Seeking to ensure that downtown sidewalks are clear for pedestrians, officials said last week that a Planning & Zoning officer could be assigned to enforce local rules. Under the Town Code, items such as benches, tables, chairs, signs or commercial displays cannot obstruct sight lines or pedestrian passage on sidewalks. Though the town allows for “certain things that are considered good,” merchants sometimes take advantage by going too far, according to Public Works Director Tiger Mann. “It’s nice to have bench and put a table out there, but four chairs around it as a display case in front of the building, it’s a little too much,” Mann said during a Jan. 29 meeting of a Planning & Zoning Commission subcommittee.
We commend the New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission for its responsiveness, diligence and care in updating the rules that say what types of businesses can occupy street-level commercial space in the downtown. More than one year in the making and with contributions from individuals within and outside the appointed body, P&Z’s work culminated in two changes recently that commercial property owners are hailing as proactive and timely. First, following several months of discussions, P&Z voted unanimously in April to update the New Canaan Zoning Regulations so that service businesses in the “Retail A” zone—the very heart of the downtown, including Elm and Main Streets—may occupy first-floor spaces so long as there’s a retail component facing the street. The idea for the text change came to the Commission because P&Z actively sought ways it could help the downtown. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tucker Murphy advised a P&Z committee led by Secretary Jean Grzelecki, and the Zoning Regulations amendment went into effect in May.
Despite some concerns regarding outdoor lighting, members of the Planning & Zoning Commission on Tuesday night voted unanimously to allow a hot dog-themed restaurant to open in a commercial space in downtown New Canaan. To be located down the “alley” at the top of Elm Street—formerly occupied by New Canaan Music (now on Main Street), near the former Chef Luis restaurant—the new establishment, “White Buffalo,” will include a 13-stool bar and rows of two-person tables that bring the total seating to about 35 to 40 people, according to New Canaan resident Dave Tonkovich, one of three local men who is launching the business. A 1993 New Canaan High School graduate along with business partner Dom Valente—town resident Doug Harris is also an owner—Tonkovich described White Buffalo as a “place where New Canaan as a community can gather and support each other, whether that is having our teams over after a game, hosting a fundraiser for the lacrosse or hockey team, or honoring our local Police Department or Fire Department.”
“We feel like this is something the town needs,” Tonkovich said during a public hearing at Town Hall. “You might say it is built by New Canaan, for New Canaan.”
Tonkovich reviewed some national hot dog consumption data and said that White Buffalo is designed to “fit the bill” for locals meeting after a game or with a friend or client “or when you are coming off the train.”
“Our goal is not to be all things to all people,” he said. Under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, restaurants are permitted in the Retail A zone with site plan approval. After some discussion, P&Z approved White Buffalo’s site plan 7-0.
Saying that guidelines for maintaining and enhancing the village feel of downtown New Canaan need more teeth, planning officials are seeking a more formal way to review the architecture, scale and materials of proposed building projects in the business district. Members of a Planning & Zoning Commission subcommittee said at their most recent meeting that New Canaan must find a better way to ensure adherence to a 27-page document created in 2010 called the ‘Village District Design Guidelines.’
Though P&Z created that document, “we never put a tight set of regulations around it,” Jean Grzelecki of the Plan of Conservation & Development Implementation Committee said at the group’s most recent meeting. “We have a design manual which is something we recommend that everybody follows, and maybe we could strengthen that by adding it a as a special permit to the business district,” she said at the Nov. 28 meeting, held in Town Hall. “Some reasonable adherence to the design manual, because everyone once in a while we get some very strange-looking stuff.
Saying New Canaan’s rates lag other towns and haven’t been upped in years, officials are recommending that the town raise its fees for those seeking to pay money into a parking fund in lieu of providing the required number of spaces for commercial construction projects. A committee of the Planning & Zoning Commission proposed at its most recent meeting that the baseline fee for the first “fee-in-lieu” space go up from $17,500 to $20,000, with increases in other categories to follow. “We have seen some resistance at $17,500 but I think it would not seem unreasonable to me to bump it a little bit this year,” Jean Grzelecki of the Plan of Conservation & Development Implementation Committee said at the group’s most recent meeting, held Nov. 28 at Town Hall. Going to $20,000 “seems pretty reasonable,” she said.