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Scene Change

The transformation of small-town Fairfield into a crowd-pleaser, day and night

Roy Ervin remembers when Fairfield was considered just a village. In the late 1930s, it was a sleepy, homey little hamlet with a few family-run shops and miles of vacant lots and grazing land. For excitement, you waited until Saturday in football season when hard-partying Yalies would barrel through town in their convertibles and raccoon-skin coats, heading for New Haven on the Post Road, the only north-south road up the coast.

When Roy Ervin wonders where Fairfield is headed in the next ten years, he has available to him the archeology of the town’s steady transition from sleepy to sophisticated. He remembers when kids played in the streets all over town—heck, hardly any families owned a car, aside from those “blue bloods” up on Greenfield Hill. You hiked up to the Post Road and caught the trolley if you wanted to get up to the bustling factories in Bridgeport or one of those other leafy hamlets to the south.

The Merritt Parkway went through in the late ’30s. After the war, the Post Road trolley lines were dug up and Fairfield gained an entirely new face with the building of acres and acres of subdivisions and tract homes. It was a familiar scene. Millions of Americans wanted off the farm or out of the stinky cities, and verdant charmers like Fairfield became the ideal. Industry turned white collar. The vast General Electric factory in Bridgeport, once one of the largest in the world, maker of toasters and war materials, began to shutter, and Fairfield welcomed the quiet, gated, secretive GE corporate headquarters to its bosom. Executives had their own private golf privileges at Patterson Country Club.

Fairfield’s gradual development helped it survive the crushing onslaught of the new turnpike we now call I-95. The massive highway obliterated choice sections of other cities in the 1950s, such as Norwalk and New Haven. Fairfield had time to develop around I-95, even as it emptied out in five places in the town. The throughway (what Congressman Jim Himes refers to as “the distaster known as 95”) still causes its own kind of havoc, of course, as jammed commuters sneak off in search of open lanes on the Post Road.

The instinct here remained to keep things quiet as possible. In the ’50s, a Nike missile base was proposed just south of the Merritt at the Fairfield-Westport line. Maybe some other towns would have welcomed such a source of government riches, but here it was met with enough heated protest to stop the affair. The residents of Greenfield Hill were even able to keep the Merritt from exiting in their neighborhood; what chance did a missile base have?

For all the postwar surge in development, Fairfield in the ’50s was still a town, recalls Dick Felner, where everyone knew every neighbor and downtown was still quiet. His dad ran a Shell station in the middle of town (positioned where the Media Wave video shop is now), and guys would drift by at quitting time and maybe sneak a belt in the back room. Afterward, Felner’s high school buddies cruised by the diner for a slice of raw onion in case Mom wanted to check their breath.

For all his shenanigans, Felner was straightened out by Fern Tetreau, coach of the Fairfield High football team. “He taught me respect and how to handle life,” Felner says now with hearty sentimentality. It must have worked, for Felner is the Fire Chief of his town, and Tetreau’s son, Mike, is the First Selectman.

The State of Reinvention

In his Town Hall office, Mike Tetreau wants you to understand that he’s only been on the job for a few months, and he’s still learning the ropes—and the numbers. His predecessor, Ken Flatto, took a job in Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration, and now Tetreau is still getting a grip on all the broiling issues in a town that, like Westport, is trying to strike a balance between pastoral history and today’s urbanized realities.

Visitors no longer dare dismiss Fairfield as a “bedroom community” or “commuter town.” This is now a sparklingly alive town, populated by reachers and strivers living on a constant Red Phone alert for any changes in schools or the tax code. If the new train station has been beset by a riot of cost overruns, everyone knows it and everyone has an opinion.  

Tetreau, a compact, sharply dressed man with gleaming white hair, reflected recently on the town’s constant state of reinvention. “If I had to pick a cultural component of Fairfield, we want to be a small town,” he says. “We don’t want to give up the excitement and the amenities, but we want to be a small town.

 “We don’t want to go back to the way it was when I was younger here, in the ’50s, when you had the Center Restaurant, HoJo’s and the Angus as your dining options.”

He refers to the zoning changes of a decade ago that allowed restaurants to hit the sidewalks, thereby turning Fairfield into a dining destination and turning the Post Road into a merry place to stroll.

