FAIRFIELD — Construction is finally underway at the long-defunct Stratfield Market building.

After 13 years of vacancy, the property at 1280 Stratfield Road is being transformed into a location of The Goddard School, a private preschool operator. Construction began last week, and the school is set to open its doors on Jan. 1.

Southport-based real estate manager Summit Development bought the building at the beginning of this year for $1,450,000 and signed a 15-year lease with Goddard. According to Summit’s founder and principal Felix Charney, they had hoped to start construction this spring, but the process was delayed. He expects construction to be fully completed by the end of the year in time for a January opening.

The Goddard School, which provides a play-based curriculum to children ages 6 weeks to 6 years old, operates over 500 schools in 37 states, with a total enrollment of 65,000 students. Founded in 1988, Goddard already has 10 locations in Connecticut, including in Wilton, Westport, Danbury, Monroe and Brookfield.

Allison Dell, the school’s operator who manages Goddard’s sites in Danbury and Brookfield, is excited to operate her third Connecticut location.

According to Dell, the school will be licensed to hold 148 children at a time, although enrollment could be higher due to part-time attendance. It will employ roughly 25 teachers and an on-site director of education and owner. The on-site owner, Dell said, will be a local Fairfield resident.

While the physical structure of the building will remain, the renovation includes a complete gutting of the interior and a roof replacement. Charney said that the interior will be fitted as a series of classrooms, as would typically be seen in a daycare environment. Other changes will include new sidewalks and landscaping, parking changes and the addition of a playground.

Stratfield Village Association (SVA), a 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization that advocates for the neighborhood, has worked in conjunction with Summit to communicate local sentiment and serve as a community liaison. In particular, SVA is ensuring that the school will mesh with the Four Corners Project, a local initiative to improve streetscape at the intersection of Fairfield Woods Road and Stratfield Road.

“To Felix and Summit Development’s credit, they’ve been very friendly,” said Jamie McCusker, one of SVA’s co-presidents. “We’ve been working with them to try to coordinate the plans of our Four Corners project along with their plans for the Stratfield Market property so that they complement each other, and they’ve been very good.”

The Stratfield Market saga dates back to 2006, when the building’s popular IGA grocery store closed and the building’s owner, Samuel Lotstein Realty, leased the space to Walgreens. Residents came together to oppose this plan, forming SVA. After a lengthy legal battle, residents successfully achieved a zoning change that prevented chain stores from opening in designated neighborhood districts.

Consequentially, however, Walgreen’s 25-year lease on the space resulted in the space sitting vacant for years. This too bothered residents, who wanted to see the space reborn.

“The market just looked awful, and it was a sore point for the entire village,” McCusker said. “It certainly didn’t help our neighborhood’s image or property value.”

Beginning in 2017, the building went through a series of ownership changes, beginning with a brief purchase by Greenwich-based real estate developer Urstadt-Biddle Group Inc. A few months later, local developer Michael Moorin purchased the space with hopes of bringing Stratfield Market back.

Although the new owners did some initial remediation, including eliminating mold and asbestos in the building, they were unsuccessful in recruiting a new grocery tenant. McCusker attributed this difficulty to the size of the space; most grocery operators want a space of at least 40,000 square feet, he said, and the 9,700-square-foot building didn’t appeal to potential renters.

A few months later, Moorin sold the space to Summit, marking the building’s fourth owner in three years. Neighbors are hoping that this one will stick.

According to McCusker, some residents are disappointed that the space won’t be home to a new Stratfield Market. However, most are happy to see the space finally utilized again. When construction was delayed this spring, McCusker said, people began to get nervous that the space would once again go vacant. Now that work has begun, residents are excited to have a new neighbor.

"After 10-plus years of it sitting there blighted and being an eyesore in the center of our neighborhood, I think people want to see it be renovated and become a useful part of the neighborhood again,” McCusker said.

rscharf@hearstmediact.com