NORWALK, Conn. – The time for talk is over, Norwalk’s State Sen. Bob Duff said Friday, calling on the Redevelopment Agency and the Common Council to move forward with approvals for The SoNo Collection, the proposed West Avenue upscale mall.
“I respect the time and effort that members of the Common Council and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency have put into making the initial proposal by the developers a better one, but now it’s time to move from concept and conversation to shovels in the ground,” Duff said in a statement emailed to the media. “August is a very important month for the project’s timeline and proposed opening. It’s time to say ‘yes.’”
Holding up the works are approvals for the Land Disposition Agreement and the Urban Renewal Plan. The LDA that was OK’d for the previously proposed 95/7 project included a mixed-use development with housing and office space in addition to retail. When General Growth Properties bought the property in summer 2013 – shortly after developer Spinnaker pulled a permit to pour the foundation — it announced it would build an upscale shopping mall, and everything ground to halt. Since then, GGP and the city have been trying to hash out the new LDA and what will be permitted – and required – on the site. Public opinion is divided, with vocal opponents calling for major design tweaks and, recently, a look at a return to a non-mall format and more housing.
Duff said enough is enough.
“The SoNo Collection will bring in thousands of jobs to Norwalk, millions in tax revenue, and right now there are two prestigious and nationally known retailers ready to invest,” he said. “I know that the story will get better and better once the project is given the final green light.”
Contacted Friday evening, Mayor Harry Rilling agreed with Duff.
“We need to move this process forward. Time is of the essence,” he said. “The RDA and Planning Committee of the Common Council have done a remarkable job of getting us to this point and I thank them for their persistence and diligence. I’m hopeful we can continue to move this forward without delay as this project, when complete, will provide our residents with tremendous number of jobs while adding millions of dollars to our grand list.”
Two years ago, when running for mayor, Rilling said he was against the idea of a mall, which, he said, was not the “highest and best use” of the property, a position he repeated for some months after being elected. He repeated that sentiment after touring a commercial development while attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors a year ago in Dallas, Texas, praising the concept that included housing and office units above retail.
Rilling said at the time in a story on NoN that he did not have much control over the situation, explaining that Redevelopment, the Planning Commission, and the Common Council will ultimately decide on the LDA.
“I will use the ability of the mayor’s office – use whatever political capital I have – to come up with something we deem appropriate,” he said then. “We’re going to have to have an open and honest dialog and come to terms with what is most appropriate” for the erstwhile 95/7 property.
Later, as GGP began its series of presentations of its plans and started talks with the city, Rilling began to change his tune. In an NoN story last March, Rilling said: “You can change your opinion with the circumstances. It’s kind of a silly thing if somebody was made aware of different circumstances and they didn’t change their opinion.”
Rilling’s Republican opponent this November, Republican Kelly Straniti, said recently she approves of the mall.
“From the beginning I have been in favor of the concept of a mall at the 95/7 location,” she said.
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At-Large) backed up Duff in a Friday night email:
“As I indicated at the last Planning Committee meeting, I strongly urge my Council colleagues to approve separating the Urban Renewal Plan from the LDA/CMSP (Land Disposition Agreement/Concept Master Site Plan) at our Aug. 11 meeting. I also believe we should vote on the LDA/CMSP at our Aug. 25 meeting. We have been discussing the mall for months, we have heard various arguments for and against. Now is the time to act.”
In the July 21 Joint Committee meeting between the Council and RDA, Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the Council will likely vote Aug. 11 on that proposal 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.
“I think it would be insane if GGP doesn’t put all of its resources to get all of this answered,” Hempstead said of questions raised at the meeting. “To allow this to lapse until after an election would be insane.”
Former State Rep. Larry Cafero (R-142) of Norwalk, the attorney representing GGP in negotiations with the city, said at the meeting that timing is crucial to the project.
“Anchors drive the deal,” Cafero said. “… (Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s) did not sign up without some various general representations.” Anchors either open in April or October, he said. Miss one window and you wait another six months for the next.
GGP has said it needs to have its approvals by January and wants to be able to start construction in 2016 for a mid-2018 opening.
Duff said in his statement that, in the Land Disposition Agreement, GGP has guaranteed to the city that the proposed mall will be categorized as a “Class A Mall” and that GGP “shall maintain anchors of high quality” (i.e., Bloomingdales, Nordstroms, etc). “Most real estate experts will agree that the proposed mall in Norwalk will end up being the highest rated mall in the state and one of the premier shopping experiences in the Northeast,” the statement asserted.
Duff said the state has invested millions of dollars in the area for infrastructure improvements with an eye on transforming the area to into one that will benefit the city and the state.
“In order to have an October 2018 opening, there are a set of very strict deadlines that must be met,” he said. “The Council and Redevelopment Agency need to make this a top priority for the citizens of our city.”
And while Duff touted the state’s contribution to the area, Kimmel said, “The mall is first and foremost a Norwalk project; however, it will have a positive impact beyond our borders. I welcome Senator Duff’s input. I believe we are in total agreement on this important issue.”