NORWALK, Conn. – Sallie Marsico’s expertise about malls is admittedly dated, but she is bullish on the General Growth Properties (GGP) plan to put a mall in South Norwalk.
“I for one was very pleased that you were involved here,” Marsico said to GGP representatives Monday. “When I retired from the shopping center industry a number of years ago I had gone to the Redevelopment Agency and I said I have some expertise in this… so I was hired as a consultant for a while and made some small contributions in South Norwalk. But I wasn’t there very long. At the time they were married to the idea of hotels and office, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So I thought ‘Well, I’ll go do something else until somebody figures out what really needs to go here is a shopping mall.’ So thank you for coming, in my opinion, in my humble opinion.”
Marsico was one of two people attending a GGP presentation at the South Norwalk Library, which was arranged to get feedback from the SoNo business community. Doug Adams of GGP said the crowd was better at last week’s presentation for SoNo business types, which was held in the evening. He speculated that perhaps his initial outreach had been effective enough that people didn’t have questions.
A SoNo business person we caught up with in his shop said he didn’t make it Monday because he was working, though. He had been given a flyer but didn’t put the first meeting on his calendar, he said. He had no opinion on the mall concept because, he said, he had no information.
Ollie O’Neill of O’Neill’s Pub did make it to the event.
“It’s very exciting to see something happen down there,” he said, of the long- vacant 95/7 site now owned by GGP. “It’s good for the environment, for business, for the traffic in the district.”
Adams and state Rep. Larry Cafero (R-137), GGP’s attorney, ran through their usual presentation: The site is smack dab in the middle of everything, Adams said — at the center point of the Route 7 connector, as well as along Interstate 95, and in the center of what should be a Norwalk business district. A well-designed mall would serve as a connector between SoNo and the Wall Street area, bringing life to what is now a dead spot, a “field of flowers for 20 years,” Cafero said.
It’s a mixed-use district, they said: The first plan for Waypointe was 65,000 square feet of retail, but that has been scaled back to provide stores for people who live there. With the existing housing, there is still plenty of room for retail in the corridor, in accordance to the plans for the district. Cafero said there is a 27 percent vacancy rate for Fairfield County office space.
As for what types of stores to expect, GGP is a real estate trust with a lot of connections, Cafero said.
The entry point for shoppers would be fashion, Adams said. The stores would not be super luxury, but they wouldn’t be discount either, he said. It doesn’t need to have a lot of food or entertainment because the area around it has that, Adams said. There would be a fee for parking, which would complement the surrounding area, he said.
O’Neill asked about overnight parking. Adams said that is a tricky issue – you don’t want people going to New York City for a few days and leaving the car at the mall, he said. “We might end up doing it where it just gets expensive,” Adams said.
There will be no food court per se, but “fast casual” food would be offered, with no seating, Adams said. It’s possible that some of the street level stores would offer food, though.
O’Neill asked about the mall’s hours. Adams said it would likely be open 9:30 or 10 a.m. on weekdays, and open at 9 a.m. on weekends. Experience shows that there would likely be 200 people walking the mall at 7 a.m., either to avoid snow in the winter or heat in the summer while they exercised, Adams said. It would close at 10 or 11 p.m. Stores on the street level, with entrances on the outside of the structure, might be open later, he said. “Typically it’s 10 to 10,” he said.
Adams said GGP was surprised to learn there is nothing in the South Norwalk railroad station directing people to local businesses. There is no map showing where businesses are located – so GGP has made one. It will be delivered this week, Adams said.
Marsico said she loves walking to Oyster Shell Park and that she hoped the mall would not disturb the serenity. Cafero said it would actually enhance the pedestrian experience. Deliveries would be in the far corner, next to the railroad tracks, in the back of the mall, he said.
She asked about all the glass in the concept being marketed to the public. Adams said the glass opens onto open space, which would have kiosks in it. The curved front of the mall “isn’t inexpensive to build, but we thought has a lot of benefits,” Adams said.
A skylight would be open to the lowest level of the parking garage, he said.
“For us, it’s a relatively small, certainly compact center. We do feel that three levels is about all you can sustain, because that is where the anchors would be. We like the simplicity of the design,” Adams said.
“Having been in the mall business for 25 years and been in every mall in the United States at one time, because I haven’t been in anything in the last 15 years so I am not an authority anymore, but it certainly has a much more interesting design than the General Growth Properties that I was very familiar with at one point,” Marsico said.
Marsico, who said she was known as “Sallie Bird” at one point, said she once leased properties for Walden Books and 9 West. She is retired, she said.
Adams told her there are only two malls currently under construction in the United States. He is a developer of the Staten Island Mall, which has a very different concept than what is appropriate to Norwalk, he said. There’s nothing around it, so there is no reason to connect it to the surrounding community, he said.
GGP has added an exterior portion to its Providence Place mall, he said, to connect it to the statehouse. Its’ Oak Brook mall in Illinois was just remade, he said. “There is tons of area outside for people to explore things,” he said.
GGP has spent a lot of time redoing older malls, he said. Norwalk is a unique opportunity in the mall business he said, as you can start with something new.
“We think we really connect and complement the South Norwalk district particularly,” Adams said. “I think as markets return, could you have office development in this district? Well, I think the better the district is the more the office people will want to locate here. Because they will say, look, that other stuff is obsolete. I am an office developer, in a market that is in a ton of vacancies. I don’t want to be in the business of competing with Merrit 7.”
GGP is very open to collaborating with the Maritime Aquarium and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children, he said. Stepping Stones has as much in storages as it has out on display, so there is plenty of opportunity for an interactive experience with the mall, he said.
“A typical shopping center doesn’t have someone whose job is to plan the activities of that center,” Adams said. “We have one person on staff who their only job is the marketing of that center, and by that I mean the center and the market it sits in. That’s what they do all day long.”