Officials: New Canaan Needs More Formal Way To Review Architecture of Proposed Building Projects Downtown

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. And it is difficult. That is why we [created] the Village District, so we have some control over the architecture.”

Connecticut towns may establish “Village Districts,” as per state law, “in areas of distinctive character, landscape or historic value that are specifically identified in the plan of conservation and development of the municipality.”

Right now, New Canaan essentially has two sets of design guidelines for its Village District—one scant (in the Zoning Regulations, starting on page 146) and another fleshed out (in the full 27-page document).

The Zoning Regulations do include some safeguards for P&Z in reviewing an application for a project downtown—for example, the commission may seek help from a “design review committee” or similar organization. Yet the Zoning Regulations are general—described in a handful of bullet points—whereas the “Village District Design Guidelines” lays out a far more specific, fully explained vision.

In addition, hiring an outside professional to review projects on a one-off basis doesn’t guarantee that New Canaan will be steered correctly. Grzelecki recalled hiring such an expert with respect to the Pine Street mini-strip-mall that includes Walgreens “and we thought, ‘This is really going to be great, he will know all this stuff,’ but without much further comment … he came back and thought everything was just fine about that. So, we have not really done it since then.”

In addition to Grzelecki, who chairs the subcommittee, those in attendance included P&Z Commissioners John Goodwin, Jack Flynn, Laszlo Papp, Kent Turner, Bill Redman, John Kriz and Dick Ward, and interim Town Planner Keisha Fink.

The Village District Design Guidelines themselves likely need updating, subcommittee members said. Right now, they detail five major categories to review: architectural character; height, bulk and scale compatibility; site planning for a historic environment; site planning for a pedestrian environment; and environmental/sustainable design standards.

Fink asked whether P&Z would consideration establishing an “architectural review board” for any application falling within the Village District “to know someone has looked over the architectural guidelines and seen if that particular project falls within the guidelines.”

“So you at least have someone go through a full review of just the architectural review of the project, not looking into the setback or uses,” he said.

Redman voiced support or the idea, saying, “I think a committee is great idea for those that have time to do it, but either way it is has to get into the application process. Because are seeing too many of these how where we are sending them back saying, ‘Why did they do it this way?’ ”

Papp noted that the Village District Design Guidelines “will come into focus when the library comes in.”

He referred to New Canaan Library’s widely anticipated rebuilding project.

“That will be a big, big test,” he said.

Subcommittee members discussed whether the three architects on P&Z alone would form an architecture review board or if outside professionals also would come in.

Grzelecki said “a lot of it depends on the scope of the project.”

“For example, with the library, we will need to hire a design person,” she said. Papp noted that such consultants are hired at the cost of the applicant.

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