The Fairfield Town Plan and Zoning Commission teamed with the Fairfield Economic Development Commission to host a public meeting on June 26 that offered a preview of transit-oriented development (TOD) connected to two of the town’s Metro-North train stations.
Jim Wendt, Fairfield’s planning director, noted this was the second attempt to encourage private development connected to the Fairfield Metro station. The initial private development application filed in 2005 called for 925,000 square feet of office property and 56,000 square feet of retail space tied to the creation of the station.
While the train station opened in 2011, “The private development has not moved forward,” Wendt said. “The office market has certainly not been as robust as it was, and in 2008 it kind of crashed. The private side of the development has languished, but the public investment is there.”
Wendt said that the mixed-use Trademark Fairfield development that opened in June 2017 was a first step in bringing new housing and retail opportunities within walking distance of the Fairfield Metro station.
Trademark Fairfield, put together by Fairfield-based developers Skala Partners and Abbey Road Advisors, added 101 apartments and about 15,000 square feet of space to the Commerce Drive landscape.
Skala and Abbey Road are now planning to build a five-story mixed-use development at the corner of Kings Highway and Ash Creek Boulevard. That $55 million endeavor calls for 160 apartments and 22,000 square feet of ground-level retail space, which the developers expect to be occupied by two merchants. A parking facility with 480 spaces will also be built.
Construction on that project is expected to begin by the end of the year and last into 2020.
In a separate, previously announced deal, the former home of the Knights of Columbus at 333 Unquowa Road — less than 1,000 feet from the train station — will be turned into 90 apartments by developer Fairfield Residential. That construction is also expected to get underway by year’s end.
Both projects received approval from the town in April.
Meanwhile, Ben Carlson, director of urban design and associate principal for the Boston-based architecture firm Goody Clancy, told the June 26 meeting that the greatest opportunity for development around Fairfield’s town center was the former Exide Battery Co. site at 2190 Post Road, which has undergone a successful brownfield remediation clean-up.
The Exide property has long been a figurative thorn in Fairfield’s side. Although lead-contaminated soil at the 6.25-acre parcel — where the company manufactured automobile batteries from 1950 to 1981 — had long since been removed, lead contamination in the adjacent Mill River proved to be a more tenacious obstacle, requiring years of clean-up work.
In 2016 Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were detected in select dredge sediment samples at the site, resulting in a mandatory review by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fairfield’s Economic Development department finally announced that clean-up work had been completed last July.
Even so, Carlson admitted that site stretched the limits of transit-oriented development.
“The Exide site is a bit of a long walk to the station, so it is not super-convenient for living and working if you take the train,” he acknowledged. “But it might work if there was a shuttle connection.”
Carlson, whose firm was contracted by the town to handle the zoning and urban design aspects of the project, noted that it’s within a three-quarter of a mile radius around the two train stations.
“That’s about the farthest that most people will be walking to the train on a regular basis,” he said. “That’s 9 percent of all land in town, but that accounts for 27 percent of your property tax revenue, a three-fold relationship.”
But the property tax revenue is unevenly divided between the stations, Carlson added, with the town center generating 22 percent and the Fairfield Metro area contributing only 5 percent. Also, he pointed out, there was less opportunity for new commercial development in the town center, which is already home to much of Fairfield’s retail activity. A third Metro-North station in Southport is not part of the development proposal.
Carlson said that the Fairfield project is being divided between his firm and three additional companies: Annapolis, Maryland-based W-ZHA will be handling the office and retail side of the project development; Clifton, New Jersey-based Zimmerman/Volk Associates will explore housing opportunities; and Watertown, Massachusetts-based VHB will handle the infrastructure issues related to new development.
“We are looking a lot at real estate market opportunities — who wants to work here, build here, shop here and why?” Carlson said. “We are looking at the fiscal benefits for Fairfield. These are some of the most important sites in town — or could be, in terms of revenue — moving forward.”
Carlson announced that the town will be holding additional public meetings in September, October, November and January to gather input from the community on development ideas and to offer previews of potential commercial property additions to the Fairfield landscape.
“We have a lot of homework to do,” he said. “We’re going to think about where is change going to happen. We are identifying sites where property values are significantly below their economic potential. We can look at property values and get a sense of where things might happen and where they might not happen — there are some properties you might look at and think they were a little scruffy, but were they worth the effort for redevelopment?
“We will try to understand which property owners are motivated to invest or sell,” Carlson continued. “We have been meeting with some of the property owners and getting a sense of what their goals are.”