Corbin Project: Discussions Continue Over Redesign

Baywater Properties and Principal David Genovese have been working for years to ensure that their planned redevelopment of downtown Darien is a project that both modernizes the design and aesthetics of the town’s central business district and also looks towards the future needs of the community. The Corbin Project, which has adopted the name “Your Downtown Darien” will create a mixed use development with new apartments and redesigned retail, restaurant and office space on an 11-acre campus along Boston Post Road and Corbin Drive.

More than a year after earning preliminary approvals from the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission, Baywater opted to scrap the Corbin Project’s original design. The project’s new design remains focused on pedestrian accessibility and a mix of residential, retail and business space, but has a much smaller footprint overall with less underground parking than what was originally proposed.

In meetings with the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission and the Architectural Review Board, Genovese said the decision to overhaul the Corbin Project was not motivated by zoning constraints; it was inspired by new developments in the realms of retail and transportation as well as the project’s long term impact on Darien. Baywater has held informal discussions with both town boards ahead to discuss the forthcoming site plan and gain preliminary feedback

In addition to smaller buildings the new proposal has a lower impact on the area. Instead of the village green on Post Road that featured prominently in the original proposal, the Corbin Project now features a small market lane and green space that will be tucked between the Post Road and Old Kings Highway. With the new traffic pattern the space can also be enclosed to allow for public gatherings and events without through traffic on the back streets. The Darien post office would also be relocated from Corbin Drive to the new passthrough streets as a part of the redevelopment process.

Restaurants and retail space would occupy the majority of the first floor space in the developments with L.L Bean occupying the project’s anchor store on Boston Post Road, where the Bank of America is currently located.

The new proposal calls for a mix of street level and above ground parking as well as a single level underground parking deck, rather than the two-level underground deck originally proposed.  Genovese said there will be additional above ground parking in the new design for those who prefer not to use a parking deck and Baywater is exploring signage to dictate how much parking is available both at street level and in the parking decks. Genovese has suggested that the increased use of ride sharing services will likely make surplus parking less necessary in the coming years, which made him less confident in investing in an underground deck.

Baywater’s original design team began developing the Corbin project site plan in 2016. As they began running logistics on the cost of the underground parking it was found that the deck might cost 60 percent more than originally expected due to the added cost of amenities like high quality lighting and multiple elevators for easy access. Due to the rising cost of parking, Genovese would have had to increase prices for his retail and office tenants, who would also need to be relocated. During a meeting with the Architectural Review Board, Genovese explained his decision to overhaul the project.

Genovese said, “I asked myself ‘what can I do to rationalize these higher costs?’ I stared at my navel for a number of weeks and talked to a million people in the market about what was happening in transportation, what was in happening in retail and concluded that was a fool’s strategy and it made more sense to re-engineer the project.”

Seeing both retail and transportation as rapidly changing markets, Genovese questioned the project’s original commitment to an underground parking deck that may not be needed in the future. As ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft gain popularity and driverless cars approach the verge of deployment, the shelf life of a multi-level parking deck could be limited.

Baywater was faced with the choice of increasing the density to accommodate the cost of underground parking or waiting several years for more market clarity. However, because the project’s density was directly tied to the overall cost of the project, pursuing a more affordable parking plan allowed for less above ground density as well. Left unable to find a satisfying solution with the existing development team, Genovese decided to hire local architect Bruce Beinfield to provide a new design for the Corbin Project.

“That’s when Bruce and I got together and started talking about it and trying to engineer a better way,” Genovese told the ARB. “We were getting a lot of feedback from people, around some discomfort around underground parking. There are a lot of examples of projects that were too reliant on underground parking and didn’t work out. In a moment of reflect we concluded, as hard it was, to go back to the drawing board. The right thing to do was start again.”

Beinfield’s design brings added flexibility to the project. Because the large excavation needed for a two-level garage is no longer necessary, the project can be completed in phases. Rather than working to relocate local shops, they can be migrated between the completed portions of the development over time, keeping them close to their customers. Additionally, multiple levels of above ground parking in the proposed design could later be removed and refitted to create more retail or office space should the demand for parking decrease in the coming years.

As a bonus, Genovese said the new design has been more popular with both residents and retailers.

“I went from being being absolutely terrified last year at the thought of having to rent retail spaces in this environment to feeling a lot more confident that retail is not dead it’s just different,” Genovese said. “What it used to take in retail to succeed is very different than what it takes to succeed in retail today.”