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Norwalker: SoNo mall would be ‘highest best use’ even with ‘tunnel’

NORWALK, Conn. – Times change and so do urban land economics, Ernie DesRochers said.

“This is not your grandfather’s Norwalk mall,” DesRochers said, of the developing proposal for The SoNo Collection. “In fact, there are only a few properties in the U.S. that approach the high-end concept that is being proposed to you. … The SoNo Collection represents a 2015 vision of what that site can be, not a 2005 or a 1995 or an 1885 vision.”

It’s worth updating the Land Disposition Agreement for the 95/7 site yet again, DesRochers said last week to Common Council members and Redevelopment Agency commissioners. DesRochers was one of only three people who took the time to speak at Monday’s joint committee meeting, where the “tunnel” proposed for North Water Street and other aspects of the proposed mall were bandied about for more than two hours.

An artist's rendering of the overpass concept for North Water Street.

An artist’s rendering of the overpass concept for North Water Street.

What’s commonly being called a “tunnel” is a 335-foot long North Water Street overpass allowing GGP to connect its southern parcel to its northern parcel in order to create a mall-like space from the second floor up and satisfy one of its main tenants, Bloomingdale’s.

“I am not that concerned. I think in the hands of a good designer a bridge or tunnel can be a destination in and of itself,” Bike/Walk Task Force Co-chairman Mike Mushak said.

Google Clink Street Tunnel London and you’ll get the idea, Mushak said.

But Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said the overpass would discourage people from walking up North Water Street toward SoNo, which is of major concern because the developments there were designed for retail on the ground floor and it’s highly likely that the construction of The SoNo Collection would change the market so that the area will shift from the office space now dominating the streetscape to the storefronts that had been expected.

That’s important because it would activate the street, he said.

Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said he couldn’t see how the proposed overpass would have an adverse impact on pedestrian traffic. Sheehan said he hadn’t seen anything comparable that is as long as the one GGP is cooking up.

“Three hundred and thirty-five linear feet is a long walk with something above you and around you. You don’t see light. It’s taking natural light out of that walk,” Sheehan said.

“One of the things that we don’t want it to be is a tunnel,” RTKL architects Vice President Robert Barry said. “It makes no advantage to create an environment that people don’t want to go through. So through the use of technology, as someone said before, through the use of scale, through the use of screening devices, through the use of just general lighting, we have sought to achieve an exciting environment, one that is light, one that is transparent, one that allows people to walk through without feeling like they’re working through a tunnel.”

“It’s not a tunnel to us,” Barry said. “What it is is a gateway, an identity opportunity both for our project and one that through a more transparent treatment, where you can see the activity of center, where you have activity with the pedestrian plaza.”

Kimmel called the overpass a major “stumbling block”; Sheehan said it might be up to the Council and RDA to make a decision on whether it would be permitted.

Sheehan said GGP has made major concessions to the city by agreeing to put a hotel and public realm space into the project.

“In due respect, GGP has assembled a quality team,” Sheehan said. “I completely agree with their claim that RTKL Architecture and Langan engineering are highly qualified to do the design associated.”

The location of the hotel had concerned Sheehan, as it would be further from I-95 than he expected in its planned location, but then he realized that its situation on the southern side of the site would put people closer to SoNo, Sheehan said.

Another concern is that the street-level retailers on the front of the mall, in the “jewel boxes,” would not necessarily connect to the second floor of the mall, where the action is. Mall developers said that would be up to the individual tenants, likely restaurants.

A traffic study is imminent, Sheehan said. GGP has agreed to submit it to a third party independent review, GGP Senior Planner Doug Adams said.

It’s possible the design would include a change in the material used on the road at the intersection of North Water Street and West Avenue to slow people down.

Sheehan had major concerns with the “slip ramp” planned to get vehicles from North Water Street into the parking garage on the southern parcel, saying there is no sidewalk planned for that side of the street. Adams said GGP would study that situation.

GGP has been very open-minded about bicycle and pedestrian access, Mushak said. Perhaps GGP could give up a little space on its West Avenue frontage to make the building cantilevered and provide some space for a bike lane there, he said.

“I hear the concept of highest and best use bandied about regularly in the local press and really, what it is, is just maximizing the economic productivity of a piece of real estate,” DesRochers said.

The highest and best use would be The SoNo Collection, he said.

The area has changed dramatically from what was there 30 years ago, DesRochers said.

“We all know what is down there now and I think this will be the capstone of what is done,” DesRochers said. “… If we miss this cycle it will probably be another 20 years.”

(A 3.5 minute video:)

28 comments

Suzanne July 27, 2015 at 8:09 am

The same gentleman who believes it is the “highest and best use” of a cool few million of Norwalk taxpayer money to install a driving range in a residential area for the few that will be allowed to use it? What makes his opinion so particularly qualified about this?

