Category Archives: Local business

NY Times: “The Builders Are Back”

It’s hard to hide a 12,000-square foot house.

But for anyone living under a (very heavy) rock — with no idea that some very large homes are going up all around town — the secret is out.

Tomorrow’s New York Times real estate section splashed us all over Page 1.

The story is headlined: “In Fairfield, The Builders Are Back.”

“Fairfield,” of course, is Fairfield County. And — just as we’ve taken the lead with some big-ass houses — Westport leads the article too.

It begins:

On a recent Sunday afternoon here, anyone visiting open houses might have thought the recession never happened. At one new multimillion-dollar colonial after another, real estate agents were eagerly waiting to show visitors high-ceilinged kitchens anchored by immense white-marble islands; fireplaces hefty enough to offset mega-size flat-screen TVs; exercise rooms with saunas and steam showers; and marble bathrooms with freestanding tubs and heated floors.

En-suite bathrooms for every bedroom are “really big right now,” said Lisa Watkins, an agent with William Raveis, who was showing a $2.699 million house on the outskirts of the sought-after Compo Beach area.

The Times used this photo of a new house on Turkey Hill Road South to illustrate its story on Fairfield County real estate ... (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

The Times used this photo of a new house on Turkey Hill Road South to illustrate its story on Fairfield County real estate … (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

So are “fabulous outdoor spaces,” said Todd Gibbons, an agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, who was holding an open house at a $4.35 million home (since reduced to $4.199 million) with multiple stone terraces that incorporated a pool, a spa and a fire pit.

Builders’ expectations for the spring market here are clearly high. After a recession-induced lull, new construction catering to wealthy buyers is back in a big way in Westport and a few other select areas of Fairfield County, particularly New Canaan and the neighborhoods around the beach. And the voracious demand for teardown properties where that new construction can be built is raising the already-high bar for first-time buyers, pitting them against builders looking for older homes on decent-size lots.

The piece notes the pressure put on owners of older homes. “It’s not uncommon for builders in Westport to pay upward of $1 million for a teardown, and $2 million or more near the water,” the Times says.

... and this one, on Charcoal Hill Road. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

… and this one, on Charcoal Hill Road. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

The story adds that while construction dropped nearly 60% during the recession, it’s zoomed since 2012. The driving force: “demand for new homes for well-to-do buyers — many of them from the city, agents say — who want the latest in design and technology, and aren’t willing to renovate existing homes.”

So it’s no surprise that there were 103 demolition permits issued during the fiscal year ending last June. The tough winter has driven the recent number down slightly, but more permits are expected this spring.

Life is good for new-home buyers — and realtors. The Times‘ look at Westport noted:

Earlier this month, a remarkable 93 new homes in various stages of completion were listed for sale in Westport, said Jillian Klaff, a broker specializing in new construction. About 40 of them were priced over $2.5 million, which, as she observed, is “a lot of houses.” Especially given that in 2014, only 25 sold in that price range.

The story briefly touches on other towns, including Fairfield and New Canaan. But I’ve summarized the most important points.

Now you don’t have to read it. Why waste time with the Times, when there are so many new homes to buy?

(Hat tip: John Karrel)

Bye Bye, Barn

Like many Westporters, alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther has been watching the departure of Geiger’s with sorrow.

Unlike most of us, she’s done more than just drive past the former garden center property. Yesterday she wrote:

What you see in the photo below represents about 3 days of work, done in fits and starts.

(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

This morning I saw some people on the roof of the main barn. They appeared to be removing roofing tiles. By noon today they were gone.

Several days ago, guys in hard hats removed a small portion of the roof from the smaller, east addition. Yesterday they removed the rest. Now you can see the supporting rafters.

They appear to be going at a turtle’s pace, which could be a good sign. Hopefully they’ll index/mark everything as they remove it (a good deconstruction process).

