The Changing Face of Rowayton
Ongoing building boom has residents lining up on both sides of the fence
if you’re looking for one building that symbolizes the changing face of Rowayton, it might well be Winthrop House, the stately Italianate edifice that greets you as you drive into the town center on Rowayton Avenue.
A couple of years ago, the building was a crumbling mess. Its inhabitants were mostly refugees from failed marriages, hence its nickname, “Heartbreak Hotel.” And its variegated color scheme was closer to Neapolitan ice cream than to the stately white hotel it had been in the mid-1800s when it overlooked oystermen on the Five Mile River rowing in their morning hauls.
Today’s Winthrop House would be more recognizable to those oystermen, a little wider in the back to accommodate two of its three brand-new condominium units, but built around its original lines and frame, a shimmering white essay in balance and form, with its wide, beckoning front porch, elbow-groined eaves, and a small cupola gracefully set on a flat roof. Local developer Andy Glazer radiates contentment with the way his project turned out as he stands on the porch, squinting into the sunlight while another truck barrels down Rowayton Avenue. It’s not only because he expects to sell his condos for more than $2 million each. He sees the new Winthrop House as a step in the right direction for his community, something he’s proud to have helped make happen.
“There’s an aliveness to the town that wasn’t here before,” he says.
But that aliveness cuts two ways. Winthrop House may generate uniform praise, but the wave of new development it represents has divided many in the community, sometimes bitterly. Some appreciate the sense of renewal, of new downtown stores and grand houses sprouting up in place of old, sometimes depressing, capes and split-level ranches. Others recall a homier Rowayton, a Mayberry-like oasis from the conspicuous consumption of much of Fairfield County, and mourn its passing.
“I don’t like it,” complains Anne Birchard, a resident of more than thirty years. “What was here that used to be quaint isn’t here anymore.”
People still come from all over Rowayton to get fresh food and coffee at Rowayton Market, one of the oldest establishments of its kind in the state and itself a symbol of downtown vitality since it was remodeled several years ago. Some still stop and mingle as they wait for their sandwiches, carrying on a tradition of generations of Rowaytonites, but others are distracted by their Palm Pilots or earphones. Down the street, at 140 Rowayton Avenue, there’s still the post office, and a new hardware store to replace the much-missed Rowayton Hardware. But the southern end of the building is now a story higher than before, another divisive development.
“There are people here who feel disenfranchised,” notes Mike Barbis, a local Realtor with Prudential and commissioner of Norwalk’s Sixth Taxing District, a.k.a. Rowayton. “There’s definitely a real divide.”
That divide gets more pronounced the farther you venture from downtown. New houses are going up from McKinley Street to Bell Island, as commuters from the city and empty nesters from nearby towns like Darien and New Canaan discover this once-sleepy Norwalk community and make it their own. The houses they build are often much bigger than what was here before.
“Lifestyles are changing,” says Keith Brown, a thirty-year resident of Rowayton who co-owns Condon & Brown Builders. “People who may have lived in Darien and had a large house there want to move here but don’t necessarily want a much smaller house.”
Brown recalls building a house a few years ago on Barclay’s Court that was maybe 3,200 square feet in size. “We got lambasted in the newspaper — letters to the editor — about new construction being monstrous and outsized,” he says. Now he’s building a 6,500- square-foot house on a lot that once contained a house nearly one-third that size. But Brown is hardly in the center of the maelstrom anymore.
“Except for Winthrop House and a handful of smaller projects, all the new construction has been tearing down an old cottage and replacing it with a McMansion,” Barbis says as he drives down to the bottom of Rowayton Avenue and points out newer homes. “Not that there’s anything wrong with these houses, but they’re out of context. Typical old Rowayton was where you had these teeny houses. That’s what people love. So all this new stuff, people are not happy about it.”
Others argue that big houses have always been the essence of the community. “It’s understandable for laypeople to get upset about the redevelopment of houses on small sites, but they are looking at it from a suburban point of view,” says architect Roger Bartels, who has built sixty-five projects in the village and sees much of the ongoing demolition as part of a healthy life cycle. “Rowayton was never a suburban town, but a Victorian village. The small lots are what make Rowayton popular, people living right on the street, out in the community. They want to live in Rowayton because of that concentration, but they will never admit it.”
