NORWALK, Conn. – A properly executed mall design would be a boon to most businesses in SoNo, according to an urban planning consultant hired by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.
“The mall should create a tremendous demand for the existing businesses and restaurants near it,” said Robert Gibbs at Saturday’s Joint Committee meeting in City Hall, where leaders of the Redevelopment Agency, the Common Council Planning Committee and the Planning Commission met with representatives of General Growth Partners (GGP) for what Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) called “contract negotiations” for the long-vacant 95/7 site.
Attorney William Hennessy, representing GGP, noted that the company was pleased at the commitment inherent in the city’s volunteer leaders coming out in the snow to spend three hours in an effort to expedite a development on the property.
GGP is in step one of getting approval to build a mall in SoNo, a negotiation to change the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the property, parcels 1, 2 and 4 of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan, to suit its needs. At the end of the session, committee members agreed that there is no demand for the office space currently lined out in the LDA, but Hempstead pushed to leave it in there as an option in the future, a move that GGP and RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan agreed with.
Gibbs told the group that “mixed use,” which is currently demanded by the LDA, would mean at least three uses – a “stretch” for the “real challenging site.”
There are five top land uses possible, he said, listing hospitality, retail, residential, civic and employment. While Hempstead verbalized the idea that GGP had only thrown a hotel into its mix as a way to appease the city in its desire for mixed use, Gibbs said a hotel is actually is favorite choice among the options to go along with a retail center.
“The hotel will expand the development into a 24/7 community, people will be staying overnight, you’ll have night traffic and all of the benefits of that,” Gibbs said. “It will bring leisure and business travelers who love to shop. … Studies that I have seen indicate that hotels that are located in retail centers do 20 to 30 percent higher in occupancy of the hotel. So it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Gibbs said a third use could be civic, as in a civic plaza or square. Technically speaking, a police substation could fit the bill, he said.
Hempstead there is an idea floating out there that the mall could feature a library, which would be a civic use. But he pushed for details on GGP’s inclusion of public space as part of its mixed use, skeptically pointing out that all malls have common areas, so it would be there anyway. Doug Adams of GGP and Attorney Larry Cafero said that GGP’s current mall layout has far more common area than a mall would ordinarily provide, with areas designed for public gatherings. Cafero said the common area added up to 180,000 square feet, which is about the LDA’s current specification for office space.
Cafero and Adams promised to delineate for the committee the square footage estimates for the proposed mall’s common area and the public space.
First item up for discussion was the effect the mall would have on SoNo. Sheehan explained to Gibbs that there was concern for the existing restaurants.
“I think that if a mall were built at about 700,000 square feet that it would about support 700,000 square feet of retail and restaurants around it, including the SoNo area,” Gibbs said.
It “most definitely” would bring new people to SoNo, he said. “It will bring more people on a regular basis, that are not coming now,” Gibbs said. “It will increase commerce and sales. That’s not to say some businesses won’t have to modify their business operations to accommodate, not to say that some business may close, or won’t find new competition they don’t have now. But overall this new center should increase retail sales across the board in SoNo. It should bring a lot of new customers to the retailers and restaurants.”
The uptick is truer for restaurants than retail, Gibbs said, because the mall will have a lot of retail and there will be customers who will not be satisfied with the dining options offered in the mall.
Asked where he got this “rule of thumb,” Gibbs said it was based on his own observations as a former employee of top mall developers. While there isn’t any published research, the company did its own studies, he said.
Gibbs was honored by Clinton Presidential Library’s School of Public Service in 2012 for his career contributions in urban planning and development, numerous sources say. He has “consulted on over 400 cities and new towns across the United States, Pacific Rim and Europe including: Alexandria, Auckland, Birmingham (Mich.), Charleston, Grand Rapids, Houston, Naples, Portland, Santa Cruz and Seattle. Gibbs teaches a planning course at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Executive Education Program and has contributed to five urban planning books,” the University of Michigan says.
