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Duff to Norwalk: Time to get off the pot and OK the mall

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.’”

 

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25).

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25).

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.”

25 comments

John Hamlin August 1, 2015 at 8:24 am

What tax concessions for Norwalk has senator Duff facilitated from the State of Connecticut, which stands to get more out of the mall development than the city of Norwalk? Is there anything that would make the bitter pill of the mall easier to swallow?

The mall is clearly a done deal, the only thing now that Norwalk can do is either rally around it or kill it, with no alternative in sight for perhaps at least a decade, maybe two. And with the political structure of the city and the lack of any true planning or redevelopment function in Norwalk, the odds are this is about the best this city can do for at least a generation.

The city did not change its approach to planning and zoning and development in the decades after the transformation of Route 1 into big box, strip mall heaven, and no one in the city government seems inclined in the least to alter the city’s commitment to the unchecked rights of individual property owners (particularly commercial property developers) to impose their will and whim on their neighbors and the greater good of the community — even after the hugely expensive and divisive mosque debacle. The continued lack of any truly effective blight ordinance is testament to that.

There’s no way the city has the political structure or will to actually facilitate something better than the mall — the only thing Norwalk is capable of doing, apart from a few minor alterations, is killing it. So senator Duff is right — time to move or get off the pot — and moving forward with it is really the only logical choice, because the political structure of the city can’t produce anything better without a hugely rich, creative, strategic (and tasteful) angel, which isn’t on the horizon. Let’s hope the mall turns out well for Norwalk.

But if it doesn’t, maybe after big box Route 1, the zoning debacles of the past decades, and then perhaps the mall, the voters of Norwalk will see that their weak mayor/dysfunctional council form of government should be relegated to the past, and they should institute a strong city manager form of government, with a true planning function with expertise, and start planning and building with the future in mind. Norwalk has so very much potential, it has so much going for it, it’s just a shame to see its government get in the way at such crucial junctures. But for now there really isn’t a viable alternative to the mall, and seeing the hole in the ground for the next 20 years isn’t really an option for those with any sense. Time to move forward and get it built.

David August 1, 2015 at 8:37 am

Can someone please explain the ‘millions and millions’ part? Sales tax, property tax revenue? From what I read property tax won’t flow into the city coffee for a number of years (true/false?). Sales tax does not stay in the city it wa generated (true/false/other?).

Now I get the economic effect of local investment – people and companies hired to build the mall will be local or spend money locally. I don’t argue it, I know it’s real, but it’s also variable (someone *might* go to eat locally after work…)

I asking about the actual hard numbers. I’m neither anti mall, anti state nor anti Bib Duff, but I’d like to see the value prop to Norwalk and not just sales tax revenue to the state.

EveT August 1, 2015 at 10:16 am

Mall to bring “thousands of jobs to Norwalk, millions in tax revenue”?
Mostly minimum-wage jobs, no?
And don’t the developers get a tax break for quite a few years? Also, is it true that the anchor stores pay no rent so there’s no tax revenue on that either?
Maybe I am misinformed. Please explain.

Suzanne August 1, 2015 at 11:09 am

This was to be expected: the Mall is not a good, long term solution for the community of Norwalk BUT, without the expertise of someone who knows what they are doing in terms of city planning, Norwalk gets what it deserves.

With all due respect to elected and appointed officials presiding over this fiasco, where will you be in twenty years when tens of millions of dollars will be needed to re-purpose this structure? (The trend for this type of structure as pointed out by Bloomberg, the New York Times, Harpers, etc.) How will this structure be serving ALL of Norwalk citizens now?

How much of those giant parking structures are going to be accommodating out of town employees because the compensation proposed, outside of the initial construction phase, will be too low for Norwalk citizens to afford?

Mr. Tully presented a plan not unlike that of the former Spinnaker time of residential, retail, office and community spaces that represent potentials for long term income. Once shopping is over, its over.

Bloomingdales, a touted anchor for this complex, is a troubled company while the large “anchor” restaurant, The Cheesecake Factory, trend is to push out other restaurants, read SoNo establishments, in its wake.

EveT makes good points – all having been explained in previous threads. Mr. Duff is creating what is to the State’s benefit, not Norwalk’s, in the short term as well as to the benefit of a multi-national developer, without a more discerning review of what is best for Norwalk in the long term.

