Milford mayor: The Connecticut Post Mall 'needs to reinvent itself' in development

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on April 27, 2021.

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on April 27, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — Mayor Ben Blake’s stance on mixed-use development at the Connecticut Post Mall may be moderating, at least a little.

Blake, who has previously called a 2020 plan to build an apartment complex on the mall property “a terrible idea” and recently called a revised plan a non-starter, said Wednesday that he is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I’m someone who never lets perfect be the enemy of good, but I’m willing to see a proposal that is creative and innovative,” he said. “Realistically, the mall needs to reinvent itself. The mall has been a big partner, and as an important community stakeholder we all want it to continue to flourish, and I think it will.”

The most recent vision for the site includes a 500 apartment units to be built in two phases, in addition to retail, office and other types of spaces. It was submitted after the first proposal was rejected.

The parking lot outside of the former Sears Auto Center at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on August 14, 2020 where a luxury apartment complex has been proposed.

The parking lot outside of the former Sears Auto Center at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on August 14, 2020 where a luxury apartment complex has been proposed.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Blake’s position is based on protecting Milford’s commercial corridor. Boston Post Road, which runs through the city from the Housatonic River to the border with Orange, is home to hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses that drive the city’s grand list of taxable property. The city’s current grand list is about $6.75 billion.

“I think maintaining that corridor is important. It has helped our community planning for years, and I see it as an important framework for the future success of the community,” Blake said. “My concern is that delicate balance. The addition of apartments (in a formerly commercial zone) could shift it, and complicate our future.”

Ultimately, though, Blake said the mall’s future development was something that will be decided by the Planning and Zoning Board.

“The next Plan of Conservation and Development will probably be released some time in 2022, and that’s something P&Z outlines,” he said. “I have my personal opinions about maintaining our commercial corridor.”

Evolving plans

Dallas-based Centennial Real Estate, which owns the mall, last year proposed a 300-unit luxury apartment complex to be constructed on about six acres where the mall’s Sears Auto Center used to be located. The $70 million project was described by Centennial CEO Steve Levin at the time, who said that Centennial was “trying to create a dynamic, exciting destination here and we need Milford to support us.”

The former Sears Auto Center at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on April 27, 2021.

The former Sears Auto Center at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford photographed on April 27, 2021.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

The zoning board rejected Centennial’s proposed regulation change on a 5-3 vote. Economic and Community Development Director Julie Nash, criticized the plan as lacking a cohesive, long-term plan that encompassed things such as corporate headquarters, co-working spaces and workforce development, as was being done at other malls across the country.

In April, Levin and Centennial were back in front of board’s Plan of Conservation and Development subcommittee with a revised and much more detailed plan. The plan’s centerpiece still is a 300-unit apartment complex, which Levin acknowledged faced opposition.

But the inclusion of parks and other recreational use, plus a more-detailed multi-phase plan that could include medical centers, office space, technology centers and public plazas, plus an additional 200-unit apartment complex (for a total of 500), seemingly made the plan more palatable. The plan would essentially turn the mall “inside out” by creating a central interior of shopping areas with restaurants, residential areas and commercial zones also on the property.

City Planner David Sulkis said Centennial could be back in front of the full P&Z as early as this summer.

Centennial's Master Plan includes both a Phase 1 and Phase 2 for the Connecticut Post Mall. Pictured are the renderings of the proposed project.

Centennial's Master Plan includes both a Phase 1 and Phase 2 for the Connecticut Post Mall. Pictured are the renderings of the proposed project.

Contributed /

Jon Meshel, Centennial’s senior vice president of development, called apartments a “next step” amenity that would entice other desirable mixed-use elements.

“The market is currently indicating an opportunity for apartments and they’re an important part of the development plan,” he said in a statement.

Centennial is currently in various stages of development on several other mixed-use plans, including projects in California and Illinois. The ongoing projects all incorporate some form of residential use, although he stressed the company does not use a “one-size fits all” approach.

“Multifamily is an important part of mixed-use projects and multifamily is a core part of our mixed-use strategies around the country,” he said. “That said, we examine all of our projects and markets on a case-by-case basis and then determine the best uses based on specific market needs and opportunities.”

Centennial's Master Plan includes both a Phase 1 and Phase 2 for the Connecticut Post Mall. Pictured are the renderings of the proposed project.

Centennial's Master Plan includes both a Phase 1 and Phase 2 for the Connecticut Post Mall. Pictured are the renderings of the proposed project.

Contributed /

Reinventing

Thomas Madden, the director of economic development for Stamford, said the the concept of creating areas where people live, work and shop — essentially making mall properties a suburban downtown, was a more modern approach to the traditional suburb.

A century ago, with trains being the main mode of transportation into cities, Madden said, the rail lines defined communities.

“You would have these stops every few miles, and the towns built up around them,” he said. “Now we sort of have to realign and make it convenient for everybody to come back to.”

Unlike Milford, Stamford’s mall is in its downtown area. But the addition of nearly 3,000 apartments around the mall has revitalized it and that downtown area.

Stamford Town Center and restaurant row, photograph on Oct. 16, 2019 in Stamford Connecticut.

Stamford Town Center and restaurant row, photograph on Oct. 16, 2019 in Stamford Connecticut.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

“It’s tough because we still have this suburban mentality that a mall is the big power center that used to be there,” he said. “We’ve built almost 3,000 units of apartments around the Town Center mall, and it’s revitalized our downtown. During COVID, what kept restaurants going is that people were living here and they went out to get something to eat at night.”

Madden sees the irony that in the 1980s and 90s, malls were blamed for the decline of downtown areas. Now, with shopping moving online, malls are reinventing themselves as pseudo downtowns. Younger people, particularly the professional types that malls hope to attract to their luxury apartments, have grown used to university settings, where the gym, bookstore, cafe and recreation areas are all within a short walk.

“You know why people shop Amazon? Because it’s convenient,” he said. “Yesterday I needed dishwasher drying agent, and I clicked and added it to an Amazon order. But if I lived in an apartment at the mall, I would have walked over and grabbed it.”

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford in 2020.

The Connecticut Post Mall in Milford in 2020.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

Luther Turmelle, Saul Flores and Tom Ebersold contributed to this story.