DANBURY — Before Danbury Fair made its case about why a new zone to allow mall apartments was good for its future and for the city as a whole, representatives made it clear that the 37-year-old shopping center is at a crossroads.
“One business article noted that the average national vacancy rate for malls nearly doubled from 2018 to the end of the third quarter last year, and articles have reported on the challenges or the downward spiral of several malls in Connecticut including the Enfield mall, the Crystal Mall in Waterford, the Meriden Mall and the Waterbury Brass Mill mall,” said Thomas Beecher, Danbury Fair’s land use attorney, during a public hearing earlier this month. “These and other mall properties are potential commercial retail brownfields of the 21st century if everyone doesn’t work together to position mall properties to survive and thrive.”
Beecher chose a dire image to make his point to the city’s Zoning Commission, which will vote in early October whether to allow regulations to pave the way for Danbury Fair’s future as a “24-hour environment” that could include apartments, a school, a hospital and a host of other uses. A brownfield is an often contaminated property vacated due to industrial decline that lingers as a sign of urban blight.
“The Danbury Fair mall is attractive, the city of Danbury is attractive, and this mall, unlike others in Connecticut, has a large regional geographic draw,” Beecher said during a Sept. 12 Zoning Commission public hearing. “But please don’t conclude that this success is great and therefore there is no need for any change. Resting on success and not planning for the future is a recipe for disaster.”
The change Danbury Fair proposes has been in the headlines since August: a rebranding of the 1.3-million-square-foot mall that mixes 140 or more apartments in the empty Lord & Taylor anchor space with entertainment-based uses and other non-retail tenants such as an adult day care center, an assembly hall, a college campus, an ice rink, a swimming pool, a library, a museum, a hotel and a hospital.
The fact that Danbury Fair has been in the headlines for the right reasons recently — signing two major leases to fill anchor spaces left by three bankrupt retail tenants, for example — doesn’t mean the mall is immune to the pressures that are closing shopping centers here across the country, Beecher said.
“The Danbury Fair mall is the largest taxpayer in the city of Danbury. This is an important fact because it highlights why both the mall and the city already have acted and should continue to act jointly and proactively to ensure that the property remains vibrant and sustainable as a commercial center for years to come,” Beecher said. “Maintaining all the jobs available at the mall is a very important factor woven into that as well.”
The joint action Beecher mentioned refers to a two-year series of meetings between Danbury Fair and the city’s professional planning staff to balance the shopping center’s desire for maximum flexibility with the city’s need to protect the public’s health, safety and well-being.
Flooding and security concerns
The Zoning Commission, which had planned to vote on the mall's request Tuesday night, canceled its meeting on Tuesday after only seven members of the nine-member body said they were able to attend. The vote was put off until the commission's Oct. 10 meeting.
The Zoning Commission closed the public hearing earlier this month after concerns about flooding, security involving students and apartment dwellers in a mall, and the disruptive nature of a large digital sign.
“The existing site is nearly 100 percent covered by directly connected impervious surfaces, and the local drainage basin has some of the highest coverages in the western Connecticut region,” read a letter of concern by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, a regional planning agency. “Increased frequency and intensity of flooding events will continue to impact the surrounding infrastructure and water quality and can cause harm to the regional and local population.”
Calitro responded during the public hearing that the city had enough safeguards in its land use regulations and enough discretion to require flooding prevention measures to protect residents from flooding with any new development at the mall.
Calitro added that the Zoning Commission would be voting only on whether to create a new mall zone. If the commission approves the request, it would be up to the mall to apply to change its zone from commercial to the new mall zone.
Veteran commission member Robert Melillo said he was trying to imagine elementary school students going to school in a mall, and trying to picture teenagers living in a mall.
“Only 20 percent of the (apartments) can be 2-bedroom,” Beecher responded. “So I’m picturing the units are not going to be filled with a lot of teenagers.”
“I do know of teenagers who live in 1-bedroom apartments and their parents sleep on the couch,” Melillo said.
“The mall hours are still the mall hours,” Beecher said. “There is no place to wander after the mall closes.”
“From a security standpoint it is a different world than it was 12 years ago. Twelve years ago was pre-Sandy Hook,” Melillo said. “Schools are tight security now. If something happens, we go on security procedures.”
“Your concerns are all valid,” Beecher said. “There are no current plans whatsoever to have a school use in the mall.”
A city leader objected to the proposed mall zone because it would allow a large digital sign.
“This would be the only zone that allows a digital sign. All the digital signs you see around town were approved by the (Zoning Board of Appeals) under the hardship rule,” said Ben Chianese, a City Council member. He asked if the mall would be willing to turn off the sign after closing hours, since “that would go a long way with the neighborhood.”
Mall representatives responded that they could certainly do that, saying their intention was not to light up the west side at night, but give tenants needed advertising exposure.
“Over 90 percent of the mall tenants are interior facing tenants, meaning they do not get an exterior sign exposure because they cannot comply with the current sign regulations which only allow the tenant wall sign to be on the outer wall of the tenant’s exact specific space,” Beecher said. “Tenants in strip malls and shopping centers have a distinct advantage because almost all those tenants are in storefronts and therefore are entitled to have wall signs.”
An executive for the mall’s parent company agreed.
“The big interest in getting these new signs is so we can put tenant panels on them. Right now the signage we have just says Danbury Fair mall. We have tenants who have passed on this site because they can’t have their name on a tenant panel sign,” said Tawney Farmer, vice president of development for California-based Macerich Co. “On the variable message sign we could also show tenant panels. Nothing on this display will be flashing or blinking or animated. It is just static images that change every 30 seconds. It is not obnoxious at all.”