attendance (which at some points was as high as 120 attendees or more). The full questions and response breakdowns are available in the slides below, but key takeaways included the following:
- No appetite for changes in building scale: Attendees favored a height of three stories for new development within Wilton Center, which already has a three-story limit in place, and a height of four floors along Danbury Rd., where height limits currently vary from 3–5 stories.
- A focus on economic development: Attendees ranked bringing in businesses and filling vacant storefronts as “most important improvements” needed both within Wilton Center and along Danbury Rd.
- A push to make Wilton Center more walkable: 60% of attendees reported that, if Wilton Center were more pedestrian-friendly, they would prefer to park once and then walk to multiple destinations rather than driving from shop to shop.
- Strong interest in dining and entertainment: Attendees’ two most desired additions to Wilton Center were new restaurants and entertainment venues.
As members of the public were brought in to speak, a series of themes emerged in many of the comments. Several people suggested ideas for new gathering spaces, including an amphitheater on Schenck’s Island, more seating and outdoor dining space along the town green, and a central town playground. Multiple speakers brought up the topic of parking, particularly whether Wilton Center has too many parking spaces for the current volume of traffic. Deb McFadden also suggested in contrast that, should the master plan succeed in drawing more people to Wilton Center, our current parking may in fact not be sufficient and finding a site for a parking garage might be necessary.
Speakers offered differing takes on the design sensibility that should underpin new development in the area. Rem Bigosinski, a member of the Inland Wetlands Commission who spoke as a private citizen, opposed what he called “early ideas to turn the town center into Six Flags” and argued in favor of embracing Wilton’s agricultural history. Barbara Massy Bear added later in the evening, “We are a rural community. For some interesting reason, we’ve become deflated. We’ve stopped looking at our community as a farm.”
However, Pamela Hovland cautioned against trying to create “some sort of Ye Olde Sturbridge Village in Wilton,” and instead urged the subcommittee to find ways to celebrate Wilton past and its present at the same time. “I hope we keep this in mind: we live in the year 2022,” she said.
The idea of curating art and music festivals came up in multiple comments, as did the need to offer places for middle and high school students to hang out in Wilton Center. At the suggestion of subcommittee member Barbara Geddis, a group of Wilton High School students was engaged to offer their own perspectives on how Wilton Center could be improved. Their suggestions for public realm, retail, and beautification improvements is available in a memo posted on the master plan microsite.
Lynsi Vaitukaitis urged the subcommittee to consider securing a major retailer, such as Target or Trader Joe’s, to help drive traffic toward Wilton Center.
Alex Egan wondered whether increased residential development would be needed to support the kind of expanded local retail being discussed in the master plan. Lund agreed, explaining that, “additional density supports existing businesses and makes a town more marketable for new businesses.”
Following the hearing, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice released her regular monthly update and included responses to a few questions that had been raised by attendees earlier that evening.
Regarding whether Wilton can have an at-grade railroad crossing connecting Danbury Rd. to Schenck’s Island, she explained that Metro North no longer allows at-grade railroad crossings and an elevated crossing would need to be ADA-compliant, which isn’t possible at the site due to space constraints. Regarding whether new signage advertising Wilton Center could be installed along Danbury Rd., she explained that although large, digital signs as described in the hearing are not allowed, small signs of a certain decorative style are. And in fact, Wilton had already received state approval for such signage prior to the pandemic and can pursue the project.
More than 120 people attended, a significantly larger audience than turned out for last week’s Board of Finance (BOF) meetings on the town budget, where GOOD Morning Wilton reported only 10-12 members of the public in attendance. Unlike the BOF hearings, which were held in person, the master plan public hearing was held entirely on zoom.
Still, attendees had advice on ways to further expand the audience. Sarah Marceau suggested a follow up public hearing held at a different time for residents, especially parents of young children, for whom she said 7 p.m. is a difficult meeting time. She also called for further signage advertising major hearings like this one. Sara Curtis proposed that a future hearing take place on site and on foot in Wilton Center.
The consulting team will continue to move forward in the planning process, completing the market and economic analysis, traffic and parking studies, environmental assessments along the Norwalk River, and finally, its land use and zoning recommendations.
The next scheduled public hearing on the master plan will take place this summer, as recommendations are being finalized. There will be a final hearing in early fall just prior to the report being filed. In between these two hearings conducted by the consultant team, P&Z will also hold a regular public hearing regarding the master plan, tentatively planned for late summer.