First-floor retail rule: Commission wants to hear town's reaction Tuesday

A “first-floor retail” rule — the idea that the town should limit property owners’ ability to rent ground-floor commercial space for offices or other uses that aren’t attractive to shoppers — is again being considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

An informal public hearing — Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti described it as an “open mic night” — on the first-floor retail concept is planned for next Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 7:30 in the P&Z room in the Town Hall Annex, located at 66 Prospect Street. The commission doesn’t have a specific proposed regulation it’s putting forward for comment, but is seeking reactions to the concept.

“We aren’t proposing, we’re listening,” Mucchetti said. “We hope to hear from the public, property owners and merchants.”

Mucchetti said last fall that the commission would reconsider the concept, which it has looked at and discussed previously without deciding to adopt a regulation.

Not you again

The first-floor retail idea seems to resurface frequently in discussions of how the town might strengthen the economic health of Main Street and the village business district.

“It’s come up, and come up,” Mucchetti said.

First-floor retail was on the Economic and Community Development Commission’s agenda when it had a joint meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission in mid-January.

“It was one of the things that they brought up,” Mucchetti said.

Consultants Penny Wickey and Laure Aubuchon from Saugatuck Commercial Real Estate (SCRE) in Westport looked for ways to boost the village as a retail center last year, and  recommended looking more closely at the idea.

“Review current zoning regulations to establish potential restrictions for ground-floor retail,” their report said.

“This potential zoning change has been the subject of a previous review and no change was made at that time. With few current retail ‘Main Street’ vacancies, it may provide an opportunity to revisit the regulation.”

Around the county

New Canaan, Darien and Fairfield all prohibit both offices and residential uses on ground floors in their business centers, the consultants said, and Greenwich prohibits “sales offices” while allowing “business offices with size restriction.”

Wilton and Westport do not have added “ground floor” restrictions on office or residential uses in business areas.

“While it is difficult to make a direct causal link between such regulations and a robust ‘Main Street’ retail corridor, it cannot be denied that the above towns with such restrictions have vibrant downtown areas,” the consultants said.

Opposition

The idea has its opponents, including some landlords and commercial property owners who see adding more regulations as counterproductive to efforts to strengthen the business district. They see a first-floor retail rule as limiting the number of potential tenants they could rent to, and making it harder to fill empty storefronts.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said it’s understandable there are differing perspectives.

“There are pluses and minuses on both sides of the argument,” he said. “I can certainly understand trying to preserve the retail character of our downtown. But we also expect the landlords to pay their taxes, and what pays the taxes is money that’s generated from their leased square footage, and we have to understand their perspective as well. Where that brings us remains to be seen.”

What’s acceptable?

When regulations of this sort are drawn up, the specifics can include definitions of what qualifies as acceptable ground floor retail uses, if the goal is to create a business area that attracts a lot of foot traffic. Stores selling to shoppers qualify, of course. Restaurants are usually welcomed as part of a thriving shopping district. Offices generally aren’t allowed, but real estate offices are sometimes considered borderline retail. Similarly, service businesses — beauty shops, nail salons — might be allowed.

The last time such a regulation was seriously considered, there was mixed reaction from the Chamber of Commerce — which includes shop owners, but also landlords — and no action was taken, according to Mucchetti.

“The Chamber felt the time had passed, that matters had resolved themselves and it would have been useful five years before then, but we put it off to the side,” she said. “It started coming up again when SCRE advisers came in.”

Mucchetti thought that if commission members wanted to move forward with the concept, a logical path would be to add it as an amendment to the regulations for the Central Business District (CBD) zone, which covers the village commercial area.

“I think we’re talking about mostly Main Street, not the whole of the CBD,” Mucchetti said.