Plan to ‘reinvent’ Connecticut Post Mall includes 500 luxury apartments. But is it ‘Milford’ enough?

MILFORD — The proposed redevelopment project at the Connecticut Post Mall received mostly positive feedback from Planning and Zoning Board members and the public at a Plan of Conservation and Development subcommittee meeting May 26. But questions remain about the plan’s size and whether the design is “Milford” enough.

The plan is to build up to 500 luxury apartments in two phases. Phase 1 would include about 300 apartments around a central plaza in the area formerly occupied by Sears Auto Service. The plaza could be used for concerts, outdoor dining, farmers markets and other outdoor events, according to Steven Levin, CEO of Dallas-based Centennial Real Estate, which owns the mall.

Phase 2 includes demolishing the entire wing of the mall formerly occupied by Sears, which would free up 450,000 square feet of commercial space. The vision of potential tenants includes a medical center, innovation center, office space, an additional 200-unit residential project and two more plazas.

“We want to embrace everything that we possibly can to incorporate into this project,” Levin said. “But what we are dealing with is a mall that is here and exists, and we have to reinvent it. To do that, we are faced with dealing with what is in demand today.”

Levin said the concept of the mall worked for many years when department store shopping was a popular form of entertainment for people. Of the roughly 1,100 malls in the country, he said about 300 are currently looking into plans similar to what Centennial is proposing for the Connecticut Post.

“It’s very difficult to do, very costly to do and it has a lot of obstacles and takes a lot of time to get there,” he said. “The ones that succeed are going to present very similar types of visions that we are presenting.”

Levin said he understands everyone in the community has thoughts and views of the mall's future. The traditional, retail-heavy shopping mall is not the future of the Connecticut Post, he said.

“We don’t have another answer to what to do if we can’t embark on this plan,” he said. “If we can’t do this, we can’t continue to make investments in the mall because it doesn't work the way it is.”

Milford resident Donna Dutko said she liked the concept for the mall, but said the rendering of the apartments looked like her former apartment at UConn. She said she would prefer to see cozier apartments that were less dormitory-like.

Levin replied that the drawings that Centennial has been using to demonstrate the plan is not the design intended for the finished project.

“We will do something Milford-like,” he said, adding that the final proposal would be a cultural fit for the community.

Board member Jim Kader said he thinks Centennial is doing a good job with the plans, but he’s a little concerned that the project is too big and that it seems to keep changing.

“It’s been brought up a couple of times about Chicago, Stamford, and Danbury. These are a lot bigger cities that can absorb a project of this scale, which I don’t think Milford can,” he said. “I think it’s going to change the flavor of Milford in a way, I think, people don’t want.”

Kader added that he doesn't want the mall to represent Milford, as it has in the past, and said the project is a step in the right direction, but he thinks it could be a lot better.

Kathleen Fazio, a real estate agent from Stamford, called the proposal for the central plaza “a great idea” to draw people to the property. She said she grew up going to the mall and brought her children to the mall when they were little, but she’s gone less and less often over the years. The best way to fill office space, she said, was to attract people to the area, which the plaza would do, she said.

Board member Peg Kearney also said she liked the idea of office space, particularly a proposed medical office building.

“I look at the Shelton office park as something I would see the rest of the mall develop into, with doctor's offices and things like that,” she said.

Fellow board member Nancy Austin said her initial reaction is that the project is great for the city. She said she loved the fact that Centennial was willing to sit down and have a conversation and make it very Milford.

“The bottom line is that’s a huge piece of property, and it can’t sit empty. It can’t sit the way it is,” she said. “It’s not going to replace Downtown Milford. Downtown Milford is historic. That’s the charm of it.”

Mark Zahariades asked if there is a guarantee that Centennial would build Phase 2 after Phase 1’s completion.

“I don’t want it to be half-finished,” he said.

Levin stopped short of a guarantee, but said Phase 1 by itself would not accomplish Centennial’s goal for the property.

“We wouldn’t just do Phase 1 because we would not make money off of Phase 1,” he said. “Secondly, we would not build that plaza to build 300 apartment units because that plaza is a loss leader, and it is intended to create the demand for Phase 2.”

Chairman Jim Quish questioned the allocation of square footage between residential and commercial use in the total plan. Centennial officials estimate the total project at about 280,000 square feet, with about 25,000 square feet dedicated to commercial space.

Quish suggested adding second-floor offices or commercial space to achieve a more balanced business-residential mix.

“If in fact, we look at a concern that residential is too broad and the commercial is underrepresented, and we take under consideration that residential is going to activate the promenade and the mall in general, is it not somewhat reasonable to think if we ended up with second-floor offices or more commercial in that space it might be more palatable?” he said. “There is a concern of the balance between commercial and residential, and we’ve found that throughout different projects in Milford where they did mixed-use, and it seemed like it was not the appropriate balance.”