NORWALK, Conn. – It was a good night Monday for the developers who want to build a mall in SoNo – most of the people speaking to the government officials who can advance the project said positive things.
“We were really pleased for a couple of reasons,” said General Growth Properties Senior Developer Doug Adams after 24 people spoke to the Common Council Planning Committee and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. “It’s really good to hear firsthand from the public … and there were people out tonight that we don’t always hear from. It’s always good for me to know that the decision-makers are hearing from the public and we felt it was a pretty overwhelming show of support from the people that, again, we don’t always hear from. The comments from folks that had concerns or questions we thought were all reasonable and worthy of discussion, so overall good meeting.”
About 40 people sat in the audience in the City Hall community room for the Joint Committee meeting, held just to get input from the public before the respective bodies vote Thursday on the proposed changes to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the 95/7 site. Three of the speakers were directly connected to the project. “Naysayers” chiefly expressed concerns about traffic (see separate story), although Diane Lauricella also said Norwalk should be getting more from the state as a mall would generate less in tax revenue than the previously approved development would have brought, and Deb Goldstein said she was worried about businesses in SoNo.
Spinnaker Real Estate Partners CEO Clay Fowler said that people shouldn’t get ahead of themselves.
“This is not a decision as to the LDA. It’s a decision about whether they recommend that the town proceed with considering the proposal at all,” Fowler said. “So this is very, very, very early on in the process and there are many, many more things that need to be delved into and resolved, explained and resolved. This is the beginning of the process. So don’t worry, traffic certainly is one that will be taken care of.”
Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said after the meeting it was an accurate statement, as far as the process goes.
“They need to know is there stomach for the city of Norwalk to expand the retail on this site, and that is what this does. They have a lot of work to do between this and getting to the end game,” Hempstead said, referring to the proposed LDA change.
Among the Norwalkers giving glowing reviews to the possibility of a mall in SoNo was Isabelle Hargrove, referring to the announcement that Nordstrom’s has committed to be an anchor.
“I happen to be in the fashion business and a large part of how I make my living is understanding retail,” Hargrove said. “No one in my industry believes that brick and mortar malls are dead. Quite the contrary, we think that it’s about to have a revival mostly due to the internet and some of the branding opportunities… We also know what takes to open a new store today. Retailers like Nordstrom’s and other retailers don’t make these decisions lightly. We hear all about tax breaks and subsidies, they still have to make an incredibly large investment in personnel and inventory. They buy the stuff I sell and they don’t make these decisions lightly. They open a finite amount of stores every year so if they have decided to open store in Norwalk you can rest assured that they see a market for the store and that they know that this particular mall will be successful.”
Former Common Councilwoman Patsy Brescia asked people to think back 50 years when there was a “teepee of burning garbage” at the city dump next to the 95/7 site, the depressed landscape and the turmoil from the construction of Route 7. Many of the people speaking as naysayers on the mall were also against buying the railroad station, a municipal golf course, the Maritime Aquarium, the Norwalk Museum, and a new campus for Norwalk Community College and a connectivity plan. One of her favorite places to shop is in Natick, Mass., she said, pointing out that it’s a GGP mall.
Joanne Horvath echoed some of those thoughts. “Redevelopment for this site has been going on since the 1980s and finally a developer has come up with what I believe is the best possible use for this property,” she said, adding that the site is highly visible from I-95 and easily accessible from Route 7. A Bloomingdales as the second anchor would put Norwalk on the map as a shopping destination, she said. But she recommended that GGP choose housing over a hotel for the property, as it would be perfect for Transit Oriented Development.
Some people didn’t expect to speak. Called to the lectern, Librarian Christine Bradley said she lives behind the mall site and walks to Belden Avenue every day to go to work. She’ll be walking past Nordstrom’s if this comes to fruition, she said.
“I worry about my financial future, but I think I will have some momentary happiness,” Bradley said.
Sherelle Harris also got drafted, joking that it was a “conspiracy” for the library to say it supports the mall.
“Maybe I am the leader of the naysayers but part of this is to be really doing the due diligence and not just continue to look at the pros column but to look at the cons,” Goldstein said.
There seems to be a rush to the end goal and the argument is framed as a mall-or-no-mall proposition instead of what is best for the community, she said. She listed a series of “what ifs,” such as “What if the tax revenues are not as much as anticipated” and “What if the jobs do not pay enough for people to live here even in affordable housing?”
Lauricella asked the committee to postpone the vote and do their homework. It’s nice that the committee hired a mall expert as a consultant, but an opinion should be sought from an expert on mixed use next to highway, such as the Jonathan Rose Companies, she said. She asked, if there is no market for Class A office space, why was Class B office space not considered?
Hempstead said after the meeting that rents for Class B office space do not support the cost of construction.
Offering short comments for the mall were Eric Rains, Fat Cat Pie Company co-owner Michael Pelletier, Christine Jensen and Rosemary Kelly.
“We do need a mall. We have to go out of Norwalk just to shop. It’s unfair,” Kelly said. Norwalk “Seems to be sinking and not growing,” she said. “Everything is taken out of Norwalk. All the malls, all the stores that we had seems to be going, not coming in. So we do need someone to vote for us to have what we had before.”
Paxton Kinol of Belpointe Capital said the Waypointe developers are in full support of a mall, and were “blown away” by the early conceptual renderings. “If Apple designed a mall it would look something like this, where it’s modern and more open,” he said.
Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Ed Musante called it a “strong showing” for the mall.
“I didn’t hear anyone say don’t do this,” he said. “What I did hear was kind of the new naysaying, and the way you can actually kill a project without being against it, is to say slow down, take your time, let’s ponder this for a long time because that is the way to kill a project.”
“Whatever we do decide as a community here, that we do decide to do, do it deliberately, carefully but with appropriate alacrity,” Fowler said. “I don’t mean that anything should be forgotten, but the world moves on and the world will move on again, and we will have another real estate cycle. So let’s get built while we are still in this cycle, we don’t miss another one like we did with our project, our earlier proposed 95/7 project.”
Hempstead said that when the proposal first came forward in November GGP did not want to move forward without “knowing that the governing bodies had the stomach to create the ranges in the LDA.”
RDA Chairman Felix Serrano said nothing has been eliminated from the LDA, just updated to reflect current studies.
The process is far from over, Hempstead said. If the Council and the RDA approve the outline that has been proposed, and the full Council votes for it, three sets of attorneys will open up the LDA and get to work. Nothing is binding until the LDA is signed, and the site plan for the property will need to have an LDA attached.
The RDA and the Planning Committee will hold a joint meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Council chambers. Further public comment is invited.
Correction 2 p.m., Deb Goldstein’s quote was missing two words.