P&Z talks downtown, Noroton Heights re-development

Discussions on the ongoing update to the Town Plan of Conservation and Development have turned to downtown Darien and Noroton Heights, two areas that are likely to see significant re-development in the coming years. Joined by Glenn Chandler of Planometrics, the Planning & Zoning Commission touched on concerns of maintaining the character of the two areas and facilitating the growth in traffic and use.

The commission is charged with adopting a new town plan by June 30, 2016, in accordance with state mandates that require a the plan to be updated every 10 years. Commissioners, with help from the community, are expected to lay out their ideal vision for the growth of the town over the next decade.

Chandler has been working with the commission for more than a year to develop that vision into a comprehensive plan of conservation and development, having completed the same process recently in New Canaan.

Baywater Properties recently showed a preliminary plan for its re-development of downtown Darien that counts buildings as high as five stories and a parking deck among its features. Both Palmer’s Market and Federal Realty also released their plans for Noroton Heights, proposing multi-level buildings and parking solutions. All three developers have incorporated residential apartment space into their designs as well.

While these plans may not be directly included into the town plan, they do play heavily into the future of both Noroton Heights and downtown. Commissioners expressed a desire not to let the new developments out-scale the character of Darien, which is commonly framed as a small New England town.

They specifically invoked 1020 Post Road and the Grove Street Plaza as examples of new buildings that fit into the character of Darien. Chandler explained that downtown zoning regulations would likely need to change to allow for additional growth and density. This would include allowing three-story buildings downtown and making adjustments to parking requirements.

However, the commission is set in its desire to uphold the character of downtown as stated in the current POCD.

In the working document, long term goals for downtown include the improvement of the pedestrian experience, reconfiguration of street parking and changes to traffic flow in the downtown area. While some recommendations, like diagonal street parking, seem to have little downside, there was a significant amount of discussion over changing parking requirements.

Chandler’s analysis of downtown suggested that the current parking requirement of 2.9 spaces per 1,000 square feet of building space was too high for a mixed-use downtown area.

Commission Chairman Susan Cameron asserted that parking decks were not in line with the current character of downtown, and the additional traffic would lead to further congestion in the area of Post Road. She expressed a concern that the additional traffic would subsequently spill out onto neighboring side streets and create further issues.

Chandler suggested that a parking garage could be well hidden by liner buildings or similar structures. In the current Baywater plan, there is a parking deck that would be accompanied by retail and office space, rather than being a standalone garage.

The thought is that a long-term parking deck would free up street level spaces for residents running single purpose errands, and encourage shoppers to stay in downtown for longer stretches of time.

Parking and traffic flow were also central concerns for Noroton Heights, particularly in the area of the train station. Chandler’s analysis of the neighborhood found it to be without a specific character, and almost industrial in scope. He suggested that the area be molded into more of a village, with an emphasis on walkable space.

The Palmer’s Market and Federal Realty proposals prioritize walkablility and traffic flow on the North-side of the Noroton Heights but the train station and Heights Road also suffer from several traffic stress points.

Part of the working plan is to make Noroton Heights into a major stop for Metro North, which would require ADA compliance and possibly the addition of more parking. Connecticut’s Department of Transportation recently detailed plans to replace the platform at Noroton Heights, which include some compliance and safety upgrades to the station.

Chandler outlined the opportunity for a parking deck to be added to the station’s southside, but the commission expressed concerns that the added parking would only compound the traffic issues in the current Noroton Heights lot.

While current re-development plans may pre-empt some of the long term goals of the plan of conservation and development, Chandler focused on the importance of establishing a coherent vision for Noroton Heights and downtown for developers and the state to follow. Even if the change isn’t immediate, documenting the desire for long-term projects and improvement carries weight with the state, according to Chandler.

Planning approaches final phases

Though the new town plan won’t be adopted until June of next year, Chandler will begin work on the first draft in a matter of weeks. A first draft of the document will be returned to the commission by late November, the first public information meeting on the second draft would be held in February 2016.

In order to meet the state deadline the plan would need to be finalized in early April, as a 65-day waiting period for public comment is necessary. If the June 30 deadline for the plan were to pass without adoption, the town would become ineligible for certain grants until the process is complete.

The commission is responsible for adopting the plan, but has expressed a desire for the RTM and Board of Selectmen to hold hearings of their own regarding the POCD.

“We want the RTM to be happy and informed,” P&Z chairman Susan Cameron said.

Input from other town organizations, offices and individuals has been sought out and is still welcome. Information and documents regarding the update to the Town Plan of Conservation & Development is available at www.darienct.gov/townplanupdate.

kwebb@darientimes.com

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