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Consultant to Norwalk: The right mall would help SoNo

Norwalk Board of Estimate BET 050514 020

Robert Gibbs, an urban retail planner, talks to Norwalk citizens Monday in 50 Washington St.

NORWALK, Conn. – The science of parking and designing retail centers – also known, in some cases, as malls – was shared with Norwalk movers and shakers Monday night by a consultant hired by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.

To hear Robert Gibbs tell it, a properly designed mall could regenerate SoNo.

“As a rule of thumb, having a strong regional anchor would bring a lot of people here,” Gibbs said to about 50 people gathered in a lobby at 50 Washington St. “Those people would fill your restaurants and your shops. You would probably have better shopping than you do now, if it’s designed well, and I would be really careful about the design. But the new ways they are designing malls are much better than when I was designing them back in the ’90’s.”

Gibbs has been hired by the RDA to evaluate an expected proposal to build a mall on the 95/7 site on West Avenue, RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sue Sweitzer said. The talk, which was, in part, to promote his book, “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development,” didn’t quite go off without a hitch (a projector could not communicate with Gibbs’ laptop) but there was plenty for the assembled former and current zoning commissioners, developers and interested citizens to absorb in the 90-minute presentation.

Gibbs said it was odd that parking garages in SoNo are more expensive than on-street parking – it should be the other way around, he said.

As a rule of thumb, parking garages should be free, or have the first two hours free, he said. It’s a reward for parking further away, he said.

“When people park, it’s important to see the front of the store from the car,” he said, at one point.

“Time has become the new luxury,” he said. “If you can provide to your shopper a place to park in front of the store or a few stores away, they will pay to do that. As long as they have a free lot or very inexpensive lot to park away.”

Gibbs said he didn’t agree with news reports that proclaim that the concept of a mall is dying. About 25 percent of malls have closed, but, “That’s generally because they are in very poor market areas,” he said.

About 25 percent of malls are “doing extremely well,” he said. About 9 percent of sales are over the Internet, and don’t offer the instant gratification, he said.

“It’s a format that is going to be around for a very long time,” he said. Malls are being developed to be more walkable, he said, with openings to the exterior and a main street running along the side.

Zoning Commissioner Michael O’Reilly asked him about the prospects of a mall in Norwalk.

“You are an extremely strong market demographically,” he said, referring to Southwest Connecticut. “I have worked with other developers that wanted to get into these general markets but they couldn’t find a site. But you are considered one of the best markets on the East Coast… I have a gut feeling that you could probably support a very good mall here or some other format, whether it’s enclosed or open air.”

A well-designed mall would likely bring shoppers who don’t come here already, he said. In his experience, people shop for two hours and then look to explore nearby areas, if it’s a mall that is not built as a fortress, he said. They go to the local restaurants and specialty shops, he said.

“I don’t think there would be many local stores that would close and go into the mall,” he said. “They’re different categories of use. What I have seen in other locations is the malls are very good at leasing. They have people that are, you know, the world class of leasing and they will go out and really hype up Norwalk as being the greatest place to open up a store since you know, whenever, Fifth Avenue. They will go out and really promote this … We have found that a lot of the retailers we talk to get excited about that market and then go into the downtown and open a store. Then you see really great shops that wouldn’t come here on their own. I don’t see a big negative right now, although depending on the design and the way it is laid out there could be big negatives.”

But, if a mall wasn’t built here, was instead built five miles away, that would be a negative, he said.

“Then it would pull people away from the downtown and you wouldn’t get any of that spinoff,” he said.

Most developers now realize that what is good for the local business and the area residents is good for them, he said.

But malls need an anchor, a big store to draw people, he said. One third of the people walking around malls came to visit the anchor store, he said. Experiments in building malls without an anchor did not work, he said, as department store owners “wised up” and began offering better service, drawing people away from those malls.

Funny thing – people are moving back to the cities, he said.

Department stores are moving back into urban areas, he said. “A lot of the bigger chains are building urban models,” he said. Walmart and Target both have half-size city versions of their stores now. That’s because, before the recession, developers built big stores in farmland, expecting subdivisions to spring up around them. It didn’t happen.

“They never hit their sales projections. So a lot of retailers are saying now I want to locate in the middle of a city where I can actually count real people,” he said. “… There is a new way of looking at urban retail. It’s positive. I think you’ll see a lot of retail coming back to the cities.”

