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Norwalk mall Joint Committee grasps concept of ‘public realm’

From left, Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom

From left, Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom, Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano talk about the 95/7 site at the Jan. 31 Joint Committee meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – As the Joint Committee meets Saturday to consider what agreement might be made with a mall developer regarding its SoNo property, it is armed with definitions of what constitutes “public realm” and an up to date assertion that the office market has not improved in the last few months.

That, and a definition of what usually constitutes a regional mall.

The Joint Committee of Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, Common Council Planning Committee and Planning Commission members is meeting today for the third Saturday morning (10 a.m., City Hall Council Chambers) with representatives of General Growth Properties to hash out a consensus that would allow the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the 95/7 site to be changed from its current mixed use, including office and residential, to an LDA that has retail as its major component.

Agenda items include following up on the decision made at the last meeting to specify that 5 percent of the property will be devoted to public realm by defining what public realm is. The committee also plans to review examples of malls that are similar in size to what is proposed by GGP and review transit and pedestrian connections.

The committee may even decide to include office space as an approved use, in spite of a Feb. 13 CBRE market report that says there isn’t much of a market for it locally.

The report states that the “significant” money spent to upgrade Merritt 7 in recent years has resulted in its current success in leasing space in the mid-$30s per square foot. But:

“Current rents do not justify new office construction. New construction costs today necessitate rents in the high-$40s to mid-$60s and involve a two-year lead time.

“New construction cannot be financed without significant pre-leasing with large, credit tenants. They are few and far between today. The number of large, credit tenants willing to pay premium rates and then wait two years for delivery is a small percentage of the market.

“Today in the Stamford CBD, within an 8-minute walk to the train station, there is 1.5 million square feet of large blocks of Class A space priced from the mid-$40s to $60s per square foot with no or minimal lead time.

“There have been few large, Class A credit tenants that have moved from outside Fairfield County to Stamford or Norwalk in the past. The most recent incoming tenants were Charter Communications and Navigators. Both moved to the space closest to the train station and New York City.”

The committee on Jan. 31 requested a definition of public realm. The packet for Saturday’s meeting says that public realm includes “all public places, linkages and building elements that are physically and/or visually accessible regardless of ownership. These places can include, but are not limited to, streets, pedestrian ways, bikeways, bridges, plazas, nodes, squares, transportation hubs, gateways, parks, waterfronts, natural features, view corridors, landmarks and building interfaces.

The public realm is organized into four categories: parks, streetscapes, coastal areas and public places (interior and exterior).

Definitions for these categories:

Parks – Public open spaces within a community for recreational use.

Streetscapes – The visual elements of a street including the road, sidewalk, street furniture, trees and open spaces that combine to form the street’s character.

Coastal Areas – All land areas along the water’s edge.

Public Places – All areas interior or exterior public, within a community visible to the public or for public gathering or assembly but not specifically used for or directly related to a business purpose. Furthering this definition, nine principles expand on how the public realm addresses the following key themes:

  • Livability
  • Identity
  • Access
  • Connectivity
  • Placemaking & Design Excellence Environmental Stewardship
  • Inclusivity
  • Activation
  • Shared Ownership & Implementation

It goes on to offer a summation of what this means to Norwalk:

“The public realm in Norwalk expresses its traditional New England culture while serving a diverse, multicultural population. It is a fully accessible and engaging experience that includes diverse public parks and civic spaces; an interconnected system of public walkways, bicycle trails and public transit; a vibrant and active waterfront; and active mixed use areas that are all enhanced through high-quality architecture, streetscape design and public art. It is safe, comfortable and responds effectively to the regional climate and surrounding environment.”

While GGP is saying it wants to build a regional mall, the packet states that the acreage involved is much less than is generally found with a regional mall.

The information packet given to the Joint Committee states the following, without sourcing the facts and figures:

  • There are 681 regional malls in the country, 5.3 percent of the total malls, with an average square footage of 585,791. Regional malls vary from 400,000 to 800,000 square feet, on 40 to 100 acres.
  • The 95/7 site has about 12 acres, and GGP has said it needs 650,000 to 750,000 square feet of retail at a minimum.
  • Typically, a regional mall has 40 to 50 stores, with two anchor tenants taking up 50 to 70 percent of the square footage. It draws customers from 5 to 15 miles away.
  • A regional mall “provides shopping goods, general merchandise, apparel, and furniture, and home furnishings in full depth and variety. It is built around the full-line department store with a minimum GLA (Gross Leasable Area) of 100,000 square feet as the major drawing power. For even greater comparative shopping, two, three, or more department stores may be included. In theory, a regional center has a GLA of 400,000 square feet, and may range from 300,000 to more than 1,000,000 square feet. Regional centers in excess of 750,000 square feet GLA with three or more department stores are considered,” the packet states.

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said this week that while he has no direct knowledge, there is talk that a SoNo mall would not draw shoppers away from other retail in the area.

“There has been a discussion, I understand, of various parties that have retail projects in this area,” Sheehan said. “There is enough demand in the market to support this development without cannibalizing other developments that are up and running. I believe that has gone as far as over the line into New York as well.”

That’s because there are “different gradations of retail,” he said, meaning that SoNo’s mall would not be competing with Danbury. But, he said, “I would say that the most direct competition to this site is probably Westchester.”

In other words, people in the well-off communities around Norwalk will be staying in Connecticut, he said.

