Home Construction Stymied developer sees progress on downtown Darien project

Stymied developer sees progress on downtown Darien project

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It’s taken about 15 years, but Baywater Properties’ redevelopment plan for downtown Darien is finally moving forward.

“It’s been totally insane,” sighed Baywater Principal David Genovese at his office at 1019 Boston Post Road in Darien. He smiled.

The last stumbling block — at least, Genovese hopes it’s the last — was altering the Planning and Zoning Commission’s maximum building height statute. Baywater had proposed buildings of up to 95 feet in 2016 and received a considerable amount of pushback.

“Darien would allow you to build two-story buildings, no questions asked,” Genovese said. “But you could only build three stories if you included a public plaza space — so a six-story building was a particularly hard sell.”

So hard, in fact, that Baywater ended up pulling its zoning regulation amendment application last September before returning with a revision in January. Approved last month was a compromise that allows four-story buildings up to 55 feet and five-story buildings of 70 feet maximum height.

The 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. It will involve the construction of 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 10,000-square-foot village green along Post Road. The overriding idea, the developer said, is to create an easily walkable area stretching from Darien’s Whole Foods Market on Ledge Road to its Metro-North train station.

“I grew up in Darien,” Genovese said, “so I’ve tried to be very careful with what we proposed.”

Going with an old-time New England design rather than something screaming 21st century is “the kind of new ‘old idea’ that’s come back into vogue,” he said. “The key now is to have it look as if (the new construction) happened over a long period of time, instead of all going up at once in the same exact generic style. This is not going to be Disney-like. We’ve got a world-class architect” — Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York City and New Haven — “and a team of consultants to see it through.”

Baywater also plans to build a two-level underground parking deck, two new streets and a service road near Old Kings Highway South to better accommodate traffic. However, Genovese said he was proceeding with caution with parking.

“There could be between 700 and 850 parking spaces — costing potentially up to $80,000 per space — but we don’t really know if that’s going to be the most necessary, smart, cost-effective thing to do,” he said. “With the growing use of Uber and zipcars and now driverless car technology, we may not need the number of spaces that we would today. That’s the billion-dollar question.”

Playing a major part in the project — which has won public support from First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and the Darien Chamber of Commerce — is the developer’s stated aim of creating a downtown that will compete with nearby Greenwich and New Canaan, and to a lesser extent Norwalk and Stamford, both from a retail and a demographic standpoint.

“High-quality office space in Greenwich goes for $100 a foot or more,” Genovese said. “In Darien it was $30 a foot 15 years ago and $50 now. Plus there’s no charge here for parking, like they have in Greenwich.”

Even Stamford, with its much-ballyhooed Harbor Point waterfront development made up of apartments, dining and retail, suffers by comparison, Genovese said. “You can walk to town there, but there aren’t the best amenities. It’s not the nicest walk, which is why they have a shuttle.”

With Darien, he said, “We know this is a good idea — just look at the real estate involved and the location. This is an area bordered by a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods and the train station, which gives you convenient access to New York City. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Starbucks, Espresso Neat — which is a little more Brooklyn in attitude — a yoga studio, some cool retailers. For older people, it’s close to their home and there’s plenty that will be attractive to younger people.”

With the new development’s condos featuring 1,500-square-foot to 1,800-square-foot apartments, Genovese believes Darien’s exodus of senior citizens to the likes of Rowayton and New Canaan can be stemmed. “Apartments here have been tapping out at 1,100 square feet,” he said. “Someone who’s moving out of their 3,000-square-foot home is not going to move to an 800 to 900-square foot apartment.”

Meanwhile, according to the Darien Athletic Foundation, the town has seen a veritable youth explosion. Thirty-six percent of residents are under the age of 18 and school enrollment has increased by 80 percent since 1990.

“These are people who want nice schools and a decent place to raise their children, who want to walk to nearby amenities and still have workable options to get to New York City,” Genovese said. “It’s all there for us, if we can just get it done.”

All told, Genovese said that the tax revenue generated by the downtown properties now stands at roughly $238,000 per year, but “if we’re right, it could be over $3 million when we’re done.”

The next step for Baywater is the delivery of a site plan application, which Genovese said will probably be submitted by early fall. If all goes according to plan, he said, he’s looking at a 2019 start for construction, which will last about two years.

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