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Mall Joint Committee recommends new land uses for 95/7 – think ‘retail’

Attorney Larry Cafero

From left, Attorney Larry Cafero, Attorney Bill Hennessey and Doug Adams of General Growth Properties (GGP) talk to members of the Norwalk Common Council, Planning Commission and Redevelopment Agency on Saturday in City Hall.

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.”

19 comments

dtgriffith February 2, 2015 at 8:56 am

I’m happy to see something finally moving forward, though the indoor mall concept doesn’t mesh with the concept of connecting neighborhoods.

As for multi-family housing, is this to gain more low-income or government-assisted housing?

Bruce Kimmel February 2, 2015 at 10:06 am

So, after months and months of meetings among various city agencies and committees on this issue, on Saturday it was still not totally clear to the developers whether the joint work group favors a change from mixed use to predominantly retail. And folks wonder why it is so difficult and time consuming for projects to move forward in Norwalk.

Piberman February 2, 2015 at 10:18 am

Re: Doug Hempstead’s comment that there is no demand for office space as reported by NON:
Illustrates the lack of professional insight into the City’s planning process. Commercial real estate professionals agree that much of the County’s office structures are outmoded and that there’s a strong demand for modern structures reflecting changed office procedures, eg increased use of large office rooms rather than individual offices reflecting “team building”. The unwillingness of City officials to secure the services of well qualified major league real estate investment professionals is deplorable. But this is Norwalk – the hole in the donut where governance is often embarrassing.

Let’s encourage Mr Hempstead to visit the Merritt 7 complex and for the Maths on high valued properties and salaries. As a senior officer of a large retail firm he ought to excuse himself from land decisions. But this is Norwalk.

jlightfield February 2, 2015 at 11:14 am

@bruce As much as I agree with your overall premise that the development process is flawed, the indecision reflects a structural problem. Part of the problem is that you have an outside agency advising the council in a development plan they are invested in. Naturally there is a level of mistrust in what is being presented because there is no staff there to advise the committee that represents the City’s planning staff. So instead of a nice check and balance process we have this, a series in endless meetings where the story of what should or can be developed on this urban renewal parcel has changed for over two decades. A series of LDA changed and zoning changes that were promised because without them development would not be incentivized enough. A series of efforts to abandon streets, expand roadways to build capacity for “fill in the blank” and yet those grand projects could never seemingly get financed.

Do what to do about this? First the committee should discuss what it wants out of the parcel from a property tax standpoint. It is difficult to see what the tax contribution was when it had buikdings on it. Then have the property tax projections modeled on the current LDA and any modified LDA. Look at the delta between vacant lots and these scenarios. That should prompt a realistic conversation of whether you should proceed or not.

What I’m outlining is the fundamental principal of form based zoning. Norwalk is no longer a suburban city with acres of undeveloped land. The city has essentialy been planned. Now it is a question of where increase in density makes sense and how those buildings relate to the rest. What the uses are is largely irrelevant in this area because the growth of the grand list relies on property taxes and with 15 years plus of flat growth and an aging demographic evidenced in flat real estate sales Norwalk has to increase development somewhere.

Michael McGuire February 2, 2015 at 12:42 pm

@Bruce Kimmel

Thanks for commenting and letting us know where you stand. I agree with Jackie on this. The lack of basic commercial real estate analysis/skill by City Staff is very troubling and continues to burden us with Epic Planning Blunders. RDA is not part of the City. We are paying $165,000 for a Planning and Zoning director who appears to have no planning skill sets regarding commercial real estate and is unable to provide a basic cost/benefit analysis from which the CC can make informed decisions. Apparently our Planning Director did not attend the last meeting of this group. Did he attend this one?

The analytical work is not hard, and it’s not rocket science. The “process confusion” you outline in your comment needs the skills of a competent planner. I was able to provide the Mayor’s economic task force a similar analysis for Wall Street which took all of one hour to put together. The report that someone commissioned several weeks ago regarding the comparison of tax revenue between the current LDA and the current GGP plan was so flawed it was worthless.

Who is protecting the City’s interests?

Bruce Kimmel February 2, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Jackie and Mike: I agree, it certainly is structural, and in a way that forces layfolks like me — who know diddlysquat about real estate — to adapt by listening, asking questions, closing our eyes, crossing our fingers, and then vote and hope for the best.