I find it interesting that when an alternative plan is gaining momentum, all of a sudden Mr. Duff and friends are in a hurry to push Norwalk into a plan that does not serve it but does serve the developer so very well.

Average Joe August 1, 2015 at 11:11 am

How much more revenue does Norwalk have to create for the state before we start getting some real dollars back?

Malloy suspended the provision in the upcoming budget that would have provided more dollars to schools.

How about doing something for the people? And not the Politicians in Hartford…

Sono August 1, 2015 at 11:33 am

NON: can you remind us what the official stance is from the mayor? What was it prior to the election?

Patrick Cooper August 1, 2015 at 12:07 pm

This is insanity, promoted by developers, supported by politicians. Everyone is getting paid, and Norwalk is on the hook.

Let’s see – we need this mall because? Quick look –

Norwalk to Stamford Town Center Mall – 9 miles
Norwalk to Trumbull Westfield Mall – 15 miles
Norwalk to Danbury Fair Mall – 20 miles
Norwalk to the Westchester Mall (where there is a Nordstrom & Bloomingdales) – 24 miles

Common sense has been cast aside once again. Forget everything else – and let’s talk TRAFFIC. The intersection of I95/Route 7 / exit 14 is the absolute bottleneck of Southern Fairfield County. Trying to negotiate that intersection is a daily quality of life killer for many Norwalk commuters, much less those who simply try to get around town. To boot – you have obstructionists – including Toni Boucher (CT Senate Ranking Member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee) – who block the extension of the Route 7 connector to Danbury, apparently because they believe that Norwalk, Stamford, and Fairfield alone should bear the investment in transportation infrastructure for the benefit of every other FF County communities.

And now we are going to drop a Mall at that intersection?

Bob Duff – among all of your positions, this ranks with your support for Bruce Mellion and the anti-reform NFT, Tony Ditro and the anti-reform NASA, your vote (at 3am) to increase our taxes (CT is the highest taxed state in the US, and for what?), you are a photo op who cares little about the taxpaying citizens in Norwalk, and let it be know – you lost my vote.

Harold Cobin August 1, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Karl, I specifically asked Duff if Malloy had asked him to urge approval of the mall and he said no. Duff said the decision to issue the news release was entirely his own. H.F.C.

jbauer August 1, 2015 at 1:55 pm

@EveT – The developer has touted that the jobs will be paid an average of $41,000. To give some perspective, a minimum wage salary in CT slightly over $19,000 per year. Seems like these days, any jobs that will entice people to work for an honest living and make a career are OK in my book.

@David – Tax breaks are a common practice to induce development. How long has the site been vacant? Contrary to what I’ve heard here, there will be tax revenue into the City. Perhaps it’s a better question for our elected officials to explain rather then from commentators on NON. I doubt our electeds would let this project come into Norwalk if there wasn’t a tax benefit to the City.

@Suzanne – We’re already losing restaurants to other towns. Why are you so certain the mall will fail? Are you an economist? I doubt someone would spend all of the money to build this and get these big stores on board if it was truly a losing proposition. As to Mr. Tully’s “alternative”, what types of study’s has he done that any of what he proposes is economically feasible? Has he approached the developer about selling the land to him so he can make this magical project happen?

I’d like to see the results of the traffic study, but more visitors to Norwalk is more money spent in Norwalk, and at businesses outside of the mall. Won’t the presence of big stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s attract other well known stores? The local Chamber of Commerce has been supportive of this mall, I would think they speak for the local business community.

Mark Chapman August 1, 2015 at 2:03 pm

@JBauer, et al

We have reported the facts about the tax breaks/income situation, which was, as of the end of June, still not settled. The latest info is in this story.

Suzanne August 1, 2015 at 2:53 pm

jbauer, I am not an economist but a bevy of people at Bloomberg and the New York Times, for example, are.

This type of Mall is not a successful model across the country and many are sitting empty, have failed and have become repurposed into lower scale, discount shopping centers or have become, at great cost, another type of building all together, like office space or school rooms.

A self-described real estate professional on another NON thread estimated the life cycle of this Mall, as created with its upper end appeal, to be 15 to 25 years (which seems a satisfactory amount of time to Bob Duff and the State.)

Bloomingdales has closed a number of their stores and it has been cited by other writers on this forum and in the press as a downsizing brand.

