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Consultant: Mall would be a boon to SoNo

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan leads a teleconference Saturday in City Hall. Consultant Robert Gibbs is shown at right on the Council chamber’s white board. Gibbs was in Michigan.

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.

Former Norwalk state Rep. Larry Cafero talks about North Water Street in relation to the proposed mall at Saturday's meeting in City Hall.

Former Norwalk state Rep. Larry Cafero talks about North Water Street in relation to the proposed mall at Saturday’s meeting in City Hall.

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.

Gibbs said he was sure he could find studies from the International Council of Shopping Centers and the Urban Land Institute to substantiate that observation.

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.”

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), left, and

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), left, and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano question General Growth Properties (GGP) representatives Saturday in City Hall.

45 comments

Local Ed January 26, 2015 at 8:27 am

I just wish the design was changed to make the mall more of an outdoor area. Indoor malls suck. There need a large retailer like a trader Joes, or whole foods to anchor the project. Plus why not add a gym. Another cool outdoor bar/ beer garden.

If you have ever been up to West Hartford they have a very cool outdoor shopping center which I wish we could model ours after

http://bluebacksquare.com/

Rod Lopez-Fabrega January 26, 2015 at 8:58 am

Sounds to me like it’s:

TAKE THAT, LIKE IT OR NOT!

It appears to me that Mr. Gibbs has not enhanced his stated expertise and reputation with his quick and superficial comments that necessarily must preclude any time he has had for in depth analysis of our particular issue regarding the insertion of a big box mall here in Norwalk.

Fred Wilms January 26, 2015 at 9:11 am

Last Friday GGP briefed the Norwalk Legislative delegation along with the Mayor on this project. While a number of details need to be worked out, I support this development. I believe it is the best use for this site at this time. I hope the Joint Committee moves forward with the LDA in an expeditious and timely manner.

Jlightfield January 26, 2015 at 9:34 am

If one had an economic development goal of supporting the idea that Norwalk’s economy is tourist and/or visitor driven, then the hotel as part of a retail lifestyle center makes perfect sense. At a 5 minute walk from this area are most of the cultural attractions of the city. SONO has a great opportunity to extend its waterfront entertainment activities and develop into a harbor lifestyle destination attraction.

Norwalk’s hospitality industry is currently a suburban model. Hotels are located near office parks and are designed to service business travelers and a weekday focused market. (With the exception of the Norwalk Inn which is inexplicably in a residential area)

There is a market for a conference center use that could build on the waterfront access that would position Norwalk has a unique destination as we have a train station near our waterfront. Thinking more along the lines of how Boston developed it’s hotel and open space along its harbor adjacent to its historic and cultural attractions and you can see the vision of how it can all work together. We simply have to start thinking past the default pergola, plaza and housing mindset.

Scott January 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

Noticing that there was a bit of talk about what space would be available for public use, and it got me thinking about SoNo Marketplace. Apologies if I’m wrong, but the Marketplace isn’t open anymore, correct? I always thought it was a fantastic idea. The location was a bit out of the “SoNo heartland”, but the idea of having a communal place for local small/micro businesses to come and showcase their wares is a fantastic one, and very much in-tune with SoNo’s culture. Having a similar setup somewhere in this new mall could really help set it apart and help integrate it into a community that isn’t exactly excited by the prospect of a mall.

Piberman January 26, 2015 at 10:17 am

For all the hoopla there are no detailed economic cost benefit analyses yet presented or detailed traffic congestion studies allowing dispassionate debate. Fred Wilms is the 3 rd Republican after Moccia and Cafero to offer support. The fix is in. That seals the deal for Republicans. Will Doug Hempstead ask the “consultant” to provide detailed analyses of the proposals visits benefits and traffic studies ? Or will he join the “circus” ? Will Mayor Rilling hire a distinguished consulting firm that actually provides detailed ghosts benefit analyses of the mall project so they can be studied and evaluated ? That would make his re-election a slam dunk. And save Norwalk from a hasty circus like decision.

SONO Business Owner January 26, 2015 at 10:51 am

Scott, What a truly wonderful idea to combine the typical national retailers that would be attracted by an upscale mall with a communal space that would attract local “small/micro” businesses.

Jlightfield, I also think it would be an incredible vision to build a cohesive plan focussed on building the waterfront legacy of South Norwalk, and the Aquarium could certainly play an important role in that as well.

This kind of “beyond the retail box” thinking is really starting to be interesting and invigorating.

Rod Lopez-Fabrega January 26, 2015 at 11:04 am

Or, as posted on another discussion about the Mall, how about a technology center. My understanding is that there are more than a few start-up companies in Southern New England–the kind that start up in basements–that could be interested in a centralized location (right next to a major artery-95) that would provide them with moderate rentals for work spaces in which to innovate? Additionally, the site could provide support (secretarial, advertising and other) for these innovators.

