Filling empty office spaces: Price, services, and local CEOs

Fish thine own waters, for there may ye find the seas of plenty.

With 90,000 square feet of empty office space to fill, Ridgefield’s real estate community might want to look for “C-suite executives” — ‘C’ as in chief executive officer, chief financial officer — who live in town, Bob Cascella told the Economic and Community Development Commission. Or, maybe get more C-suiters to move to Ridgefield.

“Most of the folks in our office buildings live here,” said Cascella, a commercial real estate agent who serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Who lives here, who’s at the ‘C’ level — ownership level, power level — and is commuting to Stamford?” Cascella said. “Find me that list. I could sell that all day long.”

High tech, marketing, whatever the field, companies renting in town share a common trait.

“All the principals in all those business live here,” Cascella said.

They come to Ridgefield as a place to live — offering good schools, beautiful homes, leafy hills — and want their businesses here to enjoy a short commute.

The Economic and Community Development Commission — or “ECDC” — met Monday night, Sept. 10, with a mix of real estate agents, landlords and town officials to discuss filling empty offices in town.

It’s a problem that can get overlooked — considering the attention empty commercial storefronts get.

“Office space is difficult for us, because it’s out of sight,” said commission member John Devine.

Businesses landed to fill empty offices in Ridgefield often move from another locations in town, Cascella said.

“That’s not economic development,” he added.

Cascella did a survey of office space on the market and came up with the 90,000 square foot total. “A lot more than I thought,” he said. “Most of it’s in 2,000-to-3,000 square foot increments. There are a couple of bigger blocks.”

“That 90,000 square feet, that’s a startling figure to me,” said Steve Zemo, a selectman and a major commercial landlord.

Cascella said the “negative absorption rate” for offices — more space on the market than customers shopping for it — was evident all around Fairfield County.

State efforts

State Rep John Frey said Connecticut seeks business growth.

The state joined the town in encouraging Boehringer Ingelheim’s expansion in Ridgebury — helping to avoid a potential relocation out of Connecticut — with tax incentives, and about $4 million for improvements to Interstate 84, Frey said.

The state fosters synergy among similar businesses.

“We’ve got clusters in Connecticut,” Frey said. “Health care, biological sciences, financial services, insurance, aerospace…”

New areas on the rise include “digital media” and “green tech,” Frey said

The state seeks businesses that will hire workers, or move them here.

“It’s primarily for job growth,” Frey said. “...If you can deliver jobs — 80 new jobs, 50 new jobs.”

That’s not what Ridgefield’s small 2- and 3,000-square-foot office spaces attract.

“It doesn’t relate to our market at all,” said Zemo.

New spaces

“You’ve got this office space. Some of it might be functionally obsolete,” said Willing Biddle of Urstadt-Biddle, owner of commercial space — more retail than office — in town. “What about loosening up zoning?”

“We’re working on business zones,” said Cascella, who’s on the Planning and Zoning Commission. “Language changes that would allow more uses in all those zones.”

With more permitted uses, different business can move in without “very costly attorney’s fees,” Cascella said.

Zemo wondered if the solution might be to replace old buildings with new ones.

“Rip it down and start over. Just rethink it, if it’s over 30 years old,” he said.

“To tear things down, generally you need more density to make it work,” Biddle said.

His firm has smaller older buildings on Bailey Avenue that currently aren’t worth replacing.

“If we could go up four stories,” he said.

Transportation, parking

Ridgefield center lacks elements potential office tenants often want.

“We don’t have a train, we don’t have bus service,” Cascella said.

Still, space here isn’t cheap — $21 to $25 per square foot was most common in Cascella’s survey, although the range ran from $13 to $40 per square foot .

“Our square foot prices are higher, just like our house prices are higher,” Cascella said.

Some problems can be addressed.

“Has parking been an issue?” Zemo asked.

“It’s the biggest problem,” Biddle said.

Zemo said the town has money approved for another public parking lot in town.

“We’re getting 60 more spaces,” he said.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said the Parking Authority had suggested the commission re-impose some regulations lifted a few years back, which tied the tenants buildings could accept to parking available on the property.

The commission had theorized that dense commercial areas, like the village, thrive on activity, and in reality the downtown’s more than 1,000 parking spaces are shared freely among various buildings’ tenants and customers — “parking is parking” — so the goal should be to fill spaces with active businesses, not quibble over parking.

Zemo thought more regulation might help.

Since the regulations loosened, restaurants — which have the highest parking requirement under the old system — had proliferated.

“We don’t want to become a South Norwalk, that’s become a restaurant row,” Zemo said.

Biddle wasn’t eager for more regulation.

“The restaurants are open at night, when all the offices are closed,” he said. “...When government starts to dictate what leasing should look like, it often causes problems.”