Residents offer opinions, desire change for future of Wilton Center

Dozens of residents made their voices heard Thursday when they told a town subcomittee and BFJ Planning their desires for the future of Wilton Center.

Dozens of residents made their voices heard Thursday when they told a town subcomittee and BFJ Planning their desires for the future of Wilton Center.

Bryan Haeffele / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Though they sought to gather some incidental data through a brief online polling exercise, consultants working on a Master Plan for Wilton Center were also given a wide range of anecdotal opinions from dozens of residents regarding their future hopes for downtown.

The Planning and Zoning Commission hosted a virtual public workshop Thursday night, led by representatives of BFJ Planning, an urban design and planning consultant with offices throughout the tri-state area, which — in tandem with a P&Z subcommittee — is drawing up a document aimed at guiding the town's future development in its downtown area.

“We'd like to hear what your ideas are, what your vision is,” Richard Tomasetti, commission chair, said to the public.

Many of the 100 or so people at the meeting shared their thoughts. Several new residents advocated for more activities and retail in the center, while several longtime residents pointed out that some smaller and simpler changes could augment activity and interest in the town.

“To me, the low-hanging fruit is people outside of Wilton don't know Wilton Center exists,” said resident Mike Lebow, suggesting that better signage and marketing would draw more people to the center. “We have stores, restaurants, all sorts of things going on, so before we say Wilton Center needs to be reconstructed ... I just want to be sure that's taken into consideration.”

Likewise, resident Sara Curtis said that town-owned buildings in the center could be utilized by its youth, with ideas for theater and art spaces among some suggestions she has heard from young residents hungry for activities.

“We may not have to be rebuilding Wilton Center, but maybe we need to just look at some of the little things that could improve the experience,” she said, describing how teenagers in town make New Canaan and Ridgefield their destinations after school instead of Wilton Center.

Curtis, who took note that the downtown area currently has very few places to sit or tables to enjoy a sandwich outdoors, said more time should be taken to work on this developing plan with additional public input, instead of merely one virtual workshop before the consultant presents nearly firm recommendations.

Several people broached the subject of more — and more relevant — retail in Wilton Center.

One new resident to town said that he believes drawing people into Wilton Center “is having one major retailer,” naming his dream would be to have a “Target and a Trader Joe's downtown.”

Longtime business owner Mike Meyer, owner of SDSS Martial Arts, said that in order for a business to find value in opening in Wilton, there needed to be a better “rent-to-value” relationship.

While he said his established franchise business continues to thrive, “If I was to do it again, I'd probably pick another town,” he said, also siting the town's “extremely small demographic.”

It was noted that attracting retail worked in tandem with creating more housing in and around Wilton Center— something that, according to the brief polling conducted in the early part of the workshop, Wiltonians aren't highly enthused about.

Instead, according to the questions as presented, more people are interested in expanding nighttime activities, such as dining, as well as augmenting pedestrian accessibility and opportunities.

“Any plan we do should be based on economic reality,” said Frank Fish, BFJ principal. “If it's not, you're not going to get a response out of the real estate market.”

Resident Karen Brown pointed out that, while it's technically accessible on foot from Wilton Center, nearby Merwin Meadows should be better linked to the downtown.

“It could be made much more pedestrian-friendly,” she said, calling the park a gem for the town.

Resident Matt Brandt raised the question of whether Schenck's Island could be better utilized, suggesting something comparable to Ballard Park in downtown Ridgefield.

“When you go there, it's always packed,” he said. “It's really a vibrant center.”

Resident Barbara Bear said lessons could be learned from Westport in terms of its large farmers' market, which she attributed to their affording it a lot of space. Wilton’s farmers market was approved to move to Wilton Center this summer.

Other activities and happenings, she said, should be leveraged to "create a buzz of Wilton."

Regarding the adjacent Danbury Road, resident Rebecca Lin put in a plug for its aesthetics.

“I think it's very important that we don't forget about the visuals of Route 7,” she said, with respect to scale and positioning of buildings. “We've referred to it as the gateway for Wilton and I think we really need to be attentive to the streetscape there.”