19 comments

ScopeonNorwalk May 6, 2014 at 8:07 am

I’m curious: under whose leadership did we get the Pathmark Mall that used to be where the Avalons are? Does anyone know?…

EastNorwalkChick May 6, 2014 at 8:52 am

I think an outdoor walking mall in the 95/7 site would be ideal, it would bring to people to Norwalk. From there people could then explore what else Norwalk has to offer. Turn left out of the mall you go to SoNo, turn right you go to Wall Street.
.
Would love it if it were an outlet mall, this weekend drove an hour just to go to the Westbrook Outlets. By the time I got there, after dealing with the traffic, I didn’t feel like shopping. Got what I needed, then left….

LWitherspoon May 6, 2014 at 10:42 am

What store that we don’t already have would anchor a mall in Norwalk? What would be the effect on existing retailers on the Post Road in West Norwalk? More shopping options are great but let’s make sure we don’t solve one problem only to create another.

Bill May 6, 2014 at 10:45 am

If so called “leftists” try to stop this modern, walkable mall in sono, it will be the death of this town. I know BJ’s was a stretch, but this city needs every dollar of revenue we can get. Opposing this mall means you oppose good schools and better funding for our city. If leftists want to oppose this thing, you guys better figure out a way to come up with other funding sources rather than raising taxes on the dying Norwalk middle class.

Bill May 6, 2014 at 10:47 am

@LWitherspoon, it is called competition and free markets, we don’t need to regulate business development so that some guy on westport ave stays in business. Welcome the the 21st century where businesses have to be competitive on their own.

Adam Blank May 6, 2014 at 11:12 am

An outlet mall would be great in Norwalk. My limited understanding, however, is that the lease agreements for retailers at Woodbury Commons and Clinton Crossing contain provisions prohibiting those retailers from opening other outlets within 60 miles or so (which covers Norwalk).

LWitherspoon May 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm

@Bill
.
I am not a ‘leftist’ and I never said we shouldn’t have a mall at 95/7. I merely said it’s worth considering the effect of a mall on the rest of the city’s businesses. If we add a mall at 95/7 and several large commercial properties on the Post Road become blighted, what have we achieved? I don’t have the expertise to know whether or not the aforementioned scenario is likely, but I hope that those who do will consider it.
.
With respect to the free market and competition, whether we like it or not government and tax dollars play a role in development. If I remember correctly we have already paid for infrastructure improvements for numerous sites that will be developed by private companies. So let’s not pretend that the ‘free market’ bars us from having any influence on the development process because the fact is that we already do.

Harold F. Cobin May 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Based on your account of his presentation, it appears urban retail planner Robert Gibbs may be seriously underestimating the negative effect online shopping is having on retail businesses.

Stating nine percent of sales occur over the Internet, Gibbs downplays the significance of online shopping because such purchases don’t provide “instant gratification.” I’ve been instantly gratified many times at the sight of a UPS or Fedex truck in my driveway delivering a purchase that would have cost me considerably more had I bought it at a store.

The fate of retailing is in flux, and it’s possible businesses that can survive in a mall (or anywhere, for that matter) will eventually be limited to restaurants, fitness centers and other operations where the consumer must be onsite to complete a transaction. An added problem is that retailers are being plagued by customers who visit stores as showrooms, where they examine merchandise before heading home to buy it online.

Presumably retailers that sell high cost merchandise, or merchandise that a customer usually wants to closely inspect before purchasing, such as fine jewelry or artwork, will also survive, along with destination merchants whose locations add glamor or entertainment to the shopping experience. But even restaurants are expanding into online sales via facilitators such as GrubHub and Eat24, and the advent of 3D printers and high-resolution displays may result in customers being satisfied they’ve examined an item close enough at home to be confident purchasing it.

If the term “Amazoned” hasn’t been coined already, I think it will be to describe brick-and-mortar retailers who couldn’t compete with online merchants. For example, Borders ran a great chain of bookstores, but it got Amazoned. — H.F.C.

Suzanne May 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm

First thing I did was look up this guy using Google. The first item to pop up was Amazon and his book. A link that explains his ideas more fully seem promising (and he does not seem to be emphasizing chain stores nor discount outlet shopping):

http://www.cnu.org/cnu-news/2013/02/robert-gibbs-principles-urban-retail-planning-and-development

It would seem that Planning and Zoning as well as the City Counsel could take away some concrete development ideas from his principles, some points which follow:

Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development (Robert Gibbs’ book) will:

Provide insight and techniques necessary for historic downtowns and new urban communities to compete with modern suburban shopping centers.

Promote sustainable community building and development by making it more profitable for the shopping center industry to invest in historic cities or to develop walkable urban communities.

Includes case studies of recent good examples of retail development

Haley May 6, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Did anyone ask him about the effect of a mall on our already congested roads? Already I avoid Route 1 and its hellish traffic like the plague.

