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New Vision for Downtown Greenwich Pitched

New Vision for Downtown Greenwich Pitched

Greenwich zoners have been listening to pitches recently to make the downtown area a more retail-based attraction.

One of the biggest proponents, Joe Tranfo of the Benedict Court Development Company, recently appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission to make his direct pitch for a more walkable downtown, more indoor meeting places, a new public park, more affordable- and moderate-income housing and one with more parking and rooftop gardening.

“For years now I have been assembling parcels of land on Benedict Court and Benedict Place in downtown Greenwich,” Tranfo told the commissioners. “The question before us is, what will become” of them.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “my first conversation was with (former First Selectman) Jim Lash and (former Town Planner) Diane Fox somewhere between 2006 and 2007. I remembered imagining what this could be.”

Tranfo’s plan relies on incentive-based zoning — changing zoning rules to give developers tax or other advantages if they build specific projects or follow specific guidelines.

His target is the section of downtown Greenwich that spreads around Greenwich Avenue, up Railroad Avenue and along central Putnam Avenue.

In exchange for providing what he calls “public benefits,” developers could take advantage of bonuses like taller buildings or extra interior space allowances. The main condition, he said, would require a developer to own one acre of land in the zone in order to take advantage of the incentives.

The changes he proposes would work to his advantage, he admitted to commissioners. He is working on his own development plan for the properties he owns on Benedict Court and Benedict Place.

Tranfo has won some over.

Peter Berg, Chairman of the RTM Land Use Committee, spoke in favor of making big changes to central Greenwich. He said the population in one section of central Greenwich has decreased 46 percent since 1960, according to census data.

“Benedict Place is an example,” Berg said. “Residential turning into all kinds of offices, lawyer’s offices … the town’s population has been roughly 60,000. It barely changed more than 1,000 since the 1970s.

“So what’s happened to the town’s population to have dropped in this one census tract?” he said. “It means that the population sprawled. It sprawled into midcountry, it sprawled into north Cos Cob during all of those years ... We have to find a way to repopulate our downtown because the population left the downtown.”

Downtown stores switching back to top

As a result of the shift, downtown stores switched from catering to local residents to catering to a different demographic, he said.

“That's how we became a regional center, and nobody really liked that it happened,” said Berg. “(Retail) all went upscale so the middle class of Greenwich was no longer shopping on Greenwich Ave — what I like about this project is we repopulate the downtown.”

The commissioners had their own take on some of the suggestions.

“If we do not approve something, is that appealable?” asked Commissioner Andy Fox. “I noticed there is no fluff in there for the commission to turn down a ‘benefit.’”

Zoning attorney Ted O’Hanlon said commissioners had the option to grant special permits for the incentives instead of changing the statutes to accommodate Tranfo’s vision.

They also wanted a better description of exactly what streets, properties and public areas would fall into Tranfo’s designated incentive zone — and what benefits would be available to developers for which projects.

Chairman Richard Maitland said some of the property in Tranfo’s incentive zone was residential and he wanted to know who would be affected and how.

“My knee-jerk reaction is, ‘What if we turn down something’” beneficial for the community? said Commission Secretary Margarita Alban. “Our job is not only preservation.”

The meeting ended with the commissioners saying they would study the plan but needed more information.

“This is the first of, I think, many conversations,” said the Tranfo’s architect, Mark Sardegna. “What’s been presented before you is a very complex incentive-based zone. We’ve been staring at it for a couple years.

“Retail is changing right now,” he said, “and we are seeing it across the country. If anyone tells you right now that they know what retail will be five years from now, they’re lying. People are shopping with their thumbs, not their feet, and it’s changing urban retail across the country.”