New Canaan’s charming downtown remains attractive to prospective merchants as well as visitors, though changes in retail in recent years should prompt officials to update some of the zoning regulations that restrict the type of businesses that can occupy street-level storefronts, according to the head of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations now (see page 72 here), non-retail uses are largely restricted on the street level throughout the “Retail A” zone (in purple here) of Main and Elm Streets. For example, the only service establishments allowed are on the first floor of any building are “personal service” businesses such as salons. Medical, educational or fitness-related uses are relegated to upper floors or business zones beyond the “magic circle” downtown.
Those downtown business zones “have served us well over the years, but the time might have come that we want to consider some of the businesses in the Retail A zones and places like that, that complement retail,” Tucker Murphy, the chamber’s executive director, told members of the Planning & Zoning Commission during their regular meeting on Tuesday night.
Though there’s demand among businesses seeking to rent commercial space in New Canaan—the vacancy rate currently is 5.2 percent and typically ranges from 4 to 6 percent, according to the chamber’s figures (see table below)—the types of businesses coming to look for space here “are a little different from what we have seen in the past,” Murphy said.
“While there are fewer people fewer businesses looking, they are still looking. And what we have going for us is our quintessential charm, our diverse restaurants, the variety and the sophistication of our independent stores and our anchor chains that we all appreciate, but the most important feature of New Canaan—and you all know this, I’m not telling you anything that you don’t know—is that it is about the experience. People come to New Canaan and it is all experiential. It’s that ‘live-work-play’ mantra that you all have heard so much. People want to be here, and certainly with people wanting to live in the downtown area, that kind of environment living situation definitely supports the downtown. We pride ourselves on not having [Interstate] 95 run through it, and that’s a great thing. But on the other hand, that comes back to bite us sometimes, because when we have national chains coming in … they look at us and say, ‘Well the demographics are certainly what we want, but the sheer numbers don’t support us opening a business there.’ They would opt for a Westport or a Greenwich.”
The comments came during an update and general discussion of activity in downtown New Canaan from Murphy, joined in front of P&Z by the chamber’s Laura Budd. The pair presented this table and reviewed the figures within it:
Downtown New Canaan Business Analysis**
|Food & Restaurant||50||18.7%|
|Schools & Services||38||14.3%|
|Shoes & Clothing||32||32%|
|Gifts & Accessories||13||4.9%|
|Banks & Financial||9||3.4%|
|Dental & Medical||8||3%|
|Health & Fitness||7||2.6%|
|Art & Galleries||5||1.9%|
|Flower & Garden||3||1.1%|
** Covering first-floor businesses throughout the business district, as of March 1, 2017
Murphy noted that Darien and Norwalk are slated to launch major commercial hubs that will bring increased competition for many who now shop in New Canaan.
“When someone leaves, a shopper leaves town for a service, they are gone then,” she said. “We do not get them back.”
Murphy said that New Canaan is fortunate to have major draws such as The Glass House, Grace Farms, Silvermine Arts Center and library—soon to be rebuilt and become an even more serviceable community hub—though she noted that in the village center, vacancies are concentrated on the block of Main Street between the fire house and East Avenue.
“It’s a little concerning and I think that there are some unique features to that block that add to this,” she said. “There are some family trusts, family-owned buildings, that sort of thing. Certainly the lack of parking is a concern, the Town Hall construction had some impact on those businesses and I just want to say that the Locust Lot being proposed—and as far as I can tell, approved, for the most part—is something that will really give a shot in the arm to that part block and to that general area.”
Commissioners praised recent additions to South Avenue between Elm and Cherry (such as the butcher shop and organic mattress store) and asked whether the chamber felt New Canaan should welcome service uses to traditional retail storefronts on Main and Elm (the town should start the conversation about it, if those businesses are the right fit), what were their thoughts on Pine Street Concessions (there’s movement there now), how the Internet is affecting retail in town (there’s pressure on brick-and-mortar from the web though New Canaan also offers a unique in-person experience and some merchants have created successful e-channels) and whether the chamber had heard back from Apple about a store here (national chains are shrinking with competition from the Internet, which makes small regional towns such as this less attractive for their model).
P&Z Secretary Jean Grzelecki said the commission has had conversations about changing its regulations though “the thing that concerns us is it’s a slippery slope and it is very hard to stop it.”
“That is kind of where we have held back and said maybe it’s a little soon to do too much,” she said.
Murphy said she was “in lockstep” with that caution, though “I am starting to change my mind.”
“I am definitely not suggesting we make any radical changes off the bat,” Murphy said. “What I am suggesting is we take it slow and steady. We look at what some of our other towns are doing.”
She added: “The bottom line is that this deserves a much longer discussion. This was a great opportunity for us to sit down and pull together some information and give you an idea of what we see on a daily basis but we know that we have got the crown jewel here of Fairfield County downtowns, and I think everybody else does, too. We just can’t lose sight of it and we need to be always on top of it.”
P&Z Chairman John Goodwin asked for the chamber to send the commission a bullet-point summary of its recommendations and said the group is eager to continue its work with a committee to help implement the Plan of Conservation & Development, updated three years ago.
He also complimented Murphy and Budd on the chamber’s diligence and leadership.
“Thank you so much for all of the work you are doing,” Goodwin said.