Newtown aims to become destination with Village at Lexington Gardens development

By Kevin Zimmerman

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The motive behind The Village at Lexington Gardens, a multibuilding commercial complex under construction in Newtown, is simple: Making Newtown a destination for visitors and shoppers throughout the state and beyond.

“We’re looking for something similar to people going to West Hartford or Greenwich without a specific activity or place in mind — just waking up on a Saturday and saying, ‘Let’s go to Newtown,’” said Betsy Paynter, the town’s economic development coordinator.

Located at 30 Church Hill Road on the former site of Lexington Gardens, a longtime plant, home decorating and giftware retailer that closed in 2011, The Village will occupy 61,000 square feet of new space, or a total of 72,000 square feet when taking into account the existing Chase Bank building, which will be incorporated into The Village.

Hanging on to the Lexington Gardens name made sense, said Doug Rose, Vice President asset services, Coldwell Banker Commercial Scalzo Group, the real estate broker for the site. “The nursery was already a destination for people — next to the flagpole (an iconic 100-foot high pole on Main Street whose history goes back to 1876) it was probably Newtown’s number one attraction. And even though it’s been closed for years, (unaware) people still make pilgrimages there. We thought, ‘Why create a new name when we’ve already got such an attractive one?’”

Ground was broken for the seven-building, $10 million to $12 million complex by developers Mesa General Contractors of New Milford 18 months ago. A grand opening is scheduled for December, though several businesses expect to open by October or November. It represents the largest commercial redevelopment in Newtown in two decades.

Each building features a two-story design and elevators, with the ground floor given over to retailers and the second floor being utilized for office space. The complex will offer 310 parking spaces, with employee parking in the rear of each building. New sidewalks are being put in to encompass the nearby extant Caraluzzi’s grocery store, a liquor store and the Barnwood restaurant, as well as the Chase building, which also features popular eatery Bagel Delight, and the separate Japanese restaurant Toro.

Adding to its accessibility will be a traffic light being installed at the intersection of Church Hill Road and The Boulevard, allowing for two lanes into The Village and one out. Along with other traffic lights nearby, Paynter says, “We expect traffic flow to be a lot better.” Newtown currently estimates traffic at over 18,000 cars daily.

The new space will be anchored by a pair of restaurants, each with seating for 100 people and featuring “new, upscale progressive American dining,” according to Rose. Maintaining a prime location at the center of The Village will be Dental Associates of Connecticut (DA), relocating from its current Newtown location at 11 Church Hill to take over a 15,000-square-foot space with 39 chairs, making it the largest dental facility in the state.

“We needed the space,” said the firm’s Dr. David Kessler, who noted that DA — which also has offices in Danbury, Shelton and New Milford — will move all of its orthodontics practice there. “Where we are now, you can’t have pediatric and orthodontic work done at the same time. We could work at the same space but not at the same time. This brings both of them together.”

Kessler added that The Village’s central location “in the heart of the business district” was a prime attraction. Parents can now drop their kids off for braces and wander around the complex, whereas before they were pretty much stranded at the office.

Convenience was also a determining factor for Newtown Savings Bank, which will occupy a standalone building in The Village for customer activities while maintaining its back office operations in its current location at 39 Main St. The bank will also continue to utilize upstairs space in the Chase building for training purposes, according to president and CEO John Trentacosta.

“This will probably be the whole center of commerce for Newtown,” Trentacosta said.

Although Newtown is Fairfield County’s largest in terms of acreage at 57.76 square miles, it is considerably spread out, containing a population of 27,560 as of the 2010 census. Long without a central “downtown” retail area — arguably the closest to such a concept is the incorporated village of Sandy Hook, a mile or so to the east of Lexington Gardens — the new development will go some way toward addressing that, according to Newtown officials.

“There is such easy access to The Village from (Interstate 84’s) exit 10, which we call ‘The Gateway to Newtown,’” noted Paynter. “That’s where a lot of people enter and this will be a place where you can go, day and night, keeping the vibrancy going.”

In addition to the restaurants and DA’s weekend and late Thursday hours, a day spa, dress shop and jeweler will also drive traffic throughout the week, she said.

Other occupants include a psychiatrist’s office and other retailers; just 12,000 square feet remains unleased, said Rose. “And this was all done with no advertising, simply word-of-mouth or people driving by and noticing it,” he added.

Such fortuitousness also came into play for developers Mesa, Rose said. The principals at Mesa are notoriously press-shy — “though they’re onsite every day and were even directing traffic the other day” — but Rose said they had been looking for some time to add a large retail space to their portfolio, whose 400,000 square feet of properties consists mainly of residential, manufacturing and warehousing.

Absent from The Village will be the large retailers that usually anchor such projects like Kmart, Walmart or Best Buy. Although Starbucks and Subway operate stores in the town, zoning prevents drive-through restaurants, meaning that diners looking for the standard McDonald’s and Wendy’s need to go elsewhere.

Such decisions have helped Newtown maintain its image as “a nice New England town,” said Ken Weinstein, senior vice president retail banking at Newtown Savings — an appearance he said would be reinforced by The Village.

“We are shifting from being a bedroom community to being a commuter community,” Paynter said. Household income is going up, she noted; the average is currently over $130,000.

“But there is also a growing number of people who live here who want to work here and stay here,” she added. “We believe The Village at Lexington Gardens will be a destination for residents and visitors alike.”

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