The NEW YORK TIMES
-on the web
October 11, 1998
In the Region / Connecticut; Offices Spread in Shore Towns Near New Haven
By ELEANOR CHARLES
ECHOES of the commercial development that swept through suburban Fairfield County in the 1970's are reverberating eastward along the midshore suburbs of New Haven County. In quiet, upscale, residential towns like Guilford, Madison and Killingworth -- where antique homes abound, a few farms still exist and village greens remain pristine -- office building and applications for new construction are accelerating despite local concerns for preserving the New England character.
Cautiously, local officials have been approving construction of commercial buildings up to 50,000 square feet in communities where offices have been accommodated mostly by converting single-family homes. Small as the new structures are compared with those in Stamford, White Plains and New York, they loom large on such semi-
rural horizons, and apprehension over their proliferation has nudged some local planning and zoning departments into re-examining their regulations.
The few developers who jumped into this market early have been careful to keep their projects low in profile -- two or three stories -- and compatible with the town's general appearance. Some find that they are more readily accepted by preserving a New England architectural ambiance, while others have won approval for a bolder, contemporary big-city look.
Patrick Mahoney recalls that a few years ago, when he was northeastern regional manager for Medtronics, a Minneapolis manufacturer of pacemakers and other medical devices, ''We couldn't expand our district sales office in Secaucus, N.J.; I looked at Connecticut as the center point of my geography from southern Massachusetts to the Bronx and narrowed it down to the confluence of I-95 and I-91.''
After seeing dozens of unsuitable buildings in the New Haven area, he found what he was looking for at Concept Park in Guilford, a new, 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art office building on Route 1. ''I was also relocating my family,'' he said. ''It all made sense.'' The median price of a house in Guilford, known for its fine schools and homes, is $250,000, less than half that of comparable dwellings in Fairfield County.
Concept Park is built of pale beige concrete in a contemporary style. ''The sophistication of the client these days requires this type of construction,'' said Richard Beauvais, 39, the first-time developer of the project.
''Companies will not come here into a house,'' he added, noting the difficulty of installing today's requirements for climate-control, communications and electronic systems in a wood-frame building.
Last year, Mr. Beauvais built an additional 28,000-square-foot building on the same 7-acre site. Both buildings are fully rented. Mr. Beauvais's newest plan, for a 58,350-square-foot black glass building on 16 acres overlooking a pond at Goose Lane, will be the subject of a public hearing on Oct. 21.
GUILFORD'S Planning and Zoning Commission is rewriting its master plan. ''There is a debate going on,'' said George Kral, the town planner, ''whether or not to continue a policy that encourages development of offices on quite a bit of available land along Route 1.'' None of it is zoned for retail. ''We don't want to repeat the strip development you see on so much of Route 1,'' Mr. Karl said.
''The town does see commercial development as an economic benefit,'' said the First Selectman, Samuel D. Bartlett, ''but there is a lot of concern about changing its character.''
Kevin Geenty, head of the Geenty Group, commercial realtors in Branford, brought Medtronics and Concept Park together. ''There is a pent-up demand in New Haven and Middlesex Counties for commercial and industrial space,'' he said. ''Companies in New Haven and Hartford with nowhere to go are putting off expansion, and their employees who live in the shoreline towns would like to work closer to home.''
Besides his real estate concern, Mr. Geenty owns and operates a 42-acre office and research park in Old Saybrook. Since 1991, he has built and rented six buildings totaling 186,000 square feet and will start a seventh next month.
A need for more space brought Pharmedica, a medical education, training and publishing concern, from New Haven to Killingworth, a town of 36 square miles and 5,500 people. The company has built and owns a white, New England-style, 19,000-square-foot headquarters on Route 81.
''We couldn't find anything to expand into in New Haven,'' said Pharmedica's president, Lawrence R. Timmerman. ''We also had parking problems, we had some cars broken into, and employees who worked late were ill at ease in that environment. We finally realized we didn't have to be there anyway -- with faxes and modems we could be anywhere -- and it turned out that most of our people live east of the Quinnipiac River, making their commute much easier.''
Robert Dowler, head of the Dowler Group in Madison, was the Pharmedica builder. A developer in the Connecticut midshore communities for more than 25 years, Mr. Dowler has approvals for additional buildings designed to form the Town Center of Killingworth. With Pharmedica as its anchor, the complex would have two more 20,000-square-foot buildings and one of 8,000 square feet, all white New England-style frame construction.
Like his counterpart in Guilford, Killingworth's First Selectman, David LaVasseur, is not convinced that continued commercial growth is the way to go. ''We look at our town as crowded,'' he said. ''There were only 500 of us 50 years ago. While there will be some modest development, mostly in the residential field, it will be many years before we see a major influx.
''Meanwhile, we have embarked on an aggressive policy to set aside open space for aquifer protection. Our rocky topography is such that it would be impossible to install city water and sewers required for large-scale development.''
In addition to the Killingworth project, Mr. Dowler has approval from Madison to build two office campuses: Millstone Square, a two-building, three-story complex of 34,000 square feet at Mill and Cottage Roads off Route 1, and Tuxis Square, containing a three-story building and two two-story buildings totaling almost 56,000 square feet at Bradley Road. ''The buildings will look like the 18th-century brick homes on Beacon Street in Boston,'' said Mr. Dowler, indicating his commitment to the town's historic architecture.
Expressing one more negative view of increased development, Madison's First Selectman, Thomas Rylander, said that of the town's 22,000 acres: ''Ten percent is in state land, open space and watershed. The rest is almost entirely residential, and the only large parcels are residentially zoned. Commercial development will never become a major force here.''
Nevertheless, Herbert D'Atri, a commercial broker with the Gould Agency in Madison, said, ''the town sorely needs office space; Greenwich people come in looking for first-class offices and to move into homes here as well.'' Office rents in Madison and Guilford range from $16 to $22 a square foot annually, compared with $25 to more than $30 in Stamford and Greenwich.
Many companies leasing space and looking for space in the New Haven County suburbs are in the biotech and biomedical fields. Some have been spun off from research groups formed at the medical schools of Yale and the University of Connecticut, and they stand to benefit from a recently established fund created by the State Legislature to help small and midsize biotech companies grow.
The state's Department of Economic Development contributed $20 million, with $10 million more provided by Connecticut Innovations Inc., a quasi-public corporation. ''Our first done deal was consummated this month with Genaissance Pharmaceutical Company Inc. of New Haven,'' said Stephanie Mitchell, director of marketing for the program. ''We gave them $950,000 to build 8,000 square feet of lab space or convert it from existing office space.''
Mr. Dowler, wary of building offices on speculation, has scheduled meetings with state officials involved in the program to explore matching his projects with companies in line for grants. The program was established to slow the movement of biotech companies from Connecticut to Maryland and South Carolina, which have had similar programs for a few years.
''Office development is a wonderful, clean way of broadening the tax base,'' said Michael Sexton, a director of the Mid-Shoreline Board of Realtors and vice president of H. Pearce Company Realtors in Branford. ''Our towns have jealously guarded their borders from rampant commercialization, and the planning agencies are making the right decisions. I think commercial development will continue here. It is not an anomaly.''
Back to communities