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East Lyme — For years this town has envisioned a tract between Route 1 and Society Road as a hub for commercial growth, but the property's isolation from major roads has until now discouraged commitment from a developer.
At a news conference Wednesday, William J. Schwartz, a developer based in Fairfield, unveiled his proposal for “Gateway Commons,” a 167-acre setting that would include a senior housing community, a retail complex, a research-and-development facility and a “full-service, flagship hotel with meeting rooms and restaurants.”
“We want to add certain amenities that people have been looking for,” First Selectman Wayne Fraser said Wednesday.
Schwartz's targeted property extends westward from Route 161 between exits 73 and 74 of Interstate 95, an area the town has designated as the Gateway Planned Development District. Officials believe the property, which is visible from the highway, could be a boon to a large retailer who could advertise by billboard or marquee.
“This is the gateway to Southeastern Connecticut, a key intersection for people in the tourist industry,” Fraser said, noting its proximity to Interstate 395 and the proposed interchange of Route 11.
Despite its attractive location, the Gateway district has remained fallow because most of it is inaccessible from the town's major roads. Developers who have approached the town before have retreated in the face of difficulties with the infrastructure, Fraser said.
But Schwartz has been talking with Department of Transportation officials about retooling the Exit 74 interchange to open up an access road that will carry motorists either to Gateway Commons or Route 161.
This access road would run parallel to the highway and eventually connect exits 73 and 74. “It could be a diversion route if there is a problem on I-95,” town planner Meg Parulis said. “It would prevent Route 1 from getting bogged down.”
Schwartz's plans encompass only part of the Gateway district, but town officials believe the access road will become a conduit that makes the rest of the district fertile for the growth of new businesses. At the northern end, which borders Route 1, the access road could also relieve traffic congestion in the Flanders Four Corners area, Fraser said.
Fraser, who announced his intention in February to run for re-election, has made economic development a priority. He has hinted that he will reveal two other projects within a month, but he said Schwartz's project is the largest new development.
At the end of its 10- to 15-year buildout, Gateway Commons should rachet up the town's tax base by $200 million dollars, the largest single growth in town history. When construction is complete, it is expected to pull in an annual tax revenue of $3.2 million.
“Our future is based on grand-list growth that will offset the cost of being a premier residential community,” Fraser said.
Schwartz has earmarked 40 acres of his parcel for senior housing, a kind of residential development that has burgeoned in East Lyme. In addition to Chapman Woods and Crescent Point, the town will soon have Spinnaker, a 77-unit senior development at the intersection of Route 156 and Indian Woods Road.
Forty-three acres of Schwartz's property are tagged for a shopping area that includes one major anchor store. This retailer will have big-box proportions — more than 136,000 square feet — but officials expect an upscale vendor.
“We won't support a building or retailer that doesn't complement the town,” Fraser said.
Schwartz said Wednesday he has begun negotiations with a retailer and should have a deal secured within 30 days. The retailer has “absolutely shown sincere interest,” Schwartz said.
The shopping area also includes 31,600 square feet for a “village” shopping area — just larger than Midway Plaza — of small independent stores fronted by a tree-lined walkway. “There is a demand for quality small-space environments,” said William Newman of Connecticut Commercial Realty, who brokered the land options for Schwartz.
On Wednesday, Schwartz presented what zoning official William Mulholland called a “broad-brush conceptual plan.” He must still present a concrete architectural plan that meets the town's zoning and wetlands regulations.
If the project is approved, Schwartz expects to move forward first with the retail and residential components. He does not yet have tenants in mind for the research-and-development complex or the hotel, as both industries have suffered with the poor economy.
“It's a flat market right now,” he said. “That part is still a few years away.”
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