“People being outside makes them happy. They’re not enclosed in a little restaurant now. As you drive through town, it makes it more fun and alive. You see more people. Last night I had dinner at the Post Tavern—we ate outside. It was a beautiful night. We saw friends.”

Along with the increase in dining options came the street life brought by, of all things, the enormous library, with all its programs for students, job-hunters and creative types. (During the blackouts wrought by Hurricane Irene, the library was a packed refuge center for desperate souls seeking WiFi.)

Within sight of the library grew the rocking Fairfield Theatre Company (FTC) and the recently dimmed lights of the Community Theater movie house and Borders bookstore. If the closing of the bookstore chain was a calamity, the wound was healed in an extraordinarily lucky stroke when it was announced that Fairfield University’s bookstore would fill the space later this year, complete with a coffee shop to be run by Starbucks.

Indeed, when one of the town’s main developers, Ken Kleban, tries to guess about the Fairfield of 2021, he sees more and more college students. “From our perspective, we see this as a college town. Fairfield University and Sacred Heart students are here in force, and they helped rejuvenate downtown. If you remember downtown from ten years ago, it was kind of dead. Along the Brick Walk we’ve been able to open up cafés. You see people walking along the streets now.”

Ken’s father Al was one of the main forces behind the Brick Walk, and the two of them have continued to push the development of small shops, restaurants and offices north of the library. With a series of cul de sacs lined with pedestrian-friendly openings, the Brick Walk is an inviting area. A couple of generations ago, the “downtown” here was pretty much dominated by the Fairfield Store, the only department store in the area (it filled the block where Borders once resided). Well-known and nostalgically remembered, but not exactly a thrilling town centerpiece.  

Southport architect J. P. Franzen de-signed a lot of the new shops. He thinks past governments here were smart to bring in experts from Yale to help look ahead to a “New Urbanism movement,” as Franzen calls it. “The idea is to encourage density and pedestrian circulation. You don’t want to discourage cars, but to discourage sprawl.” Thus, plenty of parking exists either in the back or underground.

The Klebans drew inspiration from Venice’s promenades and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. One sunny day recently, as Kleban walked past Molto, an Italian restaurant where a lunch crowd was taking seat and looking very continental, Kleban counted off on his fingers nine other dining establishments he was connected to that offered outdoor seating, including Fin Restaurant, specializing in Japanese, and Vino, Flipside, Ponte Vecchio, Tumbo and, of course, the Bagel King. “People are now actually getting in their cars in Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, and instead of going to a particular restaurant, they say, ‘Let’s go to Fairfield, we’ll find a restaurant.’ ” Although it might be idealized as a “small town,” Fairfield’s thirty-one square miles hold a lot of development potential besides the bustling downtown. The Black Rock Turnpike area, long an important commercial strip, has been given some of the same New Urbanism treatments that reshaped downtown. New sidewalks have been put in to make it easy to amble from one end to the other. The design of it all now seems more appropriate to an upscale town.

“Some of the new architecture is more in keeping with what we’ve got going on the Post Road,” says Kleban, who maintains many properties here. “A brick and limestone look. Gables as opposed to the flat roofs. It’s got a great mix now. Some mom-’n’-pops, some nationals. Indoor recreation. Great restaurants.”

A new ShopRite is replacing the old Shaws, and Trader Joe’s is expanding. The area now presents an alternative place to shop during the day and nightspots, like the Black Rock Oyster Bar or the Bear & Grill, not to mention Cinzanos, the Angus, Barcelona and the Lilac House, for socializing after sundown.

The major question mark in Fairfield’s growth is Black Rock’s southernmost area, the land surrounding the town’s troubled third train station—the still unfinished “Fairfield Metro,” as it might or might not be called. What started as a $38-million project ballooned to a $45-million deal, if not more. Tetreau says he hired a new project overseer in the summer to get the project done.

But will it get done?

Although the new station seems to be standing, the considerable shortfall looms.  When Tetreau lays out the options, he decrees that one option the town must face is just not finishing it.

When Congressman Jim Himes toured the facility recently, he emerged confident about the deal and all the inevitable development that will surround what promises to be one of the busiest stations on the line. “When that is up and running, it’ll be a million square feet of commercial space—those are jobs,” he says. “It’ll have an impact on Black Rock—they’ll be a little closer to a transportation hub.”