Such a tech center would be a major prestige factor for Norwalk and could go a long way toward giving us greater respectability throughout the area.

SONO TECH CENTER sounds good to me.

Big Tex January 26, 2015 at 11:52 am

In Texas we have a saying about empty promises, “all hat and no cattle/all sizzle and no steak.” I am embarrassed for all current and former politicians who are supporting this with the least amount of due diligence on the costs/benefits of this. What is particularly troubling is GGP has retained a resident politician and most likely paying him handsomely to put on the cheer leeding uniform – pom poms and all. . . Where are the tangible results from any studies being performed? Traffic/infrastructure/subsidies needed to support the flock of residents coming here taking these low paying jobs/etc. Why is the being rifled through when most citizens don’t want this. Shame, shame.

Michael McGuire January 26, 2015 at 12:02 pm

RLF – that affordable “rent” would be in in excess of $30/PSF for very average space to provide and kind of return on investment to the land owner. Right now our best Norwalk office at Merritt 7 rents for that amount.

The economics have to work regardless of what gets built here.

If you know of any tech start ups sent them to Norwalk’s Wall Street – we have great space at affordable rents for that use here.

piberman January 26, 2015 at 1:02 pm

In an ideal world the mall proposal would receive a thorough professional vetting by City officials, distingyished consultants and the citizens of Norwalk who can make suitable judgments. Unfortunately the mall project illustrates the dysfunctional nature of our local governance. Imagine if our Chief elected official, our Mayor, became the City’s real advocate and brought in the expertise to make a well informed judgment. We do know where the GOP stands. Former Rep. Cafero is the developers paid spokesman and both former Mayor Moccia and newly elected Fred Wilms, a local banker, have given their collective approvals. Now its up to City Democrats and Mayor Rilling to demand informed judgments and detailed analysis by well qualified consultants and thereby demonsrate real leadership.
Our civic goal ought to be that the majority of the citizens sign off on the mall proposal eiher up or down because of an informed judgment based on detailed costs/benefitis analysis. Not becaue local politicos are paid to get the community’s acceptance. If ever there was a chance for City Democrats and Mayor Rilling to “stand tall” a thorough vetting of the mall proposal is that chance. Standing quietly in the wings means a lost opportunity for all. Lets encourage Mayor Rilling to hire a first rate nationally recognized real estate valuation/investment consultancy to provide the detailed analysis to help both City officials and the public to make a well informed choice. And send a message to the developers that a hired “pitchman” sends precisely the wrong message. A well thought out project with detailed costs and benefis analysis doesn’t need a “pitchman” to convince City residents. Indeed, it sends just the wrong message. We ought remember that Big Box was a GOP effort under former Mayor Esposito. Here’s a chance for City Democrats under Mayor Rilling to do much better by providing the detailed analyses that the City to make an informed decision.

Rod Lopez-Fabrega January 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm

@piberman:

Exactly! The silence on this issue from most of our elected officials is deafening. It’s a silence that does not inspire confidence.

Lisbeth Blue January 26, 2015 at 7:47 pm

How about adding some apartment buildings to the mall? The mall is a very good idea. Just because a number of business have failed in the general Norwalk area doesn’t mean that a mall won’t work. Again, where do the citizens of Norwalk go to shop? Stamford Mall, Danbury Mall…not here.

New York Tmes article on malls notwithstanding.

The city wants to rebuild Washington village in the swamp…why not do some arm twisting and build a few of those apartments somewhere else? Like at the Mall? So what if the people have lived there for decades and want to stay. As tax payers, we could help move people to places that give them new beginnings. And, if we have to pay for new beginnings, why not on terms with those of us who want progress and change?

Yes to the Mall. Yes to apartments and hotels there…

Michael McGuire January 26, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Piberman – at this point your idea is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. The highest and best use of this site is for intensive retail development. Period. A hotel is a nice add on but is not the highest an best use. No other uses come close to making any type of financial sense.

The analysis is very simple for any competent valuation professional to do. The fact that it had not been done annually to update the LDA to reflect the current market is the real issue. If we had a planning professional on this from the get go we could save a lot to time.

BTW – does anyone know if our Director of Planning was at this meeting?

Wineshine January 27, 2015 at 7:54 am

The most recent report I’ve heard on a network news channel is that half of America’s malls will be shut down within 10 years.

Nancy January 27, 2015 at 8:32 am

@Big Tex – Most citizens want this…In Texas, we have malls, hotels, plazas, live entertainment, vibrant small businesses, thriving art communities, and reasonable taxes…The mall/hotel is a good plan for Norwalk…and most people who are not retired, living on government assistance, or state/municipal pensions agree.