Other factors drive change, too, Bartels agrees, like zoning. “It is frankly the most liberal zoning code of any we worked with in Fairfield County,” he says, adding that has helped to create “the uniqueness of Rowayton.”
Rowayton’s zoning got a little less liberal earlier this year, when a public groundswell and petition drive led the city of Norwalk to shrink the maximum allowable percentage of building space on a lot, which had been 35 percent across Rowayton, to as little as 25 percent on the largest lots. A second proposal also under discussion would limit building height, at present restricted only at the midpoint of a roofline, not its peak.
Driving these changes is Rowayton Advocates for Zoning (RAZ), a group of residents who say the pendulum of prosperity has swung out too far.
“No one was maxing out before,” says Julie Burton, an RAZ leader. “We’re not against renovation. We’re not even against tearing down a house and building a new one. We would just like it to be in scale.”
Julie’s friend and RAZ partner Wendell Livingston drives though the backroads of Rowayton, ones that narrow as you get closer to the water and Rowayton’s enclave-within-an-enclave, Bell Island, where the value of real estate is dearest. Once you could get a whiff of ocean air without being right up against Long Island Sound, she notes. Now even morning sunlight is endangered as new houses go up like Jiffy Pop.
She has pet names for many of them. Here is “Darth Vader.” That one is “Williamsburg on Steroids.” Nearwater Road, once a collection of tiny ranch houses, has become “Millionaire’s Levittown” for its serried twin rows of uniform-looking mansions. Wendell has cultivated a Dr. Strangelove–type sense of humor about the whole thing. “Someone has been building a house right next to mine, I call it the Maybelline House because it has this mascara paint job,” she says. “It wouldn’t be so bad except it’s so big, and so close. I mean, really close. Talk about knowing what your neighbor’s having for dinner!”
Gwen Briggs is perhaps more torn about the situation than many other longtime residents. On the one hand, she has seen houses she considers to be excessive sprout up around her and jokes about walking over to answer the telephone only to discover it’s her neighbor’s. But as a member of the Norwalk Common Council, her opinions are moderated by the need for evenhandedness.
“The general opinion of the population is, we want to save the neighborhoods of Norwalk, and that goes for Rowayton as well,” she says. “The difference is you can’t say to people, you can’t build out your property to the max. That’s the same as eminent domain. There’s a common good we all need to recognize.”
How that common good is achieved is an open question. The height restriction was still being discussed last July. At present, the city historical commission is proposing a nine-month moratorium on demolishing houses more than fifty years old. There’s also discussion about a new citywide master plan, which might allow greater fine-tuning for controlling development in Rowayton. The city is just now beginning to get bids from planners to do the necessary work. “I don’t know when it will happen now,” Gwen says.
That the new coverage restriction barely scratches the surface in terms of dealing with what is going on in Rowayton is a point no one disputes. Julie mentions the example of a town considered to have the toughest zoning in the county. “We’re looking at Greenwich, comparing how they deal with lots between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet,” she says. “Most of Rowayton is that size. Floor-area ratio may be something to look into.”
That would be more limiting to builders than the coverage maximum, which doesn’t account for upper-floor density. Greenwich has also more stringent setback rules.
“Rowayton is becoming a hot spot,” says local architect Bruce Beinfield. “Architecturally, there’s a tendency for houses to be bigger. Most architects try to balance meeting the stated needs of their clients with a building structure that fits into the community, but there are different consciousness levels.”
Beinfield, who has lived in Rowayton for twenty-three years, redesigned Winthrop House for Andy Glazer in a Colonial style that he says also guided his design for other downtown buildings like 140 Rowayton Avenue. His latest project is the new Fairfield County Bank building at the intersection of Rowayton Avenue and McKinley Street.
At 140 Rowayton Avenue there was once a level one-story structure. Now it is two stories high on the southern end while retaining its original height on the other. “I think in a village setting, two-story buildings are very appropriate,” he says, noting that there is a two-story building just across the street.
Not everyone is that happy with it.
