Officials Propose Way To Allow Service Businesses To Occupy Street-Level Commercial Spaces Downtown

Seeking to give commercial property owners and businesses eyeing space in the heart of downtown New Canaan more flexibility, officials are considering a change to a section of the zoning regulations that governs what types of enterprises are allowed in street-level locations.

As it is, the New Canaan Zoning Regulations allow, with site plan approval, a number of business types in what’s called the ‘Retail A zone’—it encompasses the one-way portion of Elm Street, the first block of South Avenue and Main Street roughly between Burtis and Locust. Those uses include retail businesses up to a certain size, restaurants, food shops and theaters.

Service establishments such as exercise studios also are allowed in the zone, though not on the first floor.

Yet in a difficult retail environment, many commercial spaces “are simply too large to get [tenants],” Jean Grzelecki, chairman of a subcommittee of the Planning & Zoning Commission, said at the group’s meeting Tuesday night.

“They are not rentable because the rents are high,” Grzelecki said at the regular meeting of the P&Z Plan of Conservation and Development Implementation Subcommittee, held at Town Hall. “But we [also] want to keep a retail face to the street.”

To achieve that balance, the committee is recommending a change to the zoning regulations that would allow a service business to occupy a street-level space in the Retail A zone as long as the portion of it directly facing the sidewalk was a “retail area.”

Grzelecki said that the downtown already has a good example in New Canaan Music, which now occupies 96 Main St. and includes a wide-ranging retail area in the front—guitars, amps, drums and more—also has several lesson rooms in the rear of its space.

The subcommittee is recommending for P&Z’s consideration a new exception to the rule about service establishments as laid out in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations.

If the following conditions are met, service establishments would be allowed in street-level spaces in the Retail A zone:

  • The retail component must be located along the entire tenancy facing the street except for an access or common hallway to the street line;
  • The service establishment cannot be located along any portion of the buildings frontage except for an access or common hallway leading to the establishment;
  • The retail area must be a minimum of 15 feet in depth as measured from the building. Anything under 15 feet in depth is subject to administrative approval; and
  • The space may be occupied by one or more tenants with multiple permitted uses provided that the requirements in Section 4.2.C.8.a and 4.2.C.8.b are met.

Grzelecki said that those who rent commercial properties in downtown New Canaan are getting “a lot of interest” from exercise studios seeking first-floor spaces, as well as businesses such as SAT prep. If adopted by the full Planning & Zoning Commission, the new regulation also would allow smaller businesses to “divide units front to back, as long as they can have their own access,” Grzelecki said.

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