Significant pre-leasing of the office space at Baywater Properties’ Corbin District development in downtown Darien illustrates the preference for workspaces in an walkable, mixed-use environment. Image courtesy of Baywater Properties

In a county with office vacancies nearing 25 percent, a downtown Darien redevelopment offers a compelling argument for the popularity of workplaces located steps from housing, retail and transit.

Baywater Properties’ Corbin District is set to begin construction of its second phase, bringing new construction of retail, office space and apartments to the 7-acre site.

Lenders were leery about Baywater Properties’ plans to include 110,000 square feet of office space, Baywater Properties co-founder and CEO David Genovese said. But the office portion of the project has already signed leases with Crestwood Financial and an undisclosed private equity firm, and developers are in talks with a major financial company that would bring the office portion to approximately two-thirds pre-leased.

“Right now, office is like a four-letter word,” Genovese said. “Banks are generally terrified of office, but people are committing to the office space before we put a shovel in the ground.”

Fairfield County’s office market has contracted 35 percent since the onset of COVID-19, according to Ed Tonnessen, executive managing director of JLL’s Stamford office and the property’s leasing agent.

Employers seeking to encourage more in-office work cite two major factors when evaluating a property, Tonnessen said: proximity to public transportation, and the quality of the work environment as reflected in amenities located on-site or within walking distance.

“It’s almost a unique property in our market,” he said. “Nothing else has new class A office space located less than two-tenths of a mile to a train station and a vibrant community of retail and apartments outside your door.”

Top-of-the-market rents in Darien historically were $55 per square foot on a gross basis, Tonnessen said, but leases at the Corbin District are “significantly more” than the previous peak.

The project reached the halfway point this fall as a group of existing tenants began relocating to three new buildings, replacing demolished structures including a service station, bank branch and low-rise office and warehouse buildings.

Norwalk-based Beinfield Architecture designed the new buildings with diverse facades to resemble a traditional Main Street that was built by separate owners over time.

The second phase will be built on the recently-cleared southwestern corner of the site.

Generating Foot Traffic From Offices, Apartments

Reshaping the triangle of land bordering Interstate 95 has been a decades-long process for Genovese, whose firm and its partner PG Properties began assembling individual properties from various local owners in 2007. The project required negotiations with 14 separate family-owned real estate companies.

The project was approved by Darien officials in 2018 after a 3-year review, despite lingering skepticism about whether there would be demand for 38 apartments in the first phase. But Genovese was committed to a mixed-use project that would generate foot traffic during all times of day.

“It puts dollars on the street during the day when the [apartment residents] are at work, and [the office space] supports the retail establishments during the day,” JLL’s Tonnessen said. “It brings back what the last few generations of Americans aren’t accustomed to, which is a community neighborhood where you have specialized enclaves.”

The 38 apartments in the first phase rented for between $4.50 to $4.75 per square foot, Genovese said.

“When the original zoning regulations were written, nobody was thinking about luxury apartments in downtown,” he said. “You lived in the downtown because you couldn’t afford to live on the waterfront or in the large properties.”