Big Tex January 27, 2015 at 9:21 am

@Mike &Nancy. With all due respect, Piberman is making the most sense here and suspicions are heightened when folks pontificate claiming this “mall” is the best thing since sliced bread without any studies or prudent analysis. I cannot reconcile how malls are dead yet high end malls are all the cache in a community where a substantial portion of residents depend on entitlements to get by. A hole in the ground would be preferred to potential building a calamity in the making. Build it on a whim should not be the centerpiece of a monumental development for the city of Norwalk.

Mike Mushak January 27, 2015 at 12:22 pm

Big Tex, there is much more market research to support a mall than Berman’s pie in the sky “high-paying office jobs.” The smart investors that are involved with GGP would not gamble $300 million without having done their research.

We don’t need more housing at this time in this area, since we are reaching saturation, nor does the market support building office.

What Norwalk does need desperately are the 2,800 jobs, and increased tax revenue. For many struggling folks, this may be the entry level job they need, or the second job to make ends meet or feed their family. Many of the jobs will be higher-paying managerial positions. There has not been a single project to provide this many jobs in Norwalk since all the hat factories closed in the 1950’s and 60’s, a blow we are still recovering from like most post-industrial cities. Also, there are many positive ripple effects into our local economy for every single new job created.

Bricks and mortar retail is not disappearing, although the industry has changed with the times. The same way this mall is not the obsolete 70’s style fortress mall surrounded by a sea of parking, but a transparent, animated, inviting structure integrated well into the urban fabric.

Sono real estate agent January 27, 2015 at 12:26 pm

I agree with everyone who voiced the need for further studies to be done, so that city officials and the public can make an informed decision. I would not recommend further housing development to be attached to this project, as we already have a large influx of apartment rentals in the area. I don’t believe the hotel is a necessity, but I think it would a good option towards creating a mix used space. I believe that the downtown nightlife has a lack of outdoor space with little movement outside of the bars and restaurants, other than Harlan Public in the recent Ironworks development. If there were more patios and outdoor space with water/city views, the nightlife would mix well in that environment,and be a good vehicle to bridge the gap of what is currently in the historic district “Sono” and the rest of the west avenue corridor to Wall street.

Gordon Tully January 27, 2015 at 1:28 pm

Folks, there is no alternative to the mall except a hole in the ground, based on the way development occurs in this time and place.

But to imagine that you will still be living our current lifestyle in 2035 is sheer madness. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” and pay attention to the mountains of research showing that it is human nature to be optimistic about the future and deeply discount the possibility of failure.

So given the equally massive evidence that things are going to be VERY different in 20 years, maybe sooner, we need to think about what to do with an empty or emptying mall. First, it needs to be designed for re-purposing. Second it needs to be designed like a building in SoNo and not like an LED encrusted billboard. The current design is appalling.

Accept the mall and get after the city and the developers to make it an appropriate and useful structure over the long run. There is much that can be done to improve it.

Mike Mushak January 27, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Gordon, I see your point, but it is almost impossible to build a huge building like the mall with a faux historic facade, without looking like a tacky floating casino in Mississippi or Epcot in Florida. I have nothing against those places mind you, for where they are located and the need they fulfill, but are we that unsure of ourselves in Norwalk that we can’t handle something new and exciting and dare I say it, modern?

I say, go modern and flashy, and let the building relate with its true unavoidable context, which for better or worse is the massive transportation infrastructure of the 95/7 interchange, the 7-lane West Ave., and the 3 track rail bed that separates the site from the waterfront park and Norwalk Harbor.

I would rather see a 800,000 square foot transparent animated glass and LED box, that still connects with the urban fabric with abundant and convenient sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit stops, than a giant phony facade with fake cornices and columns fashioned out of Dryvit fake stucco.

Successful cities always blend historic and modern, preserving the past while welcoming the new, which adds to the vibrancy and visual excitement that makes cities great places to live and visit. This debate is nothing new, and is still going in historic cities all over the world. It pits traditionalists against visionaries, and makes for some very interesting debates about our visions of what cities should be.

But one need go no further than Port Chester, NY, a half hour away, to see what a disaster awaits when a developer is told to blend his huge new retail building with the “historic fabric.” It’s called the Waterfront, where Costco and Stop and Shop are located. Fifteen years ago, city leaders insisted it “complement” the historic downtown, not stand out. What they got was a hideous monstrosity covered with faux historical details, that is not inviting at all and looks the architectural equivalent of a cheap hussy out on a Friday night.

Why not consider the architectural equivalent of Audrey Hepburn’d timeless “little black dress” by Givenchy in that great film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, all modern simplicity complemented with lots of sparkling jewelry? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Givenchy_dress_of_Audrey_Hepburn.