EveT July 27, 2015 at 9:21 am

@Suzanne, the article says DesRochers was one of only 3 people who came to speak at the meeting. If you are opposed to the mall as planned and have better ideas to offer, did you come out and speak?

Rod Lopez-Fabrega July 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

RE: the “Highest Best Use Ever..” headline, one has to ask if the previous administration of the city of Norwalk or the current administration had ever attempted to Market the choice property now to be occupied by THE MALL or have all the elected officials for decades just waited to see what proposed occupant drops down into their laps from ‘out there’?

Gordon Tully July 27, 2015 at 9:58 am

This property was cleared based on planning concepts from the 1950’s. Not surprisingly, the “highest and best use” proposed by GGP and Spinnaker is also a concept from the 1950’s. Both are long-since obsolete.

The design destroys connectivity, blocks any possible extension of the historic character that makes SoNo a destination, and turns a crucial street into the entrance to a gigantic parking garage. The notion of the tunnel as a “gateway” is a classic example of Orwellian double-speak.

GGP has carefully avoided creating a physical or computerized model of the project because if the public and the city’s decision-makers clearly saw what was being proposed they would be truly horrified. Approving the revised LDA without seeing the project in 3D is irresponsible.

Comparing this design to world-class architecture is to compare apples with oranges. Take a look at http://www.rtkl.com/projects/360-mall/ for the sort of design RTKL is noted for. Is this what you think of as world-class architecture? For example, I don’t notice many cars in the Clink Street Subway Tunnel. And the euphemism of “jewel boxes” to describe opaque walls is more double-speak,

In its desperation to develop this long-vacant property, the city is ready to hand a multi-million dollar check to the developers in return for allowing them to turn the gateway to SoNo into a massive extension of Connecticut Avenue.

Approving the LDA to allow 750,000 SF of retail is a one-way street. Once you turn control over what constitutes the “highest and best use” to the market you are essentially letting the market plan your city. Those who worship the market love this idea, forgetting that planning and zoning ordinances were created precisely to protect the value of private property.

Abandoning this “opportunity” to develop 95/7 means abandoning any chance for a well-planned development that extends the ambience of SoNo and creates the kind of vital new urbanism that Mike Mushak correctly admires in other cities and that is sweeping the country.

The tragedy is that the public and the city are not being presented with an alternative vision for the property. What kind of decision are you making when you do not have a Plan B?

With vision, we can change Norwalk from serving as the regional dumping ground for commercial development into the kind of urban destination that is drawing droves of people back into our cities. Approve this LDA and this opportunity is lost forever.

Don't Panic July 27, 2015 at 11:39 am

The lighting concept in the London tunnel is an attempt to revitalize victorian era viaducts. In other words, it is an attempt to liven up something that is otherwise unwelcome to users. The idea that we would design something from scratch that needs this “lipstick on a pig” instead of building the structure itself to be welcoming is insulting.

Please stop saying GGP “made concessions”. Norwalk made 7 years worth of “concessions” in the form of property tax abatements, not to mention the other economic incentives that remain attached to the existing LDA. GGP bought this property knowing full well what our land use requirements were and bet they could coax our leaders into designing them to GGP’s needs.

Please stop negotiating with Bloomingdale’s and start negotiating ON BEHALF OF Norwalk residents and businesses. We are the ones who are going to have to live with this.

Haley July 27, 2015 at 12:40 pm

I nominate the proposed mall for the Bad Idea Hall of Fame, starting with the outmoded idea of building a mall at all. And then there is the truly awful design …

Marija Bryant July 27, 2015 at 1:09 pm

Don’t Panic gets it right. Most of the upbeat data about pedestrian tunnels talks about making the best of an existing bad situation. Tunnels and underpasses are antithetical to walkability. Think about walking through the SoNo train station underpass. Well lit. Murals. Short. Still, makes me hurry along to get to the other side. At the mall, we’re talking about an underground passageway that’s 10 times that length. Compress a cold winter wind coming off the sound into that tunnel and it’s not going to be a pleasant 337 foot stroll. Imagine half of Washington Street covered by an overpass – without the benefit of shops to provide a human scale. GGP can do better by us. Jane Jacobs would be appalled.

https://mycityspot.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/the-underpass-dilemma/

Missy Conrad July 27, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Altho’ I do read The Hour & Nancy on Norwalk, I did not know of this meeting- Once again, it is dismaying to hear that there is NO talk of $ for affordable housing off-site. All the fine old homes filled with people of modest means were taken by eminent domain for the development of this site. The lack of affordable housing raises the rents in our area, and the majority of the jobs that will be created at the Mall do not pay enough to afford our local rents. We taxpayers have paid for all the traffic improvements in that vicinity. Our beautiful yellow brick church has had its property shaved so close.
I had followed & been present at the last plans of Spinaker for that site; approval had been given for buildings with green roofs, which the developer then protested was too expensive (initially-), but at least, there was to be some affordable & regular housing. Lawyer for the Mall, Larry Cafero told me at one meeting that he cared as much for affordable housing as I do. I expect him to honor his statement. Our Redevelopment Agency would be an expected proponent of housing. And, others in our government & citizenry & religious groups, please do not forget those who need housing.

