Column: The Development Scene: Preserve the Past or Enliven the Present?
By Allan Murphy
Sentinel Business Columnist
The evolution of large-scale real estate development in a long-established community is typically fraught with starts and stops, passionate discourse on what is the right mix of residential and commercial space, and the desire to protect and celebrate historical structures versus the need to re-invent buildings and spaces that are needed to meet the current and future needs of an ever-changing community and world.
This is a greater challenge with more voices in an old town like ours. It’s often easier to start with a blank slate and “master plan” an entire community than it is to adapt an old infrastructure for more contemporary use—a process that can never satisfy everyone but is required in order to maintain a relevant and vibrant community. What does this mean for Greenwich?
Well, in central Greenwich it has meant the “malling” of Greenwich Avenue, with chain stores and fancy corporate-owned boutiques replacing many local family businesses, or pricing them off the Avenue and onto side streets or into the less expensive neighborhood hamlets of our town: Beam & Barre going to Cos Cob, Greenwich Hardware going to Railroad Avenue, Bon Ton Fish Market going to Bruce Park Avenue, and Porricelli’s Market yielding to CVS in Cos Cob.
Fortunately, “The Avenue” is big enough and has enough buildings and spaces to still support many local businesses, but it has become harder (i.e., more expensive) over time. Mostly the changes and dislocations take place one store or one building at a time. Think of the evolution of residences in central Greenwich, with modest older homes being slowly but consistently replaced by larger Georgetown-esque, multi-million dollar townhouses.
It’s rare that entire blocks or sets of buildings get re-developed all at once. Such assemblages take lots of time and money and municipal and community cooperation. It’s tough to build consensus in a town like ours, which has many constituents with diverse views. In general, this is a highly desirable feature of our town, but it’s a huge challenge for big development projects.
With that backdrop, do we have any big-picture development projects currently evolving?
Yes. The most likely and dramatic such development is planned for the Benedict Place/Benedict Court area between West Elm Street and Lewis Street. Numerous small commercial office buildings and a few homes have been purchased over the last 10 years to create a large, singly-owned parcel of property just west of St. Mary’s Church on Greenwich Avenue.
Many redevelopment concepts have been considered and evaluated, including a mixed-use development of a boutique hotel and retail plaza area with offices and residences above, and with an extensive underground parking garage to serve both the new development and to expand or replace the existing municipal surface parking lots. The financial crisis and the subsequent accelerating trend toward downtown residential use led first to years of delay and now to updated plans for a predominately residential development that may or may not include the municipal lot on the south side of Lewis Street. That will likely depend on how enthusiastically, and how quickly, the town can act in participating in the redevelopment.
Some will lament the loss of this quaint and quirky enclave, but in my opinion it is clearly appropriate for redevelopment, as the existing buildings are generally outdated and have little redeeming architectural value. The right development of this parcel would add a cool new vibe and some great housing stock to central Greenwich Avenue, with the added benefit of substantially increased municipal parking.
Good luck to this project, and kudos to the development team that has been working on this for over 12 years, and is still at the stage of obtaining approvals. It has been an expensive labor of love by a lifelong town resident.
Allan Murphy is a senior managing director at the commercial real estate services firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. He has specialized in the Greenwich and Stamford markets since 1996.