I’ve put out feelers to Coastal Development a few times (via P&Z hearings and your blog) in hopes of getting answers to 2 important questions.

1. Have they hired a barn expert to guide them through the deconstruction process? Ordinary builders make terrible mistakes if left to their own devices.

2. How is Coastal Development planning to store the deconstructed pieces until new uses are found? Hopefully it won’t end up  in a giant pile under a tarp somewhere.

The Geiger barn in 2013. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Geiger barn in 2013. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

My heart sinks as I see this barn come down. It has sat in that exact spot for at least 150 years.

Only a few owners lived or worked on the site during all that time. Those owners ranged from the Coley/Burr family (who farmed in the area), to 2 pastors of Greens Farms Church, to the Winterton/Harris family, who lived on the property for 100 years (long enough that the corner was once known as the “Harris Switch” – a trolley stop). Then came the most recent proprietors: Parsell and Geiger.

Westport loses another part of its history as this barn comes down. For some it was an eyesore. For others it was a treasure – a reminder of Westport’s evolution from the days of early settlers and farmers, to those who left New York City in summer and on weekends to escape the heat and crowds, to budding entrepreneurs who, in quaint ways, brought flowers and shrubs into our own backyards.

Today, commercial developers are the “new entrepreneurs.” Some care nothing of the past and seek only to build their own profit margins. Coastal Development did at least try to save the barn, but zoning regulations made that hard to do.  I hope our zoning regs might change in the future to better encourage preservation.

The former Geiger's Garden Center, just south of the barn.

The former Geiger’s Garden Center, just south of the barn.

I hope that Coastal will treat this barn with care as they dismantle. For me, it is one of their biggest litmus tests. Will they walk the talk?

Whether they do or don’t, my heart will continue to break a little bit each time I drive by. The corner will look drastically different next year at this time.

Westport is losing another piece of its rural, agrarian past. Some will forget that soon enough as they pull in to do their banking.

Not me.

PS. When I pulled in to take this photo, I noticed that all of the glass was removed from the greenhouse. Does anyone know whether someone took advantage of the “free greenhouse” offer? Perhaps those who took the glass are coming back for the structure? If anyone knows, please let us know.

 

Sycamore Sidewalk

The handsome sycamore that sits just inside Compo Acres Shopping Center — right near the Post Road/South Compo entrances — has been the subject of “06880” stories before.

In December, owner Equity One declared the tree to be a “defining aspect” of the property. Representative Michael Lai said that Equity One “takes its stewardship seriously.”

Just how seriously has come into question recently.

Compo Acres sycamore

The ongoing renovation project — very ongoing — has entered its sidewalk phase. Concerned Westporters wonder if the sycamore — which has already survived a construction-related “mulch volcano” (a potentially tree-killing layer was mounded against the trunk), and bark damage (a woman attached an advertising sign for a fitness center) — can withstand all the cement that will soon be poured around its base.

 

Maserati Rolls Into Town

Weston Magazine threw a welcome-to-Westport party tonight for our new Maserati dealer. The site — across from Carvel — is the former J. McLaughlin (which in turn replaced the original Hay Day).

It was a great evening, with plenty of fine art, food and drinks.

And of course, fine autos.

Among the folks admiring the handsome cars were longtime Westport artist/icon Miggs Burroughs, and Liz Beeby.

Miggs and Maserati

This just may be the push I need to upgrade from my Toyota Camry.

Nah.

One Less Place To Buy Drugs

It’s official: Walgreens is closing its longtime HomeGoods shopping center location (opposite Shake Shack). A source says that employees have been told they will be retained, but they have not been told where.

Walgreens has a 2nd Westport location, just a couple of miles away across from the Sherwood Diner.

The company —  the largest drug retailing chain in the US, with over 8,000 stores — recently abandoned plans to build a new facility just over the Southport line. Neighbors had filed a legal challenge with Fairfield’s Plan and Zoning Commission.

