The future of retail, restaurants, and shopping for the area were the main topics of conversation today at a “Fairfield Real Estate Outlook” seminar sponsored by the law firm of Halloran & Sage and hosted by the Westport-Weston and Greater Norwalk Chambers of Commerce. Attorney Eric Bernheim moderated the panel discussion.
“Experiences are what people want,” real estate broker Julie Vanderblue of the Higgins Group told the meeting at the Inn at Longshore. “If it’s just another mall, it won’t cut it. It needs to be exciting and if done right they will come, especially if walkable.” She was responding a question about downtowns, malls and the future of retail asked by the moderator of the session, attorney Eric Bernheim.
Joining Vanderblue at the dais for the two-hour event attended by about 110 business people were Andy Pforzheimer, co-founder of Barteca, owners of Norwalk’s Barcelona and Westport’s Bartaco, developer David Waldman, and JohnHannigan, co-founder of Choyce Peterson, a commercial real estate brokerage firm.
“It’s hard to pull off a project in a dense location, not in a mall, but we don’t want to have DOT kill the charm of an area by widening roads,” said Pfozheimer who has been expanding his restaurants to other states. But we also can’t open a new location without parking variances, so planners need to make changes in their thinking.”
The Inn at Longshore ballroom was filled for today’s discussion. When asked about the proposed mall at the intersection of I-95 and Route 7 in Norwalk, Waldman said, “We don’t need one million more square feet of retail in the area. “As a developer, I believe in competition, but I do fear the results of this on towns like Westport and Darien. Ultimately people want 'lifestyle retail,’ and experiences in a walkable community, the Chamber and the Downtown Merchants Association are doing a good job of focusing on that.”
Pfozheimer chimed in, “it will be a nightmare,” referring to traffic, “it’s hard to believe it will help SONO.” Yet he also said, “no one shops anymore, they buy online.” So he is finding that the malls are now renting to restaurants and medical firms instead to fill their spaces. “Not sure many people want to come out and see an urgent care location right after eating,” he quipped.
Hannigan fielded the question related to business overall. “We don’t define Fairfield County with RBC, UBS and GE,” referring to three major companies who have left or threatening to leave the state. As to GE, “600 of the 800 jobs are staying here, a net loss of only 200,” he said.
Vanderblue backed him up. saying “There were some initial buyer confidence issues, but it was not a catastrophe,” as more people did not end up moving out.
All pointed to the need for planners and zoning officials to look to the future as things are changing. Their focus was in use of cars, even self-driving cars, Uber, and Zipcar.
“Millennials are interested in being close to downtown and may not need cars,” said Vanderblue. People are interested in density and “street scapes and like to find things in the path of things they do,” added Pfozheimer.