Baywater Properties has big plans in place for downtown Darien, and the developer has begun seeking the necessary approvals to make its proposal for redevelopment a reality.
The project focuses on the area between the Bank of America building on Post Road and the Post Office on Corbin Drive, Baywater founder David Genovese said during an overview of the project before a packed auditorium at Darien Library April 6. Baywater plans to completely redevelop the space, replacing the existing structures with mixed-use buildings for retail and office space as well as condominiums. In order to provide parking, Baywater also intends to construct a two-level underground parking deck. A pair of new streets and a service road near Old Kings Highway South would be created to help alleviate traffic, and provide access to underground parking.
If approved, the downtown redevelopment project would feature 95,000 square feet of office space, approximately 74,000 and some 66 apartments. A village green would also be created along Post Road in the area to provide a space for public functions. Buildings facing Post Road would be restricted to just two or three stories, to maintain consistency with the current buildings. Buildings located along Corbin Drive and the newly planned streets would range from three to five stories. The largest of the planned structures, a six-story apartment building, would sit on a new street parallel to Boston Post Road.
Architect Gary Brewer said the larger buildings would not be visible to pedestrians on Post Road due to their positioning. Additionally, the larger buildings could be seen those driving along I-95.
Genovese said that he and his partner Penny Glassmeyer, of PG Properties, have worked since 2005 to acquire nearly all of the necessary land in the area. The owner of the Bank of America building has agreed to become a partner in the project once the necessary approvals are granted.
Baywater’s application is expected to be presented to the Planning & Zoning Commission next month, with a public hearing scheduled for May 17. Baywater will be seeking necessary zoning changes to allow the site plan to move forward. But before the formal process begins, Genovese took the opportunity to address questions and concerns from the public during the library presentation.
Retaining retailers and courting an anchor
Both customers and business owners questioned the fate of the existing businesses in the Post Road and Corbin Drive area. Genovese said Baywater has already offered to accommodate local mainstays, and is planning to help their owners find interim space during the construction period. He also said that returning businesses would pay a similar amount in rent after relocating. In order to maintain those rents part of the cost would be subsidized using revenue generated by the sale of condos downtown.
Retailers would occupy the first floor of most of the project’s buildings on Post Road. When asked if the new buildings would welcome big box realtors, Genovese explained that the property will continue to be focused locally focused, and that Baywater would continue to seek tenants that fit the needs of Darien and its shoppers.
“Our underwriting is conservative and our strategy is simple: make it work for locally owned stores,” Genovese said.
While the amount of retail space is expected to increase from 49,000 to 74,000 square feet, about 20,000 square feet will belong to an anchor store, leaving the remaining amount of space largely unchanged. Genovese revealed that the anchor store would likely be L.L. Bean, though negotiations are still ongoing. He said the project’s main competition in the bid is a proposed mall in Norwalk, but Darien’s unique situation has helped sway the realtor.
“Darien was a market they were very interested in and they were trying to get involved in lower Fairfield County for many, many years,” Genovese said. “So they have agreed to work with us, we’re negotiating now.”
Relocating the post office
One source of concern is the Darien Post Office, located at the end of Corbin Drive. Genovese said Baywater has asked what the Postal Service would want in a new building, but the response has been slow. Ed Friend, a 30-year veteran of the Darien Post Office and a DHS graduate, said the Postal Service may attempt to relocate the town’s letter carriers to the Camp Avenue facility in Stamford if there is not enough space for letter service in the new building.
Both Friend and Genovese mentioned the closure of the New Canaan Post Office, which closed during redevelopment in 2014 and is still waiting on the construction of its new permanent facility. Residents there have suffered through issues with their delivery service and the post office’s temporary location.
“It was really tough on the guys and I think it affects the service when you’re in a big office,” Friend said.
He added, “if there’s any way we can keep the carriers in town it would be beneficial, I have 30-years and I have six guys above me in seniority so a lot of us have invested a lot of time in this town.”
According to Friend, a space of 8,000 to 9,000 square feet would be needed to maintain mail service in town.
Adding apartments to downtown
The project’s condominiums would range 1,500 to 1,800 square feet in size, with one to three bedrooms. Units would be sold rather than rented, and are intended to serve Darien’s “empty nester” population. Genovese explained that the smaller unit sizes would deter families, while providing a more manageable housing option for those looking to downsize from a large house.
“We talk to the realtors in Darien about why people are leaving, and we hear over and over again that they’re leaving because there’s no housing they find acceptable,” Genovese said.
Outside of providing a sought after housing option in town, Genovese said providing residential space downtown would help boost shopping downtown, and that retailers expressed a desire to see more people living nearby.
“We want to get more people living downtown, there is an enormous need for this kind of housing in Darien,” Genovese said.
In order to satisfy Darien’s affordable housing needs, Baywater has proposed a living facility for adults with special needs at a separate site on East Lane. Genovese said he recognized a dire need for such housing in the state, as there are some 2,000 people on the waiting list for special needs housing. He said the facility has proven to be one of the harder parts of the project to negotiate, due to the need for specific state approvals.
If the East Lane project cannot move forward, Baywater would be obligated to provide affordable housing elsewhere, or pay into the town’s affordable housing trust fund. However, Genovese said the Planning & Zoning Commission has made it clear that they want housing units rather than additional funding.
Parking & Traffic Changes
Baywater has chosen to pursue an underground parking lot and plans to provide more than 500 spaces. The town recommended that Baywater not consider any of the existing above ground parking in their parking accommodations. Genovese acknowledged that the cost of the parking lot would be significant, with the price being estimated at $50,000 to $80,000 per space.
The new streets being proposed in the site plan are based off of findings in the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) Post Road Corridor Study and the Connecticut Main Street Center 2006 Study for Downtown Darien. Recently, Genovese came across an off-street parking plan submitted to the Planning & Zoning Commission in 1951 by longtime consultant Frederick Clark that also recommends the new streets in the same locations.
“That kind of let us know we were on the right track,” Genovese said.
When asked if the project would wreak havoc on parking downtown, Genovese brought up the construction of Whole Foods. The Planning & Zoning Commission required the grocery chain to make adjustments to the intersection of Post Road and Ledge Road, greatly improving the flow of traffic in the area. He said that Baywater would make the necessary adjustments to improve traffic conditions as requested.
“We want to make sure we park it adequately and we’re not counting on things. We want to make sure that fundamentally, Darien downtown works better when we’re done then it does today,” Genovese said.
On May 17, The Planning & Zoning Commission will hear a text amendment proposed by Baywater to allow the necessary zoning changes downtown. Genovese recommended that residents express their concerns, positive or negative, to the commission in person or via letter.
“Downtown buildings are not really our buildings, they’re really the people’s buildings,” Genovese said. “And we can be the catalysts for those building, but if people don’t support them, it won’t work.
Genovese said he is committed to getting town approvals as quickly as possible, and if all goes according to plan the project could be ready to break ground in late 2017 or early 2018. The construction process is expected to take about 18 months, meaning the site would be completed in late 2019 or early 2020, ignoring potential delays.
A full video of the Baywater presentation is available on the Darien Library’s YouTube channel, and more information about the project, including past presentations, is available at http://yourdowntowndarien.com/