NORWALK, Conn. – The brains behind the effort to put a mall in South Norwalk have been shopping their concept around, emphasizing ideas to encourage pedestrians to come in and go out and predicting that they can bring a million people a month to the struggling area.
Imagine, said Doug Adams of General Growth Properties (GGP), if just 5 percent of those people spilled out of the unfortress-like structure and visited the nearby Stepping Stones Museum for Children, the Maritime Aquarium or SoNo.
“That is just me saying 5 percent,” Adams said. “Do I think more than that? Yeah. I think the district is more than interesting enough to attract a meaningful number of people to go wandering outside the doors.”
Don’t think Stamford when you think of the mall that would go into the 95/7 site, at the corner of West Avenue and Interstate 95, said state Rep. Larry Cafero, GGP’s attorney. Norwalk’s mall would be 700,000 square feet, as opposed to the 800,000 square feet in the Stamford Town Center. It would be designed with store fronts along West Avenue and North Water Street, each with their own point of entry. This is no fortress-like the mall you see in Trumbull, either, he said.
“I hate the word ‘mall’ because it conjures those images. It’s a retail center, but it’s one that is interactive with the rest of the district,” Cafero said.
GGP’s concept, a response to community input, according to Adams, is to exploit and encourage the unique assets of the area, the proximity to the South Norwalk train station and the obvious pedestrian routes. There will be trolley-like buses running around and there might even be a water taxi, they said. Part of the mall’s interior would be designed to encourage customers to visit the nearby attractions and maybe kiosks where local restaurateurs could offer samples. Public plazas along West Avenue would encourage passing pedestrians to stop and look, and the interesting store fronts would draw people to the furthest end, a short distance from Mathews Park.
Again, Adams says he’s spoken to a lot of people. That includes just about every elected official, zoning commissioners and local business people.
“Probably the single thing we heard the most was creating this visibility and transparency of the building. Not this fortress but something you could look into and see out of. So the people who are on the street, or walking or on the highway, will be able to see in and see activity and want to get out. Likewise, the people who are in the building will be able to see out and see the things going on there and will be able to go outside the building,” Adams said, pointing to all the glass depicted in the artist’s rendering of the concept.
It would feature five levels, with one level underground. Parking would be on that level and on the main level, behind the store fronts. Since the 11-acre property is divided by North Water Street, the building would go over the five lanes of road there, providing a connectivity via grand staircases on either side.
The mall’s main entrance would be on North Water Street.
“We would have two or three anchors and we have moved them towards the railroad tracks,” Adams said. “This allows us to create this curved façade which has the smaller retail, usually 75 to 100 small shops, to create transparency along the road.”
But it would be created to fit into the area. The steeple at the neighboring church is 75 feet high. The structures that are currently designed to jut out of the front of the mall – referred to as “jewel boxes” by the architect – are just at that height. The top of the building is planned to be 98 feet, but it’s glass above those box-like structures, so it looks smaller.
The mall would go into the site where a mixed-use development, 95/7, was expected to be built. That would have been 200 feet tall, Cafero said. This plan is part of being “right-sized,” Adams said.
No one is saying what the anchors might be; Cafero said he has learned that would kill the deal. But Adams said GGP deals with just about every retailer in the nation. Use your imagination.
“We see this as an upscale or higher-end department store center, so those are the type of tenants we are building this for and also talking to,” Adams said.
You want to talk money? It’s an OMG.
If, as Cafero expects, the building plans are submitted by the end of the year, construction would likely begin in mid-2015. That would mean $4.7 million in building permit fees to Norwalk for Fiscal Year 15.
Property taxes would come later.
“This is an enterprise zone,” Cafero said. “As such, the real estate property taxes phase in. The first two years there are none. Then it phases in, fully phased in in the seventh year. Even forgetting real estate taxes, from year one, about $700,000 a year just in personal property taxes. At the end of seven years they’ll be paying about $4.5 million a year in real estate property tax. That will be the second largest taxpayer in Norwalk, the first being CL&P. That’s how big this project is. … By 2025 you’re looking a $5.5 million a year.”
Property taxes at present are about $180,000 a year, he said. The state would also gain, he said, with about $21 million a year expected in sales tax and a one-time influx of $33.8 million during construction.
Jobs are also part of the sales pitch. The mall would create a little less than 2,500 permanent jobs, about 2,200 of them based in the mall itself. The minimum salary, with benefits, would be $28,000 a year. The maximum is into six figures.
There would be a job training program as the mall approaches opening to prepare the locals and teach them job skills, Adams said. GGP has done this at its other locations, he said.
About that expected one million people: “That’s from our research across our portfolio and cross referencing it with our consultants in terms of traffic and parking. We think it ranges up to 15 million, but all of our numbers are trying to be conservative,” Adams said.
Mayor Harry Rilling is skeptical of the claim, but open to the idea of a mall in spite of what he said before the election.
“I was, during the campaign, very much against a mall because I was not convinced that that was the highest and best use for that piece of property,” Rilling said. “We need to be extremely diligent and careful in what we put there because it’s going to be there for generations to come. That’s a very, very desirable piece of property.
“Now,having said that, I was against the mall and I’m still not totally convinced that that’s what should be there,” he said, “but I will say that GGP has been very responsive to everything that I have asked for and talked about. They understand my concerns and they understand the concerns of other elected officials and appointed officials. They are doing everything they can to make this move forward in a way that is a proper fit for Norwalk. We still have a ways to go.”
Rilling sounded a note of caution, saying the city’s fragile commercial centers, undergoing their own revivals, must be protected.
“My main concern is the South Norwalk and Wall Street areas. I want to make sure that we don’t have a stand-alone retail outlet in the middle of two inner city areas that are struggling for survival and for an identity, and have a situation where people drive onto 95, get off, do their shopping, get a bite to eat (in the mall) and get back onto 95 and drive home.”
That is not what Adams and Cafero are talking about, they said.
“Part of this retail center is dedicated to selling Norwalk,” Cafero said.
This is not a done deal, he said.
“We’re talking to a lot of people because this is a concept,” Cafero said. “It is not a ‘Here it is, take it or leave it.’ We want to hear from people in the community, especially in this community. We are putting a rather big structure and a unique and hopefully beneficial use in here. We want to hear what the people who live near here, work near here have to say about it. Maybe they have some ideas.”
“The bottom line is this: They own the property,” Rilling said. “If they don’t get the changes that they need to the LDA (Land Disposition Agreement) or don’t get an approval to change the LDA, that property could sit another 10 or 15 years and be like it is now. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the fact, and I think what we have to do is try to work with them and try to get the best fit we can for Norwalk, so what goes there is the best fit for Norwalk and it doesn’t kill South Norwalk and Norwalk but it fits in and we kind of all can live together.
“I will say that when I saw the design I was somewhat pleased,” he said. “It has character, but I am still worried about what it going to happen to South Norwalk and Norwalk. I can’t get my arms around that.”