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Proposed SoNo mall concept moves ahead with ‘significant’ improvement of Norwalk process

Mall Joint committee 15-0228 SoNo 147

From left, Attorney Larry Cafero, Attorney William Hennessey and General Growth Properties Senior Development Director Charles Tapia talk to a Joint Committee of Norwalk Common Council members, Redevelopment Agency members and Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom on Saturday in City Hall.

 

NORWALK, Conn. – SoNo’s proposed mall cleared its first hurdle Saturday as the Joint Committee agreed on recommendations to send back to its respective bodies for approval, in a far cry from the schizophrenic Norwalk process in the past.

“You are creating a vibrant, exciting urban core,” Attorney Larry Cafero, representing General Growth Properties, said to the members of the Common Council Planning Committee, the Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Commission who had come out Saturday morning. “… Maybe by accident, maybe by coincidence, the kind of dream that we all, and certainly you guys have as decision makers, is coming. We’re almost there. If we are lucky enough to be part of this it is just an incredibly exciting thing done the right way for Norwalk.”

The first public hearing on the proposed mall is expected on March 16, with a goal that the Common Council will vote on the 24th on the new Land Disposition Agreement, or LDA, for the long-vacant land at the intersection at Interstate 95 and West Avenue.

The proposed LDA calls for a mandatory 5 percent of the space to go to public realm, plus a minimum of two uses selected from this list:

  • 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

The site could also have 5,000 to 25,000 square feet of institutional space, which may be used by Norwalk Community College. That is in addition to the above uses.

This was worked out by the Joint Committee that was conceived in November as a way to streamline the process. Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the goal had been met. “We made the 60 days that we talked about,” he said.

“We haven’t got to the finish line,” GGP Attorney William Hennessey said. He asked what the next steps would be in the “comprehensive and complicated review process.” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan told him that once the LDA is amended, the Zoning Commission would consider the site plan and simultaneously the RDA would consider the design of the building.

A traffic study is always part of Zoning applications for large projects.

Hennessey said work on refining the design would “begin in earnest this week” after the city retains an outside attorney, as previously agreed to, at GGP’s expense.

“That work is complicated and will take some time on its own and is really a precursor for a lot of the site development review. So we still need to go through the amendment of the LDA, then we need to go through the actual plan review of proposed building to be built,” Hennessey said.

The public realm component will mean that the project is in front of both Council members and the RDA, as the Council approves the LDA and the RDA will approve acceptable public real uses, Hempstead said. The Planning Commission is also involved as part of the review, he said.

Hempstead said there will likely be more workshops involving members of all three bodies to prevent the drawn-out past process of having one group make a decision only to have another group amend it and send it back, and then repeat the process.

Joint workshops are “very conducive to just put out there, not to GGP but as a whole, that Norwalk is open to more development and we are trying to streamline where we can,” Hempstead said.

Hempstead was also focused on making sure the proposed mall would be upscale. He asked for an industry standard of what “quality” is.

“Quality is a little bit subjective,” Hempstead said. “There are plenty of quality tenants that would be considered B tenants; their financials are in good shape, that’s quality from perspective of the developer… I don’t want to belabor it so much that they can’t get B tenants, but at the same token, the whole idea behind this mall is to be high end.”

Hempstead also appeared to be trying to distance himself from a perception that he is an obstructionist, using the phrase, “I’m not being negative” several times.

“Just so I wasn’t misunderstood, my comment was not geared toward throwing a quiver at this. My comment was making sure it’s successful,” Hempstead said at the end of the meeting.

That was after Cafero followed up on an earlier comment – Hempstead suggested that the people who are moving into Waypointe wouldn’t need to use a trolley-like circulator to get to the mall.

“Yes, the demographic of consumers of the mall might be of high end, but when you look at the kind of people that are moving into Ironworks, to Avalon, to hopefully Head of the Harbor and Waypointe, these are young people who are making $60-70,000 a year, who are also going to frequent this mall,” Cafero said, mentioning an Apple store.

Hempstead had also suggested that Norwalk is moving toward taking a bigger picture few of projects. “In the past we have had a tendency to look at project by project as to what might work and what might not work, versus taking the holistic approach,” Hempstead said.

Cafero said he admitted his comments were self-serving, but the committee had done what it set out to do, as the 2-mile stretch of West Avenue that would include the mall is knit together and the Wall Street area and Waypointe would be populated with businesses that would complement the mall.

“Our urban core, as all of us Norwalkers know, will come to life,” Cafero said.

After the meeting, GGP reps expressed satisfaction in the progress made.

“We are really excited,” GGP Senior Development Director Charles Tapia said. “We are glad that the process seems to be accomplished exactly in the way it was intended, which is to speed things up, and that seems to be what happened.”

“In general, every community has their own process so they’re all very different,” said Hennessey. “This one here has a significant number of steps but I think this process from what I understand and heard, I haven’t worked in Norwalk before but from what I understand and hear from my colleagues, this is definitely a step forward.”

15 comments

John Levin March 2, 2015 at 7:22 am

“You are creating a vibrant, exciting urban core,” Attorney Larry Cafero [said].

Great. Now ensure that “exciting urban core” is available to all citizens who wish to exercise their 1st Amendment rights inside of it. Otherwise, reality becomes “you are creating an exciting urban core that is privately owned and controlled by one large corporation, while simultaneously hollowing out the public spaces that citizens share with each other not under the control of one large corporation.”

Larry Cafero – please continue to serve the people of Connecticut by ensuring that the common spaces of your client’s mall will be available to citizens for free speech and assembly, rights guaranteed to all citizens under our nation’s constitutions, but which automatically are forfeit upon entering entering a private property like an enclosed shopping mall. Make it a truly “vibrant, exciting urban core”.

