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.”