How zoning makeover could restore vitality to Danbury's downtown – Danbury News Times


DANBURY — It’s easy to look at an underutilized building on what was once prime real estate in the city’s downtown Main Street corridor and wonder why it’s underperforming.
But behind every empty storefront on Main Street and behind every vacant lot in the city’s languishing downtown is a story that is a least partially complicated by zoning constraints.
That’s good news for Sharon Calitro and the professional staff in her Department of Planning and Zoning, because it means the city can do something about it.
“Our downtown is comprised of little parcels with a bunch of different things to look at, and we are trying to uncomplicate all of it,” Calitro said. “The next step is to see what zoning changes need to be made to achieve the vision.”
Calitro is referring to the 10-year vision in Danbury’s recently adopted master plan — a 215-page document developed by a task force over the last two years to harness the city’s runaway growth and reclaim its ability to protect community character, increase affordable housing and revitalize its once-thriving downtown.
In that 10-year master plan is a case study of three downtown properties that were given theoretical makeovers to see what new life could be breathed into the urban core if the zoning would allow it. In all three case studies, the properties were revitalized with downtown housing.

The short version of the three hypothetical makeovers is that a Main Street building and parking lot was transformed into 86 apartments, 6,400 square-feet of retail space and 130 parking garage spaces — all on less than 1 acre; a vacant industrial site near the train station was transformed into 117 apartments and townhouses, 190 parking garage spaces, and a pocket park with a playground — all on 2 acres; and a group of three White Street properties across the street from the Danbury Superior Court building were transformed into 38 apartments, 13,000-square-feet of shops, and 110 parking spaces — all on just 1.6 acres.
The makeovers established two things for city planners: first, downtown zoning constraints are standing in the way of Danbury’s progress; and second, the city has good reason to take the next step of conducting a study to revamp downtown zoning.
“This analysis finds that the most significant constraint to the development and redevelopment of key sites around the downtown is the existing zoning of those areas, which prohibits or limits the density of residential development,” the case study concluded.
As a result, Calitro is working on the parameters of a $150,000 downtown zoning study that could go out to bid later this year to explore changes such as extending the incentives in the central business district to more downtown properties, rezoning downtown commercial districts to allow for mixed uses of apartments and retail, and consolidating the downtown’s districts to allow for high density housing development.
High-density means large-scale projects on properties with the infrastructure to support them, such as the 149-apartment complex at the former News-Times headquarters on Main Street, being completed by developer Dan Bertram.
To Bertram, the impact of the city’s plan should it revamp downtown zoning is unlikely to result in an overnight makeover for the Main Street corridor.
“You won’t have 10 builders come in at once — it will be more incremental than that,” Bertram said.  “Someone will watch another development go up and say, ‘That gives me the confidence to do a little more (with the next development).’ Developers will just keep pushing (creatively) over time, and that is a healthy cycle that you want to have.”
Nor is a revamping of downtown rezoning likely to happen without a fight, one city leader suggested.
“I can tell you if you door-knocked on Jefferson or Washington (avenues) and proposed that we increase density, they’d just shoot you right on the front porch and claim self-defense,” said Paul Rotello, the City Council’s Democratic minority leader, during a task force discussion about the topic last year. “They wouldn’t go for it.”
Rotello and his colleagues on the 21-member City Council in November unanimously endorsed the master plan, which called on leaders to “continue to invest in downtown Danbury through infrastructure and streetscape improvements, building façade improvements, public spaces for gathering and events, and marketing and attracting people to the downtown … (and) develop zoning regulations that will support outdoor dining … to bring back outdoor events to the downtown.”
Danbury residents who were quoted in the master plan agreed. One resident said, “Downtown Danbury needs to be revitalized.” Another resident called on leaders to “create a vibrant, active, accessible downtown.”
A key reason the makeover case studies were included in the master plan and a key reason Calitro is working immediately on the specifications of a downtown zoning study is not only for the health of the downtown economy, but also because of the city’s need for affordable housing.
“Affordable housing is sorely needed in Danbury,” said a resident who was quoted in the master plan. “Housing is a primary need in the future growth of our city.”
The master plan agrees.
“Multiple residents and stakeholders have expressed support for the concept of increasing housing supply in the downtown and amending the city’s zoning regulations to support housing development in and (around) downtown,” the master plan reads.
The focus on downtown housing comes at a time when the city’s growth continues to outpace that of Fairfield County and the state — a trend that is seen most dramatically in Danbury’s surging student enrollment that has leaders scrambling to build enough classrooms to keep up with demand.
Projections are that Danbury’s population could increase 10 percent from 86,000 to 95,000 by 2040, although that forecast does not account for “migration and population shifts attributed to COVID-19, which may amplify the projections for Danbury.”
In addition, the master plan says, because the racial and ethnic diversity of Danbury’s residents is becoming “increasingly diverse,” affordable housing that’s near city services is important because “minority groups have historically had lower incomes and lower home ownership rates.”
The development of high-density downtown housing would in turn drive economic growth and revitalize a Main Street that was once the center of civic and cultural life in Danbury.
“[M]any of the areas in and surrounding the downtown are not zoned to support residential development or have zoning regulations that limit the density of housing below density limits that are typical of an urban downtown,” the master plan says.
Residents agree.
“I would like to see Danbury become the hip, cool place for young people to want to live and work, with diverse restaurants and stores beyond the mass market, big box and chain brands we have now,” said one resident quoted in the master plan.
Reach Rob Ryser at [email protected] or 203-731-3342.
 
Rob Ryser is a reporter with the News-Times. Rob is a career journalist with a rare flair for storytelling. He specializes in City Hall coverage and general assignment features.

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