Oh, and of course do a traffic study.

Maritime Yards Condo Owner March 2, 2015 at 8:55 am

I hope the tax zone piece will be revisited when it is time…also, let’s not be too fearful of being obstructionist as there already a lot of people that are scared by history to just rubber stamp…We should press for performance metrics on what is high-end and other items that are perceived as good/promised – if metrics are not met, then it is tied to some sort of assistance the developer is receiving (there is plenty of that)

Carol March 2, 2015 at 10:37 am

can’t wait for the mall-need the high end store-so we don’t have to drive to stamford or white plains.
outpost of ncc. would be another advantage-also a space for a theatre group.
something different a little bit for everyone—GO MALL !!!!

Thank you Cafero! March 2, 2015 at 11:30 am

I special thanks for Mr. Cafero for all his hard work. Although I’m not a Republican, I’m extremely grateful for this man’s effort. Help spring Norwalk to the next level!

dawn March 2, 2015 at 12:30 pm

what is this about the first amendment. please explain. but please keep it brief because you lose me when you go on and on.

srb March 2, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Nordstrom’s announcement was a game changer, but don’t confuse attorney speak w/truth. Attorney Cafero may believe what he says but his job is to represent his client not the interests of the community which may or may not dovetail. At this point it appears to be a fait accompli and if it doesn’t go through it’ll just add to a negative view of Norwalk as the City that doesn’t work. This is when a strong voice is needed to ensure that public space=public space and the needs of the community are met in this quasi-public property (taken by eminent domain and benefitting from huge tax incentives and beaucoup $$$$ for infrastructure–this is not a private investment)

M. Murray's March 2, 2015 at 4:20 pm

I’m a little confused by the first amendment rhetoric too. Why would the mall have any less rights as private property than any other business? Can you protest in all the other businesses?

srb March 2, 2015 at 8:20 pm

This mall is receiving specially zoned area. A developer receives a boatload of subsidies to develop the area but likewise is subject to the quasi-public nature of the property. As a result the City can require a “public-space” (and should! at least IMHO since the mall becomes the proverbial town square in very many cases)

John Levin March 2, 2015 at 10:09 pm

I found this site:
http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/do-you-have-free-speech-in-a-shopping-mall

The article summarizes the issue fairly well:
Do you have free speech in a shopping mall?
GENE POLICINSKI
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT/EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FIRST AMENDMENT CENTER
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Most Americans know that they can speak their mind in the public square, thanks to the First Amendment.
But what about shopping malls, arguably the modern equivalent of a village green?
Well, outside of California and New Jersey, the First Amendment’s strong protection for free expression — particularly speech involving public issues — likely won’t apply in your local mall if it’s privately owned.
The latest conflict about such speech involves a Tennessee man who on Dec. 15 was ordered several times by Stones River Mall security guards in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to remove or turn inside-out a T-shirt bearing the phrase, “Has your gun killed a kindergartner (sic) today?”
Stanley Myszka — who had the shirt printed in a mall shop — was charged with criminal trespass for not leaving the mall when asked to do so.
Generally, the First Amendment applies to government, not to private citizens or entities. In California and New Jersey, however, courts have found that their state constitutions provide greater protection for speech than does the federal Constitution, and that shopping malls are the free-expression equivalents of parks and public streets.
How did we get to this situation? The legal path begins nearly 70 years ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court began to set out ever-more-specific decisions protecting citizens’ right to free speech in public areas while preserving property owners’ rights in private spaces . . .

piberman March 3, 2015 at 8:12 am

The absence of the developers interest in traffic congestion implications from a projected one million visitors each month (twice the Aquariums’ visitors for an entire year) belies their “public interest”. Surely a preliminary study detailing the traffic implications in an already heavily congested downtown is long overdue. Especially from Attorney Cafero’s comments.

M. Murray's March 3, 2015 at 8:52 am

It is privately owned and should not be considered a public square. Protests can still occur outside on public property, and public parks. There is no need for the right to protest on privately owned property of others.

John Levin March 3, 2015 at 9:21 am

Well, M. Murray’s, you can not ignore the actual effects of malls: the public functions of strolling in public become privatized and moved to private property. That is the reality of it. That is part of why so many downtown areas in cities and towns across the country have withered in the past 5 decades.

So, let’s get this straight: the mall developer wants to use public money and public infrastructure to support its private development, while creating significant negative public externalities, but would not want to support the exercise of basic american liberties on the site it develops? I hope I am not the only citizen that has a problem with that arrangement.

I live in Norwalk, and I love using my real name so everyone can know exactly who I am and where I stand. I have little doubt that General Growth Properties will fight against any attempt to restrict their ability to fully control access, speech and assembly inside their large shopping mall where they want citizens to gather to shop but nothing else.

Lisa Thomson March 3, 2015 at 10:00 am

John Levin – I luv you…and believe in free speech but this right to protest angle is kinda ‘out there’ in left field. If folks want to protest, there are plenty of public spaces in Norwalk. City Hall on East Avenue is likely get more views than Inside a Nordstrom shopping mall (even if it is made of glass.) Besides – I don’t want anyone blocking my access to Apple Computer or the perfume counter @ Nordstroms 🙂

M. Murray's March 4, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Washington St, in front of Police Dept, vet’s park, the beach, City Hall, and many other public spaces that don’t interfere with private property rights .

John Levin March 6, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Not really. It’s commercial space, It’s not like it’s someone’s living room. The public already is invited in – the issue is who gets kicked out if GGP doesn’t like what they say while they are there? Also, the way our suburban towns are being designed – a large indoor mall becomes the de facto town square, right? If a mall developer wants public tax subsidies, zoning variances, access to public streets and services, then why not offer to ensure citizens have their rights protected inside the mall?

Nice shilling, though.

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