NORWALK, Conn. – As the Joint Committee meets Saturday to consider what agreement might be made with a mall developer regarding its SoNo property, it is armed with definitions of what constitutes “public realm” and an up to date assertion that the office market has not improved in the last few months.
That, and a definition of what usually constitutes a regional mall.
The Joint Committee of Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, Common Council Planning Committee and Planning Commission members is meeting today for the third Saturday morning (10 a.m., City Hall Council Chambers) with representatives of General Growth Properties to hash out a consensus that would allow the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the 95/7 site to be changed from its current mixed use, including office and residential, to an LDA that has retail as its major component.
Agenda items include following up on the decision made at the last meeting to specify that 5 percent of the property will be devoted to public realm by defining what public realm is. The committee also plans to review examples of malls that are similar in size to what is proposed by GGP and review transit and pedestrian connections.
The committee may even decide to include office space as an approved use, in spite of a Feb. 13 CBRE market report that says there isn’t much of a market for it locally.
The report states that the “significant” money spent to upgrade Merritt 7 in recent years has resulted in its current success in leasing space in the mid-$30s per square foot. But:
“Current rents do not justify new office construction. New construction costs today necessitate rents in the high-$40s to mid-$60s and involve a two-year lead time.
“New construction cannot be financed without significant pre-leasing with large, credit tenants. They are few and far between today. The number of large, credit tenants willing to pay premium rates and then wait two years for delivery is a small percentage of the market.
“Today in the Stamford CBD, within an 8-minute walk to the train station, there is 1.5 million square feet of large blocks of Class A space priced from the mid-$40s to $60s per square foot with no or minimal lead time.
“There have been few large, Class A credit tenants that have moved from outside Fairfield County to Stamford or Norwalk in the past. The most recent incoming tenants were Charter Communications and Navigators. Both moved to the space closest to the train station and New York City.”
The committee on Jan. 31 requested a definition of public realm. The packet for Saturday’s meeting says that public realm includes “all public places, linkages and building elements that are physically and/or visually accessible regardless of ownership. These places can include, but are not limited to, streets, pedestrian ways, bikeways, bridges, plazas, nodes, squares, transportation hubs, gateways, parks, waterfronts, natural features, view corridors, landmarks and building interfaces.
The public realm is organized into four categories: parks, streetscapes, coastal areas and public places (interior and exterior).
Definitions for these categories:
Parks – Public open spaces within a community for recreational use.
Streetscapes – The visual elements of a street including the road, sidewalk, street furniture, trees and open spaces that combine to form the street’s character.
Coastal Areas – All land areas along the water’s edge.
Public Places – All areas interior or exterior public, within a community visible to the public or for public gathering or assembly but not specifically used for or directly related to a business purpose. Furthering this definition, nine principles expand on how the public realm addresses the following key themes:
- Placemaking & Design Excellence Environmental Stewardship
- Shared Ownership & Implementation
It goes on to offer a summation of what this means to Norwalk:
“The public realm in Norwalk expresses its traditional New England culture while serving a diverse, multicultural population. It is a fully accessible and engaging experience that includes diverse public parks and civic spaces; an interconnected system of public walkways, bicycle trails and public transit; a vibrant and active waterfront; and active mixed use areas that are all enhanced through high-quality architecture, streetscape design and public art. It is safe, comfortable and responds effectively to the regional climate and surrounding environment.”
While GGP is saying it wants to build a regional mall, the packet states that the acreage involved is much less than is generally found with a regional mall.
The information packet given to the Joint Committee states the following, without sourcing the facts and figures:
- There are 681 regional malls in the country, 5.3 percent of the total malls, with an average square footage of 585,791. Regional malls vary from 400,000 to 800,000 square feet, on 40 to 100 acres.
- The 95/7 site has about 12 acres, and GGP has said it needs 650,000 to 750,000 square feet of retail at a minimum.
- Typically, a regional mall has 40 to 50 stores, with two anchor tenants taking up 50 to 70 percent of the square footage. It draws customers from 5 to 15 miles away.
- A regional mall “provides shopping goods, general merchandise, apparel, and furniture, and home furnishings in full depth and variety. It is built around the full-line department store with a minimum GLA (Gross Leasable Area) of 100,000 square feet as the major drawing power. For even greater comparative shopping, two, three, or more department stores may be included. In theory, a regional center has a GLA of 400,000 square feet, and may range from 300,000 to more than 1,000,000 square feet. Regional centers in excess of 750,000 square feet GLA with three or more department stores are considered,” the packet states.
Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said this week that while he has no direct knowledge, there is talk that a SoNo mall would not draw shoppers away from other retail in the area.
“There has been a discussion, I understand, of various parties that have retail projects in this area,” Sheehan said. “There is enough demand in the market to support this development without cannibalizing other developments that are up and running. I believe that has gone as far as over the line into New York as well.”
That’s because there are “different gradations of retail,” he said, meaning that SoNo’s mall would not be competing with Danbury. But, he said, “I would say that the most direct competition to this site is probably Westchester.”
In other words, people in the well-off communities around Norwalk will be staying in Connecticut, he said.