Planning firm gives latest suggestions for Wilton Center facelift

The plan is to bring business to Wilton Center and make it a fun, desirable destination for not only residents, but those from neighboring towns as well.

The plan is to bring business to Wilton Center and make it a fun, desirable destination for not only residents, but those from neighboring towns as well.

Hearst File Photo

WILTON — Residents are looking for a more attractive and desirable downtown, but there are some things that need to change first, according to the latest survey findings.

BFJ Planning, the company contracted to help with the downtown facelift, recently presented its latest findings from interviews with residents and local business owners to a the master plan Subcommittee after studying the area further.

Jonathan Martin, a senior associate with BFJ Planning, said it is apparent there is a desire for Wilton Center to be more active, a need for not just more, but more attractive amenities and better use of open spaces with enhanced walkability for pedestrians.

Tina Lund, with BFJ, recommended the town look to attract unique entertainment and attractions, making off-the-cuff suggestions such as indoor rock climbing walls and “smash rooms,” to bring activity for all ages. Earlier this year, multiple high school students said that they typically travel to other towns to hang out on weekends.

Martin also said that townfolk did not show “tremendous support” for higher residential density in Wilton Center, which the subcommittee pushed back on.

“I think it needs to be clarified and maybe even revised for the record,” Chairman Rick Tomasetti said. “Because if somebody comes and looks at this document later, they’re going to be looking at the subcomittee saying, ‘Oh, there wasn’t really a lot of public support for what you’re doing.’ And I don’t think that’s accurate.”

Martin said that BFJ based the finding on the last Wilton Center Master Plan meeting where public opinion was compiled, but a number of subcommittee members felt the sample size wasn’t indicative of the entire populace and that the phrasing of questions could have been too binary.

“I mean, if you ask someone, ‘Do you want three stories or two stories?’ they’ll always say two stories,” subcomittee member Barbara Geddis said. “If you say, ‘Would you enjoy something that had a variety of scales - some one-story, some two-stories, some three and even four of five?’ they’d say ‘Sure, if it’s beautiful, absolutely.’”

BFJ is also proposing two zoning changes, including the town allow residential as a permitted use in the Wilton Center zone. The second is for the town to allow four stories as-of-right with the option for a possible stepped-back fifth story. The town currently permits 3.5 stories.

Geddis, an architect by trade and founder of her own architectural firm, pushed back on the idea of stories as a uniform requirement. Citing the natural topography of Wilton Center and the elevation differences in certain parts of the downtown area, Geddis suggested height, measured by feet, be a better indicator for the zone.

Beyond the size and mapping of the buildings, part of the need is to actually attract more business downtown to make development worthwhile for developers, according to BFJ.

To peek into how Wilton is currently doing in that regard, Lund provided some numbers.

Wilton has a slightly lower office vacancy rate at 25.3 percent than the area within a five-mile radius of the town, which sits at 28.6 percent. The town’s retail vacancy rate is also lower, at 4.6 percent, compared to the surrounding area’s 7.7 percent.

Lund did point out that the town falls short to a number of neighboring towns and cities, including New Canaan who she found outpaces Wilton in the court of public opinion in the realms of active life, food markets and specialty food services, restaurants and shopping.

Despite that, Lund said BFJ sees significant potential for consumer spending in town. Another factor that does currently hamper the town’s retail capabilities, beyond neighboring downtown areas, is competition from “regional shopping centers” within a 30-minute drive of Wilton.

Density, again, she said plays a part in the success of the downtown area. “Without density and mixed-uses or a unique regional draw such as a recreational/cultural venue it will be difficult to bring new people to Wilton,” Lund explained.

The next step for BFJ Planning is to begin drawing up preliminary plans for the subcommittee to tweak, review and eventually solidify before an anticipated fall completion date.