GGP will not lose money on this proposition and that is what I have said all along: they will make it. They have the reputation, please see their reorganization after declaring bankruptcy, of offloading those Malls, however, that don’t meet the profit potential to a management company who morphs GGP’s vision into some other limping reality. (This information is all online and has been cited before.)

What I find appalling is that, knowing this, this Council and these Committees and, now, Mr. Duff, want to hurry and develop so inappropriately for the Norwalk community this Mall and, especially, this type of Mall.

How much of the responsibility of traffic infrastructure will be Norwalk’s responsibility when the highly quote one million per month visitor numbers are reached? How much will it cost Norwalk?

Unlike you or me, assuming you are a property owner, if we were to develop land in Norwalk or improve it, we would not get to defer our taxes until, at 100%, to 7 years out.

It’s a great deal for GGP and not so great for the Norwalk coffers: the sales tax goes to the state, the jobs have been described as going to primarily out-of-towners, the projected tax revenues in the tens of millions many, many years out. Meantime, Norwalk gets to adapt to the GGP vision of their success.

In addition, I think all surrounding neighborhoods, which people will access when they find the traffic on major thoroughfares too cumbersome, should start counting cars and congestion as well as speed now. Because, if the numbers are as GGP suggests, work arounds will become commonplace and Norwalk residents will suffer. DPW should be prepared to install lots of speed bumps on formally quiet residential streets.

GGP will make money, the State will make money, the City will make money – eventually. But the COSTS to Norwalk are not being counted. This is one giant bomb of a place focused on one activity for GGP’s profit – at least Mr. Tully has the imagination and foresight to examine a piece of land and see not only what is good for the grand list but, also, what is good for the entire community.

Vin August 1, 2015 at 3:45 pm

The Brown apartments across the street on the the corner of West ave & Garner st – yeah, they’ll fit right in reminding us all that this is still Norwalk.

srb August 2, 2015 at 6:36 am

I presume GGP has conducted the studies to determine if the mall can be successful, likewise its’ financiers. This is doubly true because malls have a reputation as anachronisms. The question is whether the city is sacrificing the master plan because they believe the mall has such positive spillover effects. Based on the designs provided, I don’t think so. They don’t complement the existing area and as designed will create negative externalities. The whole premise of the special designation for the site and the need for a variance is that it is merely a part of the whole. The city should be continuously asking the question, how does this project support the City beyond the scope of its narrow confines.

Wineshine August 2, 2015 at 10:29 am

Bob, why would you promote more retail to compete with our existing resident small business owners, in a big-box, wholesale, and e-tail world?

EveT August 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm

@Mark Chapman, thanks for the link to the story that explains about the tax breaks and the projected jobs.
@Suzanne makes the most important point of all: Costs aren’t being counted.
It’s like going to a casino and saying “Look, I won $500!”
But how much did you lose to win that $500? “Oh, gee . . . I lost $20 here and $20 there . . . and then there’s the cost of transportation, food & drink . . . at the end of the day, my losses added up to $550.”
That is the crucial addition/subtraction equation that our elected officials need to calculate before they vote in the LDA.

Rod Lopez-Fabrega August 2, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Bob:

In another e-mailing on the subject of the mall, you said, “I’ve urged city leaders to carefully deliberate and listen to the public. They’ve done that and therefore should recognize the tremendous public support for the idea.

Judging by the response in this posting alone, I don’t see that anyone is supporting the coming mall. Where are the tremendous numbers of supporters? And where is the evidence that city leaders carefully and deliberately listened to the public?

Marija Bryant August 3, 2015 at 11:26 am

very disappointed. While paying lip service to urban design principles and connectivity, the design only serves the interests of the anchor stores and the mall developers. It is still a traditional mall “box”. And with an enclosed roadway to boot. I’m sure it will be a shoppers’ paradise inside, once you drive there, park and go up into the sealed environment. Why would you leave when everything you could want is there? Where is the backbone of our city officials to ask GGP to step up their game and do a little “out of the box” thinking — literally.

Michael McGuire August 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm

Not sure I would agree with Rod that most folks don’t support the mall. In fact I believe it to be the other way around.

Regarding Traffic nightmares, I have never seen a traffic jam in or around the Stamford Mall, or the White Plains Mall. Each of those malls are located much further away from the highway than is the proposed SoNo Mall. Has anyone ever experienced traffic jams at the Danbury, Trumbull, or Milford malls??

