An unusual method: Darien developer brings color to pitches
DARIEN — Crowds at Planning and Zoning meetings have often taken on a monochromatic theme of late.
Peppered among the regularly clad public seated in front of the commission are people wearing matching royal blue “Your Downtown Darien” hats — a silent, but nonetheless powerful, show of support for a bold plan proposed by David Genovese and Penny Glassmeyer of Baywater Corbin to reimage downtown Darien.
The hats, which the pair had made and has been distributing, are one of many unusual ways in which Baywater has worked to gain support and public understanding of its project, which would see the demolition of all buildings between the Post Office on Corbin Drive, the intersection of Corbin Drive and Post Road and the Bank of America. A cluster of multi-story, mixed-use residential/commercial buildings, green space, subsurface parking and interior streets would instead occupy the space.
“Given that Penny and I live here in Darien, we’ve always said to the town that we want to be sure that the community really supported our idea for redeveloping. The comment that we’ve made from time to time is that if 30 percent of the town doesn’t like our idea, we’ll try to come up with something different,” Genovese said at his Post Road office on Friday. “But if 90 percent of town likes the idea, we think that ought to count for something as the Zoning Commission is considering our application.”
A website, yourdowntowndarien.com, has also been created, which makes details of the project and updates easily accessible, to which all letters of approval and dissent are posted. A Facebook page dedicated to the project, which Genovese checks regularly and responds to all comments and inquiries, serves as a de facto public forum between official meetings. Recently, Genovese debuted a David Letterman-inspired top 10 list of reasons — expanded out to a list of 15 — that P&Z should approve the project. Since early 2015, Genovese has presented the project to more than 20 community groups, sometimes to crowds as large as 250 people. Additionally, Genovese has invited more than 300 residents to meet in his office for one-on-one interviews explaining the project, all in the name of educating the public on its core principles and initiating a dialogue.
“We’re like walking focus groups. We’re talking to people all the time about their ideas. Our interns have done a lot of work researching different stores and restaurants in different towns and giving us their point of view. We’ve seen articles in the Darien High School newspaper about what kids want, and we’re taking it all into consideration,” Genovese said.
The campaign was influenced largely, Genovese said, by the work of Rick Caruso, a developer in Pacific Palisades, Calif., who has used social media and community outreach to kickstart a similar project.
“Pacific Palisades is to Los Angeles, in a sense, what Darien is to New York. It’s a suburb of L.A., it’s an older town, it had a downtown area that had fallen into a state of disrepair,” Genovese said. Caruso created palisadesvillageca.com, with the slogan “This Street is Your Street,” and has used videos and testimonials from locals to engage the public.
With the same goal in mind and by employing many of the same tactics of transparency, Genovese has spurred a groundswell of support for the project in town.
“What we’ve realized is that people in Darien are very busy. They don’t have the opportunity to go to zoning meetings, so we wanted to create, following Caruso’s model, an opportunity to educate the public on our ideas and to make it easy for them to check in and see how we’re doing,” Genovese said.
The response has been considerable. The first day the website was launched, 634 people visited. Since then, 7,473 people have visited over 10,000 times, 73 percent of whom are new visitors, according to Genovese. On Darien TV79, presentations by Baywater Corbin to P&Z and other groups in town are some of the most watched videos, totaling more than 500 views in some cases.
“This is a new era. The world is changing at a rapid rate and some of these tools, like social media, didn’t exist 10 years ago. So it’s a really neat way of allowing people to become educated in an efficient way,” Genovese said. “People on Facebook have given us ideas about restaurants they want to see come to town and stores they love. They’ve given us ideas that we’ve then taken into consideration and woven into the project.”