Activity aplenty in town's commercial corridors
Given the prime location and its ties to the town's history, it's ironic that one of Fairfield's few remaining sizeable industrial properties has gone largely unnoticed for so long.
Yet now that 185 Thorpe St. in downtown Fairfield is for sale, the 6.7-acre parcel is beginning to generate a considerable amount of interest.
Originally home for nearly 50 years to The Fairfield Lumber & Supply Company, the industrial-zoned property sits at the end of Thorpe Street, surrounded by mixture of residential and commercial uses on one side and wetlands on the other. There are currently five buildings on site that together constitute more than 100,000 square feet of warehouse and office space.
"The location and size of the property makes it very attractive to a wide range of real estate investors and developers," said Jon Angel, the president of Fairfield-based Angel Commercial LLC, which is the exclusive listing agent. "It really is a very, very unique property."
He said the asking price is $10,000,000.
Angel, a Fairfield resident, said there has been interest from industrial uses, but he also spoke of how the site could be an ideal location for a residential development, even affordable housing.
Any proposal for a residential use on the property would require a zone change, according to James Wendt, assistant director of the town's plan and zoning department.
He declined to speculate about how the zoning commission may look upon a zone change application, but did state that there could be both pros and cons to an industrial use and a residential use.
No doubt, Angel noted, any potential purchaser of the property will want to obtain the highest and best use for it. What exactly that use is, he couldn't say.
"The big question remains," he said, "who will actually step up to the plate and purchase it."
During the past few months, Angel Commercial has experienced what its president referred to as an "uptick" in activity. In April and May alone, the Fairfield-based firm was involved in six transactions, three of which took place in town.
"We are seeing increased activity in the market as business owners are taking advantage of favorable lease rates and buyers are benefiting from continued low interest rates," Angel said.
One of the firm's noteworthy deals was the long-term lease of 9,415 square feet of space at 2150 Post Road in Fairfield to Herbert J. Sims & Company. The 70-year-old investment banking firm and fixed income financial services brokerage will make Fairfield its headquarters, beginning in September.
Noting that the office vacancy rate in Fairfield is in the 10 percent range, Mark Barnhart, the town's director of community and economic development, said landlords are making deals to retain and lure tenants.
"It's pretty good, compared to elsewhere in the county, but we have a fairly small [office] market," he said. "It's absolutely a tenants' market, and people are taking advantage of attractive, competitive rates."
While market conditions look to be improving, Angel said that many firms and property owners are still in "survival mode."
"You can't ask for the moon and the stars and expect to get it," he said.
Any doubt as to whether the Commerce Drive area has become automotive alley was recently put to rest when Devan Infinity announced that it was moving from its location in downtown Fairfield, at 2269 Post Road, to the eastern edge of town.
The high-end automotive dealer purchased the property at 26 Commerce Drive and plans to move around December of this year after conducting some renovations to the building on site, said Kevin Hyland, general manager at Devan Infinity, which has been located on the Post Road since 2002.
"It seems like a good location," Hyland said, noting Commerce Drive's close proximity to Interstate-95.
Further solidifying the status as a destination for car shoppers and enthusiasts, Mercedes-Benz of Fairfield recently signed a long-term lease for an acre of land at 65 Commerce Drive. The additional space, adjacent to its 15,000-square-foot dealership, will accommodate a larger inventory of new and pre-owned vehicles.
The Penske Automotive Group, based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., owns Mercedes-Benz of Fairfield. Since 2006, Penske has renovated two dealerships on Commerce Drive, including Porsche of Fairfield and Audi Fairfield. And, in 2008, it opened a new dealership for the Smart Car up the street.
"Commerce Drive ... has become the destination for auto shopping," Angel said. "It has become, to a certain degree, automotive row."
He added, "It's a meaningful use for town tax rolls and for the end user -- the dealers."
Rallying around the railroad
While the car dealerships are some of the more prominent fixtures on Commerce Drive, the area is arguably one of the town's most diverse in terms of the type of uses. The survivors of what was once a substantial industrial tax base still call Commerce Drive home; there are movie theaters and retail outlets, restaurants and gas stations. And more businesses are coming.
Among Angel Commercial's recent deals was the sale of 72 Chambers St., which is off of Commerce Drive. Phoenix Audio Video purchased the .36-acre site for $1,200,000 -- equating to $164.29 per-square-foot.
Phoenix plans on renovating the 7,304-square-foot, two-story building, which it will then use as a showroom and warehouse, said Angel, who represented the buyer in the transaction.
"We are thrilled to be property owners in beautiful Fairfield," said Bob Dacundo, marketing and sales partner at Phoenix Audio Video. "Our new location will allow us to grow our business by enhancing our demonstration and installation capabilities. We look forward to welcoming our new and existing clients to this great location."
The fact that it is also within less than a mile of what will soon become the town's third Metro-North train station is also a drawn. It has also helped to usher in a new era of growth in the Commerce Drive area.
"The new commuter rail station will be a real catalyst for economic development in the eastern part of Fairfield. It already has spurred substantial new investment in the area, and I would expect activity to build as the economy improves and work on the new station nears completion," Barnhart said.
"I think Commerce Drive has made a huge turnaround and a lot of it has to do with the train station," Ritchie said.
That point was driven home this week when Westport-based Abbey Road Advisors LLC reported increased leasing activity at its Class A office buildings at 777 Commerce Drive and 1375 Kings Highway, both of which are adjacent to the new train station. The activity comes as the developer has secured financing to complete more than $5 million of infrastructure work needed to make the train station operational.
"Since we've represented these buildings, we've always had a vision of the train station next door. Now it's no longer a vision but a reality, with the state, the Town of Fairfield and the developer ready to see it through," said Tom Pajolek, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis.
Leasing inquiries are up from prospective tenants interested in proximity to the train station, he reported. "What this will do is shift the center of gravity east for the town of Fairfield," Pajolek added.
"The Metro-North station is huge for us," said Jeffrey L. Rubin, senior vice president for HUB International Northeast, Ltd., which recently moved to offices located at 777 Commerce Drive.
Convenient train travel to Manhattan, where HUB has its headquarters, was a major reason for the move. "To have the ability to jump on a train and make it back the same day is important," Rubin said.