Long-gestating downtown Darien redevelopment project may finally move forward

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Darien developer Baywater Properties has returned to Darien town officials with a revised proposal for an ambitious mixed-use downtown development after withdrawing a project application in late September when officials delayed acting on a needed zoning amendment. 

Baywater has been working for more than 11 years on the project, designed to make Darien’s downtown shopping area more competitive with nearby Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk and Stamford.

Adobe Photoshop PDFThe redevelopment project’s focus is the area between the Bank of America building at 1120 Post Road and the Darien post office at 30 Corbin Drive. The developer has proposed to build 66 condominium units, expand retail space from 49,000 to 75,000 square feet, more than double existing office space, from 42,000 square feet to 95,000 square feet, and create a village green along Post Road.

Baywater also intends to construct a two-level underground parking deck, along with two new streets and a service road near Old Kings Highway South to better accommodate traffic.

Buildings facing Post Road would be restricted to just two or three stories in Baywater’s plan, while those on Corbin Drive and the newly planned streets would range from three to five stories, or roughly 55 to 75 feet in height; the tallest building that Baywater initially proposed was 85 feet.

But Darien’s zoning regulations allow only a maximum height of three stories or 45 feet. Still, Baywater Properties founder R. David Genovese was sanguine about the project’s reception in Darien. “We’ve received hundreds of letters of support and only two or three negative, from people concerned about traffic, the impact on schools, etc.,” he told the Business Journal in August. “I’d say it’s a 150-to- 1 ratio in favor.”

Genovese added, however, that discussions with the town’s planning and zoning commission were “not going very well. They’re not listening to the public for some reason. It’s a very sensitive time.”

The planning and zoning commission continued to waver on the proposed adjustments needed to allow the building heights proposed Baywater. Soon after the board deferred a decision to October, Baywater announced on Sept. 29 that it was withdrawing its application for amendments to the zoning regulations.

Darien Planning and Zoning Chairman Susan Cameron said at that time the town could create its own application for zoning changes in the area. Cameron did not return several calls for comment. 

Susan Cator, executive director of the Darien Chamber of Commerce and an outspoken supporter of the Baywater plan, said she hoped a compromise could be reached.

“I think the largest concern for the community is that if P&Z make changes to the development model, the financial scaffolding is changed and the project may not be able to be done and keep rents low for our small businesses,” Cator said. “The property could be put up for sale and (then) any developer can do whatever they want with the property if they put in affordable housing” to meet Connecticut housing regulations, “which allows the developer to bypass any local P&Z rules.”

On Oct. 20, when Baywater announced it had filed a revised application for a zoning text amendment that would enable the redevelopment.

“It became clear to us during the deliberations of our request by Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission that the commission was lacking critical information needed to consider our application properly,” Genovese said in a statement. “Given the requirements of the public hearings process, and the fact that the public hearings had closed for our initial request, the only way for us to properly deliver this information to the commission was to withdraw our original application and re-file the request.”

“We have made significant modifications to the proposed text amendment. We also realized in recent weeks that in our effort to simplify our presentation of what is arguably the most complicated project to ever be presented to the town of Darien, we did not sufficiently inform the commission of how each of the buildings we would like to build varies in terms of architecture and scale, as well as the key drivers of certain of our requests, such as interior ceiling heights required by the market today. Our revised application provides details for each of the contemplated buildings.”

Most importantly, Genovese said, his firm has offered a compromise on the height of the development, including the proposed six-story building. “This building, as originally designed, had two wings of four stories each, with a center core of six stories,” he said. “We have modified this building’s design to be of four, five, and four stories. We have adjusted the interior ceiling heights in several of the retail spaces, and we have effectively committed to a specific approach to construction which will enable us to reduce the space required between floors.”

“During this early phase of a project we would not normally make these decisions until further design work was completed,” Genovese noted. “The sum of all of these changes means that the tallest portion of the largest building proposed is reduced from our initial request of 93 feet, measured from the first floor of the building, to 69 feet (a reduction of 26 percent). During their deliberations, the P&Z Commission members appeared to be comfortable with a maximum building height ranging from 65 feet to 75 feet.

“We hope that these modifications, taken together, will be sufficient for the P&Z Commission to work with us toward an approval so that our formal site plan application can be developed,” Genovese added. “The community support that we have received for our idea has been unprecedented, particularly for a project of this magnitude. It seems clear to us that the people of Darien are very supportive of the concept that we presented, but the devil is in the details.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to make a decision on the zoning change at its Nov. 29 meeting, although it could again be deferred to January.

“If all goes well, with no delays whatever, it won’t be until 2018 that the project is built,” Genovese told the Business Journal. “But unforeseen delays could easily postpone completion to 2020.”

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