First-floor retail rule: Finding the carrot, not the stick

Many Ridgefield residents would rather go to Westport or New Canaan to spend an afternoon shopping and dining, and that, said landlords, is why retail space in the downtown is not in high demand.

That was one of the main takeaways from Tuesday night’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, where 50 people — selectmen, landlords, residents, and retailers — spoke during an “open mic” session about the possibility of a first-floor retail-only zoning regulation to encourage more retailers to set up shop in the village.

Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti told the room that the commission wanted “to come up with a carrot solution, not a stick one.”

She stressed the fact that landlords already have the option to rent to a retail business on the first floor.

“Regulations, as currently written, provide for first floor retail now,” she said.

“If property owners wish to do that they can do so. And some do, others don’t.”

No demand

Wing Biddle, a landlord on Main Street for the past 20 years, said that most property owners would rather rent to a retail business and preserve “the Ridgefield charm,” but that the demand is just not there.

“The problem with Ridgefield is that there is no adequate retail demand, in my opinion, to consider putting a restriction on first floor,” said Biddle, the president of Urstadt Biddle Properties LLC.

“In New Canaan, there is demand; in Westport, there is a demand,” he said. If you put in a restriction like that in Ridgefield, it could really hinder the landlords’ ability to keep their spaces filled.”

One resident agreed.  

“To go eating and shopping, I’m more inclined to go to New Canaan and Westport than in my own town,” she said. “And that’s a sad thing to say.”

Following her comment, the commission did a verbal count to gauge how many others also left town to shop in neighboring communities. A majority of the room said they took their business outside the confines of Ridgefield.

Special incentives

Biddle and others at the meeting said that special incentives could help boost local mom-and-pop stores, which fit into the town’s geographic location — “sandwiched in between Danbury Fair Mall and New Canaan” — unlike big retailers that end up leaving.

Although the Planning and Zoning Commission doesn’t deal with tax abatements, Mucchetti said, it could recommend that to the selectmen and Board of Finance.

Ellen Burns, co-owner of Books on the Common, said the nature of the businesses close by plays a big role in foot traffic.

She’s already noticed an increase since the opening of The Village Tavern, a new restaurant on Main Street.

“I’m happy a restaurant opened in Main Street again because it brings life downtown,” she said.

She said that on a recent walk down the street she counted “one bank, two insurance agencies, six real estate officers, a dance studio, and two spas.”

Despite the apparent monotony, Burns said, she was optimistic about Ridgefield’s downtown becoming like its Fairfield County contemporaries.

“As spaces open up, if it is restricted to retail, we will get the critical mass needed to make it a good retail destination,” she said of a possible first-floor retail regulation.

Another resident said that some offices want to rent first-floor space because they want the visibility.

He suggested making amendments to the town’s zoning laws to allow for “prevalent signage” to direct customers to top-floor offices.

Resident Stephanie Sanderson, who recently moved back to town, said her dream had always been to have a small store on Main Street.

However, she told the room that she was sorely disappointed upon her return to town.

“I’m really sad to see so many lights, signage, banners, and fluorescent signs on Main Street now,” she said.

“I think that throws people off from wanting to be here,” Sanderson said. “When you don’t see things staying quaint and beautiful, you’re weary of investing in it.”

More density

According to Nadine Dolhy, who owns Turkey Ridge on Bailey Avenue, “charm does not bring business.”

A higher density, which many think could detract from the town’s charming aesthetic, is what others deem to be a convincing solution, she said.

Biddle agreed.

“There’s a lot of underutilized buildings in downtown Ridgefield. They can be developed into four or three stories and be built to look old and quaint,” he said.

The landlord said that changing the zoning regulations to allow for a higher density would attract older residents to sell their homes and move into new, smaller apartments downtown.

“By developing a very nice apartment building, you capitalize on a beautiful town with great restaurants and an unbelievable theater,” he said.

One resident pointed out that what developer Steve Zemo did in Copps Hill Commons — building apartments on top of first-floor businesses — has proven to be a success.

Many other in the crowd said they believed that Copps Hill Commons has become the main shopping destination in town.

Zemo has “chosen his tenants so that people will go in and out of those doors, and they do,” the resident said. “Almost every business down there is pretty successful, and I think that’s the main reason why it is.”

Muchetti said the commission will review all the ideas and information presented Tuesday night during its meetings in March.

She also said she will start making phone calls to schedule joint discussions with the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance, landlords, and retailers.

No decision or proposal on a regulation has been presented yet.