Michael McGuire February 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm

@ Bruce Kimmel

I really appreciate your candor and acknowledgement of this issue. That gives me/us hope that the CC will address this deficiency in 2015. Norwalk taxpayers need to know our representatives are fully informed when they make such critical decisions. Thanks again.

Big Tex February 2, 2015 at 3:57 pm

“Group Think” and amateur analysis at its best. Way to go common council! “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.”

Doesn’t the public deserve to know what this is based on and what qualifies as a respected opinion? What happened to Mayor Rilling’s leadership on this? Did he not campaign against this?

Piberman February 2, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Bruce:
Could you explain to NON readers why the Council appears reluctant to hire a major league real estate consultant firm to advise in the pros and cons of the mall project ? There’s no reason to expect City officials to have the requisite expertise here no matter their “functional titles”. No matter how the decisions are made we ought to have the benefit if truly informed and knowledgeable opinions even if “old boy politics” has already given the project an OK. In a word give the Council “some feet”.

John Hamlin February 2, 2015 at 6:16 pm

No planning expertise within the City on which the Council and the taxpayers can rely. Can we wake up and smell the dysfunction?

Nancy Chapman February 2, 2015 at 7:35 pm

@Mike McGuire, yes, you are correct, Mike Greene was not there.

@Big Tex, the committee already has reports on the office market. They say that it is obvious there is a lack of demand, but they want an updated report. They want the documents upon which they are basing their decision to to be current.

Doug Hempstead said on Jan. 24 that he had done his own research. While the office market for Class A space in Fairfield and Westchester is improving slightly there is still a lot of stock to be absorbed, Hempstead said. The only thing that would be viable as far as the market goes would be smaller incubator office space, but that is not appropriate for the site, he said.

Big Tex February 2, 2015 at 8:04 pm

Thank you Nancy. I appreciate all the information reported here and the continued coverage.

Can Doug Hempstead share with the public what research he’s relying on and how current his analysis is? After all, we’re only talking about the largest development in the city’s history.

Also, was the mayor at this meeting? It would be interesting to know if he has reneged on what he told voters during the campaign about this.

Natalina fino February 2, 2015 at 9:15 pm

we do not need more apt for low income we need a mall for more job opportunities!! So many people need jobs I am one of them!

Rod Lopez-Fabrega February 8, 2015 at 9:01 am

@Bruce Kimmel:

Please answer Piberman’s question plus one other:

1) “Could you explain to NON readers why the Council appears reluctant to hire a major league real estate consultant firm to advise in the pros and cons of the mall project ?”

2) Why was Mr. Gibbs hired so very quietly with no public notice and were there any other “experts” interviewed before he was hired? is single source hiring of consultants by the city standard practice these days?

piberman February 8, 2015 at 11:05 am

Maybe the question ought be rephrased as follows. Over the past several decades Stamford’s Grand List has soared past Norwalk’s by focusing on corporate development. Of the 20 largest office bldgs. (over 230,000 sq. ft.) in the County Stamford has 11 with 2/3rd the market. Norwalk has but 5 with only 18% of the market all of which date before the early 1980’s. So the question is whether Norwalk’s continued focus on retail (e.g. Big Box) be the best way to grow our Grand List and thereby reduce the punitive property tax burden ?
Even Messrs. Cafero and Hempstead know the answer to that question. Knowledgeable folks know that there is a real shortage of “modern” office facilities with large “community type” offices rather than traditional warrens of small single occupant office buildings. So much of the well advertised 30% office vacancy rates reflect old, outmoded and poorly equipped facilities. Norwalk has a golden chance to encourage through tax subsidy the development of modern office facilities encouraging hi-tech software firms and their well paying jobs. But the GOP has other ideas sadly. But Mayor Rilling could provide the leadership here. All that’s required is to hire a first class major leader real estate investment firm to provide guidance for the City in contrast to the GOP back deal politics. We’ll not likely have another chance in our generation to boost Norwalk into the “modern age”. So its up to the Mayor to bring in well informed opinion as opposed to the “pitchman” and GOP’s bias. If ever there was a chance for a Mayor in Norwalk to encourage the “right decision” the down town mall is that opportunity for distinction. It ought to be made on the basis on the best professional evaluations, not “old boy back door City politics”. Could be Mayor Rilling’s finest hour and most important contribution to his well recognized public service. Indeed, the most important leadership in modern times by any City Mayor.
(Data source: 2014 Book of Lists published by the Fairfield County Business Journal).

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