I joke of course, but in the service of trying to make a serious point here.

Big Tex January 27, 2015 at 4:58 pm

All fair points and nothing ventured nothing gained. The consensus is pointing for a balanced and diversified use here and not let the advertised gimmicks (i.e., NCC satellite offices or GGP sponsored studies) give way to constructing predominantly retail. All ideas need to be put on the table and the drum is beating louder for “other than retail.” It is also not uncommon or out of the question to see corporate office space combined in a mixed use area. I’m sure financial services firms would be highly interested in relocating to high traffic pedestrian areas.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the mayor, to quote piberman from above, “hire a first rate nationally recognized real estate valuation/investment consultancy to provide the detailed analysis to help both City officials and the public to make a well informed choice. And send a message to the developers that a hired “pitchman” sends precisely the wrong message. “

jlightfield January 27, 2015 at 7:06 pm

It is interesting to read all the armchair real estate developers confidently opine on real estate development. GGP is in the mall business. They own buildings that house multi-tenant retailers. In order for a building that houses multi-tenant retail to be successful, retailers have to want to lease space. For retailers to think they will be successful they have to think there is a market for their wares or services and that the landlord is going to provide an economic incentive for them to locate in a multi-tenant location as opposed to a stand alone building or strip mall location.

Undoubtedly thousands of hours of analysis has already been performed to determine just that scenario. GGP would not commit $250 million dollars on an unknown spec bet that maybe some nice retailer maybe will lease space in their building.

Retailers are well aware that the consumer demographic of shoppers is changing. Some of it due to technology. Some of it due to the changing demographic of Fairfield County, and gasp Norwalk. I can guarantee that no one here can predict what retail will look like in 20 years.

I can also predict GGP will pay close attention to how their target market will interact with the mall. They will not design a traffic congested circulation around their mall since a shopper could just easily skip the trip. They will carefully consider the needs of their retailers and fit out retail environments that fit the brand.

Let’s take the letter A, for example, using two retailers: Abercrombie and Apple. Two vastly different retail environments, one an enclosed dark cave and the other a brightly lit museum of technology. the brands control the look and feel of their retail environment.

I can safely predict that there is a generational conflict going on in Norwalk right now. An aging baby boomer and older demographic is trying to set policy in digital age that most (not all) don’t understand and never will. All the hand wringing over traffic, for example, is predicated on a lifetime of experiences based on human navigated driving.

Yet today GPS navigated driving is about to change everything. Not to mention that right now many 2017 model year cars are essentially computers on wheels that have all of the technology to drive and park on auto-pilot to varying degrees. If you think you are one of those people who will never give up driving, there are two things working to get you there. One is that insurance companies along with auto manufacturers are racing to eliminating human driving. Second is that politicians are falling over themselves passing laws against texting and driving.

Meanwhile cars are now marketed as rolling wifi hotspots. The market has clearly moved, we’d rather be socializing on the Internet that driving so that’s why auto-pilot cars will be here sooner than you think.

So what does that mean for the traffic around the mall? I think I can count on connected cars sorting out better car flow since apps like WAZE have already demonstrated that crowd-sourced traffic data flattens congestion curves.

This was just a roundabout way of pointing out that life is changing very rapidly due to massive amounts of industry disruption that is effecting everything.

Old ways of thinking will not fit today’s world. We are in a highly disruptive economy that is global. Norwalk does not have an imaginary force field defining it’s city boundaries. We exist in the Fairfield County ecosystem that is increasingly defined by a high income, highly educated and multi-national workforce. The jobs that are in the County already is driving this demographic shift. Retailers will evolve to meet the demands of this market whatever they may be. Yes, there might be a failure or two (hello sky mall) but as catalogs didn’t end the store, and the Internet didn’t end the catalog business, GGP won’t invest in a multi-tenant retail site without understanding how to maximize their investment. Their investment cannot risk any of the factors cited by those concerned about Norwalk and the quality of life of Norwalk’s residents.

Norwalk’s city leaders do need to understand that their job is to plan for and ensure that Norwalk is positioned to leverage GGP’s investment. That means spending less time talking to GGP and more time talking to the people who will be driving economic development because of the GGP investment. That is what the Connectivity Plan called for and that is what we should all be paying close attention to.

Gordon Tully January 28, 2015 at 9:34 am

Since I am posting next morning, I doubt if anyone will read this, but I’ll be back. This is too important to drop.

We are talking past each other. I am totally uninterested in the local market for retail, or the evolution of shopping habits, except to back up my point that malls are more vulnerable than say grocery stores.

The changes I am talking about are those described in Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything” or “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert or any number of other books and studies.

