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.
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:)