Would opening up stretches of Route 7 to more retail development be bad for Main Street commerce?
The idea sparked vehement disagreement among Planning and Zoning Commission members last Tuesday before a majority voted to schedule a January public hearing on a proposed new “Gateway Enhancement Zone” that would allow retail uses along Route 7 from Haviland Road to the Danbury line.
“Is anyone as uncomfortable as I am with the complete lack of consensus we have?” commissioner Phil Mische asked at one point.
The plan also worried some village businesspeople.
“The primary concern is that allowing retail on the strips is going to detract from Main Street as the center of commercial activity in Ridgefield,” said Ellen Burns, who owns Books on the Common at 404 Main Street.
Wayne Addessi, a Main Street retailer and a commercial landlord in the village, was also troubled. “The big question is: Why retail?” he said. “I travel this road daily and it is not a desirable area for retail in my view.”
The Gateway Enhancement Zone would add an aesthetic review and require amenities like sidewalks and landscaping, while trying to entice redevelopment by allowing retail outlets of less than 20,000 square feet.
“This is where we are in America,” said Peter Chipouras. “We want business to start, and small businesses to start.”
John Katz was one of three commissioners who opposed it, saying the commission had long sought to protect the commercial vitality of the village.
“We just had a discussion for more than an hour about detracting from that vitality, with specificity, through this regulation,” he lamented.
Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti defended the effort to broaden business zoning on Route 7. “You’re inferring,” she told Mr. Katz, “… that we do so to the detriment of the village. I strongly disagree.”
“Whatever efforts go into trying to develop [retail on Route 7 would] “detract from downtown Ridgefield,” Mr. Katz said.
“I think your characterization is really flawed,” Ms. Mucchetti replied. “It puts a stigma on what we’re doing.”
Downtown Ridgefield’s vitality was what concerned Mr. Addessi and Ms. Burns, who discussed their worries with Joy Strand of the Economic Development Commission.
“I don’t know anybody in this town that doesn’t see Main Street as one of the most important, if not the most important aspect of our community,” Ms. Burns said later.
“We have vacancies all over the place on Main Street and along Route 35, and I don’t understand, with all of the uses that they’re apparently going to allow in the new proposed zone, why retail has to be among them,” she said.
“We’re largely dependent on foot traffic. If we get less foot traffic because people are going to other parts of Ridgefield to do their shopping, that’s going to detract from the viability of other businesses on Main Street …
“I don’t think it’s especially good planning to allow retail in another additional corridor,” she added. “To me, it just represents sprawl.”
Mr. Addessi had similar concerns.
“The oversupply of strip centers and shopping areas is what many municipalities are struggling with right now and will continue to struggle with for the near future,” he said. “Take a look around in other towns too as they struggle to fill storefronts on strip roads like Route 7 …
“We should be discussing three-stage senior living centers that are quite popular elsewhere such as independent living, assisted living and Alzheimer’s care centers,” he said. “What about age-restricted communities such as townhouses, condominiums for above the age of 50? Route 7 may be a good location for this. Perhaps another luxury dealership would be a good draw for more tax revenue, another medical center, or other taxable benefit.”
Commission member Nelson Gelfman worried Route 7 retail would lead to an overbuilt commercial strip like Federal Road in Brookfield.
“I think it would provide an incentive for Danbury to come down and meet us with a similar zone, and then you’d have a congested highway,” Dr. Gelfman said.
“I don’t think we should do a damn thing,” he added.
“I don’t think there’s a person at this table who wants to see this area look like Brookfield,” Phil Mische replied.
Congesting the highway with curb cuts and traffic worried commissioner Michael Autuori, who also said the push to expand business zoning was being driven by the Route 7 commercial property owners — not residents.
As a longtime opponent of Super 7 and an advocate of making the old Route 7 a “through highway,” Dr. Autouri said the retail zoning worked against the purpose of the widening of Route 7 to four lanes, north of Route 35.
“We’re taking a road that’s designed to ease traffic — through traffic to Danbury — and we’re choking it,” Dr. Autuori said.
“I’ve spend years of my life pushing for a through highway, fighting that expressway, and seen it come to pass,” he said. “And now we’re choking it.”
“Addressing Route 7 doesn’t mean crowding or choking it,” Ms. Mucchetti said.
After the meeting she said she didn’t view retail in one area as drawing commerce from retail in another.
“My perspective is a healthy, vibrant retail community throughout the town benefits everyone,” she said. “I don’t believe we should allow one part of a commercial district to languish, when we know there’s a concern there.
“I feel a responsibility and an obligation to respond to the property owners on Route 7, just as we do in Branchville or the Central Business District or on Danbury Road,” she said. “The Planning and Zoning Commission has an obligation to everyone, not just to a few.”
Joy Strand of the Economic Development Commission, who has worked in support of the effort to expand business uses on Route 7, told the commission the new zone looked good.
“We think this is a great step,” she said.
“I think this is in keeping with what our own feedback has been from the property owners.”
Still, some Planning and Zoning commissioners were unsure about it.
“I’d like to slow walk this,” Phil Mische said. “There’s enough dissension in the ranks.”
But a majority wanted to at least have a hearing — which was scheduled for Jan 15.
“After we get public input we can always change the language based on public input,” said Joe Fossi. “Or decide not to adopt it.”