The laundry list of systems that are on the verge of coming apart is very long. The reasons so few are listening are built into human nature and they are hard to overcome.

I had hoped to avoid detailing the reasons I believe we are heading over a cliff because telling people they may be huddling together for survival is a turn-off – it takes time and a concerted effort to look ahead in realistic terms, and those who do and try to convince others are dismissed as Cassandras or Jeremiahs.

The only efforts that seem to make a dent are apocalyptic movies, all based on scientific distortions to make a good story. Al Gore made a dent in the armor, but only dealt with one aspect of the problem and was dismissed.

I had hoped to start a positive conversation about repurposing the mall for our use during a breakdown in global systems. But it appears I first have to bring people up to date with some facts that no one wants to hear. Catch 22, since no one wants to hear them, it’s probably a waste of time. I can’t but try.

As a footnote, the architectural style is not a choice between a flashy billboard or faux historical, which I detest, but between architecture that still looks good in 15 years and crappy architecture. However, this is really irrelevant, so I will drop it.

Big Tex January 28, 2015 at 9:55 am

@Jlightfield. Corporate goals are driven by profit. It is simplistic and naïve to believe what is good for corporate balance sheets equates to the good in the communities they serve. It is amazing to hear those adhere to a philosophy, “In GGP We Trust” and Norwalk would be foolish to adhere to GGP claims and innuendos without providing independent research and necessary due diligence to determine how this monumental proposed development will impact property values, infrastructure, increase in subsidies/entitlements, and traffic/congestion.

GGP is not a flawless entity as proven by their bankruptcy filing in 2008. Buyer beware.

jlightfield January 28, 2015 at 4:29 pm

@Gorden, okay a philosophical discussion it is then.You read Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Kolbert, I read Stephen J. Gould and listed to REM, so I say, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and i feel fine.

So let’s see, a bunch of people have written a bunch of books about how we are heading into a miserable existence because nuclear, because soviet union, because over population, because climate, cars, gatorade, GMO, technology, asteroids, coal, oil, terrorism, capitalism, feminism, socialism, communism and anything else that people get paid to write books about. There’s a STD on every toilet seat, a boogeyman in every white van, serial killers under every doormat, and aliens lurking in studio 54, but wait it closed because drugs, disco and the rent was too d**** high.

And OMG with all those zombies running amok its clear that we have to close our borders because Ebola. A mini ice age cometh, or its global warming and the hottest earth ever, hamburgers are bad for you, meat is bad for you, food is scarce, water is scarce but oh sea level rising so we’re all going get flooded and they stopped making twinkles, a hoodlike substance, because fall out shelters weren’t buying them anymore.

So sure, global systems may in fact be failing, and thinking about how to do more with less, waste not want not, and all the attendant thinking about what to do, it will only get better if some Lorax’s get around to it, or Howard Jones is right about 60.

In the meantime GGP wants to build a multi-tenant retail building on land they own, in a commercial zone and they are investing about 250 million dollars to do it.

Yes @BigTex, they might in fact fail. But their land, their money, their risk.

Michael McGuire January 28, 2015 at 6:01 pm

@ jlightfield – “Bravo”

@ Big Tex – are you from the real Texas of from Austin? What other use can conceivably go adjacent to I-95 and abutting a railroad track with a land fill right behind it? Come on, think logically.

Big Tex January 28, 2015 at 6:59 pm

@Michael McGuire. Bravo? Nah, I suggest Kumbaya more appropriate when giving accolades to your fellow mall lover.

OK, you brought up something so let’s go there. Did you know those living near highway and railroad intersections have a 40 – 70% increased risk of developing childhood asthma? Don’t believe me? Read below:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100506141634.htm

So what’s the point? Maybe something maybe nothing but has anyone discussed the environmental and safety implications of a proposed development abutting a major highway and rail line? I doubt it but the hand holders in favor of GGP seam tone deaf to any implications other than “let’s just take that leap of faith, break ground, build it and all will be fine.” To date, no meaningful studies/analysis have yet to be performed regarding traffic, potential congestion, environmental, city outlays, grand list implications and yes, please add occupational safety to the list.

Big CA January 28, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Wow, jlightfield. You have a need to mock people, I guess. I respect Mr. Tully’s opinions far more than your own since your alliance with development is well known.

What Mr. Tully is proposing makes sense – think Katrina and how such remediation would have helped those who survived that onslaught.

I am entertained by your WEB site in which you state: “Jackie has used her superior skills in the fight against mediocrity” If “Good Design comes from Passion” where is yours regarding this sad sack of a building shown by numerous threads to be failing across the United States?

It has been made clear that “lifestyle centers” are proving more lasting and more profitable. I still think GGP is giving Norwalk the short end of the stick because they can.