Before it was Walgreens, the HomeGoods plaza site was occupied by MediMart.

Meanwhile, the most important question is: Why is Walgreens’ logo red?

Walgreens logo

Mersene: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

For over 60 years, Silver’s was Westport’s best-known go-to store for gifts.

For the last 3 or 4 years, Indulge by Mersene was Saugatuck’s less-known, but equally beloved, spot for funky, 1-of-a-kind gifts.

This winter, Silver’s closed. Mersene planned to shut her doors too. Westporters had no idea where they could now find a friendly owner with the knack for suggesting the absolutely perfect present.

Mersene's special style is here to stay, on Railroad Place.

Mersene’s special style is here to stay, on Railroad Place.

To the delight of her rabid — and quickly growing — fans, Mersene is still open. The  incredibly ingenious, phenomenally generous Mississippi native has downsized, moving from 2 overflowing rooms to 1. But she’s still across from the railroad station. She’s still as energetic and creative as ever.

Now, as spring brings Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and graduations — to go along with timeless events like weddings, bridal and baby showers, and Sweet 16s  — she is excited to fill Westport’s niche as the destination for how-did-you-ever-think-of-that?! gifts. (And — her specialty — gift baskets.)

She’s still on Railroad Place, because her customers could not stand the thought of her closing. They helped her figure out how to stay. And they’ve helped her add another wonderful niche: corporate gifts.

The other day, Mersene was busy filling baskets for a major Stamford corporation’s Administrative Professionals Day celebration. She was also preparing a Kentucky Derby-themed event for another big company.

As she selected wrapped items together with an ease Martha Stewart could only dream of, she mentioned other projects. For Mother’s Day, she’s designed special trays. They’ll include flowers, the Sunday paper, breakfast from Commuter Coffee Company — everything a mom could love.

A typical day: a customer browses (left), while Mersene makes sure all is well. Check out the Westport pillows!

A typical day: a customer browses (left), while Mersene makes sure all is well. Check out the Westport pillows!

(Here’s something else a mom — or anyone else — could love: pillows that say “06880.” Or “Westport.” Or monogrammed and/or custom-colored with anything else you can think of, from “Nantucket” to your alma mater.)

“It’s all about the packaging,” Mersene says, of her talent for pairing the exact right gifts with the perfect basket.

Anyone who steps into her shop for the first time recognizes that talent. She is the Lionel Messi of gifts — with even more grace than the famed soccer star. What other store owner happily delivers — and makes house calls?

Mersene’s renaissance has been aided by loyal customers, who help her manage the business side. She’s still not expensive — “I price things to sell,” she says — and she’ll still tell someone, “No, don’t buy that. I’m getting a better item next week.”

Mersene, with some of her many unique creations.

Mersene, with some of her many unique creations.

Which is why the “reinvention” of Indulge by Mersene is such good news.

Many people already know her. When a Los Angeles architect visited his sister here, he asked her for “the coolest place in Westport.” She took him to the little shop near the railroad station. He stayed for over an hour, fascinated.

And he still hadn’t seen half of Mersene’s presents, or how beautifully she presents them.

(Mersene ships her gifts — and delivers in the area. She also stages homes and galas. To learn more, click here; like “Indulge by Mersene” on Facebook; email mersene@indulgebymersene.com, or call 203-557-9410.)

 

Downtown Westport Springs To Life

Yesterday was the 1st real day of spring. And talented photographer Lynn U. Miller was there to capture it.

Many folks headed to the beach. But Lynn was intrigued by the number — and variety — of people wandering around, and enjoying, downtown Westport.

She enjoyed shooting a variety of scenes. You’ll enjoy seeing our familiar town with fresh eyes. (Click or hover any of the photos to enlarge!)

