By Ganga K. Duleep, Ph.D.
NORWALK, Conn. – This is an open letter sent to Common Council member Nick Kydes (R-District C), chairman of the planning committee, on Jan. 3. The committee did not reach a quorum for its meeting that night. The item in question was sent to the entire council for approval Tuesday, Jan. 8.
Dear Mr. Kydes:
Three weeks ago, I sent you a letter requesting you to put me on the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the Planning Committee of the Norwalk Common Council. You responded that you needed to meet with me in person first. I understand that because of the holidays, Sandy Hook, etc., we could not meet. I do not know if I am on your agenda for tonight or not. If not, I respectfully request you to have this letter read into the public record. I believe it deals with concerns that are very important to your constituents and those of your fellow committee members.
Last month, in response to a direct question from me before 30 witnesses, Mr. Tim Sheehan of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency said that your committee had unanimously approved transferring two parcels of city-owned property on Day Street worth $2.5 million to Trinity Financial, via his agency, for $1. Is this statement false and misleading? Please confirm whether we, the taxpayers, gave your committee the power to hand over our property without debate, or public participation or – most importantly – without negotiating in a responsible manner to get the best possible deal. Or did you merely agree to pass the hot potato up to the entire council where hopefully these issues will be aired in a transparent manner? A long-term lease from the city to the city’s housing authority should suffice as “site control” for the purposes of applying for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative funding. There is no need for the city to cede control over our assets.
When I asked if Trinity Financial would be paying for any of the new roads, etc. that this project would require, Mr. Sheehan said that we, the taxpayers, would have to pick up the tab; he refused to give an estimate of what that tab would be. He then added that he had city engineers working on a flood prevention study for the Water Street area; the Choice Neighborhoods grant application required such a study. He mentioned that we, the taxpayers, would have to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to implement these plans to flood-proof Water Street (although he would try to get us some FEMA Sandy Relief money to help us out a bit). How much are we paying for these engineers? Even if they are on the city payroll, I would like to know exactly how much we are spending on this study.
I then asked Mr. Sheehan what happened to the other two parcels on Day Street that belong to all Norwalkers. He responded that we did not own any other parcels on Day Street. Yet, a mere two years ago, when Mr. Sheehan was proposing to put in that other shortsighted boondoggle of a project called Hope Six on Day Street, his own agency gave me proof that we owned four parcels there! What happened to our missing property worth $3 million?
For many years, L & L Ever-green has been paying us rent money for those parcels where they conduct a small business. On Aug. 29, Mr. Clay Fowler of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners signed a new 5-year lease with L & L for use of those same lots, with all rent money going to Mr. Fowler and no longer to us, the taxpayers. When and how did Mr. Fowler, the favored developer of the redevelopment agency and creator of all the holes in South Norwalk, become the owner of our property? How much did he pay us for it? Were the lots offered for sale in the open market? Did your committee or the Common Council approve of this transfer of ownership? If so, when and why?
It is my understanding that the redevelopment agency received $250,000 18 months ago to conduct surveys to ascertain whether Norwalkers approve of the proposed plans from Trinity. In order to win the grant, inclusion of Ryan Park within their plans is imperative. Therefore, this summer, a barbeque was held at Washington Village. The redevelopment agency has not responded to requests to divulge exactly how many residents of Washington Village did attend this event. But those who did were asked to respond to a survey that was skewed to reflect the answers the agency hoped to get. Friends of Ryan Park (a group that has thousands of members as it includes everyone from the greater Norwalk area who has helped out to make this park a very family friendly place these last three years) have been pointedly left out of any discussion.
Three weeks ago, new plans for Ryan Park were unveiled; they amount to absorption of Ryan Park within this housing project without having to pay even one dollar for it. The park would remain city property, with the city having to pay for maintenance, liability insurance, etc, etc. But Ryan Park would be reconfigured in such a way that any Norwalker who is not a resident of this complex would be made to feel like a trespasser. In order to convince HUD that their money is being used to benefit the entire neighborhood, Trinity Financial is forced to include Ryan Park, a community center and an education room next to the park in their plans. Yet when asked if Friends of Ryan Park could use the bathroom in the new community room, the swift answer was “Oh No!! That’s all private property belonging to Trinity Financial!” So Norwalkers are expected to give up millions of dollars worth of assets in exchange for what?
