NORWALK, Conn. – Connectivity was a buzzword Tuesday as an architect and an executive explained their latest concept for a mall in SoNo.
In response to the release of General Growth Properties’ concept, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan told Common Council members and Redevelopment Commissioners that there are always concerns with any new development and, in this case, he has a lot of doubts about the length of the “tunnel” proposed by GGP for The SoNo Collection. Sheehan said the overpass planned for North Water Street has been a source of conflict between the city and GGP; GGP Senior Planner Doug Adams said the “tunnel” is already as short as it can be, at 335 feet, given the needs of anchor Bloomingdale’s.
Sheehan and the city’s volunteer leaders also questioned the sidewalks planned for North Water. Suggestions were also made that GGP consider redesigning its “jewel box” storefronts to make them parallel with West Avenue, so they would blend in with the area better. GGP reps promised to get back to the city quickly – a pitch had been made to expedite the process further so as not to cause GGP to miss some important timing windows. Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the Council will likely vote Aug. 11 on a proposal to separate the Land Disposition Agreement issue from the Urban Renewal Plan issue in order to keep the process moving and allow GGP to go to Planning and Zoning as negotiations continue. It will be taken up again Aug. 25. This, in spite of some logistical problems, in what is normally a slow time of year.
“I think it would be insane if GGP doesn’t put all of its resources to get all of this answered,” Hempstead said. “To allow this to lapse until after an election, that would be insane.”
The joint meeting of the Redevelopment Agency and Council Planning Committee began with Attorney Larry Cafero explaining that the concept plan is limited to bulk and mass, that exterior details have not been worked out yet.
The plan has been worked out with general retail planning principles used industry-wide and published all over the world, he said. “Anchors drive the deal,” Cafero said. “… (Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s) did not sign up without some various general representations.”
That includes direct access and sight lines from one end to the other. But there’s more, he said – anchors either open in April or October. Miss one window and you wait another six months for the next, he said.
Since the Council and Redevelopment approved the general parameters to the Land Disposition Agreement amendment, there has been no contact between GGP and Council members or RDA commissioners, Cafero said. Rumors have developed that the behemoth GGP has gotten a little arrogant, he said, adding, “I want to assure this body that nothing could be further from the truth.”
“We knew that we could make something great out of this property,” GGP Senior Director of Design and Construction Mark Witte said. “… We looked for the absolute best architectural and engineering team that we could find, perhaps the best in the world.”
Sheehan later said he agreed that RTKL Architects were top notch. But the “elephant in the room for me is basically the overpass over North Water Street. We have had a degree of conflict within our discussions amongst the public parties and the development team. I can’t support what they have come back with and I do not see the degree of necessity of what they have incorporated into the easement area as being critical elements, elements that would be deal killers associated with the uses they have incorporated there,” Sheehan said.
GGP insists that it needs 60 parking spaces in the easement area but has 3,000 in the project, Sheehan said. “To say that 60 spaces are absolutely critical and are a deal killer, I can’t deal with that,” he said.
Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked if the overpass could be made smaller.
“We already had to kind of show them that we are creating this window from the mall onto West Avenue and North Water Street,” Witte said. “That kind of breaks the continuity that the anchor is typically used to. They want something to continue the shopper towards their entry point. It’s going to be a challenge but, we can ask.”
“I don’t want you to be alarmed by the fact that we are coming back with some level of concern,” Sheehan said. “I don’t know of a major large-scale development that has occurred that we haven’t come back with some level of concern.”
Redevelopment has asked for more information, Sheehan said, specifically mentioning a desire for view from all angles so as to get an idea of the context of the development.
“Any overpass over North Water Street has a negative impact on the pedestrian environment at the street level that is below it,” Sheehan said. “We should be looking at recognizing that there is a need for that connection, have the connection be as limited as possible but not damaging to the project as a whole. I think the issues of the anchor having a reasonable connection into the mall is absolutely critical. I think that the parking bridges at all levels of the parking are necessary but they don’t have to occupy 352 linear feet.”
GGP has reduced the size of its overpass from 352 feet to 335 feet, Adams said.
“I am not sure it is worth the effort to take a look at the realignment of North Water Street, but maybe it is,” Sheehan said, trying to recognize the needs of the anchor in relation to the planned overpass.
Sheehan said the North Water Street overpass was much more of an issue, in his estimation, than the tunnel planned for West Avenue to accommodate southbound drivers trying to get to the mall. He expressed concern over the needs of pedestrians trying to cross North Water at the “slip ramp” planned by GGP for the south side of the property, to get drivers up to the second level of the parking garage.
A traffic study is nearly complete and will be shared with the Redevelopment Agency soon, Sheehan said. It was paid for by GGP, but commissioned by the city, Hempstead said.
Cafero asked that the Council consider separating the LDA from the urban renewal plan approval. Separating the two would send a signal to GGP that the city is willing to move ahead.
“That gives them some impetus to go back to Chicago and say we want to get the final design as quickly as we can,” Sheehan said.
Hempstead said he would send emails to see who is around and try to arrange committee meetings when things can be arranged to keep the ball rolling. “I am making an effort in the dead of summer to try and put a couple more committee meetings together,” he said.