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Greenwich Ten Years from Now

As we await the report of the planning & zoning commission on the ten-year plan of conservation and development due out this fall, it is interesting to observe what is happening in our town and to speculate on what Greenwich, especially central Greenwich, will look like a decade from now. Some major projects have been approved and are underway. Others are in various stages of planning.

As we struggle to adjust to the ever-increasing complexity of urban governance, we cling to our decentralized town meeting form of government, and we maintain the pretense that Greenwich is a town rather than a city. Yet, with a population larger than many cities and a grand list that rivals that of some smaller states, we are a town in name only. And because we are sandwiched between the booming metropolis of Stamford and cities across the line in New York State, “We are not,” as P&Z chairman Don Heller puts it, “Switzerland.”  What is taking place on our borders has a direct effect on our own plans for development.

Do you feel that the Benedict Place proposal should be approved?

We wax nostalgic over the loss of  family-owned retailers on Greenwich Avenue:  Marks Brothers, Boswell’s Drug Store and the Korean grocery market. Some residents will remember Woolworth’s Five & Ten where Saks Fifth Avenue now resides. But rest assured, with rents soaring over $100 a square foot, a tenfold increase since the eighties, they won’t be coming back. According to Marshall Heaven, commercial real estate broker and developer, the trend to expensive boutique-type stores will continue. At a national convention of shopping mall developers and brokers, the buzz, Marshall said, was all about Greenwich Avenue. He also mentioned a little known fact that when the Stamford Town Center was built and ready for occupancy back in the eighties, A. Alfred Taubman, the owner, inserted in his leases that retail chains would not establish another outlet within 5.5 miles of his mall. This radius just happened to encompass Greenwich Avenue, Taubman apparently considering it a potential rival. But Marshall Heaven believes the mall in Stamford actually sparked the interest of retail chains in Greenwich Avenue, while provisions of the Reagan Economic Recovery Act of 1981 provided incentives for landlords to fix up their properties.

We are witnessing a demand for downtown living that we believe will gain momentum. It is fueled by Manhattanites moving to Greenwich, as well as by empty nesters abandoning their large backcountry homes in favor of the convenience of condominiums and townhouses. Counting on this trend, the HB Nitkin Group, owners and developers of the Greenwich Financial Center on Fawcett Place among other properties, has gained approval for an exciting and creative plan for nine deluxe townhouses in and around the armory building on Mason Street. Built in 1911 for the Connecticut National Guard, the armory is listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places. The Nitkins have retained the noted urban architectural firm of Robert A. M. Stern to design the overall project and the individual homes. This includes restoring and retaining, at considerable expense, the original exterior brick façade and crenellated towers — a challenging assignment since the entire 31,400-square-foot property, including the bulk of the armory and the parking lot on Mason and Havemeyer Lane, will be excavated for a two-story underground parking facility for ninety-one cars. The plans then call for topping this with trees and private gardens for each home.

The project, which will be known as “The Houses at the Armory,” will be truly green. Heating and air conditioning will be supplied geothermically by twenty wells drilled 600 feet down. The price? We’ll have to wait to hear; but those who can afford these magnificent homes should have no trouble robing themselves at Richards next door.

Equally ambitious is a major project in the planning stages for Benedict Place and Lewis Street. It is the brainchild of Joe Tranfo, a local lawyer turned developer and a born and raised Greenwich resident. The master plan was created by the firm of Elkus/Manfredi, which has designed landmark urban projects in Boston. It includes a boutique hotel and restaurant facing Lewis Street, with twin three-story buildings descending Benedict Place. The nondescript alleyway known as Benedict Court would become a landscaped courtyard between the two.

A pedestrian walkway will provide access to the courtyard from Greenwich Avenue. The ground floors of the multi-use buildings are dedicated to offices, and the upper two will be residential, which conforms to the zoning regulations for Greenwich Avenue. There will be three levels of underground parking for as many as 650 cars. One level will be reserved for residential and office tenants, and with 230 spaces available for the public, there will be roughly double the amount of space that will be lost from the existing parking lots at street level. The garage will be served by escalators rather than elevators and, according to Tranfo, will be well lighted and monitored for security. On the parking lot on the north side of Lewis Street will be a two-story building with retail stores and below-market-rate residential units above them.