Their strategy for this (as has been endlessly pontificated upon) by garnering the support of politicians (or ex- as the case may be), Council Members and people like yourself? Priceless.

The life of this building? Estimated to be between 25 and 50 years. Where is the conscious of people who would support such a development what will either need to be re-purposed or off-loaded to the next taxpayer generations?

This isn’t REM nor apocalyptic nonsense as you have written above. These are real concerns by real citizens. One happens to be a very knowledgeable architect.

I think your “smart car” theory is hysterical – I am assuming you are appealing to the wealthy demographic and not the entire community when you propose such an idea. Next we will hear all about flying cars a la the Jetson’s and discussing air space.

Sure would be helpful if GGP would come up with those traffic and environmental studies out of that 250 million they have spent so far. The citizens of Norwalk are wondering how the proposed customers are going to be able to navigate (other than with smart cars and flying.)

By the way, I am not part of the “generational conflict”. I can safely say because of MY profession, I know good design when I see it and this isn’t it.

Big CA January 28, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Also, I think you are underestimating the impact of this development upon the Norwalk community which for many is negative. Just because they have bought the land doesn’t give GGP the right to ruin the environment or the entire community. (That would include the poor and working class which many people call the “hole in the donut.”)

Given your diatribe above, I think it can be safely said the the apocalypse will come with the short-lived building of yet another Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, L’Occitane, etc. (I mean, what do they have against a grocery store, really needed but ignored?)

Remember that GGP magically improved their portfolio after filing bankruptcy by off-loading the low end earning malls.

jlightfield January 28, 2015 at 7:58 pm

@Big Tex so your point is what that families shouldn’t live near highways and raill lines? And so you are against the mall because …?

And yes all those environmental, traffic and property value impact studies have been done and redone since this project has been lingering as an approved retail / office / housing / hotel site for many years. It is why we have a ginormous West Ave. with double turning lanes into the project and why the DOT has spent millions on the 95/7 interchanges and added operational lanes Northbound and southbound between exits 15 and 14.

And I’m sure that having two playgrounds next to the rail lines as well as a children’s museum deeply concern you. Of course contractor yards with there attendant rock crushing and storage of silicate particulate matter might be of more causation, but interest in existing residential neighborhoods that abut industrial zones is such a touchy subject.

So please, make the case that a retail site next to a highway and train line should be nixed because of the potential impact of childhood asthma.

Kevin Di Mauro January 28, 2015 at 8:28 pm

It might be a good time to start thinking of names for this project, and I suggest the name “The Large Glass in Norwalk”. It refers to a masterpiece by artist Marcel Duchamp.

jlightfield January 28, 2015 at 8:42 pm

@Big CA ya know there’s a saying about assuming, look it up. It must be so exceedingly difficult to be so self-righteous all the time. In honor if your slacktivism I will sacrifice my sense of humor to the commenting gods … Oh wait, darn foiled again.

Gordon Tully January 28, 2015 at 9:50 pm

I’m not sure what’s bothering Jackie, but people get excited over things these days – lots of polarization (see today’s NYT about the growing divide between Reps and Dems). No offense taken, Jackie.

I had lunch today with my friend Sarah Hunter, who convinced me that the only way to get people to connect with possible disruptions in the civilized order is to cite instances they can relate to directly, rather than doom and gloom, however likely it might be. She mentioned flooding, so let’s talk about that.

There is a lot of build-up near the shore in Norwalk (as in many coastal settlements – people really like to live near the water). Putting sea-level rise aside (as it is a problem way downstream, pardon the pun), and even putting aside the potential for climate change to intensify storms, all these coastal settlements have for millennia been vulnerable to big storms.

In the 19th Century, people along the coast were to a large extent self-reliant. If their Cape Cod house got tipped over in a hurricane, they got some horses and put it right, or they built another one. They had gardens, they had fish, they had carpentry skills. They didn’t have much stuff.

Most important, they were all part of a tight-knit community (which could be socially stifling) where people helped each other – barn-raisings and clambakes, that sort of thing.

Today we each belong to one or more families, and many communities, with members scattered around the region or across the globe and on the web. We are entirely dependent upon electricity – everything you need in today’s world depends on electricity. You can’t store food, or charge a cell phone, or get gas at a pump, or heat your house, or get medical care without electricity.

In 1938, a massive hurricane struck New England that has been estimated to be anything from a Category 1 to a Category 3 event (higher category storms are nearly impossible this far north, at least for now). The effects were catastrophic, partly because it came on without warning. I am confident that Norwalk suffered from the hurricane, although the main damage was farther east.

