'Micro-villages' - Westfield Trumbull hints at future plan

TRUMBULL — Attorney John Knuff presented the Planning and Zoning Commission with a stark choice Thursday night as commissioners heard plans for a 260-unit apartment complex at Westfield Trumbull mall.

Commisioners could choose to work with the mall as it transitions into a mixed use property with retail, residential and entertainment options. Or not.

“The other path is the perhaps slow but certain demise of the mall,” Knuff said.

Like all regional shopping centers across the country, Westfield Trumbull is struggling in the current retail environment. News reports of upheaval in the retail market are a daily occurrence, he said. And in the midst of a retail downturn, a global pandemic has shoppers avoiding large gathering places like malls and doing more and more of their shopping online.

“Unprecedented doesn’t begin to describe the challenges,” Knuff said.

With a bleak future for traditional shopping centers hanging over the hearing, developers continued their presentation, specifically addressing questions the commission and Planning Department staff had raised in earlier sessions.

Real estate counselor Stanley Gniazdowski shared the results of his analysis that he said showed the apartments would generate a net $910,000 in revenue for the town, after accounting for expenses such as school costs, emergency responders, public works and more.

The biggest questions residents have had about the proposed Residences at Main, however, is the potential impact on town schools and services: how many school-age children are likely to live in the apartments.

Gniazdowski said he relied on the 2018 Rutgers Center for Real Estate study on school age children in apartments. The report shows that mid-rise market-rate apartments — those in the over $100,000 income demographic — typically contain 1.3 children for every 100 studio or one-bedroom units, and 8.9 children for every 100 two-bedroom units.

The proposed residences are a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments in four-story buildings, which are on the low side for a mid-rise. The number of children in a complex tends to decrease with building height, according to the study.

With all that factored in, Gniazdowski projected the number of school-aged children in the complex at 27.

“These may not all be new students,” he said. “Some could be relocating from other parts of Trumbull.”

Those additional students, he calculated, would likely require about two new teachers and result in a total fiscal impact of about $349,000, he said.

After speaking with emergency responders, Gniazdowski estimated the complex would increase police costs by about $100,000 each year.

The town fire and EMS officials said the additional cost would be close to zero since the departments are volunteer or partially volunteer in the case of EMS, already have the necessary equipment and already cover the mall.

Public works would similarly be unaffected since the development is on private property and would be privately maintained, he said.

Other departments, like Parks and Recreation, the Senior Center and library would result in a total cost to the town of about $480,000, he estimated. That was more than offset by the projected $1.2 million in anticipated real estate tax revenue, plus a projected $178,000 in personal property tax for the vehicles that the renters would own.

Developers also presented updated plans for crosswalks to allow residents to cross the mall’s Ring Road, upgraded turn lanes in and out of the complex, pedestrian sidewalks and Greater Bridgeport Transit bus stops near the complex’s Ring Road entrance.

For their part, commissioners told mall officials they hoped to be part of the conversation about future projects at the mall.

“We are the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Chairman Fred Garrity said, emphasizing the first part of the name.

Garrity and fellow Commissioner Tony Silber questioned how the residences fit into the mall’s overall long-term future.

“It feels a little like you’re grafting a really, really nice residential development onto an old 1970s milieu,” he said. “It’s a beautiful development but I don’t know how it truly helps the site with Lord & Taylor shutting down and J.C. Penney maybe next.”

Stephen Fluhr, Westfield’s development director for the East Coast, agreed that the apartments alone were not the answer to the retail decline.

“This is a generational change for the industry whose impacts are far from over,” he said. “In 2020, it is estimated that 25,000 retail locations will close in this country — 55 to 60 percent of those are in malls.”

The apartments, he said, would be a “solid first step” in repositioning Westfield Trumbull as a mixed shopping, residential and entertainment destination similar to what the company has done in other locations like Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., and Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J.

“We have a mixed-use focus across all of our properties,” Fluhr said. “The idea is to make them micro-villages.”