Gordon Tulley’s Plan B is unfeasible unless the City provides a major subsidy to purchase the land.

GGP is in the business of making successful retail developments, I’m sure they’ve done their homework.

I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product.

Suzanne August 3, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Re: Traffic Study. Knowing the anxiety of the community surrounding this topic, it would seem GGP is prioritizing the information on THEIR terms and not the community’s as is their habit. Other Malls and their traffic patterns does not apply here: GGP’s estimates of customer numbers far outweighs any examples given of other Malls above.

GGP knows and manages facilities similar to that proposed by Gordon Tully. It is humorous to me that the consistent reply to this proposal has been, “You want it? You buy it!” That’s ridiculous and a cynical response when the retail giant, GGP, knows that this type of plan is an option with which they have experience managing.

Norwalk’s will and what Norwalk will negotiate is based on the GGP threat (strongly implied) that if GGP doesn’t get what they want they will turn tail and run. So, instead of examining what is best for the entire community in this one-shot, single purpose development, Norwalk is bending over backwards to appease the developer.

What else is new?

Michael McGuire August 3, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Suzanne – as much as you would like it to be a Tully design its not feasible. If it were more feasible than the mall GGP would build a Tully design. That’s how the commercial real estate industry works.

Suzanne August 3, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Mr. McGuire, What is clear is that GGP is in this development to make as much money as possible. Of course! That’s their job. However, as a developer whose work directly effects the entire fabric and future of a community, they should hold some of that mercenary money-making down to look at the long term for not only themselves but for the community.

GGP is a rich company (or at least the CEO is), I believe you have made that point yourself in past posts, developing rare acreage in the heart of a community that needs connection (haven’t heart about that in a long time – the Wall Street, Collection, SoNo connection).

Their solution, the GGP all the time, all the way solution, is to give Norwalk very, very little, while the State and GGP make all of the money. Has anyone calculated just how much Norwalk will be profiting from this development in the first ten years (vs. the costs that will be incurred?) Up until seven, not much and this does not count the costs in traffic mitigation nor the long term viability of a structure that is devoted to one purpose – brick and mortar shopping, with one anchor, Bloomingdale’s, on the decline – before a shovel hits the ground.

Commercial real estate maybe looking at the short term profit for the developer but, in this case, GGP is developing an urban core – practically the entire thing – and is not considering community.

Whether I would prefer a Mr. Tully design or not is immaterial: GGP focuses on short term profit while Norwalk is going to, long term, be holding the very expensive bag. At least Mr. Tully’s design, in its variability and multiple uses, allows Norwalk a long term community space that can be easily changed, if necessary, as needs change in Norwalk.

This “Collection” will stay, courtesy of GGP, shopping unless someone else is the angel investor down the line to change it when this Mall goes into its demise. Brick and mortar and a main anchor store in questionable financial shape. Good for GGP. Not good for Norwalk.

Ray J August 3, 2015 at 6:56 pm

From the story referred to by Mark Chapman

…..”2,600 FTE jobs, the majority of which would be in Norwalk”
? and how does HR&A Advisors commissioned by GGP see that in their crystal ball?
Jobs paying even minimum wage get out of town commuters from up and down fairfield county, and beyond.
And since when does construction mean local. You’ll see trucks with signage from every other city except Norwalk.

Bob Duff resorting to bullying tactics. But he’s statewide now, and doesn’t have our interests anymore, nor my vote.

As said before:

Norwalk to Stamford Town Center Mall – 9 miles
Norwalk to Trumbull Westfield Mall – 15 miles
Norwalk to Danbury Fair Mall – 20 miles

95/7 is a stupid name . It should have been 7/95 , rolls of the tongue, 95/7 would become 957, which is nothing at all
I’d like to see the mall stall.

sofaman August 3, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Dear Bob Duff,

You say Norwalk should just approve this mall. You go on to say the 1,000,000 visitors per year will be good for the area.

So, actually, GGP has been using 1,000,000 visitors per MONTH as their target. If you have such a wildly inaccurate understanding of this project, you certainly should not be conducting interviews on it chiding anyone for not acting fast enough and should instead be pushing the CT DOT for a proper traffic study to demonstrate that this level of traffic is workable.

Lastly, are we to assume your figure of $5 million in taxes per year to Norwalk is also wildly inaccurate?

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