Retailers question zoning change
Editor's note: This is the latest installment in an ongoing series about downtown Westport. The next article will appear the week after Thanksgiving.
Dina Berger has owned The Age of Reason at 21 Post Road W. for 14 years and several times she's looked into moving across the road. One building she was interested in was behind National Hall, and another was on the Post Road. The buildings were vacant and had "for rent" signs on the building.
Despite her efforts, she claims nothing came of her inquiries, and it wasn't for a lack of trying.
"They don't even call you back," she said. "I left several messages on the posted phone number and no one responded."
"Even this year I called about the one on the Post Road. I was interested in what was happening, what it was renting for, etcetera. Nothing," Berger added.
Her failed efforts to rent the space concern her, particularly since the vacancies are cited in a text amendment as one of the reasons for altering zoning regulations in the Historic Design District (HDD). There are no rental signs on the buildings anymore.
A message left with Antares Investment Group, the current owners, was unreturned as of press time. The prerecorded message said to press zero for an operator, but when done so the same recorded message replayed. Antares once had a worth $6 billion, but according to an August article in the Stamford Advocate, much of that has been lost. They owe $9,358.26 in unpaid taxes to the Town of Westport, according to tax records.
The proposed amendment change in the regulations would impact the allowed amount of office space, which is currently restricted in favor of creating a district devoted to retail stores.
The applicant is Lawrence Weisman, an attorney representing Greenfield Partners, an investment firm that once owned the buildings and is now looking to repurchase them from the Antares, contingent to the zoning change. Antares purchased the property in 2006 for nearly $20 million and will be selling it in the vicinity of $9 million, according to Weisman.
The sale includes three buildings in the HDD (a separately owned building by the Savignol family that houses L'Antiquaire is not included) and three buildings behind the district.
With the current regulations, offices are restricted to taking up a maximum of 10 percent of the total floor space, with none permitted at ground level. The proposed amendment would make it so that there only needs to be 10 percent retail with no restrictions on what level the offices could be. The National Hall building at 2 Post Road W. would be turned into an office building.
In the explanation and statement of need that is part of the application, it reads: "The history of these properties demonstrates persuasively that to insist upon retail uses in a majority of the space while discouraging office and other uses, is to put the cart before the horse; and to follow the same failed strategy expecting a different result is unwise in the extreme."
The proposed change in zoning was a surprise to C.C. Wong, owner of Mandarin Collection on 18 Riverside Ave.
No notifications are required to be sent out for a proposed amendment such as the one submitted but, he said, he would have liked to have received something since the changes are happening so close to his store.
In 2006, there was a proposed change by The Higgins Group to permit real estate offices on the ground floor, which ultimately failed, with P&Z members citing concerns over the effect it would have on foot traffic in the area. Wong spoke against the proposed change at the meeting, and he feels similarly now.
"I hope that the [commission] realizes that this particular matter really needs to get more participation from the interested parties in town and the subject matter is not black and white," Wong said. "They should deny the application, but allow them to resubmit with whatever amendment to their plan that caused them to be held up to begin with."
Weisman said in an interview that the current zoning regulations make it impractical for anything to thrive in the HDD. Currently, there's an inn located at National Hall. A past approval for condominiums in the building never developed.
"If you agree with me that the hotel didn't work there, which is clear, and the attempt at condominiums in there failed, then my question is what can the other 90 percent of those floors be used for right now under present zoning? The answer is there is no permitted use, so they've got to change the zoning regulation," Weisman said.
Marco Degl'Innocenti, resident manager of The Inn at National Hall, declined to comment in detail about the changes that could be coming to National Hall but did say, "To be honest, I'm in quite a difficult position," in regard to converting the building into office space.
The four-star hotel employs 14 people, including Degl'Innocenti, and has been open since 1993, which precedes ownership by Greenfield Partners and Antares.
Berger questions what has been said about the viability of retail in her area since her store has been around for so long. She's concerned about the effects that an office building would have on foot traffic in the area. She believes the west side of the Saugatuck offers some advantages to non-chain retailers, particularly due to the lower rental costs.
"I could have looked at spaces in the different strip shopping centers up the road," she said. "I stayed where I was because I wanted to be downtown. I couldn't sell things for a dollar paying Main Street rents."
The Planning and Zoning Commission will likely work toward a decision on the proposed amendment on Dec. 3.