Mixed-use proposal would bring retail, office and apartments to Fairfield's center

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — Zoning officials are considering a project that would combine, retail, office and apartment space next to the Community Theatre.

Representatives for the applicant, 15 Unquowa Road LLC., argue this project meets a need in town that’s highlighted in a variety of recent town studies, including the one on transit-oriented development. There aren’t many projects like it in town.

The site is currently owned by Lee Forest, whose family has owned the property for about a century. He is also the principal for the company applying for the project’s approval, said attorney Raymond Rizio.

“He would like to enhance the property, enhance the development and enhance the downtown by coming up with a mixed-use project,” Rizio said.

The proposal for Forest Commons would replace the five existing buildings at 15 Unquowa Road with one mixed-use building.

Las Vetas Lounge, a barber shop, a doctor’s office, a house, a garage and a yoga studio that closed during the pandemic are currently on the site.

“It was a myriad of uses on the property,” Rizio said. “We felt the property was very underserved, very underdeveloped.”

Plans show the project would include a parking garage under the building and more parking on the first floor behind the four retail spaces, which total about 4,000 square feet for the storefronts.

The second floor would have about 5,000 square feet of office space. Apartments would be spread out over the second, third and fourth floors. The proposal shows 33 one-bedroom units and three two-bedroom units. There would also be 26 units that have offices.

Town Plan and Zoning Commission members raised concerns about the proposed height, which would be 50 to 53 feet depending on approval. They also worried there wouldn’t be enough parking.

“You’re going to have people who are at home and their cars are parked at the same time there’s others who are using the retail,” Commissioner Lenny Braman said.

A total 54 off-street parking spots would be on site, which the applicants said provides one spot for every unit and includes spaces for retail and the office. They added the number of spaces was based off existing reports and the transit-oriented development study the commission adopted.

Rizio said the project is within walking distance to the train station and some residents might not even have cars, relying on the train for work and walking around the center of town for other things. He also said the property is currently zoned for five stories so the proposed height of the project is already allowed.

Another concern was that people might try to convert the den or office space into another bedroom which could throw off parking even more.

John Guedes, who designed the project and has done similar ones along Shelton’s waterfront, said the idea was to include the offices based off the new working from home demand that arose due to COVID.

“The idea was these apartments would be for transit-oriented professionals and as such, one of the rooms would be set up to accommodate an office,” he said.

Rizio said the demand for offices is huge right now and he hasn’t heard of people looking at spaces, trying to see how to turn them into another bedroom. Another deterrent is that there are no closets or attached bathrooms included in these rooms.

“There’s no attempt to mislead or misguide,” he said. “They’re attempting to address the needs of the marketplace for people who like to work at home and work in a town.”

The applicants are also asking for some changes to the zoning regulations they say will make it easier for more projects like this to come to town in the future and better meet the needs outlined in town studies.

This includes capping the building height at 55 feet or four stories, which would allow for a grand retail space on the first floor with tall ceilings of about 15 feet and then a few floors of residential space above it. The current cap is five stories or 50 feet.

Another change would get rid of the setback requirement, allowing the project to sit on the street like the other buildings already there.

“Right now, if somebody were to knock down one of these buildings you can’t put it up in the same place,” Rizio said. “We’re trying to preserve that look, preserve the character of downtown.”

He said these changes will bring people downtown and help it thrive. He added other towns looking to revitalize their commercial space are doing a similar approach and trying to have projects on the street because it’s more engaging for passersby and the retail space.

Rizio said they based the zoning changes off the recommendations outlined in several town studies, including one on transit-oriented development.

“This is 100 percent consistent with what this commission looked at and adopted,” he said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com