Karl July 27, 2015 at 5:35 pm

please keep Oak Hills out of this equation , one has nothing to due with the other, unless Paul Cantor is against the Mall too !

Kevin Di Mauro July 27, 2015 at 6:45 pm

@Marija Bryant

At this point it’s easy to confuse terminology. GGP is not proposing an “underground passageway” or “tunnel”. It is proposing an above ground “overpass”.

Suzanne July 27, 2015 at 8:04 pm

Marija Bryant, I think everyone considering this football length “gateway”, euphemism for “tunnel” GGP feature, should look at your link.

The tunnel in London shown by Mike shows a lighted, materially warmer concept counter to the type and uses being proposed by GGP for this feature.

I am glad someone finally invoked Jane Jacobs, the premier urban studies writer who studied exactly the types of buildings being proposed in Norwalk, among many others, and, by her pragmatic, well-researched observations on urban development WOULD be appalled by this GGP proposal.

Christopher Alexander et al in his “A Pattern Language”, a global study of what makes communities of all kinds work, would provide a fine analysis of why the RTKL box, which seems to be their pattern globally per Mr. Tully’s and others’ references to their work, is antithetical to any human scale use and certainly great for entrapping the shopper. No connectivity is really being considered here except for the “Collection” to itself.

The videos are revealing in that the presenters talk passionately about negotiating with the anchors but not at all about how they might accommodate Norwalk’s needs. (That would be except for the need to shop and get in and out of their Mall.)

After this presentation, it is very, very clear: GGP knows it has Norwalk by the tail. Their job is to build a Mall – that’s what they bought the land for and that’s how they make their money.

However the LDA process goes, I am betting on representatives for Norwalk citizens to acquiesce to whatever GGP wants with the “negotiation” only appearing as such when very small matters are “given” to Norwalk.

No one on the taxpayers’ behalf who does not agree with this “bad idea” has the will or perseverance to go up against GGP, expert at getting what they want and running a successful business.

Norwalk? It will persist in destroying anything significant about its history or value (on our dime.) Too bad.

Kevin Di Mauro July 27, 2015 at 9:01 pm

@Suzanne

Could you please verify your final comment, “Norwalk? It will persist in destroying anything significant about its history or value (on our dime.) Too bad.”

Is this a fact? You are beginning to remind me of other commentators who have been moderated at NON due to a lack of factual basis.

Mark Chapman July 27, 2015 at 9:39 pm

@kevin DiMauro

Come now, Kevin. You certainly understand opinion! Suzanne is not misstating facts, the way a former NoN frequent flyer (now a regular across town) did (and does). She is expressing an opinion, rooted in frustration, about a major project that has been through many incarnations on property that has lain dormant for years while Norwalk taxpayers have gotten little revenue while enduring the “bombsite.” Now that something is happening — much like on Wall Street — some are very unhappy about what it is, who is doing, when it is being done and how it is being done — IF it is done at all! Many of these people in both areas are late to the party, have not completely researched the details — and FACTS — through unbiased sources and are reacting on emotion.

(Suzanne, I am not speaking of you, I am speaking in general).

The one incontrovertible fact is that GGP has boatloads of cash and owns the property an cannot be forced to build offices or housing when it wants to build an upscale mall. It can hold the property, wait for the right market, sell it and make it someone else’s problem, though. This all happened years ago and the situation was wrapped up in a brown paper bag and handed to this Council, this Zoning Commission, this mayor. And, if they keep delaying, it will go to the next set of folks and may get set back another year or two.

I have no preference for what goes there. If we at NoN knew how to make money, what is the best financial decision, we would not need donations and fundraisers! That’s why we try to report facts, report what people are saying on all sides, and leave the opinions to others.

Suzanne July 27, 2015 at 10:24 pm

Thank you, Mark. I appreciate your response.

I guess what I was envisioning when I made that comment, Kevin, which is based in fact because it all exists, is CT Avenue and Big Box lane, a phenomena you can see in any number of cities that have sacrificed their identity for these stores all across the country. (A fact. Not a speculation or emotional response.)

Norwalk has a big plot of land in 95/7. Norwalk has options about how to use that land. Norwalk has chosen a developer of Malls based on a failed prototype all across the country (a fact as linked in previous comments to Bloomberg, the New York Times, Harpers and other publications.)

