First-floor restrictions: Is it time to revisit zoning change?

Artist Russell Melzer was commissioned to paint the above drawing to capture the essence of the downtown of Ridgefield.

Artist Russell Melzer was commissioned to paint the above drawing to capture the essence of the downtown of Ridgefield.

Marketing Ridgefield to non-national retailers, creating consistent signage in the village, pursuing zoning regulations that would restrict first-floor office space, and evaluating the need for a Business Improvement District (BID) — these four ideas to invigorate and improve the downtown commercial district were pitched at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen special meeting.

Retail and Parking Task Force consultants Laure Aubuchon and Penny Wickey, who’ve been studying the downtown commercial district for 24 months, presented their findings to a room of about 20 people — with the potential zoning change drawing the most clamor from the public and business owners.

“The more first-floor offices, the more dead it gets,” said Aubuchon. “It’s not encouraging for strolling and it breaks up the retail block.

“Looking at the different towns we studied, the goal should always be more retail on the ground floor, more interaction with the street,” she said. “That will help attract potential new retail tenants from neighboring towns and counties.”

But it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers — and without such a zoning change, the town is left asking landlords to self-regulate.

“Merchants want co-tenancy, and we’re all for creating a regulation that promotes that,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “But the property owners are reluctant to do so on their own. …

“They’re going to take tenants when they can get them; they won’t wait for like-minded tenants.”

The potential zoning change has been the subject of a previous review and no change was made at the time; however, Aubuchon and Wickey said that with few current retail Main Street vacancies — five as of Sept. 30 — now might be the perfect opportunity to revisit the regulation.

They told the board that any proposed regulation should have a provision that grandfathers in current non-retail tenants already established in the village.

“We’re perfectly happy to take it back to P&Z and see where we are with it,” said Planning and Zoning Commission chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, who attended the meeting with longtime commissioner John Katz.  

“There’s no reason why there can’t be first-floor-only retail in the business district,” Marconi said.

Comparison

While presenting their findings and making the restriction recommendation, the advisers from Westport-based Saugatuck Commercial Real Estate told the board that a review of other Fairfield County towns revealed a mixed picture of those that do and do not permit first-floor office and residential occupancy.

New Canaan, Darien and Fairfield were in agreement with their regulations: no first-floor office space, no first-floor residential space.

“You can’t deny the fact that they have robust downtown corridors,” Aubuchon said. “Is it causal or is it by luck? We’re not really sure, but it’s worth considering.”

Elsewhere, towns like Westport and Wilton allow for first-floor office space, as well as residential occupants. Greenwich, on the other hand, allows business offices but with a size restriction. And that town doesn’t allow first-floor residential.

“There are regulations that allow you to get creative with what is allowed, and how much,” Aubuchon said. “It doesn’t have to be a definitive ‘no’ — there’s room to come up with something that fits your town.”

Website

As for the other three recommendations, Arnold Light of the town’s Economic Development Commission said that the new town website should be a huge propeller in increasing the village’s visibility and attractiveness to non-national retailers that are being recruited.  

“It will go a long way to bringing this town into the current century,” he said.

“We don’t want to change the facades or the sidewalks, but we want to get into the current century — this is a big step in that direction.”

The consultants have helped with the marketing process, too, emailing 200 boutique retailers that currently have business in Westchester, Fairfield, or New Haven counties.

Aubuchon said that not included in the Main Street vacancy count was the 21,000-square-foot former Balducci’s site on Governor Street, which, according to Marconi, continues to have some fringe interest from prospective clients.

“That remains a significant open space,” Aubuchon said. “That hole in the market is still a big one.”

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