“I think it’s too large,” Gwen Briggs says. “People moved to Rowayton because it’s a laid-back, old-shoe kind of thing.” Wendell Livingston says the newer portion doesn’t match the rest of the building or the surrounding streetscape.
Kevin Conroy, owner of 140 Rowayton Avenue, would not comment for this article, but others speak in his defense. Brown notes that the back and sides of the new building have more character than they used to, and Glazer says it will attract new tenants and generate further downtown excitement.
A few years ago, when he bought a seafood establishment just down the road from Winthrop House with the idea of transforming it into four pricey condominium units, Glazer shocked many of his fellow residents. Condominiums in Rowayton? Did he think he was in Darien? “People thought I was insane,” he chuckles.
But Glazer saw that in the dawning century more people with deeper pockets were seeking to relocate in town or at least closer to the downtown — the “New Urbanism” planners are talking about across the country. He sold the four condos of Barclay’s Court for around $3.5 million each. Along with Conroy’s earlier renovation of the Rowayton Market property, Glazer believes that triggered the downtown boom continuing today.
“We have raised the bar,” Glazer says. “That’s conscious. We want this town to be the nice New England town it once was. There are property owners on the street being left behind by this, and as I see it, they have two choices: Fix their place up, or sell it to someone who will.”
Maybe Glazer wasn’t looking right across the street from Winthrop House as he said this, but it was easy imagining him doing so. That’s because his expansive front porch looks directly out at the brickface façade of the Soybel Building, a squat rectangle utterly lacking in architectural distinction. Owner Myra Soybel, who lives on the second floor, hasn’t had a commercial tenant downstairs in ten years. Butcher paper covers the display windows of one storefront.
Anne Birchard used to work at Soybel’s Drug Store and remains friendly with Myra, who is seldom seen in public. “She’s up in her nineties now,” Anne explains. “It’s her house, she pays her taxes, she just wants to be left alone. The only reason they want to go in there is to make things fancy-dancy.”
Someday someone will be able to do what they want with the Soybel place, just as others will knock down some of the smaller homes still standing around Rowayton once their owners or their heirs opt to sell them. These houses and their status are well known and tracked by neighbors and developers alike. “When a bungalow goes down, a big house goes up, and that’s when you go ugh!” Julie Burton says. “We’re not saying people should live in 1950s bungalows, but let’s not go totally berserk.”
It’s not just the desire for a more showy home that pushes demolitions and the drive for bigness in Rowayton. It’s sales appeal.
Architect Bartels allows that there are “a handful of houses too damn big for their lots” but notes that in other cases, you have old, cheap houses built to accommodate the post–World War II housing boom, which make no economic sense to keep. “The amount of money you have to commit just to buy the lot is enormous,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to put a cheap house on an expensive lot.”
Do bigger houses cut down on the surrounding land value, killing the golden goose of Rowayton’s village atmosphere? Common sense would say so, as would many advocates for stricter zoning, but the tale told in terms of real estate figures makes for a fuzzier story.
Realtor David Epprecht at RealtyQuest in Darien reports the average sales price of a Rowayton home sold between January 1 and May 31 of this year was $1.33 million, down from $1.35 million in that same period in 2005. That’s a fairly minuscule drop after years of steady rises and compares favorably with similar figures Epprecht has for New Canaan. (Darien’s average sale price rose slightly.)
Doug Werner at William Pitt Sotheby’s International in Darien suspects one reason the average is more or less holding is because there are more houses selling for $2 million and up. Both Werner and Epprecht say houses in Rowayton are sitting on the market these days far longer than before. “Last year it took 84 days for a house to sell,” Werner says. “This year, the average time is 101 days.”
Gail Van Slyck, whose Prudential Connecticut office sits right next to Winthrop House, agrees there’s a glut and that “houses that are a little out of the ordinary tend to sell better,” which includes those of newer and larger construction.
A case study for letting the market dictate zoning is Bell Island, the one part of Rowayton not subject to new zoning restrictions because it was never restricted by the old ones. Houses there tend to be big and tightly packed, yet it’s the kind of crunch that bespeaks prosperity. If bigger houses are bad, why is Bell Island such a desired address?