Much of the area between Benedict Place and the rear property line of Greenwich Avenue stores is underutilized, marked by a jumble of quaint but dilapidated houses. The Benedict Place project as conceived, or as it may be modified, will be a major improvement. A new residential element to our downtown business district will be introduced that should create a more active after-hours environment.

Another on the list of important developments in the planning stage is the long- awaited expansion of the Bruce Museum,  which will be unveiled later this year as the institution celebrates its 100th anniversary. Considering the museum’s limited amount of space, the number of first-rate exhibitions that the Bruce has mounted each year under the leadership of Executive Director Peter Sutton is truly miraculous. Of twelve last year, three were originated by the Bruce and two were loaned to other, larger museums around the country, including the exhibition of the renowned eighteenth-century Dutch painter Jan van Heyden that continued to earn an international reputation for the Bruce. “With so little space,” says Sutton, “it is a challenge to mount important art and science exhibitions. We need to loan to other museums in order to obtain exhibitions in return.” New galleries will not only alleviate that problem but will also allow the museum to accept gifts of artwork for a permanent collection, according to Sutton, as well as long-term loans from Greenwich collectors that it cannot presently handle.

Drawing 100,000 visitors a year, the Bruce is the second most popular museum in Connecticut. While regional visitors contribute significantly to the economy of our town, what may not be fully appreciated is the educational contribution that the Bruce makes to our schoolchildren. Each year some 1,200 programs attract over 16,000 students here and through the Bruce Mobile outreach program. In addition, there are the adult lecture series and tours attended by over 8,500. The new museum will have a lecture hall, galleries and exhibition hall, plus classrooms and workshops that will allow the museum to expand its arts and science programs.

Still unresolved is the fate of the Havemeyer Building now occupied by the Board of Ed and proposed as a home for a Greenwich Arts Center if and when the Board of Ed decides to move elsewhere, which it has announced it would like to do. Designed as our central school in 1905, the building is totally inappropriate for office space and desperately in need of renovation. However, its airy rooms and abandoned theater make it ideal for a center for the visual and performing arts, and for little else. A group of Greenwich residents have offered to fund the $32 million estimated cost of renovating and converting the Havemeyer Building for a center for the visual and performing arts. It would become a cultural and social hub in the midst of  the Greenwich Avenue commercial district and would also create a more inviting access to Havemeyer Park.

Until recently it appeared to be a game of musical chairs that involved whether the senior center would remain in the Old Town Hall along with the Arts Council. It has since been decided that they would remain and the building renovated. But the Board of Ed has been advised by the BET that the capital improvement budget can’t accommodate the new auditorium and art complex at the high school — a project estimated at around $32 million — and a new headquarters for them at the same time. As a result, the Board of Ed has been unwilling to commit to abandoning the Havemeyer Building until a budget is approved for the high school project and an alternative location established for its administration building. Consequently, the fate of the Havemeyer Building and prospects for its conversion to an arts center remain in limbo.

In the end, traffic and parking will have a major influence on just how much downtown development can be accommodated and where. Traffic has increased to a point of irritation if not occasional saturation, and the town does not have an encouraging record for creating a plan for off-street parking that can help ease the problem. Both the armory project and the Benedict Place plans offer the benefit of below-grade parking and, in the case of the latter, will actually increase available public parking. Even so, there is a continuing need for tiered parking at both the upper and lower ends of Greenwich Avenue. While the town has wrestled unsuccessfully with the issue for the past forty years or more, we hazard to predict that we will have at least one tiered parking garage before the next ten years elapse.

The pressure on Greenwich from those who want to work, live, shop, dine and visit here will not diminish. Development on our borders, such as the new Royal Bank of Scotland building in Stamford that will house 2,500 employees, is already well under way and will continue to exert pressure on Greenwich commercial and residential prices, as well as our transportation infrastructure. The Plan of Conservation and Development will tell us what direction we want Greenwich to take in the next ten years; where we actually end up may not be quite the same.