Positive contributions wanted
There has been a stream of negative letters concerning the Metro Center project which describe some good and some unfortunate facts. These however show little understanding of the vagaries of a 10-year-and-counting, and complicated nine-digit-price-tag development project. The writers and their cast have scoured every word in each agreement and imply there were dozens of better ways that, if followed, would have resulted in choo choos, whistles and screeching wheels echoing over Ash Creek -- all at zero cost to the town. The writers' efforts would be better spent on coming up with new ideas on how to revitalize the project. It's not easy to do.
Let's look at the reality:
1. Commercial projects such as the Metro Center are initially funded as venture capital projects and started by a group of principals who devise a plan and put up the seed money.
2. The team makes assumptions, creates concepts and designs, get permits, zoning approvals, and construction estimates.
3. Fast forward. The next step is getting tenants -- preferably credit tenant and trophy-store leases that the investors can then take to the banks or other investors for the build out. No tenants, no money.
4. Black Realty was eminently qualified to take on the Metro Center project because Mr. Kurt Wittek and his team designed, built, and leased out the Merritt 7 complex in Norwalk which is a well-understood success and was similar in concept and scope. There was consensus over several administrations that Black Rock Realty was a good choice.
5. Mr. Wittek and Black Rock Realty were unable to obtain tenants and sell the project because 10 years after the first business plans were made, the development world changed and the assumptions about the commercial market for expansion of office, retail, hotel, and the boutique shops in Fairfield changed -- radically.
6. In the middle of trying to schedule construction and demolition-start among numerous contractors, the Conservation Commission insisted that preconditions be met in terms of immediate investment in remediation and conservation easement improvements before the department would sign off on the demolition and building permits. It also argued against capping which was used in Stratford at the Raybestos site. The no-signature stance is a common tactic used by the department with residential homeowners and builders. Black Rock Realty first said "money is tight let's negotiate," and then they just said "no" to the demands. Most of the demands were about issues well outside the immediate construction areas and could have been delayed. You know the rest.
7. The net result is that the Metro Center problem has more to do with economics of the business cycle and not Ken Flatto. It's not a republican or democrat thing.
8. What's happened in rapid fashion is that large real estate ventures have halted all over the US and developers and communities now have to adapt to much smaller projects, and the communities themselves have to take on more of the planning, infrastructure building, and seed funding.
9. The Metro Center was a grand plan for a developer to take on the remediation, road and drainage work, railroad station construction, and a modest shore line park, while the State built the bridge, and the town built a foolish parking lot on the wrong side of the outgoing passenger peak, when it should have built a set of parking garages.
10. A senior with a walker, or a family with kids all have to cross a parking lot, take the elevator up, cross the bridge, and then take the elevator down to the New York-bound-track platform. It's the reverse of the downtown Victorian era station layout. The good news is that on the return trip you are near your car.
11. The bridge forms a wide sweeping arc to the south at about a 45-degree angle instead of crossing the tracks at a right angle with the result that it's longer and is a built-in driving hazard in bad weather. This lengthens the distance to walk if you want to skip the elevator at a busy time when you spot the train entering the station. There are stairs by the bridge at each platform.
12. The New Haven-side station will not provide shelter to daily NYC commuters on those bad days and on Saturdays when families go to the city. No one seemed to realize that the town had to make a deal with Bigelow Tea and swap some land and/or build them a parking garage so we could have built enclosed stations on both sides with crossovers or crossunders.
13. In fact the design of the station and its physical operation including such things as bus, taxi, and pedestrian access have not been planned or optimized by the state, the town of Fairfield, or Black Rock Realty. It was supposed to be the centerpiece of a TOD, or transportation oriented design district, but the bridge, station, parking lot, and bus and pedestrian access are out of a suburban mall design guideline just like downtown. It's simply not well done and ConnDOT is mostly responsible for the oversights. TP&Z as our overseer shares some of the blame for the oversights.
14. The parking lot setup is a reverse of the downtown station -- huge suburban grade-level parking taking up a lot of room. Long walks in the snow.
15. And while every town south of Fairfield has built a structured parking building next to the station, Fairfield has simply ignored the fact that the main station has to be made ADA compliant. Up to now, the town has used delay tactics and arguments against upgrading the station area that don't make any sense.
16. The town does not recognize that the entire zone adjacent to the tracks and the Post Road from North Benson to Mill Plain comprises a wonderful town village-building opportunity that we need so folks can shop and work near home in 2050, or maybe as soon as 2015. The station, plazas, sidewalks, road network, and obsolete buildings around the station have to be rethought and rebuilt over the next 50 years. This is going to take visioning, budget, and leadership. The same thing is needed at Commerce DR.
So why these sentiments and what should we do with the Metro Center?
Well beyond the attempt to create acrimony and finger pointing, Fairfield needs to take a hard look at what it has to do to build out an attractive new 300-acre compatible mixed-use zone oriented around the Metro Center embryo along all of Commerce DR and Kings Highway East. The 35-acre Metro Center is a part of this.
And guess what? Ken Flatto and the BOS do not know how to do this, nor does the Economic Development Commission, the Town Plan and zoning Commission, the RTM, or the Finance Committee because no one of these commissions, or individuals on them, have has ever encountered this type of challenge in their lifetime. They do not have the planning repertoires. And the negative letter writers don't have the know how either. We all need outside expert help. There can be no shortcuts.
It's an opportunity on the timeline, and the town needs to gear up, establish budgets, and then hire experts to help it visualize and plan how the 300 acres might fill out, and how the downtown village and Black Rock Turnpike might be redeveloped.
What would a new mix of retail, row townhouses, apartment buildings, residential squares, offices, professional use and other types of structures and space look like? Ones that fit in in some new ways.
Simply put what kinds of enterprises, structures, and roads should Fairfield plan for and try to absorb, so that it might be the leading sustainable and quality-of-life shoreline town in the year 2050? The answer is not "nothing."
Ken Camarro is a Fairfield Realtor.