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What did it take for Downtown Darien to emerge from its identity crisis and Take its place as a premier gold coast shopping, eating and living destination?

 Centuries before Darien appeared on a Hagstrom’s map, the Boston Post Road ran through what would eventually become the town’s business center as colonists on horseback galloped the unpaved postal route between Manhattan and Boston. Over time many southern New England towns changed the road’s name to simply the Post Road or various numbered U.S. routes: Route 1, Route 5, Route 20. That the section of old road traversing downtown Darien remains the Boston Post Road is telling. While those other towns set plans into motion to modernize their commercial zones, Darien appeared not only stuck in the past, but happy to be there. By the mid-1980s, however, as the streetscape declined and nearby downtowns reinvented themselves and prospered, it became clear that Darien’s downtown would either have to reinvent itself too, or die. And for a long time, no one was sure which it would be.

Clamoring for Change

The town’s business district runs west along the Boston Post Road from Sedgwick Avenue to the Darien Sport Shop and Leroy Avenue. This would be an ideal, pedestrian-friendly stretch of commerce, comparable to the Post Road through the center of Fairfield or Elm Street in New Canaan, if it weren’t for the Metro North railroad crossing at West Avenue. The trestle, with a dip in the road underneath, dissects downtown, disrupting any full shopping vista and discouraging foot traffic from one side to the other.

Although various solutions have been suggested over the years, none has come to pass and none would have eliminated the obstacle. But according to business owners and others involved in the downtown, Metro North isn’t the only reason for Darien’s economic dormancy.

“Darien was sort of antibusiness for quite a while,” says Neil Hauck, of Neil Hauck Architects, whose office is at the corner of Mansfield Avenue and the Boston Post Road. “The people on the zoning board, I think, just felt that they liked Darien the way it was — a sleepy little town. They didn’t want a Westport or a Greenwich; they wanted their own identity. Not a lot happened in the commercial district for a long time.”
Adds Wilder Gleason, a land-use attorney in town, “Change comes long and hard in Darien. It’s a town that has done extremely well by being the last one to change.”

Or relatively well, at any rate. It’s just that that wasn’t well enough for some downtown business owners.

As Warren Tuttle, former owner of the Complete Kitchen and the Good Food Store in the 1990s, sees it, the resistance to development was the result of highly restrictive zoning regulations dating back to the 1970s. “The parking standards in downtown Darien were not only the most onerous in Fairfield County or the state of Connecticut,” he says. “They were the single most onerous parking regulations in the country!” Under those regulations, retail stores and restaurants were required to have one parking space for every 100 square feet of building space on-site, which meant that it was impossible for owners or developers to fit all the parking spaces they needed into a property’s boundaries. This effectively kept prospective businesspeople from opening new establishments downtown.

Nor did it help that at various times Darien has suffered from something of an inferiority complex regarding New Canaan. “Darien has always been competitive with New Canaan,” says Gleason, a former president of the Darien Chamber of Commerce. “Our downtown was not of the quality of New Canaan’s.” All the same, it was Darien business owners who began clamoring for change. And before long, to their surprise, Darien residents joined them in calling for commercial equality.

Heeding the Wake-Up Call

One symbol of the downtown’s decline was the Darien movie theater, which closed in the early ’80s. But it wasn’t the only one. Shortly after being elected president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1990, Tuttle asked Gleason and Hauck to join him on a walkabout downtown, making notes and snapping photos. “We walked up and down the Post Road,” Hauck recalls. “The ‘sidewalk furniture’ — the garbage cans, the benches — was shoddy. The sidewalks were heaving up, and there were empty storefronts and rundown buildings.”

The three then made a split-screen slide presentation to the Planning & Zoning Commission. On one side of the screen were the shots of downtown Darien; on the other side, photos they’d taken of the business centers in New Canaan and Fairfield. The comparisons were strokes of calculated genius. Although New Canaan didn’t have the same logistical problems as Darien, it had revitalized its downtown. Fairfield, like Darien, had long had a sleepy, if not comatose, business center. But beginning in the mid-1980s, after Southport architect Mark Finlay redesigned the Post Road streetscape with brick walks and handsome streetlamps, Fairfield center slowly started coming to life with new restaurants, retail stores and a community theater.

The presentation did more than open P&Z members’ ears, Hauck recalls. “It really opened their eyes.”

Quickly, things began to change. The town set up the Taskforce for Downtown Improvement to ease zoning regulations downtown and initiated a “Model Block” program: If property owners agreed to deed the land behind their buildings to the town and spruce up their façades, the town would improve their parking lots and the sidewalks.