Norwalk does not have a City Planner. Norwalk has “holes in the ground” all over town – take a drive, Kevin, and you will see this but I am guessing you know this about Norwalk already.

Each of those holes represent potential: for additional property taxes in the coffers of course and for employment but, also, an opportunity to shape a Town that could represent not only its present and future but its history. Norwalk chooses not to do that. (See point number one.)

In spite of all of this big box and scatter brained development, and I am only guessing here, Norwalk does not seem to have the funds to take care of basic infrastructure. For example, sidewalks and their disrepair became quite an issue last year.

However, Norwalk seems to retain a coveted AAA rating for its financial security.

So, Norwalk continues to have potential for development that could reflect ALL of Norwalk, its demographics and history, what makes Norwalk, Norwalk, but, instead, opts for development that can’t seem to pay for the basics, like paving and sidewalks.

Thus, “Norwalk? It will persist in destroying anything significant about its history or value (on our dime.) Too bad.”

And, of course, “on our dime” refers to the money you, Kevin, and I pay to Norwalk as residents in order to support all of this inarticulate thinking and developing (because no one with expertise, the before mentioned City Planner, is on Norwalk staff.)

Keivn Di Mauro July 27, 2015 at 10:57 pm

@Suzanne

I’m going to adopt a new policy and not engage in arguments with commentators who don’t reveal their real identity.

cc-rider July 28, 2015 at 7:58 am

“Norwalk has chosen a developer of Malls based on a failed prototype all across the country (a fact as linked in previous comments to Bloomberg, the New York Times, Harpers and other publications.)”

This is incorrect. GGP bought the land without any help of the city. The city doesn’t have 20 million in the freezer to buy this land.

100% agree with your sentiment about the city planning though.

Marija Bryant July 28, 2015 at 11:15 am

re terminology regarding overpass/tunnel/ underpass/ gateway – whatever you call it, it remains a 337 foot long passageway, with impermeable surfaces on all sides. So very much like a tunnel that it should be treated and seen as such no matter what the developer calls it. It is neither human scale nor walker friendly and needs to be rethought by GGP if they are serious about integrating the mall with the area around it.

Suzanne July 28, 2015 at 1:08 pm

c-c rider: good question. What does this so-called “Enterprise Zone” allow in terms of development? I see what you are saying: anyone with the cash could buy the land but does that mean that, say, a refuse company could put their headquarters there? In other words, it seems as though the City had some input into just who could own the land and how it could be developed per even the weakened Zoning regulations we have now. That is the latitude, though, I think I am over-estimating. It also seems to be what the excitement is all about in changing the LDA to accommodate GGP.

Mark Chapman July 28, 2015 at 1:21 pm

@SUZANNE

The development within the zone has to comply with existing zoning regulations, and then with the Land Disposition Agreement as hashed out with the Council and Redevelopment — which is going on now. I would provide the link to the city’s Enterprise Zone page, but is blank after the title…

Suzanne July 28, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Not to beat a dead horse, but didn’t the Zoning change significantly with the removal of the neighborhood that created the large, empty space?

This is germane to the conversation since it seems many have believed a very few things could actually be built at 95/7.

And yet, whatever was zoned for building there will be changed in terms of as built expectations because GGP now owns the land and wants a Mall there.

It has been said in the past that the LDA does not currently comply with that expectation and, thus, in order to accommodate GGP’s Mall, the LDA must be changed.

This suggests that Norwalk had(s) some choices about what exactly gets built (although, as is said, that “horse has already left the barn”), and that the developer does not have carte blanche because they paid for the land (and would have known this going into the deal.)

Joseph Sette July 28, 2015 at 3:39 pm

This gateway / tunnel discussion is a small but important part of a bigger picture.

Both parcels need to be connected.

End of story – unless some unknown genius can think of a better way.

This missing opportunity here is how to connect the street to the rest of the project.

There is great potential for public space in the underutilized area above the parking garage.

This has the best view over the park and onto the harbor and catches the best sun exposure.

I see a multi-level atrium as a destination which can be accessed from street level at the NW corner of North Water and West and ending at the retail anchor at the SE corner of North Water on the topmost level.

Projects like the Atrium at Trinity Leeds really do a good job of illustrating what can be done in a challenging space.

Granted there is the contention of economic scale but instead of trying to hide the railroad tracks at the expense of water views and natural light, I would really like to challenge the developer to create something that will take advantage of the location with an homage to Norwalk’s maritime and industrial history.

If that can be accomplished, then I believe everyone can agree the trade offs are worth it.

Kevin Di Mauro July 28, 2015 at 5:48 pm

@Joseph Sette

Thanks for that inspirational link. I’m glad Norwalk still has believers like you around.

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