Taxpayer Fatigue May 6, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Bill, I’m a leftist and proud of it. I am not at all opposed to a mall and believe, that if it is well designed, with decent stores, a mall will do extremely well here. But, I am concerned that these types of buildings do not significantly add revenues to our grand list as a mixed use development would. The challenge here is that these big retail stores generate a lot of sales tax revenues that goes straight to the state, which Malloy will just redirect to the next big development project in Stamford – such as the $115M to move the hedge fund from Westport to Stamford or the $40M for the new $500M Stamford train station complex (and the are looking for more!). Our challenge is to get our legislators to get those dollars redirected back to Norwalk as part of the deal for the mall. Last week Chris Perone proudly announced that he had helped Norwalk get over $100M over the years. Stamford got $115m just for one project, well over $1B in the past few years. We will be the biggest chumps on the planet if we don’t insist that 80-90% of the sales tax revenue gets directed back to Norwalk as part of the deal – otherwise we should hold back our approval and wait for a project that will generate more property taxes.

Local Ed May 7, 2014 at 9:47 am

In my opinion we should do exactly what West Hartford did, with the West Hartford Center. There is a great outdoor designed retail and resturant area that would fit perfectly in 95/7

Suzanne May 7, 2014 at 11:30 am

Good call, Local Ed. Downtown West Hartford has the right scale, architecture, pedestrian access and vehicular ease. The architecture is appropriate to the area as well.

Barbara May 8, 2014 at 5:02 pm

First of all kudos to RDA and Susan Sweitzer for approaching
the project responsibly, by opening a dialog. Other projects would be well advised to take a note or two. Second Mr Corbin makes some valid observations,
re; amazoned. Not sure how accurate the guest speaker, Mr. Gibbs, is on some of his assumptions, without facts and data at hand to back up the statements but he is correct about this market being an ideal location. He is also correct that any successful project would have
to be well thought out and integrated with the community.
Most importantly,which the speaker apparently failed to emphasize, to be sustainable it must fill a need, ie. an under served
market.

_

Hotel/Convention Hall entertainment complex or some variation, possibly.
More office space? No. The market is saturated. Another Superstore?
No, that market is also near full saturation. Housing/retail like the ugly cheap prefabricated
monstrocities on West and Belden avenue’s? No, double no. The 95/7 location is prime commercial grade A, number 1 beef steak and anyway, no one wants to live next door to a decommissioned, disguised trash dump that may very well be a toxic time bomb. Ask any resident on Meadow street, pretending,
as if they had an actual choice, to, not, live next door, to a ticking toxic time bomb.

_

Which brings the question of what type of commercial establishment would be a sustainable anchor and not be in direct competition with local small businesses already struggling? What operation would be a draw? Fill a void and compliment existing establishments?

Once more, what needs are not being met but can be met with an appropriate anchor of some sort? Not necessarily a dry or wet goods What will be a draw? Right now Norwalk is known for its big box retail mega stores, bars and illicit, open air, markets along with Norwalks annual festival and boat show which few local residents can afford a festival ticket, no less a boat.
What happened? Norwalk was known as a family entertainment draw not all that long ago that with Old McDonalds Farm and the Starlight Drive In? Try and get an ice cream lately? Risk life, limb and a car insurance rate hike today just to get a cone. CT Ave is a race track with signals like on NHRA drag strips but timed to make you go the least distance in the most amount of time and burn the most fuel. Lotta revenue at that gas pump. The Bowling alley is still a draw and we do have a couple of movie houses still alive, with a hopeful eye on whatever develops on Wall street so
Norwalk does have the basic foundation for arts and entertainment to build upon.
The area is home to many artists representing all forms, from sculpture to film making
And there is the Stepn stones and the Aquarium, although only so many times one wants
to look at a fish.

_

With Landmark in Stamford and Trumbull struggling, Lafeyette in Bridgeport evaporating with only the newcomer Danbury appearing to be hanging on, in the area,
the mall concept, as we have known it is obviously dated. That concept
having one or two or more large retail, usually dry goods but on occasion wet goods – grocery, anchors, with what seems like miles of endless walking, walking past never ending showcase windows, sporting imported, obscenely high priced,
low quality merchandise is no longer a forward thinking strategy.
What this area sorely lacking is not Macy’s or Bloomingdales or Target and therin,
dearest grasshoppers, is the bountiful harvest we must toil towards,

_

That whole retail concept is changing as it did a century ago, when mail order was replaced by actual stores well stocked with impulse items. Like it or not,
today, most everything can be bought and delivered to your door online usually much cheaper and with a wider selection, hassle free, that impulse buy is still there its just easier with a click or two now. As opposed to driving through traffic, battling for parking, often paying to park for the chance to walk and walk
and spend more money for cheap imports at top shelf prices.