Price to Pay

As any politician knows, two things raise the rents and the values: education and proximity to transportation. The funding issues, Himes muses, might have been eased in the earlier economy. “When I first got to Congress [three years ago], there was more money available for things like train stations. Every town had a list of projects they wanted federal help with, like the Bridgeport station. Those things won’t disappear but they’re going to be more rare, whether it’s [funded by] earmarks, grants or whatever.

“Fairfield is doing quite well. It’s a neat community. It’s the one town in my district where you’ve got a real mix of people. The town is booming in a way that other towns are not.”

The byproduct of boom is, of course, property taxes and the accompanying terrors for people on a fixed income. As one resident of Congress Street asked, “Can I afford to live here when I’m sixty-five?”

“Oh, the taxes are killing me,” says Roy Ervin, who served in legislature in the ’60s and still maintains a law practice. “I own property by the beach. I have friends down there who are putting their homes on the market because of the taxes. It’s just beyond what they can afford. The new mega-homes upgrade the neighborhood, but the values of the beach properties are escalating more than they can afford. It’s like there’s another mortgage on the property.”

“Reassessment issues have been a challenge,” Tetreau admits. Having enjoyed a lengthy career in Southport real estate, Tetreau knows just what alarms people. But now his main concern is an inflexible town budget. “It’s a zero-sum game. The number you come to is $260 million, and the question is, who pays what portion of it?”

When reassessments come in, somebody inevitably blows a gasket. “The Pine Creek neighborhood has been hit hard by increase in value—some went up by more than 10 percent,” he says, “which is hard to fathom as it was always a desirable neighborhood. Most were built before 2005. I’ve done some work in the beach areas and some of the growth in values in those neighborhoods is hard to comprehend. And that doesn’t sit well with the people who live there. The goal,” he says at last, “is to get everybody to pay a reasonable percentage of the tax burden, not an unreasonable percentage.”

Everyone is grateful that the GE colossus pays some taxes here, but corporate taxes make up only 15 percent of the total. And GE doesn’t put a burden on the town’s schools.

“When you realize that 65 to 70 percent of the annual budget is tied to educational expenses,” Tetreau says with a smile, “you realize that the town is very much in the business of education.”

For all the setbacks, including the Bernie Madoff debacle a few years ago when a portion of the pension fund was inadvertently funneled into the man’s Ponzi scheme, Fairfield has kept its triple-A rating.

“The population has changed,” Tetreau admits. “It’s not the same town that I grew up in. But the population number is not that much different—it was 55,000 then, 59,000 now. When I graduated high school here in 1970, there were 450 graduates. I think 350 kids just graduated last September. And we have so many elementary schools that there are no long rides, unlike Redding, where you might ride the bus for an hour.

“We now have bigger homes, bigger cars, more youth sport programs. Someday I want to count up all the volunteers who make things happen in this town—there must be thousands.

“We’re one of the few towns where you can buy a house, walk to the beach, walk to downtown and walk to the train. There just isn’t another community that has that mix.”

Fairfield just rolls on serenely. The houses up on Greenfield Hill just get more stately. Southport, wreathed in its flowers, vines and Gilded Age grace, flags flapping in the harbor, hasn’t seemed to change since the Coolidge Administration. Even Southport’s new development surrounding the Delamar Hotel, briefly a controversial topic, seems now to be an enduring part of the landscape.

The Fairfield aesthetic might never have been codified, but everyone knows what it is and that it’s thoroughly resistant to any cheesy modern blandishments. There’s a timeless aspect to the Fairfield look, freshly dusted and primped and painted.

Most of the factories went away—there are no manufacturing jobs now at the Exide factory, or the Dupont plant, or Sturm-Ruger’s operation. But new money rolls in, attracted by this classic portion of Americana.

Fire Chief Dick Felner can’t hang out at his dad’s gas station anymore, but he cherishes every day here. “It’s one of the greatest towns around,” he says, his voice booming with pride. “Some people don’t realize how fortunate they are to live here, but they would if they looked around the country. Times are hard now, but we’re Americans, and we’ll get through it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”                                                                        

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