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Zoning commissioners grit teeth, give POKO another six months

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A rendering of the proposed POKO development Wall Street Place, as provided by Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Zoning Commission members awarded POKO Partners another six-month extension for its Wall Street Place development plans Wednesday, seeming to surprise even themselves.

“Four days ago I thought we weren’t going to do this,” Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said.

The vote to grant the extension for the approval of plans developed in 2008 was 6-1, with Commissioner Michael O’Reilly voting against it. The extension, the sixth awarded to POKO, comes with many conditions, a timeline of requirements that POKO must meet.

Those conditions stemmed from an idea from Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, Santo said, indicating that was the reason the commission was willing to vote for the extension. Coppola did not write the conditions; Planning and Zoning staff did, Santo said.

The 6.3-acre project would feature 380 residences and 60,000 square feet of retail, if developer Ken Olsen can get his financial puzzle together. POKO was promised $5 million from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development in August 2012, money that is still available, according to Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan. Olsen is now saying that his application for Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) for low income housing tax credits is the hold-up.

Commissioners asked Sheehan what would happen if POKO is not granted approval. Sheehan said Monday that the city might be able to regain ownership of the parking lots that the city sold to POKO, as the developer would be in default of the agreement.

The rest would be in POKO’s hands, and the city would have no recourse, Commissioner Mike Mushak said.

“It’s in the best interest of the city to try to work with them and try to make this thing happen at this point because we would have no recourse other than to just sit and watch the property sit there unimproved for any length of time,” he said. “So I understand the apprehension, but I am also concerned about the potential for having another hole that could last for years and years if we don’t try to work with them.”

“We are kind of in almost in the Catch 22,” Commissioner Nate Sumpter said. “It’s to our advantage to try to work with the developer that owns the land right now, at least based on the conditions that was placed on it.”

O’Reilly said POKO has been a “horrible steward” of the property.

“We go back to the $19.8 million loan – Last time he was here he said he was this close to getting it,” he said. “If anything, capital markets have improved since that time. Not much, but they have improved. So if he doesn’t have it by now…?”

Sheehan said Monday that the $19.8 million loan would fall into place after all the other funding was secured. Citibank will not close on the loan before then, he said.

Santo said it was his intention that if Olsen and POKO Partners do not meet the conditions of the extension, it would be all over. “This is it,” he said.

Worst case scenario, POKO would still own the land and would have to reapply, he said.

“I don’t even know if the plan we did in ’08 is appropriate for today’s world,” he said.

3 comments

Suzanne December 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

Once again, instead of a pro-active stance on behalf of Norwalk taxpayers, we have Commissioners reacting out of fear with a plan that Mr.Santos doesn’t even know is appropriate and Mr. Sheehan doesn’t know what penalties could realistically be incurred on POKO should they not meet the “conditions” placed upon them with this extension. The fear of another hole in the ground? Isn’t Mr. Sheehen as Redevelopment Agency Director supposed to be representing Norwalk to developers everywhere as a good investment? In other words, why is POKO the only game in town? Yes, they own the land but when do they forfeit their ownership after, for years, leaving Norwalk’s promised redevelopment high and dry? Who is benefiting? While Norwalk languishes, what does POKO get out of this in their business that allows them to sit on such an asset for so many years? We know what Norwalk gets: broken down buildings surrounded by trash and an entire area neglected and stagnating. Yet again another developer with the upper hand in Norwalk to the detriment of its citizens.

Keen Observer December 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

POKO is waiting for the same way out that Seligson and Spinnaker took: a real development firm with actual financial backing to come along and buy them out.
.
All three of these guys took Norwalk and its taxpayers for a ride. They used “development plans” as a smoke screen for their real intention, which was purely land speculation, using the bully stick of eminent domain to force homeowners, apartment owners, and legitimate, thriving businesses off their own land.

lael December 12, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Anybody remember Mayor Knopp stuck Norwalk with POKO? POKO never had the means to make this happen without all kinds of “tax credits” and other public largesse. While campaigning, our new mayor complained repeatedly about “stalled development” and promised emphatically he’d speed up this project implying Moccia was the reason this went nowhere and he could and absolutely would do better. He can’t make this happen and surely he knew that when he madde those promises. Sure sounds good when you’re looking for votes. The reality is Norwalk is stuck with a developer who was never able to make it happen and will NEVER be able to make anything happen. I think they’ll be shovels in the soil on Mars before there’s one in the ground on Wall St. at this rate.

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