There is absolutely no reason why, without any push from climate change, an ordinary Category 3 hurricane could not hit Norwalk dead center, this season or the next or the next. Such a hurricane would cut power for some time, and would flood and endanger hundreds of families living along the shore and along rivers.

Where could these people go? How if we couldn’t recharge our cell-phones could we get in touch with each other, get needed supplies and find a temporary place to sleep? Clearly we need some kind of disaster center accessible to people uprooted by such an event.

What better place than the mall? It’s designed to hold lots of people, and with sufficient toilet facilities, could house them in an emergency. More important, it would be a place everyone would know to come to, where we could all exchange info and find out who needed help.

But why not make the mall a community center in the first place? We need performance spaces, meeting places, places where we can have lunch or coffee and discuss stuff. It’s what Jackie and MB have been trying to create at Wall Street, or so I thought. Here is a golden opportunity to make such a place in SoNo, which with all due respect to Wall Street is the true center of town.

If we could all stop throwing pies at each other and gather together behind a creative idea for the mall, we might actually accomplish something useful.

Big CA January 29, 2015 at 9:50 am

“slacktivism”, big word. Good for you! Too bad YOU can’t be more civil about it. Making fun does nothing to further the understanding between people about what is exactly going on.

If all of those studies have been done, why doesn’t anybody know about them? Given the attendance estimated by GGP, why is it so hard to understand that there is concern about traffic, the environment?

The design offends many – why doesn’t it offend you when there are so many more profitable options out there? (Related articles previously cited, all seeming to be ignored, show failures of similar designs EVERYWHERE not just low income or cities/suburbs in decline.)

Are we all to bow, self-righteously of course, to the monied GGP “experts”, i.e., “supporters” as though everything this big money group has to say is gospel?

There is so much not to agree with about this project, your mocking, self-righteous, big word assumptions notwithstanding.

jlightfield January 29, 2015 at 10:11 am

@gordon The LDA currently calls for community space and GGP seems inclined to create it. The problem is, as always in the details. There are a variety of approvals required with people holding vastly different ideas of what community space means. It is why we get projects that include public spaces that go unused.

The City of course could step up and invest in creating a 21 st century facility for the community as part of the project. It is the model West Hartford used to get a new library and incorporate city hall buildings in Blue Back Square. It is also how they addressed the connectivity between their old shopping center and rezoned adjacent properties to encourage development in supportive retail e.g. turning a car dealership to a whole foods. They had a parking plan for the district and took into account the conflicts of residential parking needs with commercial parking needs.

Fundamentally Norwalk has an opportunity to decide whether it wants a pedestrian downtown area or a car centric area. In a way it has already decided this by the car centric super blocks of fortress housing off West Ave. accordingly the City will once again attempt to extract a “circulator” as a public amenity instead of addressing structural needs.

For the Wall Street area we need to go in a different direction. The City plans call for building more housing. A performance space is currently being renovated. For retail to work up here it will have to be unique boutique and hand crafted. We need a district parking plan and support for pedestrian connectivity.

We may be successful in redefining what our downtown is. We may not. We do know how to look at data and trend lines so whatever anyone else may think, there is no retail or entertainment industry to preserve either in SoNo or Wall Street anymore. Anecdotally any retailer or restaurant owner knows this. It is why we have so much retail vacancy. It is why I presented the stark dining revenue report from the Courant a couple of months ago. The numbers are what they are and we need to rethink where Norwalk is going.

Big Tex January 29, 2015 at 1:39 pm

@J. What are your qualifications to assert so confidently yet belittle your fellow concerned citizens? Your scorched earth antics and sensitivity to any reasonable discourse regarding this development is uninviting to say the least. That being stated, where are the studies? Are they updated? Do they reflect new world dynamics in retail? Hint, hint. What are the mill rate impacts? Environmental? What can the taxpayer expect? What will be the city’s new operating budget for services to support this monstrosity? How about wear and tear on our city roads? Similar to a house inspection, do “we” the buyer not perform our own due diligence? Or in “GGP/Seller We Trust.”

You appear to know it all so please share. Thankfully we’re not in a banana republic and that’s the beauty of our system; everyone has a voice and all voices should be heard.

jlightfield January 29, 2015 at 7:43 pm

@Big Tex, when you get around to focusing on the issues instead of attempting churlish behavior because your worldview is threatened by facts, then maybe your anonymous comments would mean something.

Suzanne January 30, 2015 at 10:55 am

jlightfield, there is no question in my mind that you have a lot to contribute to this discussion. However, the tone of your discourse is difficult to digest when others, like Mr. Tully’s for instance, show such factually based decorum, albeit from a different angle.

