Planned developments bring new life to Commerce Drive area

FAIRFIELD — In its heyday, the area around Commerce Drive was one of the hubs that kept the town humming — manufacturing was king.

Where BJ’s Wholesale Club stands, you would have found the Bullard Machine Tool Co. Handy & Harmon, a precious metal foundry, stood where you now shop at Whole Foods. Home Depot took the place of McKesson & Robbins, a pharmaceuticals company.

Eventually, those factories shut down, and the area became overlooked and neglected. Now, though, as pressures increase to ease the tax burdens on residents, interest has been renewed.

It started, perhaps, with the grand plans for the Fairfield Metro Center, a joint project between the town, state and private developer Blackrock Realty. While the approval process for the ambitious project, which included office buildings and a Hilton Hotel, dragged on for years, the economy took a nose dive and private financing dried up. To date, while a train depot has been built thanks to town and state funds, the privately owned portion of the site remains undeveloped.

The town, however, has secured a $200,000 grant to come up with a transit-oriented development plan to help guide the parcel’s future development and town officials seem to be on the same page when it comes to what they want to see in the Commerce Drive area overall.

“I think, certainly to make it a more attractive environment, you need some critical mass,” Planning Director James Wendt said.

After the Town Plan and Zoning Commission adopted a transit-oriented district overlay for the Commerce Drive area, local developer Abbey Road Advisors teamed up with Skala Partners to create Trademark Fairfield, a five-story mixed use building at the corner of Commerce Drive and Black Rock Turnpike. Below the 101 apartment units, a barbecue restaurant is slated to open in some of the first-floor space.

But it’s not one and done for Abbey Road Advisors. They have a second project application in the hopper: a 160-unit apartment building with retail first-floor space. Plans call for a small public park-like area and pedestrian access to the train station next door.

“I think these developers think it’s going to benefit their initial project and provide additional infrastructure, amenities, and retail that will serve these tenants,” Wendt said.

Abbey Road’s Ross Ogden, said it was the TOD that they used as a road map for Trademark Fairfield, and “we continue to believe in that vision for the future of the Commerce Drive area.”

“Today Fairfield has limited housing options for the young and the old, and as a result, those are the two critical demographics that Fairfield has been losing for years,” Ogden added.

One change to attract that kind of development was allowing taller buildings, up to 60 feet rather than 40 feet, in the transit-oriented overlay.

“At least in the short term, the parcels we wanted to concentrate that (TOD) opportunity for are the ones closest to the train station,” Wendt said. The easterly end of Commerce Drive, home to multiple luxury car dealerships, is not at this point being considered for transit-oriented development and the changes in building height.

Fairfield’s first selectman said the decision to tweak the transit-oriented district overlay has held up.

“Trademark is five stories, and it doesn’t look out of place.” Mike Tetreau said. “You’re not hurting a neighborhood. It’s a remarkable opportunity for growth without impacting neighborhoods in our historic districts or downtown.”

Ogden said what they love about the Commerce Drive area is the wide mix of uses.

“Today you can find office, medical, retail, residential, industrial, schools, day care, car dealerships, restaurants and a train station all in the same neighborhood,” Ogden said. “But for all that diversity, you still can’t get a cup o coffee or a deli sandwich, and until only recently, you couldn’t even rent an apartment.”

He said their plan for the area over the next decade is to “build upon the diversity of uses and look to create a more self-sustaining neighborhood where people can walk to what they need: Walk to work, walk to the train, walk to the restaurants, walk to the store, and walk home at night.”

Ogden’s vision mirrors what is found in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, which recommends that properties within a half-mile of the train station be dedicated to mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly projects that are “exclusively transit supported,” meaning no gas stations, auto dealerships and repair shops, drive-through restaurants, warehouses or distribution centers.

“One thing people may not realize, if you’re living here and want to go to FTC or downtown, you can hop on a train and be there in about three minutes,” Wendt said. A round trip train ticket is $5.50, less than Uber estimates of $7 to $9 for a one-way ride to the Fairfield Theatre Company.

While the first selectman would like the redevelopment of Commerce Drive to proceed apace and Ogden’s group is eager to put their footprint on the neighborhood, the Plan of Conservation and Development counsels patience.

“Just as the last transition from industrial to commercial did not happen overnight, the next transition to a neighborhood with more residential and a wider range of retail and dining options alongside office and industrial uses will take a generation or more,” the plan states.

(From the Fairfield Citizen)