Sheehan asked Gibbs if the restaurants that will come with the mall might be more competitive because they will have entrances from the outside as well as the inside, in what the mall developers have described as “jewel boxes” protruding from the building. Gibbs said that’s actually a trend with modern malls.
“I think that’s a better urban approach because it enlivens the street and I think it’s a good business model, too, because these restaurants, especially if they’re large landmark-type restaurants, will expand the trade area,” Gibbs said. “It will bring people from a further distance to dine who wouldn’t ordinarily shop in the local district. Not everybody who goes to those restaurants will be able to get into those restaurants. They have a long wait and find their way to other restaurants. There is a very proven rule of thumb: More restaurants help each other. The more restaurants you have the greater the trade area. The further people will drive to go dining in that location, the more frequency they will make to dine there.”
Hempstead said he could understand business growing around a mall – look what happened in Danbury, he said, where Christmas Tree Shop and other businesses built stores next door. But, he asked, what about SoNo, with its pre-existing conditions?
“There is the potential for additional retail to come into South Norwalk,” Sheehan said. “We have a lot of one-story development that has occurred in South Norwalk, in the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s. That one-story retail ultimately could change over time into something else and get the necessary floor plates to attract retail credit-rated tenants that want to be in close proximity to the mall, not in the mall.”
Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom focused in on the trolley that’s been mentioned in connection to the mall proposal. If it were regularly occurring at a high frequency it would succeed, he said. Gibbs said the city might want to consider a valet spot nearby because the expected “upper end” mall would bring people who like the convenience of their own vehicle.
“In theory, the size of the center at 750,000 square feet should be very positive for the adjacent businesses,” Gibbs said. “But that is if it is designed properly. I have seen centers that were not designed properly which sucked up all of the potential retail trade. What they are proposing should be a big positive if it’s designed well. I want to put that caveat in there. Generally I think what I am seeing is generally a step in that right direction except for some details.”
Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) asked about connectivity for pedestrians. Adams said the mall would be about 100 feet from the existing boardwalk along the Norwalk River. The idea is to build a new boardwalk section that would connect to the mall, he said.
There was much conversation about the portion of the mall that would go over North Water Street – Adams said it would be easy to build because of the standard grid construction that malls use. He could not provide actual square footage, though, because the dimensions vary, he said.
Crescent Street would be one way behind the mall, with lights and signage similar to those used on a one-way bridge, Adams said. The mall’s traffic design was also a topic of conversation, as Adams explained the grade changes from the lowest part of the property, the corner next to the railroad bridge, to West Avenue and the resultant sloping nature of the expected underground access road parallel to the Interstate 95 on-ramp.
Hempstead asserted the city’s right to get what it wants.
“GGP bought a site with conditions. So we are in contract negotiations … perfect contract negotiations, everybody wins,” he said, in explaining why he was pushing for data to back up GGP’s assertions and requests.
“It is a tighter site so your parking is more expensive and I get that, but you bought it that way,” Hempstead said. “I don’t mean to be negative but you bought it that way. You knew that was going to be problematic versus buying 150 acres of land and have it all surface parking, which is a heck of a lot cheaper. I know you’ve got to find a balance, I get it. … I want to see some of the connection, so I want to see a range come back as how it was first presented way back when, with a tinge of ‘We need 800,000 square feet and that’s it, if you don’t like it we’ll just sit on it.’ Didn’t think that started off so well. I think we’ve gotten beyond that. This is working, I think, to your benefit and to the city’s benefit. I think it’s a good, constructive thing. We’re trying to get good feedback from our membership and what’s really important to you.”
He also asked Adams about the costs in building the project.
“We want it to be a unique, iconic structure,” Adams said. “Our industry has realized that people do care what it looks like on the outside and how it functions in the area it’s in. When it’s done properly it performs better, and is worth the expense and trouble, than creating the fortress mall we have all talked about. But, yeah, there is a balance in any project, right? You try to do what you can and sometimes costs are costs.”