Business development: Where does the town go from here?
Plans to build a hotel, bike lanes, electric car chargers, entry-level housing — those were some of the things town officials said they want included in Ridgefield’s roadmap for the future at a meeting on April 2.
The hearing was the second in a series of three listening sessions organized by the Planning and Zoning Commission, as it undertakes its 10-year rewrite of the Plan of Conservation and Development.
That document serves as an “advisory document for a municipality” for how the town will grow physically and how the town plans to address it, explained Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics, the firm hired to rewrite the plan.
The plan has to be adopted by July 2020 otherwise the state can cut funding to the town, said Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti.
The April 2 meeting focused on business and economic development.
“Much has changed over the past 10 years,” said Arnold Light, chairman of the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC).
“Our use of technology has changed. The number of businesses relying on technology will only increase.”
Light said the town should encourage improvements to communications networks to attract new business and make Ridgefield a “model community for our neighbors to emulate.”
Also of importance to the ECDC chairman is the survival of retail shops in town, as more and more business is swallowed up by online retailers.
“In addition to boutique shops, we need to encourage experiential retail and other ‘Amazon-proof’ businesses ready to meet an ever-changing economy,” Light said.
Allison Stockel, executive director for the Ridgefield Playhouse, echoed Light’s comments that the town should focus on retail services that are as much about the experience as they are about buying something.
She pointed to Ally Bally Bee, an art shop next to Tusk and Cup on Route 7, as one example.
The shop is cooperatively-owned, and gives local artists a place to sell their work while covering a fraction of the cost of rent.
“It gives local artists an opportunity to make money while at the same time having an experience, so that you’re not just walking into a Gap,” said Stockel.
Parking and transportation
To support those goals, Light said the town should add 100 new parking spaces within the next two years through completing existing plans.
The town should also consider installing more chargers for electric cars in the village, which “will meet the needs of charging automobiles and position Ridgefield as a forward-thinking community,” he said.
Alternative transportation — including car-sharing services, self-driving cars, bicycle lanes, and better pedestrian access — should also be encouraged, Light said.
Jessica Wilmot, who co-chairs the Ridgefield Parking Authority, said the group is currently reviewing the number of private parking spaces owned by landlords that they manage through agreements with the town.
“Some landlords have more parking than their tenants need,” she said. “There are many private lots that are not managed or patrolled by the parking authority … the result is a confusing hodgepodge of parking” that does not enhance access to the village.
The first project she hopes will alleviate parking concerns is the expansion of the municipal parking lot on Governor Street, next to the RVNA.
She said there should be a review of the number of RVNA employees who park in the Governor Street lot — on most business days, the lot is filled to capacity, she told the commission.
As for lots managed by the parking authority, many employees who park in town “game the system” by moving their vehicles during the day when the lots are patrolled, Wilmot said.
She said many of the major new businesses opening downtown are restaurants and services, which require more parking for their patrons.
Light, the ECDC chairman, encouraged plans to build a hotel for 30-40 guests, and have the zoning commission revisit its home-sharing regulations — such as permitting AirBnB listings — to “increase tourism and promote economic activity within our borders.”
Similarly, the town should encourage communal and shared offices, where small businesses rent space.
“These locations allow for incubation of new and growing businesses,” said Light. “A handful of entrepreneurs can fine-tune an idea in a communal work setting before committing to a growth and hiring strategy that would need a formal office.”
Several town officials who spoke said the plan should encourage affordable housing, and more entry-level housing to support workers.
“Many people don’t know that Fairfield County is growing,” said Dave Goldenberg, a member of the town’s newly-reformed Affordable Housing Committee.
“The market will not create affordable housing,” he said. “Builders will not build affordable housing without some kind” of incentive.
He acknowledged that people want Ridgefield to stay the way it is.
“You can’t not grow,” he said. “It’s not NIMBY anymore, it’s BANANA — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.”
He echoed another idea encouraged by the ECDC, that the town should encourage apartments on the second and third floor (where possible) of buildings above ground-floor businesses.
“It should not be offices on the second floor,” he said.
Residencies will free up parking during the middle of the day, he said, because tenants will leave to go to work, as opposed to office workers who need all-day parking.
As for the Ridgefield Playhouse, Stockel said her challenge is getting people to come see a show during the day, rather than just the evening.
She said last year the Playhouse put on 220 live shows, as well as 24 arts and education shows, and 26 Balshoi Ballet performances.
“We draw in about 100,000 people annually,” about 60 percent of them from out of town, Stockel said.
Rich Vazzana, a member of the board of directors for the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, suggested the town may want to congregate all of the arts venues and organizations into one location — perhaps expanding to take over the entirety of the old high school building on Prospect Street.
He said finding a location that can fit the entire symphony on one stage has been a challenge — even the Playhouse can’t support the full ensemble.
As a result, the RSO has been using the high school auditorium — a tougher sell to symphony-goers.
“Try to get people from out of town to go to the high school auditorium to see a symphony — it looks like a high school auditorium,” Vazzana said.
He said the town should focus on redeveloping Branchville with affordable and senior housing, as well as transportation for people from out of town to come and see a show.
“We’ve got a train station there. How do we get people from the train station up to Ridgefield to see a show and get dinner and then back to the train?” Vazzana asked.
“We talk about Ridgefield as being a place that’s easy to get to other places, I’m trying to get it to be an easy place to get to.”