Rethinking Zoning

Stamford Advocate May 19, 2019 By Alexander Soule

Developers, towns take a look at land use rules to shape area’s future.

On a Wednesday evening, a knot of millennials gathered in a ground-floor working area at the Curb apartments in Norwalk. Just down Glover Avenue, a somewhat larger crowd of white-collar workers drifted from nearby offices into a warehouse, converted only this month into the Junction at North Seven leisure zone.

It is the kind of “work-play” flexibility that the developer of both sites plans to make an integral element of its Connecticut projects going forward — and a flexible mindset others say city planning and zoning boards would be smart to emulate, as a way to move ahead on underdeveloped swaths in their own backyards.

Having spent much of the past decade building the huge Harbor Point district in the South End of Stamford where it has its own offices, Building & Land Technology has cobbled together another extensive group of properties on Glover Avenue, where it will soon start construction of the third and final phase of the Curb at North Seven, which will total more than 700 apartments.

It is a rare opportunity in lower Fairfield County to create a district with elements that play off each other, according to David Waters, general counsel of Building & Land Technology, who spoke Thursday as part of a real estate round table hosted by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce.

 “The Glover Avenue area … is large enough to be able to do something,” Waters said.“‘Infill’ is tough — all you’re doing is one little piece and you are truly(dependent) on everything else that’s around you. There, we have a fair amount of land that we can now use and create a bigger plan. … We are looking at the opportunity to create a town square.”

Breathing new life

Norwalk is working up a new zoning designation that would embrace the “work play” kinds of developments espoused by BLT in Stamford and Norwalk, according to Eric Bernheim, a real estate attorney in the Westport office of Halloran & Sage. Fairfield-based Summit Development has a similar vision for its reimagining of the Ridge at Danbury, the massive office complex on the city’s west side that was built originally as the headquarters of Union Carbide. Bernheim said that the thicket of zoning rules in Connecticut town halls deters some deep-pocketed developers from taking on projects.

 “The (zoning) board has all the discretion, and they can just say ‘no’ and then you’ve got nothing,” Bernheim said. “To get a developer from outside the community to come in and invest a lot of money and resources to get just the chance to build something — it’s difficult. So you get a lot of developers who have ties to the community and are willing to take a risk because it’s their community and they love it.”

Norwalk has been taking a hard look at its zoning in an effort to breathe new life into the West Avenue-Wall Street corridor, according to Steve Kleppin, the city’s head of planning and zoning telling Hearst Connecticut Media a central goal is to increasing the number of uses for which properties can be eligible.

 “We’ve... incentivized adaptive reuse of the area’s historic buildings, focused on arts and entertainment, which is the organic way the area seems to want to develop and increased housing diversity, while respecting Norwalk’s working waterfront,” Kleppin stated in an email. “We have put in place an architectural peer review process where the city has an on-call architectural (firm), paid for by the applicant, that reviews the designs for consistency with the plan and makes recommendations.”

 Waters noted a broader movement in some areas of the country toward “form-based”zoning principles that emphasize neighborhood layouts and the form of buildings therein, without micromanaging the actual planned uses for those structures.

“It’s all about streets — how do you enhance the street (and) make it viable, make it exciting?” said Clay Fowler, CEO of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, whose projects include the Chelsea Piers sports hub in Stamford and adjacent headquarters studio for NBC Sports;

 “To get a developer from outside the community to come in and invest a lot of money and resources to get just the chance to build something — it’s difficult. So you get a lot of developers who have ties to the community and are willing to take a risk because it’s their community and they love it.” Eric Bernheim, real estate attorney in the Westport office of Halloran & Sage and the mixed-use Brim & Crown in East Norwalk and Audubon New Haven. “Boutiques,restaurants, lifestyle things, community service … I think that is even more viable today than ever before.”

‘Poke a hole in the middle’

Else wherein lower Fairfield County’s densely developed downtown areas, Westport has seen a transformation of its own the past few years with the creation of Bedford Square with a mix of retail and residences at the former site of the downtown YMCA. And Darien has a similar project on the books by Baywater Properties that envisions a new village downtown.

Fairfield County is trailing neighboring Westchester County, N.Y., however, in successes converting idle buildings and land to new uses, according to John Hannigan, co-founder of the Norwalk firm Choyce Peterson, which assists businesses in finding space and negotiating lease terms.

“Zoning is going to have to change, and the municipalities that are faster to adapt are going to grow,” Hannigan said.“In Westchester, this adaptive reuse of all these office buildings to other purposes has really paid off. … Sloan Kettering is in an office building,Lifetime Fitness took an office building, Wegmans is going in there … It’s been years in the making, but all of a sudden all these little villages are popping up.”

Hannigan noted an increased willingness by malls like Danbury Fair to sacrifice some parking for new uses as Uber and Lyft gain adherents, with the mall planning a pair of new outlying buildings to accommodate more restaurants, stores or other enterprises.

Both Fowler and Waters said the trend has their architects rethinking the design of parking garages against the possibility or probability that they too will be underused in time and require conversion to another purpose.

“Garages are an endangered species,” Fowler said. “Any garage I build in the future is going to have … ramps on the outside so that when I don’t need a garage anymore, I can use it for something else. “What can you do with them?” he continued. “You poke a hole in the middle of them and you got something you can reuse — and it’s coming.”