9 comments

Big Tex February 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

This is pontification and incompetence at its greatest. Again, where are the qualified studies to support this? Why are not city officials demanding an impact study at the expense of GGP? This is customary practice.

Suzanne February 21, 2015 at 9:12 am

“The public realm in Norwalk expresses its traditional New England culture while serving a diverse, multicultural population… active mixed use areas that are all enhanced through high-quality architecture…” Is GGP reading this documentation? How does this huge glass box fit into the public realm? It doesn’t.

Mike Mushak February 21, 2015 at 9:15 am

Great article full of helpful information. Thanks.

Good to see the concepts of “livability,” “connectivity,” and “placemaking” mentioned as priorities to be included in the planning process. These brief definitions from various sources may help the committee:

1.) Livability is the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life—including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.

2.) Connectivity is defined by the public realm which is largely our street network. Well-designed street networks connect us in safe, direct, and convenient ways and allow options for various forms of transportation, from walking to bicycling to driving to public transit.

3.) Placemaking is the art and science of developing public spaces that attract people, build community by bringing people together, and create local identity.”

The average regional mall size of 40 to 100 acres (compared to the size of the 95/7 site at 12 acres) seems irrelevant to the committee’s discussion as those are mostly suburban locations with a majority of that space taken up by acres of open air “surface” parking on large asphalt parking lots, not “structured” parking in garages.

It might be helpful to note the acreage and size of two “urban” malls nearby to get a more relevant comparison (these are rough numbers taken from Wikipedia and Google Earth measurements):

The Westchester in White Plains: 900,000 square feet on about 10 acres.

The Stamford Town Center: 853,000 square feet on about 15 acres.

95/7 site: About 750,000 square feet on 12 acres.

Rod Lopez-Fabrega February 21, 2015 at 10:32 am

If I understand this correctly, this impressive listing of what “Public Realm” means would only apply to 5% of the GGP mall property! Am I missing something? If I have it right, that leaves
95% of the space in which to shoehorn a REGIONAL MALL as defined by GGP. Some deal!

It appears that the Joint Committee is putting on a show for us of
doing SOMETHING to give the impression that PLANNING is actually
going on with due diligence. So far, not convincing.

A New Norwalk February 21, 2015 at 1:55 pm

Let’s move Norwalk forward.

Let us plow down the old buildings and houses in South Norwalk near the train station and build skyscrapers for fortune 500 companies and financial institutions. In addition to a mall, we need many more buildings like Waypointe as well.

Look how Stamford prospered and became something. This is what’s necessary for Norwalk. Stop with your old thinking and push Norwalk forward.

You’ll look back once this is complete and think how many years you’ve all wasted.

Piberman February 21, 2015 at 6:16 pm

How encouraging to see the City’s officials unconcerned by traffic congestion during construction and traffic congestion when in operation as thousands of autos and trucks descend upon Norwalk daily bringing far away shoppers and workers unable to earn enough to live in Norwalk. Maybe our City “pitchman” and local Legislative “mall boosters” can roll off the traffic congestion tables.Then again why should the mall boosters be concerned with traffic congestion strangling our struggling City ? Obviously that’s not a real concern. Only affects the people who live here. If traffic was important Mr Cafero would have mentioned it. Relax everybody. All the thinking has been done for us. Let’s re-elect everyone involved with this master stroke. They deserve no less.

srb February 22, 2015 at 6:36 am

This is a high risk proposition that seems largely designed to get something moving on a dormant project. This is not a no-brainer. Mall after mall has destroyed downtown areas and now many of those malls have imploded. The only example I can think of where a Mall rejuvenated an area is downtown San Diego in the early 90s when Horton Plaza was built, but that’s an open air mall where the weather is PERFECT year round. This plan requires so much tinkering to keep it consistent with the needs of the community that its likely to be a camel made by committee or Fred and Barney’s compromise boat name “the Nausea”. The land involved is quasi-public land–this isn’t some private developer who’s simply taking a risk but land that was taken by eminent domain and then supported through millions of tax $$$ through infrastructure improvements. The committee and City have an enormous obligation to make sure that this extremely valuable land is put to its best use for the community at large not simply for the developer.

Maritime Condo Owner February 22, 2015 at 9:46 pm

Could not have said it better srb. Also, to echo Big Tex, where are the independent studies. Some of the modeled assertions I have read are laughable…Yes, we need to move towards retail because that’s what GGP builds – I’m realistic – but we need some creativity. There needs to be a piece that fills a true community need (high end grocer – even small) and draw betond stores (mini Chelsea Piers – I don’t know but something different). Of course, retail (different – high end draw). Plus the developer has to commit to integration (some sort of public transit). Limit the restaurants. Sell a small piece and build one of go-forward residential buildings (we need a higher density of people living in area – professionals).

Piberman February 26, 2015 at 10:17 am

There’s a good reason neither City Hall nor the developer is releasing studies about the impact of traffic congestion during and after construction, City infrastructure requirements, added operational City costs for fire and police, detailed tax expectations, expected vacancy rates, key mall committed mall clients, effects on existing area businesses, local property values, etc.
and there’s a good reason the developer hired a prominent Legislator. Fortunately we have some Council members such as Messrs. Hempstead and Kimmel who are asking relevant questions and demanding answers. Of course Sen Duff and Rep Wilms already know the answers. And Mayor Rilling remains in the background. The mall discussion is City politics at its best.

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