Repeated requests from Friends of Ryan Park for consideration of our input and proposals before the application for the grant was submitted to HUD were ignored. Statements of disapproval of new plans for Ryan Park from residents of the Day Street condominiums and many residents of Washington Village are not being taken into account. Even misgivings expressed by members of the board of the housing authority are not yet being addressed!
So basically, plans to give away $12 million worth of Norwalk land ($6 million for the four Day Street lots, $4 million for the land Washington Village sits on now, and $2 million for Ryan Park) and the addition of several million dollars worth of bills for infrastructure, flood relief, cost of new schools, etc. onto the backs of the hapless Norwalk taxpayer are being railroaded through. When asked, Patrick, the president of Trinity Financial, said that his company would not have to put up any money at all. Norwalk was generous enough to offer up all the land free, he said, and HUD would pay for all the construction costs. So the $500 million that experts tell me would be the approximate profit made over the years from this project would be money that Norwalkers allowed themselves to be deprived of.
I would like to see Washington Village rebuilt (with Choice Neighborhoods money) in a sensible manner. Just because 50 years ago, Norwalk used poor judgment in building Washington Village in a flood-prone zone does not mean we should blindly proceed to repeat that costly mistake. HUD wants to see the entire neighborhood revitalized, not just the small part with the priceless water views now being considered. Relocating Washington Village (and Leroy Downs also) to the Webster Street lot should be considered and debated. We should offer a long term lease to the developer, with the requirement that the ground Washington Village sits on now should revert back to the city. The buildings there (with the exception of the community room) should be demolished, with the land prepared for use as a city park on HUD’s dime.
With proper planning, we can have three times the amount of parking we have there now, a huge income-producing mall and mixed use residential units above! This location also ties in with HUD’s preference for Transit-Oriented Development, which is why they spend our federal tax dollars on Choice Neighborhoods grants in the first place.
The $50,000 Ryan Park can get from HUD can be put to good use, not to reinvent the wheel, but to give our kids what they need most: a baseball diamond and a soccer field. This also benefits the residents of East Norwalk, who will not have to make room for these sports fields in Veterans Park. Once these athletic fields are sited where Washington Village is now, Ryan Park will then front on a heavily-traveled road (Water Street). This will solve the issue of future incipient crime and reinforce the fact that this is indeed a city park, open to all. This will also help draw tourist foot traffic from the Maritime Aquarium to the businesses near Ryan Park.
Friends of Ryan Park 501 (c)(3) shall be happy to renovate the community room present there now, so the city will not have to spend any money on much-needed amenities like bathrooms, etc. In 2012 alone, 2,868 people who do not live in Washington Village used Ryan Park; therefore, we do need amenities. Flooding is not an issue for Ryan Park. After Hurricane Irene, when I was finding fish in Ryan Park, the gardens rebounded so quickly at no cost to the city that now scientific papers are being written on research done at Ryan Park on how to deal with salt water in gardens.
The Day Street properties should be sold at market rate and developers who see dollar signs when they see water views should have to deal with flooding issues on their own dime!
Option two would be to modify the present plan submitted by Trinity Financial. The Day Street properties would be swapped for the Washington Village land. HUD money would pay for the baseball diamond, soccer field, etc., etc. Trinity would pay for demolition of the Sandy-ravaged buildings and whatever infrastructure they need; FEMA would pay to deal with the flood issues.
It is apparent that this is not an issue that should be dealt with quickly. Trinity Financial says it may not break ground for another six years. Nevertheless, if your committee feels that you have no choice but to give our land away within the next three months, let me remind you that we can resubmit our application again this year after we get it right. Rushing this deeply flawed application through now will give me no choice but to rally Norwalkers to take their concerns directly to HUD. It is my understanding that winning the implementation grant money from HUD requires the redevelopment agency to prove all stakeholders approve. After all the Friends of Ryan Park went through in 2009 to save the park from a developer, I believe we have earned the right to be considered stakeholders.
Ganga K. Duleep, Ph.D