This relaxed couple enjoyed the view on a bench behind Oscar's. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

This relaxed couple enjoyed the view on a bench behind Oscar’s. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

University of Bridgeport grad students Neevaj Ram Motaparthy (electrical engineering) and Gopal Dugglna (computer science) snap their own shots. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

University of Bridgeport grad students Neevaj Ram Motaparthy (electrical engineering) and Gopal Dugglna (computer science) snap their own shots. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Ruben Alva of Bridgeport takes a break from work at the Spotted Horse. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Ruben Alva of Bridgeport heads to the river for a break from work at the Spotted Horse. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

From left: Fang Chih Lee, her mother Li Lee, and son/grandson Drake Chen. Drake lives in Westport. His mother and grandmother were visiting for the weekend, from Plymouth, Mass. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Fang Chih Lee, her mother Li Lee, and son/grandson Drake Chen. Drake lives in Westport. His mother and grandmother were visiting for the weekend, from Plymouth, Mass. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

An old-fashioned Church Lane sign. Reflected in the window: the former Max's Art Supplies. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

An old-fashioned Church Lane sign. Reflected in the window: the former Max’s Art Supplies. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

As the former Westport Y is  remade into Bedford Square, a window goes missing. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

As the former Westport Y is remade into Bedford Square, a window goes missing. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Before it was the Y fitness center, there was a firehouse next to the Bedford building. Now, you can see right through it. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Before it was the Y fitness center, there was a firehouse next to the Bedford building. Now you can see right through it. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Everyone out of the water! The deep end of the Y's large pool.

Everyone out of the water! The deep end of the Y’s large pool.

Near SoNo Baking -- across from the construction -- flowers bloom. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Near SoNo Baking — across from the construction — flowers bloom. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Hey, DOT: Move Your Asphalt!

It’s been there so long — and we’re so intent on finding an illegal parking spot at Starbucks — that most Westporters seldom notice the asphalt mountain at the state Department of Transportation maintenance facility just behind Walgreen’s and the bank, across from the diner.

But alert “06880” reader Scott Smith spotted it 2 years ago. Yesterday morning, he looked again. The only thing that’s changed: It’s 2 years older. 

Scott writes:

I know that much of the old asphalt scraped off our roadways is recycled into new material to resurface roads. In fact, old asphalt is the most recycled material in the US. Maybe that’s the state’s plan for all this stuff – surely thousands of cubic yards of ground-up asphalt. If so, they’re taking their sweet time to use it.

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road...

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road…

So here’s my question for CT DOT, as well as our local and state elected officials: Is this the best use of such prime Westport real estate?

Seems to me this area could be better utilized for, say, parking school buses and getting them out of their current cramped lot downtown. Or maybe we could work out a deal to move our Parks & Rec maintenance facility from the center of Longshore to this area. (The vehicles and equipment at that rundown facility are used not at Longshore but other Parks & Rec properties around town.) With some screening, perhaps there’s enough room here for affordable housing, which is as much a state issue as a local one.

Our local tax dollars sent to Hartford far out-measure what Westporters get back in terms of state services. You’d think we would have a good case to make for a land swap or lease that would allow Westport to make better use of this property. And there doesn’t seem to be much of a NIMBY issue involved, as most any re-development of the site would be preferable to a mountain of asphalt sitting almost in the middle of town.

...and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

…and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

Bridgewater’s Glendinning Goes Green

Bridgewater Associates is the world’s biggest hedge fund. It’s also one of Westport’s leading taxpayers.

But the firm keeps a very low profile. If not for the big buses zipping employees between their Glendinning headquarters complex on Weston Road and a 2nd office at Nyala Farms near I-95 Exit 18, no one would know they’re here.

However, a small blurb in this week’s Wall Street Journal raised concerns with an “06880” reader. The paper said that — after its plan to move to Stamford fell through — Bridgewater wants to renovate its Glendinning offices, and create an underground parking garage.

The project “could require the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers,” the WSJ noted.

Bridgewater headquarters

An aerial view of Bridgewater’s Glendinning headquarters. Note the parking spaces on both sides of the river.