Still, for Darien to reach its potential as a viable economic district, something more needed to be done. “To continue the development process,” Tuttle says, “we needed some initial people to invest in the program, to show there was life there, which would attract others to invest.”

One such person happened to be standing by: Penny Glassmeyer, a long-time Darien resident and a developer of high-end homes.

Groundbreaking Plans

In fact, Glassmeyer had bought four lots on Grove Street years earlier and had approached the P&Z with a plan for retail stores and apartments, only to be turned down. Finally, in the early 2000s, she returned with a new plan to a P&Z  led by a new director, Fred Conze.

“Dear, dear Fred,” Glassmeyer recalls, “pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘What have we done to Penny? This is crazy. Let’s send her home and have her come back with her dream.’” The commission ultimately approved her plan for two buildings, totaling 21,000 square feet, enclosing a courtyard and fountain.

At the same time, Evonne Klein, the newly elected first selectwoman, had been listening to constituents complain about the state of the economic area. “One of the big issues I was hearing from townspeople was, ‘Why can’t we be more like New Canaan?’” she recalls. “Well, Darien has its own identity, but they were right — there was no reason why our downtown didn’t have a better variety of stores.”

In 2004 Grove Street Plaza officially opened (currently, the two buildings house La Gravinese Jewelers, JD’s Cosmetics, the Melting Pot restaurant, and ten apartments).  “She was the test case,” Neil Hauck says of Glassmeyer. “All of a sudden I think the people in town said, ‘Wow, that actually looks pretty nice and it didn’t ruin anything, and hey, maybe development isn’t quite so bad.’”

In fact, Grove Street Plaza appears to have sparked something of a chain reaction of commercial projects that are — at an increasingly rapid speed — transforming downtown Darien.

Hauck himself was soon commissioned to design several new buildings downtown: the First County Bank, the Darien Rowayton Bank, and a Brooks Brothers storefront for Darien residents and developers Phil and Dan Dolcetti. Then, in 2004, the Darien Playhouse movie theater reopened as a two-screen cinema, with the Elizabeth Arden/Red Door Spa on the second floor and Ann Taylor Loft in front.

And in March of last year, local developer David Genovese opened Ten Twenty Post, a 28,000-square-foot luxury, mixed-use complex designed by Mark Finlay, on the Boston Post Road. The classic brick building, with a central walkway to a rear parking lot, quickly filled up. On the first floor are two restaurants, Ole Mole and Ten Twenty Post; Williams & Warren Skin & Body Care Clinic; Lucy, a women’s wear shop; and Gofer, an ice cream parlor. Merrill Lynch and a wealth management company occupy the second floor. The third floor contains six apartments, two of which are rented to a town librarian and to a teacher in the Darien school system.

Planning the Next Wave

Darien seems to be acquiring an identity of its own.

Following Ten Twenty Post, Genovese acquired the Drapery Exchange at 1064 Boston Post Road, diagonally across from the playhouse. Three national chains reportedly inquired about leasing the space. Instead, it went to the Darien Toy Box, owned by former executive and Darien resident Bill Jensen, for less rent than the chains would have paid.

“Greenwich, Westport and New Canaan all have national stores,” Genovese explains. “I think that Darien has a great opportunity to be unique and host more locally owned and operated stores, where you can find things that you can’t find in the shopping malls or on Greenwich Avenue. That’s what makes this interesting. Darien is almost a blank slate. It has the opportunity to reinvent itself and create something truly unique.”

For Jensen, the location and timing were right. “Ten years ago,” he says, “the downtown was sort of dying out. But now there are a lot of moms and dads walking around with young children. People wanted us to be here, and we’ve been really well received.”

This spring, in spite of the downturn in the economy, the town is poised for another wave of development. The Dolcettis plan to build a 12,000-square-foot restaurant and retail space, designed by Neil Hauck in a traditional railroad depot style, behind Brooks Brothers. Greenwich developer Albert Orlando has permits for two mixed-use buildings on Bay Street and the Post Road. Whole Foods Market is set to occupy the site of the former Howard Johnson’s off I-95’s Exit 11. And Penny Glassmeyer is seeking approval for a 6,000-square-foot office building on the site currently occupied by Stolfi-Fairfield Appliances.

Change is already apparent in the air downtown. “It’s gone from something that people took for granted to something that they’re actually proud of,” observes P&Z director Jeremy Ginsberg. “You see a lot more shoppers out on the streets, a lot more activity.”

There’s been one other sign of the downtown’s emergence from its long slumber. “Recently I’ve received calls from other communities,” says Ginsberg, “asking, ‘What are you doing in Darien? How are you doing it? What are some of the things you’ve done to generate such change?’ More people are looking at what’s going on here. And that’s good.”