On Jan. 20, the Wilton Center Master Plan Subcommittee met with BFJ Planning, the firm selected to manage the project. The subcommittee was convened by the Planning & Zoning Commission and is led by P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti. Melissa Jean-Rotini and Chris Pagliaro, also of P&Z, serve on the subcommittee. Two additional members were seated during the meeting: Barbara Geddis, local architect; and Rick Stow, Chair of the Inland Wetlands Commission. A representative from the Architectural Review Board/Village District Design Advisory Committee was unable to attend but was expected to join next time.
The Master Plan will be a comprehensive roadmap for how Wilton can utilize and optimize Wilton Center, including residential and commercial development, with consideration for everything from the Norwalk River to streetscape design, buildings heights, parking, civic/green space, historical preservation, wetlands, infrastructure and other initiatives.
Town Planner Michael Wrinn opened the meeting by noting that the group had a long agenda ahead of it, then turned the meeting over to BFJ.
Issues and Opportunities
Frank Fish, a founding partner at the firm, reminded the committee members of the timeline for the project, which is expected to run for 10 months and conclude in August or September 2022. Fish announced dates for the first public hearing, targeting either Thursday, Mar. 3 or Thursday, Mar. 10. At the public hearing, BFJ will explain the project and scope, summarize the work so far, and revisit the findings of the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) that is helping to inform the master plan. The goal of the hearing, which he called a “workshop,” will be to gather public comments about anything that may have changed since the POCD was completed in 2019 and any new ideas that should be incorporated into the master plan.
Project manager Jonathan Martin then updated the subcommittee on the work currently underway, mentioning that he had walked the site with Wrinn to provide further context. The subcommittee then shared initial thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing Wilton Center.
“Wilton Center has evolved over time but has never really matured or met its potential,” said Tomasetti. “I don’t think any of the buildings come anywhere close to our height or bulk restrictions, other than possibly Kimco. Why is that? I’m concerned when we talk about maintaining the scale of Wilton Center—we have to be creative about how to increase the scale and create meaningful outdoors spaces and streetscapes.”
Geddis highlighted the need to focus on opportunities for connectivity. “Kimco is the opposite of a town center,” she said. “It’s a suburban parking lot with nice uses and a Stop & Shop, but Stop & Shop is not an anchor. It’s about the river down to the train station — give us a spine to highlight these wonderful, diffuse offerings. We have islands, what we need is connection.”
Rotini noted that part of the issue in creating a connection between Danbury Rd. and Wilton Center is that, of the few sites that could offer a sightline between the two areas, flood zone restrictions prevent further development.
“In my opinion, Wilton Center is a scaled-down version of Danbury Rd. and that’s where it fails,” added Pagliaro. “I have lived here for 27 years and this is still a strip of pavement where people get in their car to go from one place to a next — that’s what hurts the retail.” He drew a comparison with New Canaan’s downtown, where municipal parking lots encourage a park-and-walk experience that leads visitors to explore new shops.
He also expressed interest in redeveloping the riverfront, a suggestion made during the Architectural Review Board/ Village District Design Advisory Committee meeting earlier this month.
“The river is underutilized,” he said, citing an experience he had when visiting Memphis, Tennessee. “I had an idea of Beale Street running along the Mississippi, but it turns out it’s a typical American town that didn’t have the guts to develop along its asset. We have that asset here. It requires study and analysis but we have to figure out how that river becomes part of our community.”
Stow, representing the Inland Wetlands Commission, signaled a willingness to explore the idea, saying, “I’m not that hard and fast. I love frogs; I love people. We have room for both. I think we can find an acceptable plan.”
The committee members also cited traffic along Danbury Rd., special permit requirements that discourage restaurant uses, and the limitations of the current town green and gazebo that keep it from functioning as a true center of downtown.
Martin gave an overview of the group’s preliminary topics of concern regarding land use and zoning, public realm and open space, and economy issues. Summarized in the following slides, these lists are based on a review of the POCD records and the firm’s work with Wrinn and others so far, which included walks through the project area itself.
Fish then shared the list of stakeholders that BFJ plans to consult as the fact-finding chapter of the process moves forward:
- Historic Commission
- Chief Building Official
- Environmental Affairs Department
- Inland Wetlands Commission
- Department of Public Works
- Conservation Commission
- Police and fire departments
- Key property owners, including Kimco.
Wrinn noted that the Architectural Review Board should be consulted as well.
Traffic and Market Overview
Mark Freker, a transportation planner with BFJ, gave a brief outline of the traffic studies that will commence soon. In particular, BFJ will be exploring ways to optimize turnover of parking spots, encourage a shared parking model, and promote a park-and-walk pattern.
Moving to a discussion of the market research underway, Tina Lund and Peter Furst of Urbanomics presented initial findings and project goals. Furst explained that local retail pressures preceded the pandemic, with most consumers moving to online retail in the absence of “a truly unique experience at brick-and-mortar stores.”
Lund echoed comments of several committee members underscoring one goal of the master plan — to reinforce the idea of Wilton Center as a destination, especially for residents of Wilton. She added that Urbanomics would be reaching out to the Economic Development Commission, Wilton Chamber of Commerce, commercial developers, major employers, and business owners to crate a picture of the current challenges.
Pagliaro suggested looking beyond the business owners and developers currently operating in Wilton Center. “Should you be engaging people who aren’t in Wilton to find out why they’re not here?” he asked. He shared that he recently spoke to a developer who had done projects in Wilton before but was “spooked by the process.”
“I’d like to hear what’s stopping people from coming in here and building interesting projects.”
Rotini added that the Economic Development Commission at one point reached out to business owners who live in Wilton but choose to operate businesses in nearby towns. “I’m sure they would speak to us about why and how,” she said.
Geddis added a final target for BFJ’s discussions: business owners who until recently operated in Wilton but have chosen to leave. She concluded by telling BFJ, “We’re looking for some innovation and some sparkle — a riveting reason to come to Wilton Center.”
In closing, Tomasetti spoke to the challenges facing Wilton more broadly, and P&Z’s role in addressing them.
“Wilton is a place that most people come to for our biggest amenity, which is our schools,” he said. “But we need other assets. We’re here to cultivate the built environment and outdoor spaces, but when we talk about things like bike share, that’s not just P&Z — that’s Economic Development, it’s Chamber of Commerce. I challenge us to be thought leaders when we speak to these other stakeholders; they need to be as visionary as we are.”
The next special meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission Subcommittee for the Wilton Center Master Plan will be held on Thursday, Feb. 24.