NORWALK, Conn. – A basic concept plan that would allow a mall to be built on the 95/7 site is moving forward through Norwalk government.
The Joint Committee – a collaboration of the Planning Commission, the Redevelopment Agency and the Common Council Planning Committee – defined square footage ranges Saturday morning for various uses on the West Avenue property now owned by General Growth Properties (GGP), to include a hotel, public space and a whole lot of retail.
That does not rule out office space or residential units.
The committee plans to hold two more meetings before sending these recommendations to their larger bodies, with whom they are in contact as they develop a consensus. The plan is for the Planning Committee to hold a public hearing on the proposals during the first week in March before sending them on to the full Council for a vote on changing the city’s Land Disposition Agreement on the property.
“I think we’re moving along at a pretty damn good pace considering what their fear factor was,” Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said, referring to the GGP representatives sitting across from him in the Council Chambers.
Discussion at the meeting revolved around the definition of “public realm,” the size of the hotel GGP has proposed. The talk about the mall itself was relatively short.
“The developer’s core business is mall development,” RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan said, pressing for an answer. “You heard from our consultant that the type of development they are contemplating requires between 650,000 and 750,000 square feet of gross leasable area, at a minimum. If we are not talking about upwards of 700,000 square feet or retail being allowed as a land use on this site, then the committee really doesn’t have a lot more to discuss.”
“I am in agreement that if you’re asking right now, today, it seems like, I understand that a retail mall is going to move itself into the slot as being the largest factor,” Hempstead said.
Numbers were bandied about, and Sheehan asked about the retail component two more times.
“Just to be clear, the committee recognizes that the largest land use will be retail?” Sheehan said, the last time.
“Yes,” Hempstead replied.
“I think we are all in agreement with that,” Serrano said.
Further meetings were set for Feb. 21 and Feb. 28.
The Joint Committee sought to come to a consensus for the land uses permitted on the property so as to modify its current Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) as part of the Reed Putnam Redevelopment Plan. It also agreed to recommend that 5 percent of the developed square footage would go to “public area,” although it has not come to a consensus about what that public area would be, and there was some conflict between the mall’s developers and committee members on that issue.
Sheehan reminded the committee that consultant Robert Gibbs defined public realm as a place where people can gather freely. A square, a plaza, a police substation, performance area or a library would qualify; office space for a non-profit would not. A corridor certainly would not.
“We as a company make a distinction between our corridors and everything and what we call the courts, which are high volume large spaces … it allows us to do events at different times of the year that may not be available on the outside. That’s a distinction that we make but I understand that (RDA) staff hasn’t made that distinction yet,” Doug Adams of GGP said.
Under the current proposal, 5 percent would mean 57,200 square feet of public realm space. Sheehan said Norwalk’s town green is a prime example of public realm, and GGP’s plan calls for plazas along the West Avenue frontage for the property.
The educational space might qualify, depending on how it is configured and who the partner is, Adams said.
Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) took issue with the public plazas shown in the current concept design. “I can’t imagine the hotel is going to be real thrilled that their guests can’t get into the hotel if we are holding an outdoor event,” she said.
Sheehan said that was why he was stressing that Norwalk hasn’t come to a definitive conclusion about what the public realm would consist of.
It was agreed that the committee would recommend that the hotel would have 150 rooms, but there was some dickering over its size.
Hempstead was pushing to make it 175,000 square feet, much larger than the 85,000 square feet minimum size pushed for by GGP, but Attorney Larry Cafero, representing GGP, rejected that.
“We put that range because the majority of operators that would be interested in such a project were talking in the area of 85,000,” Cafero said. “Understanding that it can go bigger … that number wasn’t made up of whole cloth, it was based on the actual hotel operators that would be coming in to do such a thing and what their ideal size was. So the only reason what the range is, we didn’t want to be constricted on the lower end to detract from those folks who would be willing to get up and going immediately.”
Giandurco said she wanted to leave the possibility of a larger hotel open, one that could include a large ballroom for public events. The committee recommended an 85,000 to 175,000 square foot range for the hotel.
Further agreements will wait for consultants to update their reports on the office market and the housing market, even if Sheehan said his staff didn’t think it was necessary. The updates will take two to three weeks.
Attorney Bill Hennessey expressed some consternation at that. The housing study was done last summer – all it should need to update it is a letter from the company that did it, he said.
Hempstead said it wouldn’t matter, as committee members are going out of town and cannot meet until the 21st anyway. But he did begin to waiver on the office update, asking Sheehan why it was necessary, as everyone agreed that there is no market for office space.
Sheehan said that while GGP’s proposal calls for 1.14 million square feet of development, 1.2 million is possible under the LDA and there might be a market for 200,000 square feet of office space.
“I am not certain that there is that level of demand, but that is why you are waiting for a report,” Sheehan said.
Still on the docket is a discussion on the demand for multifamily housing in the area, at the request of Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) and RDA Commissioner Lisa Cooper, Hempstead said.
Hempstead asked Clay Fowler of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, the former owner of the property, what he thought of the joint committee approach, an attempt to expedite the process. Fowler called it “very, very helpful” and “very healthy.”
“I hope it carries through to the rest of the process because that’s really where the bog down could occur,” Fowler said. “…. The more people we can have in the same place at the same time the greater the possibility that the perceptions will be the same.”
Hennessey called Sheehan’s suggestion that GGP meet with corporation counsel on Monday “a terrific idea. Hempstead also suggested that GGP’s development team “throw ideas on the table” and massage the plan. He said, “There’s an election in November. The last thing you want to do is be near the end of this and suddenly get a whole new Council.”