Mike Greene, Norwalk’s director of planning and zoning, points to Bell Island in refuting the golden-goose theory. “I think land values go up because of the ability to build houses,” he says. “That economic incentive is unfortunate, but a reality.”
Is it in Rowayton’s interest to follow the example of Bell Island or of Greenwich, where far stricter zoning hasn’t tamped the hottest real estate market in the county? “A house that is too large for its lot blocks the light and air of the house next door,” Gwen Briggs says. “There’s a loom factor and a noise factor. These McMansions are not benign. Yes, they have rights, but they are actually taking livability and economic rights away from their neighbors.”
“Real estate values will continue to go up,” predicts Beinfield. “There are positives and negatives to that. Generally, with real estate values going up, it’s considered that the neighborhood is getting better. But that’s a matter of opinion.”
speaking out — two views
Bigger Is Better
When it comes to bigger is better, Rowayton has few advocates as impassioned as David Chute. At a March zoning board hearing dominated by strict-zoning advocates, Chute argued that the limits are “unwittingly antifamily, antischool, will only result in architecturally sterile designs, and will decrease property values as a result.”
Chute has built three houses near the southern end of Rowayton Avenue that vex many in the community. One, at the bottom of the street where it intersects with Juniper Road, has become what he calls “a poster child” for zoning-restriction advocates.
“Rowayton is turning into an empty-nester community, but you have to share it with everyone,” he claims. “This generation changed the world. Now that they’ve given up the reins to the world, they want it to stop changing. But Rowayton has always been dynamic.”
So has Chute, a Darien native who moved across the Five Mile River to Rowayton eleven years ago. A former management consultant with Deloitte Consulting, he now is an architect and developer, building houses in the community where he lives. “I’m a small player, I build just one house every twelve to fourteen months,” he says. “You’ve got to be smart. Tiffany’s always does well in a bad economy. If you sell quality, quality sells.”
Chute’s critics credit him for distinctive designs; unlike other spec builders who seem to build the same large mansion over and over, his houses have character. “They’re just way out of scale,” says RAZ member Wendell Livingston.
Chute counters that there are houses near his home on Juniper Lane that dwarf his 5,900-square-foot dwelling. He is convinced that a majority of Norwalk residents share his sentiments on the subject. “The regulations as proposed make it impossible to build anything more than a three- to four-bedroom home,” he says. “I have a wife, four kids, an in-law, a nanny and a Labrador. What is a family supposed to do, leave town?”
Twelve years ago when Barbara Garfield built her first house on what would become the pocket enclave of Jo’s Barn Way, she had no savings, and little idea what to do if the house didn’t sell. “I was really struggling,” she recalls.
But that house and three other smallish contemporary structures she later built around it did sell, helping usher in the real estate boom Rowayton enjoys today. Barbara still builds homes, hewing to the same less-is-more style that defined Jo’s Barn Way. In a village where houses are getting taller and wider, hers intentionally maintain the same character that defined Rowayton when it was a community of fishermen, not stockbrokers. Cutaway second floors look down on the first, minimizing floor area in favor of dramatic interior design. Two bedrooms are the norm. “You don’t have to go big,” she says. “Builders don’t have to go big.”
Currently Barbara is at work on a five-lot subdivision called Ship Way at the intersection of Rowayton Avenue and Witch Lane. It includes a major renovation of Rowayton’s second-oldest dwelling, the Charles H. Thomes House, built circa 1785.
Her challenge is to make the house appealing to a modern buyer. She is keeping the original framework intact but plans to build a second structure around the first, making the original framework a visible element of the interior design. The house when finished will contain 3,100 square feet, “too big” by Barbara’s standards.
History matters a lot to her. Yet she denies being a traditionalist. “I believe in building Victorian houses in 1860,” she says. “I don’t believe in building them now.”
Maybe she’s more of a nouveau traditionalist. She frequently uses elements from demolished barns to lend character and antique charm.
Does it pay? Currently her dwellings fetch a sales price average of $994 a square foot, versus a Rowayton-wide average of $445. Her reaction? “I’m not making nearly as much as I could,” she says.