The owners of a four-unit office building in downtown New Canaan are seeking to convert those offices into residential condominiums, according to an application filed with the town.
Built in 1975, the structure at 93 Cherry St. has always been used for offices. Yet in the last five years, its owners—town residents John and Alice Chen—have “had trouble finding interested tenants for any of the units,” according to an application filed with Planning & Zoning by New Canaan-based attorney Kay Jex.
“At the suggestion of several Realtors and the applicant’s architect, they would like to convert the building into residential apartments,” Jex said in the application. “Allowing conversion from office space to residential would allow preservation of the unique, modern character of the building without altering its facade. The interest in living in the downtown area has increased in the last few years while there appears to be an oversupply of office space. The proposal will provide small residential units within easy walking distance of the shops, restaurants, library and railroad station.”
The .15-acre property is located on the south side of Cherry Street next to Wells Fargo. It’s “an odd shaped parcel,” Jex said in the application, that also abuts Maple Ridge Condominiums, residences on East Maple Street and a small piece of land owned by Cherry Center LLC.
“No exterior changes will be needed to complete the conversion renovations,” Jex said in the application. “The parking and the landscaping will remain as they are. After conversion the building just [as] it looks at the present time. The changed use for the building will not measurably impact traffic in the area.”
Specifically, Jex is seeking approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission of both a Site Plan and Special Permit.
It’s a nuanced application.
The property is located in the Business A zone. Under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, non-office uses, including residential dwelling units, are permitted in the zone with site plan approval (see pages 75 and 77) under certain conditions. The Regulations define the purpose of the zone, in part, as allowing “for residential use of upper floors, particularly in existing structures.” Yet the changes proposed by Jex would turn the first floor into residential units, as well.
In addition, the Zoning Regulations allow for dwelling units in a mixed-use development in the Business A zone if a number of conditions are met, mostly restricting the size of each unit (page 76). Yet the proposal for 93 Cherry St. is not for mixed-use, where the street-level spaces are for commercial use and living units are located above.
Jex acknowledges these exceptions in the application.
It “complies with the Site Plan requirements with the exception of the ‘no first floor’ requirement and meets the Special Permit requirements with the exception of the mixed-use requirement,” she said.
However, it also serves the community’s needs “by providing small residential units within walking distance from the train station and shops,” she said.
“Plus, allowing the building to be more fully occupied would be a benefit to the immediate neighborhood. The proposed use is appropriate for the building, the site and the location, increases the available housing options in the downtown area and is in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood since it abuts other residential property.”
The building itself presents challenges to attracting retailers or other potential commercial first-floor tenants, the application said.
It’s split-level, for example with the first floor three feet below street level.
“As a result, no retail business is interested since the first floor is not directly accessible to the street,” Jex said in the application. “Window display would have to be located at ceiling level blocking any light into the space. The building is situated very close to the street so providing handicapped access is nearly impossible. This makes the space unsuitable for retail, office, restaurant or any other kind of public access space. However it is very suitable for residential living.”
P&Z is expected to take up the application at its regular meeting April 30.