NORWALK, Conn. – They say a leopard can’t change is spots, but no one ever said a mayor can’t change his mind. And that, apparently, is exactly what has happened.
When Mayor Harry Rilling was candidate Harry Rilling in 2013, he said on more than one occasion that, while he wanted to get development in action at the various bombsites around the city, he was against the idea of a mall for the 95/7 property.
While the mayor does have the bully pulpit, he has no role in the approval process.
“I did mention during the campaign and after my election that the mall was not, in my opinion, the best fit for that location, but this is not the ideal world,” Rilling said Saturday. “This is the world where the Class A office space is not going to be something that people are going to invest in. There’s too much Class A vacancy right now.”
Mall developer GGP has been repeating that over and over as it has made public presentations, and the assertion has been backed up by local professionals who deal in commercial real estate, such as Michael McGuire of Austin McGuire Company and Ernie Desrochers. GGP also put out a press release last week drawing attention to a study by CBRE Group, a commercial real estate market analyst hired by the city of Norwalk, that said, in part, “existing market conditions do not justify new office construction.”
The release continued:
The report examines several factors, including new construction costs, financing, delivery time, vacant inventory, Merritt 7, and area competition.
One factor to note, Class A office space in Norwalk currently rents at an average of $32 per square foot; Stamford commands slightly higher rents of $38 per square foot, while Greenwich commands significantly higher rents at $71 per square foot. CBRE’s report affirms that new construction costs today necessitate rents in the high-$40’s to mid-$60’s and involve a waiting period.
The analysis of the commercial office market in the greater Norwalk area was requested as the Committee considers a proposed change to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the 95/7 parcel. The site is currently entitled for up to 1.1 million square feet of mixed-use development, with 600,000 square feet dedicated to office use.
Given that the vacancy rate for Norwalk Class A space is currently 16.3%, with 734,000 square feet of inventory vacant, General Growth Properties (GGP) believes the development of a mixed-use project that includes office space is not viable in the near or intermediate-term.
“You can change your opinion with the circumstances,” Rilling said. “It’s kind of a silly thing if somebody was made aware of different circumstances and they didn’t change their opinion.”
“I think the mall is going to bring increased tax revenue to the city and the most important thing is they’ll provide a lot of Norwalk residents with an opportunity for employment,” he said.
Rilling was asked about what types of jobs will be available, as mall stores traditionally are not considered to be plums.
“There’s a mixture of jobs,” he said, “some managerial positions that are available.”
And, he said, part-time and lower-paying positions that might attract less-skilled workers are important as well.
“Don’t discount the jobs that are at or just above the minimum wage, because there are many people who rely on those kinds of jobs to supplement the income from other jobs,” he said. “The poor mom who is struggling to make ends meet can pick up a few hours extra, perhaps give her those little things she’d like to have or that she needs that she can’t afford. Here is a job right here in Norwalk, not in Stamford, not in Bridgeport, not in Greenwich, not in Darien… The location of the mall, a lot of the people who might need jobs, need supplemental income, have easy access, it’s centrally located.”
Rilling said last week’s announcement that high-end retailer Nordstrom had agreed to become one of two or three anchor stores was good news for the city.
“I think people need to feel some degree of comfort … because a lot of people were afraid that it wasn’t going to be a high-end mall,” he said. “I think Nordstrom will attract a lot of other smaller high-end retail spaces.”
As for the other anchors, Rilling said he expected stores of a similar level.
“Hopefully we’ll get, and I am fairly comfortable with the possibility that we may end up with, something like a Neiman Marcus, a Saks Fifth Avenue, a Bloomingdales.”
The news about Nordstrom was met with excitement in South Norwalk, if the SoNo Buzz Facebook page is any indication. As of early Monday morning, a link to a story about the announcement had 349 likes and 51 overwhelmingly positive comments, and more than 100 shares.
Rilling joins a bevy of politicians, including State Sen. Bob Duff, Reps Bruce Morris, Chris Perone and Fred Wilms, and Gov. Dannel Malloy in supporting the mall.