“Scope of project sounds mind-blowing,” said the email I received. “How come nothing online?”

It’s not as massive as it sounds. In fact, Bridgewater — whose corporate culture has been called “cultish,” “bizarre” and “not for everyone” — has for nearly 20 years been a careful steward of the wooded, riverfront Glendinning property (and an excellent tenant in the hidden-away Nyala Farms complex too).

“This is a unique setting: a beautiful, bio-diverse area,” a company representative told Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission at a pre-application hearing earlier this month.

Bridgewater hopes to increase the functionality of its “somewhat tired” buildings — though not increase their footprints — while maintaining the natural environment that may contribute, in some way, to the hedge fund’s successful management of $169 billion.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

Glendinning (named for the marketing firm that originally developed the property) sits at the confluence of the Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers. It’s in a 100-year floodplain.

To mitigate flooding — a problem in the past — Bridgewater wants to move 170 asphalt parking spaces underground. The new parking garage will be planted over, with bio-filtering greenery.

There will also be a new central green. As adjacent buildings are renovated, coverage will be reduced by 30 percent. Coverage on the adjacent Ford Road parcel may increase slightly.

Natural plantings will restore 1000 feet near the Saugatuck River’s edge. Bridgewater will work with Trout Unlimited to add a new fish ladder too.

A realigned driveway and new bridge will connect the complex with Ford Road. Bridgewater promises to buffer it well.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater's plan.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater’s plan.

Bridgewater has already met with Westport’s planning, engineering and conservation departments, plus the fire marshal. They’ve talked with the Department of Environmental Protection.

They’ve also sat down with owners of nearby properties, on Weston and Ford Roads.

“This is the best stewardship of a unique natural resource,” a Bridgewater spokesman told the P&Z. Members had several questions, but seemed to appreciate the company’s commitment to green space.

The process is still in the early stages. Applications and reviews are needed by conservation, flood and erosion and architectural review boards, plus the DEP and FEMA. It could be 6 months to a year before the P&Z hears the application.

Bridgewater is a hedge fund, not an insurance company. But it sounds as if they’re borrowing a famous firm’s motto. You know: Like a good neighbor, they’re there.

(To see Glendinning’s full presentation at the P&Z meeting earlier this month, click here; then click “Agenda.”)

AAA Leaves Westport — But We Won’t Have Far To Drive

AAA is a great organization. They’re still just a phone call away for road assistance — and now with cell phones, calling for help is easier than ever — while their walk-in offices have adapted well to changing times.

GPS has rendered TripTiks — those cobbled-together map books that showed you exactly how to get anywhere — irrelevant to anyone but your great-grandparents. But these days AAA also offers an important collection of services, like a free notary, passport photos, and the most time-saving, hassle-avoiding life hack you may ever enjoy: DMV services, including drivers license renewals. It rocks — and you don’t even have to be a member!

Recently, AAA studied the number of visitors to its Compo Shopping Center location. They’ve been there 5 years, after 20 in the small Saugatuck plaza across from Dunville’s.

AAA

This location is convenient — and it’s near Gold’s! — but AAA found that most visitors came from Norwalk. The 2nd highest number were from Fairfield. Hometown Westport was 3rd.

So AAA is doing the logical thing: They’re moving to Norwalk. Even smarter: They’re opening a new branch in Fairfield.

The Norwalk office will be at 495 Westport Avenue (Route 1). That’s the Hawley Lane Shoes plaza, across from The Edge and movie theaters. Just 2.2 miles from the current location, the new office will be larger than the current one — and there’s more parking. The move takes place in 6-8 weeks.

The new Fairfield site is 1201 Kings Highway North — the Staples shopping center  off I-95 Exit 24. The target date is June 1.

It seems like a winning solution for everyone. Unless you want a pastrami on rye while waiting for your license to be laminated.

(Hat tip: Sandy Soennichsen)