Protecting New Canaan’s core retail district may require greater flexibility in what types of businesses can occupy street-level storefronts in other areas of the downtown, officials said last week.
Though non-retail uses of street-level commercial spaces are heavily restricted on parts of Main and Elm Streets now, it has become increasingly important to determine exactly what are “the proper limits of retail in town, so that we do not over-commit our zoning to acquiring retail to saturate the market,” Town Planner Steve Palmer told members of the Planning & Zoning Commission at their regular meeting.
“I think there is a supply and demand, and we have too much supply,” he said at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “So we have to be careful with that, too. We know where it [retail] works best, we know where it is important, so let’s focus on those areas, the outskirts areas—we have to be careful with how we do that.”
The comments come as P&Z guides a discussion with business and town officials on whether the New Canaan Zoning Regulations as regards the “Retail A” zone (in purple here) should be amended—for example, to accommodate more types of service businesses. Currently, 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”—that is, the one-way stretch of Elm Street, the final block of South Avenue, Morse Court and Main Street from Spiga to the firehouse.
The executive of the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce, Tucker Murphy, has said the vacancy rate of downtown commercial spaces is about where it usually is—4 to 6 percent—though retail has changed enough in recent years that the regs should be reviewed.
Palmer said he planned to meet with Murphy to find out more specifically what she thinks is important.
“I haven’t really been here long enough to really know,” said Palmer, who started his job as town planner in November.
Determining more specifically what is the core retail area downtown “may be looked at to some degree, and so we might be able to work around those edges so that 5,000 square feet” in a building off of the main drags does not “take away from our prime area, potentially,” he said.
P&Z commissioner Laszlo Papp he supports a review of the regulations, though “I feel very strongly that the center part the retail part of downtown you have to have something to see” such as window displays in street-level storefronts.
“If you walk around and rather than having a door with a sign that ‘This is such-and-such,’ it has to be visible so that people will be interested to see,” Papp said.
He added: “If you don’t have that, then we hurt downtown.”
P&Z Secretary Jean Grzelecki said that Main Street between Locust and East Avenues—a block with multiple vacancies, following the exits of JoS. A. Bank and Island Outfitters, among others—has been a focus area for years for officials who oversee the downtown.
She also agreed with Papp and said Murphy shares P&Z’s concern about updating the regulations “because it is a slippery slope.”
According to Grzelecki, a subcommittee that’s charged with developing strategies for implementing the updated Plan 0f Conservation & Development is prioritizing its study of possible amendments (they would be proposed to P&Z and then vetted through public hear