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Norwalk Council sends SoNo mall project into design phase

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk officially opened its arms Tuesday to a potential mall in Sono as the Common Council issued a unanimous endorsement of the “beginning step” – an outline for a new Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) on the 95/7 site.

The vote on the LDA parameters was preceded by universal praise for Norwalk’s new way of doing business, a prayer that the “joint committee” approach will be continued. The “cross pollination worked,” Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said, remarking that the Council had made the 90-day deadline he had set for reaching this point.

In an important, related piece of business, the Council also unanimously voted to retain the law firm of Halloran & Sage LLP to provide legal counsel to the city through the administrative approval process for the mall, at the expense of mall developer General Growth Properties (GGP). GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams said that now that a new LDA has been drafted to greenlight 750,000 square feet of retail on the property, his company will begin work in earnest to get the nitty gritty of the development worked out.

“We are going to meet regularly with both the city and their counsel and the (Redevelopment) Agency to work out all the other portions of the agreement that need to be agreed to do look forward and get this built,” Adams said. “I think what we will do is start the design process in earnest and they will run concurrently. I think the design process will move fast as we get into the design approval process but we will move them both forward to try to keep the pace up and the progress going so we can get in the ground next year.”

The new LDA for the Reed Putnam Urban Development Area parcels 1, 2, and 4, a.k.a. 95/7 is basically an “a la carte menu” – the developer will choose at least two of four possible uses, plus include 5 percent public realm space and possibly some educational space.

The shopping list is:

  • 85,000 to 625,000 square feet of Class A office space
  • 75,000 to 750,000 square feet of retail space, with a maximum of 10 percent of that going to restaurant uses, and anchors of high quality
  • 60 to 350 residential units, with 15 percent affordable.
  • 85,000 to 175,000 square feet of hotel space, with at least 150 rooms and upscale facilities

Council President Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said that as a Wall Street business owner he has heard talk that the mall could kill the area.

“Contrary to what people think, that this could hurt small business, in our discussions as we go forward, if it’s done right and it will be done right to get our support, this could be the catalyst that could really, really turn things around for Wall Street and help for South Norwalk,” he said.

He spoke of the circulator trolley that’s been mentioned and said GGP will develop a marketing plan to bring people to Norwalk and inspire them to look around.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he was surprised – the Joint Committee of Norwalk Redevelopment Agency members, Planning Committee members and Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom had reached its goal. He spoke of “past realities which we are still dealing with,” and said, “Our process has been that every agency deals with things as if no one else in the world exists but them.”

The result of the ping-ponging of decisions from one agency or board to another is that Wall Street has still not been redeveloped 60 years after the 1955 flood.

“For some reason in Norwalk we just drag our feet. … We love our city to the extent that we don’t want to risk making a mistake. You just can’t live that way and a city can’t grow that way,” Kimmel said.

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large)

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

“I did not think you would make this deadline and you did,” Kimmel said to Hempstead.

“My first thought is the city shouldn’t be so hard on itself because all the agencies in the city always came through on its end of the bargain for the 20-year history of the city making its end of it,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said. “Over the years, two or three years at least, the properties got sold with increased benefits and assets that went with the property, so this time around I hope it works out and things get built.”

Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) suggested that maybe something could be done to replace the affordable housing that won’t get built as part of a mall. She expressed skepticism that there is a market for two hotels in SoNo.

RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan said that if there is no market for a second hotel, GGP expects to build office space there. Hempstead said that committee members were “a little flabbergasted” to learn that there is still a market for new housing in the area, so maybe GGP could do that.

“This is a new way and a very refreshing way of doing business for the city, hopefully it will become the rule rather than the exception for major projects because it does work,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “… A lot of people, including myself, were skeptical at first and we not really thinking this was the highest and best use for that piece of property but you know, reality is reality.”

Adams said GGP expects to submit a proposal to Zoning this summer.

“We’ll move out of the designs we have done so far into more schematic design, so more and more detail in the design process, both on the exterior but all of the systems of the building to make sure that the design of all of this as we move forward and that moves in concert with the approval process of the land disposition agreement,” Adams said.

An announcement about a second anchor will come “sooner rather than later,” he said.

Rilling said he thinks the mall will help connect South Norwalk to the West Avenue corridor. He said, “I think working together we’ve got a lot of opportunities for some exciting things to happen in Norwalk.”

7 comments

Tony P March 25, 2015 at 7:16 am

Great news. I hope GGP can figure out a way to get residential into this instead of a hotel. Would keep people around that area 24/7 and further support all this retail. Also, I’m very interested to see if they actually do anything to tweak the design.

Toni V March 25, 2015 at 9:14 am

A hotel is a great idea , but there is ALWAYS a need for affordable housing, rather than the developers favorites “luxury” condos/ market rate rentals. The optimum situation is for a mix of shopping and housing types , so that the economic benefits of this new mall include all of our diverse population, as well as bringing visitors to SoNo.

Piberman March 25, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Of course no need for traffic studies, costs to City for infrastructure development, additional maintenance costs, local businesses/jobs affected, expected tax revenues, additional utility costs and all the other details that ordinarily would be briefly discussed in communities with capable officials. Will we repeat the Route 1 fiasco ? Who knows ?

Renegade March 25, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Please no more “affordable housing.” There is too much already. I would prefer we knock down all the affordable housing we already have. There is plenty of affordable housing close by in Bridgeport.

concerned student March 27, 2015 at 9:38 am

I’m surprised someone feels we have, more than enough affordable housing in Norwalk and then suggests that lifelong Norwalker’s should go to Bridgeport to live!

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