251 and 253 Riverside Ave. / Photos by Thane Grauel
259 Riverside Ave. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — A Riverside Avenue office complex will soon be converted to eight residential units, some with balconies overlooking the Saugatuck River.

The Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved the application to convert two of the three office buildings collectively known as 259 Riverside Ave. to eight residential units. A dock will be built for residents’ use.

Since the pandemic, commercial real estate patterns have been in flux due to altered work and commuting norms. Office space nationwide has been repurposed for residential, medical and other uses.

The Riverside Avenue proposal had included a text amendment that would have enabled the required 20 percent of units deemed affordable to be located off-site. But after a difficult initial hearing, those two units have been relocated on-site, negating the need for the amendment, the property owner’s lawyer, Eric Bernheim of FLB law, told the commission.

Architect's rendering of 259 Riverside Ave.
Architect’s rendering of 259 Riverside Ave.

The commission granted approval Nov. 13. The hearing followed another two weeks earlier when commission members, members of the public and neighbors represented by a lawyer, had questions and concerns.

Between the hearings, many of the issues appeared have been ironed out.

Phil Cerrone, the architect for the applicant, described the latest plan.

“Brick façade buildings, more glass, new windows and trim, new asphalt shingles on the roof, and then we have the balconies on the water sides,” he said. “You can see it’s quite a dramatic change from what’s there.”

Bernheim said one concern, residents crossing busy Riverside Avenue to get to and from parking on a lot along Sylvan Lane, was addressed by designating one parking spot for each of the eight units at 259 Riverside.

“And then what we also decided to do, after business hours, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next morning, we are reserving another eight spaces for residential units,” that can be used after the office workers at the one remaining office building on the property go home.

The safety of the crosswalk across Riverside Avenue, he said, was beyond the control of the applicant and the commission because it is a state road.

“However, the property owner shares your concern that there should be some signs to just advise folks that are not accustomed to crossing the street in Westport potentially at odd hours of the day, so he’s going to install caution signs at the entrance to the crosswalks on both sides of Riverside Avenue on his property,” Bernheim said.

Public access to the waterfront also was an issue. Bernheim said the applicant was proposing that access loop around the pentagon-shaped office building not part of this application, at the southern end of the property. Having it otherwise located just feet from the apartments of families presented privacy concerns that commission members appeared to have no issue with.

Three dedicated public access parking spaces would be in the lot across the street, Bernheim said.

Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young told the commission the application was submitted pursuant to the state’s 32-12 inclusionary zoning law.

“Where we said to developers and property owners, we see value in converting commercial buildings to residential as it will add to the diversity of housing choices and increase the inventory of below-market-rate housing, so this is in keeping with that purpose, in my view,” Young said.

Commission Vice Chair Paul Lebowitz said many concerns from earlier discussion had been addressed, but still had a few housekeeping questions.

Gloria Gouveia

He said he understood the need to locate the public waterfront access.

“I’m OK with not having access behind the buildings, the residential portion, only because if I envision people living there, I imagine their security is more important, and their privacy is more important, than public access is,” Lebowitz said.

Joel Green, a lawyer hired by concerned neighbors before the hearing two weeks earlier, spoke briefly.

“As a result of an agreement that was reached today, I will not be offering any comment on this application this evening,” he said.

Gloria Gouveia supported the outcome.

“I wanted to thank the Planning and Zoning Commission for helping to make the dream of the Planning and Zoning staff and commission of 1981 come true, and that dream was for public access to the waterfront,” she said. “To start just above the downtown bridge and continue for as far as possible along the river. And this is going to be another important link. It’s been a long time in coming but the pieces are in place. And I hope to live long enough to see the whole puzzle put together.”

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him a. Learn more about us here.