_

Held up ten minutes at the cashier line checking out your purchase’s? Don’t worry that parking ticket is only 50 bucks if you pay it in a
week. If you wait 8 days it will be another 50 and another 50 every month thereafter. Park in the wrong spot with poor or misleading signage or to just run in for 90 seconds? Have to lay out another $300 to get your car out of the repo mans yard, on top of the $50 ticket.

_

Does that sound like a winning, hassle free, customer friendly
forward thinking concept? Not one to camp out in freezing weather
to save 5 bucks on a toaster from China, made with slave labor but
a dwindling few are so bored out of their minds they do.
Not sure what role brick and motar retail establishments will have
looking forward if they will play a role at all. One fact is clear
that century old retail model must adapt to the digital age we are entering
or they will not survive.

_

Whats is painfully missing in the area is entertainment, for all ages. Now, no one is suggesting erecting a roller coaster, although in the interim why not
bring in some road fairs? Collect a little tax? Oh yeah, the owner is to broke to secure insurance. Not suggesting a convention center either although that may be
an asset to consider for the project. But entertainment is a concept that can fill a
true need for the community and surrounding areas. Any sustainable endeavor must fill a need and focusing on entertainment, especially with hands on customer interaction and involvement and exquisite dining experiences, fills a void. Something that incorporates the ideas and lessons say from the Chelsea Piers project in Manhattan and Grand Central and many others. Dubai has an indoor water theme park mall and Mall of America in Minnesota does have, yes, roller coasters, as examples. Does any one remember the pink pigs atop a store, down south? 20 points for the city, 30 points for the store, twenty points more if you know when they went upand came down. And 100 points of you know where those pink pigs are today.
Point is that it was a marketing draw, no where else could you and your child or grandchild ride a pink pig monorail, atop a building no less. It was an original idea and it worked.

_

What are the needs that are not being fulfilled? What will fill those needs? What design
will work well with the theme? All the other other concerns that developers and investors are
concerned with like location, infrastructure, workforce, tenants, and of course the targeted
disposable income market, are, well, everyone knows, this is where the money is as well as the
infrastructure and there is a decent workforce available although housing stock can use improvement.

_

If Norwalk can play this hand astutely, it just might make up for
all the lousy, ham fist’ed, myopically ill played hands of the past, yes it is that significant and may be Norwalks last, in the foreseeable future, best hope at revitalizing the local economy, housing stock and growing the grand list and tax base and shifting the burden from strapped
and tapped resident homeowners. But realize and beware Norwalk,
(the gem the location is and its value) and don’t be conned, scammed
and cheated, yet again by giving the candy store away with tax incentives for empty promises of utopia. When you have what no one else has and everyone wants, is it more valuable or less valuable?

_

The money men have many shrewd lawyers creating clauses in microscopic print and know many tricks to reduce exposure to risk and increase profits.
Cities can also reduced risk by requiring bonds and binding timelines for each phase and not providing tax incentives with out
some kind of balance, some guarantee on a commitment. For example, 20,000 tax break for the first year, 5 or 10 the second year, if say the third year
40,000-50,000 in computers is given to the schools or scholarships. Norwalk has not had leadership no less savvy leadership for some time.
Lets all work together and take this once in a life time opportunity to leave
something behind that will be an asset for future generations to enjoy and appreciate, something we all can be proud of accomplishing.

Suzanne May 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

I go to a brick and mortar store when I value the relationships and expertise of the owners. When I know that my patronage is supporting someone who is building a valued business. There are small businesses that I frequent often, almost none of them in Norwalk. Yours is a good entry, Barbara, with many thoughtful comments: I wonder about an amusement park or entertainment, however. These have episodic uses in a population and I wonder how sustainable they would be. I guess I am wondering, does Norwalk really need a roller coaster? I also wonder about the sustainability of the traffic that would ensue. I did some research on Robert Gibbs, the guest speaker, and he is considered one of the nation’s best in urban planning. His principles and values, some of which I mentioned above, are worth reviewing. How knowledgeable he is about this particular area I don’t know. Unfortunately, I have very little confidence is the planning or zoning committees to “get it right.” Norwalk’s council’s are uniformly fractured. I can’t believe any one of them could see a good plan and know how to handle it. But, your evaluation is a good one and I appreciate it. Thank you.

New2SONO May 11, 2014 at 7:23 am

I think a mini urban mall with a Target will be best. Moving from the city boroughs to SONO I see a lot of potential in Norwalk if done correctly. A non traditional mall will only help revitalize Norwalk. We don’t need another Landmark or Trumbull mall.

Dennis DiManis May 12, 2014 at 10:52 am

There’s potential galore, and it can be exploited if we have civic leaders looking to make a difference instead of making a buck.

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