New approach on track for Commerce Drive development
Updated 5:20 pm, Thursday, April 28, 2011
Town Plan and Zoning Commission members see Fairfield's third train station as a driving force in development of the Grasmere-Commerce Drive area, and they want to get on board with any changes it might bring.
The commission conducted a public hearing Tuesday night on proposed changes to the town's master plan of development, as well as possible changes to zoning regulations, that would establish a new Commerce Drive Design District.
A study initiated in 2008 envisions the proposals as laying a foundation for a new "walkable, mixed-use and transit-oriented neighborhood."
"I do love everything about these regulations," Rowland Road resident Alyssa Israel said. "I think they're great."
The proposals include reconfiguring the Kings Highway/Black Rock Turnpike traffic circle at Interstate 95's exit 24 into a square.
Other suggestions are to provide pedestrian and bike access throughout the area; increase the density and height in "transit-oriented" developments that also would be required to provide a percentage of below-market-rate housing; and buildings would have parking in the back, not in front.
Local resident and realty agent Ken Camarro said there needs to be a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments in the town's housing stock, "so young people can come back here and live here and work here."
He said the regulations also must require developers to "provide their fair share" of parks, sidewalks and benches.
Developer Kurt Wittek, managing partner of Blackrock Realty, which at some point plans to build commercial projects on its share of the Fairfield Metro train station property, congratulated the TPZ on its work, but vented frustration over the enterprise.
"I'm very encouraged to see the kind of input we're getting," Wittek said, calling it a "love fest" in contrast to some of the public hearings he encountered while permits were secured for the overall Fairfield Metro development. As initially envisioned more than a decade ago, the project was to have included a multi-faceted commercial complex developed by Blackrock, in addition to the rail depot. But after the lengthy planning and approval process, the Blackrock share of the project suffered financial setbacks and no firm date for any of its projects has been set.
The railroad station, however, is expected to open this fall.
"What has worked in other places will work here, if we allow it to be built," Wittek told the TPZ. After 11 years' involvement in the project, he said, "I don't have a yard of concrete poured on my property."
Instead, Wittek said, he spent the better part of eight years getting wetlands approval, but he applauded what he described as the TPZ's efforts to faciliate better thought-out development of the area.
Wittek said a suggestion to build a footbridge from neighboring Bridgeport over Ash Creek for access to the railroad station is a good one and that Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch asked him if he would be willing to allow that. Wittek said he would, but added that Finch would need to pay for the bridge.
And, Wittek added, even if Bridgeport had the money for a span, "go try and get it approved" by Fairfield's Conservation Department, a "difficult if not impossible feat a lot of the time."
The new "overlay" Commerce Drive district proposed under the regulations would encompass about 200 acres, according to Planning Director Joseph Devonshuk.
"The reason for this is the town wanted to get ahead of the curve," he said.
With the train station slated to open later this year, development in the area will speed up, he said, and TPZ officials felt it is better to have a cohesive plan, rather than reviewing individual proposals on a case-by-case basis.
The study also would incorporate riverfront access along Ash Creek to help rectify a lack of green space in the neighborhood, with a potential walking trail looping around the creek.
The commission will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Sullivan-Independence Hall to review the feedback it received. Should the panel decide to proceed with the proposals, Assistant Planning Director James Wendt said the next step will be to adopt boundaries for the district.