You might consider that people who disagree with you have some valid points. Not in the metrics so willingly grasped by GGP supporters are the metrics of change and fear. The metrics of weather (for which Mr. Tully has provided some compelling reason to pay attention to.) The factually based information presented by Bloomberg, The Atantic Monthly, Harpers, The New York Times and many others who are reporting based on national trends and in every demographic, not just the working class and poor areas.

The “big box” is faring very poorly: GGP has been recorded as having to convert similar properties or resell them so that they can either be demolished or re-purposed.

There have been several statisticians on these threads who address community concerns with “This must be right. The statistics say so!” No one really knows how many people would choose to shop at such a place and no one really knows who won’t.

There are all kinds of statistics referring to shifting demographics: is that what Stamford, Danbury and Trumbull Malls, all troubled, were counting on? They have lasted but for how long?

Perhaps what people are asking for (even though as you have said, “Their land, their development”) is something more than statistics. Maybe something that works, as they see it, with community. GGP is a Mall developer – yes, they may see the statistical profits over time but when the investment eventually goes south, and it will, GGP will not be here anymore (as shown by numerous developments they have “moth-balled” over the years) and Norwalk will. What then?

People with these concerns are not hacks. You may think you know better than everyone else and you might but that assumption is, well you know, as you describe above. I don’t expect a “warm and fuzzy” jlightfield just an imparting of information without such ill-will. After all, if you are right, why would you need to show it?

piberman January 30, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Lost in the discussion is Norwalk’s earlier success with the Merritt 7 complex decades ago that brought in high valued property taxes and high paying jobs. And the unrealized promises from the Big Box along Route 1 with its traffic congestion and low property taxes. Clearly the sharply expanding different in Grand Lists between Stamfod with its corporate development and Norwalk with its retail development ought to give pause.

The “Big Hole” is the City’s last great hope for this generation to attract a high valued corporate park development bringing both high valued property/taxes and high paying jobs and thereby shift some of the tax burden from our residential commuter City. No doubt some serious tax subsidies would be required but Stamford is a fine example of attraacting high valued property/jobs. But anyone who keeps tabs on new demand for corporate facilities understands that there is a shortage of up to date modern corporate facilities. So the vacant corporate space currently existing in the County is not as relevant as it might first appear. Much of our corporate space that’s vacant will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Its just outmoded.

One should be suspicious when the heavy weights of one poliical party endorse a major project without seeing the detailed analysis. One should be suspicious based on our Big Box experience. One should be suspicious on the absence of detailed analyses that can withstand careful review by residents including those with the professional credentials to offer “expert opinions”. Imagine how much better off as a community we would be if Mayor Rilling hired major league consultants to review the project to enable the community to have a thoughtful discussion. A project of this magnitude surely needs an informed community opinion. Not the incomplete views that have been offerred on the subject to date. Especially by self appointed “planners”. Economic development is a highly complex subject and there is a large literature on the consequences of mall development upon the vitality of previously existing small businesses. In a nutshell, often devastating. So far there has been a near complete absence of the economic deelopment costs/benefits of this project.
That’s not surprising. The City doesn’t have the expertise in house and the developer hasn’t been asked by City officials to submit same.

We ought to be aware of the consequences of a project that fails to meet expectations, e.g. traffic congestion, empty stores, depressed local values and eventual failure of the mall. The ony real knowns here are major increase in traffic congestion and fairly modest phased in expected tax revenues. No matter how many jobs are “promised” almost all will be low paying jobs insufficient to either buy or rent housing in our City. And we can expect existing competitive malls will surely fight hard to retain their market share.

Finally, we ought to be aware that the mall will not significantly alter the tax base of the City. And without other large tracts suitable for high valued development the mall project will ensure that Norwalk will remain a residential community with major reliance on low taxed retail plus the earlier Merritt 7 complex. So the foreseeable future the City’s tax burden will remain largely on residential property owners. We’ve already seen the outward migration of long term home owners and the influx of renters. The mall will solidfy these trends and reinforce the City’s reputation of first in first out in Fairfield County. Some of us long term residents belive we ought to do better. Much better.
Stamford ought to provide a powerful and insightful lesson for City offficials on how corporate deveopment transformed as once residential dependenet town.

Big Tex January 30, 2015 at 1:43 pm

One has to wonder what Governor Malloy is thinking now that a potential new mall within a stone’s throw from his beloved hometown has been proposed which ultimately could uproot Stamford’s mall existence. Will Stamford then “retaliate” and revamp its retail center to one up Norwalk’s proposed development? From a state centric standpoint, this makes no sense. Why would we compete and cannibalize market share from our neighbor to the south when other opportunities exist outside saturated/overbuilt retail. The pie is not unlimited in retail.

I strongly encourage all to read Suzanne’s & Piberman’s commentary from above (cannot be better stated).

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