NORWALK, Conn. — Time to reverse that old Norwalk paradigm, according to Patsy Brescia.
“I like to think that we are going to become that jelly in the doughnut. We are going to have a wonderful jelly doughnut and the rest of Fairfield County is going to be quite jealous of us,” Brescia said Tuesday to the Joint Mall Committee, calling the possibility of a high-end mall in SoNo a “major opportunity to enhance the lifestyle of our community.”
Brescia was one of a number of Norwalkers expressing opinions in a slightly disjointed public hearing, where comments were invited on the business terms for the 95/7 property, but the presentation concerned the urban renewal plan. Opinions varied from the intense support of Brescia to calls for the affordable housing that had been promised, to John Levin’s admonition not to get taken in like the patsy in a poker game.
Vincent Scicchitano said he had a “somewhat unique perspective” as his business had been displaced way back in 1982 as part of the eminent domain of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan, to become the sea of dirt that is 95/7.
“I would hate to see this opportunity lost at this point,” Scicchitano said. “The original intention for this plan was a large scope in scale. Many people don’t remember that, but it was going to be office buildings and a hotel in development. Before we embarked upon this whole project there was this information and we are at that point now, someone who is going to take it over, someone with a track record, someone with shovel in hand. Let’s not squander this opportunity and let it slip through our hands. Let’s get the area developed like it was originally intended to back in 1982 because I am tired of driving by and seeing that fence every day.”
“If anyone should be upset about this it should be someone like me. I own a condo there. Actually I am very much in favor of this project, extremely in favor,” Eileen Brown said. “… This is a win-win. There are always minuses with a project like this, but everybody the pluses outweigh the minuses, let’s not hold this up.”
Andrea Light said she was “thrilled” and that the possibility of the upscale mall helped to attract young professionals to work in the office she works in nearby, on Ann Street. Carla Conway said the mall would be “an incredible asset for Norwalk and its youth.”
“Our kids in Norwalk have to feel that there are going to be jobs that there is a future for them,” Conway said.
State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142) said he has been impressed by General Growth Properties (GGP), the company looking to build The SoNo Collection.
GGP had agreed to 21 of the 25 demands made by the Redevelopment Agency, or 84 percent.
“They have always seemed like they are trying to reach out to us and have listened to our concerns,” Wilms said. “I don’t know your thought, but when I heard 84 percent I thought that was pretty high. I thought that was a pretty good percentage. I think we know in life nobody gets everything they want, no one gets 100 percent, but what struck me was they are really trying to reach out to us. So my request to those of you who have the authority to make this really important decision is that you do the same. You reach out to them and that maybe 20 percent is good enough. I respectfully request that you approve this project.”
Nancy Mastriani asked how many people go outside Norwalk to shop. A number of hands went up.
“I think it is a really wonderful community but we have accidentally created an environment where people have to go outside for many things. I think it would be an absolute economic game-changer if people were to start to come to Norwalk,” Mastriani said.
The mall would bring in revenue and jobs, she said.
“There are going to be some people who are uncomfortable with change, and everybody is always uncomfortable with change, but perhaps now is the time to really embrace the change and really grab at the change in our economy for the positive,” Mastriani said.
While Mastriani had ticked off positive statistics – such as $1 billion in construction investment – Levin talked numbers in a different way.
GGP’s CEO was paid $22 million in 2013 and $30 million in 2014, Levin said.
GGP is looking for return on investment and it does making a profit very well, he said.
“Trust me, this does not happen because GGP is a charity or because GGP is dedicated to making life better in Norwalk,” Levin said. “GGP, I respect them, they come to Norwalk with their A game, they are here to make money. If they wind up creating jobs or paying taxes that is fine, but that is not really what they are here for.”
The Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the 95/7 site is a valuable asset for Norwalk, he said.
“GGP should be required by you to pay dearly for this valuable asset – it is a valuable asset – and they should be asked to pay in such a way that it permanently benefits Norwalk and its residents,” Levin said. “Do not give it away. Do not be cowed, do not be intimidated, and negotiate like the devil, or the Donald, to get the best deal possible for your constituents.”
Adolph Netherland said he was concerned about Long Island Sound.
“I haven’t seen anything that indicates what effect this project would have on the capacity of our sewage disposal system,” he said.
Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib said a promise had been made for affordable housing in the original LDA, which justified the loss of homes through eminent domain.
“I really feel this promise was made to us as Norwalkers and it’s a promise that you, our representatives, need to help us realize,” Suib said.
Norwalk needs housing for people who make between $35,000 and $65,000 a year, she said. If GGP helped to scatter housing like that through Norwalk, it would be a win-win, she said.
“This is the kind of housing we need. This is essentially what was promised through the LDA before and this is what we need you to get GGP to commit to,” Suib said. “… We are talking about some seed money based on the value of the promise that was made that exists today in the LDA. Please don’t sell that way. Please don’t give up on that promise and commitment.”
“I am in support of the mall but I do hope you would honor that commitment with housing and do not take it out,” Fair Rent Commissioner Daisy Franklin said.
“It’s been breaking my heart that you have not been bringing up the need for this housing,” Missy Conrad said.
“I have my finger on the pulse of my neighborhood and, in general, most of my neighbors are in favor of this project,” said Mike Mushak, a resident of the Golden Hill neighborhood.
Mushak said he supports the proposed “slip ramp,” that would take drivers to the second floor of the parking garage along North Water Street, an idea opposed by the Redevelopment Agency.
“We can’t forget about the dangers of pedestrians in the mall parking lot,” Mushak said. “… If we don’t listen to the actual people who know what they are doing and want to design this, knowing their experience, we nit-pick at it, then Bloomingdale’s doesn’t succeed? I would be worried about that.”
The jobs the mall would bring should not be taken lightly, Mushak said.
“I worked my way through college working retail,” Mushak said. “I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I worked my way up and I built up assets, working retail. I was the youngest department head of two departments in K-Mart’s history, pets and picture frames, when I was 16 years old. … Don’t let anybody tell you these are not high quality jobs. I reject that. I find it actually really insulting.”
The Enterprise Zone that will allow GGP not to pay half of the property taxes on the property for 10 years is there because of the housing that was lost through eminent domain, Mushak said. That’s tens of millions of dollars not coming to Norwalk, he said.
“A percentage of that, let’s say half, could go to the Norwalk Housing Authority and the Redevelopment Agency for this scattered housing. It is a big problem. We have one of the most expensive housing costs in the country,” Mushak said. “… That advantage should be given back to the city as a gift. I would call to GGP to consider that.”
Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said after the meeting that the Common Council members and the Redevelopment Agency commissioners feel the terms spelled out in the proposed LDA are fair.
“As far as the overall business terms we are probably there,” Hempstead said. “We have to see about the housing issues.”