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Norwalk weighs in on proposed SoNo Collection

Joint mall committee 15-0915 268

Vincent Scicchitano talks to the combined committee of Norwalk Common Council members and Redevelopment Agency commissioners Tuesday in City Hall.

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.

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large)

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) handles Tuesday’s joint committee meeting regarding The SoNo Collection.

“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.”

10 comments

Missy Conrad September 18, 2015 at 7:11 am

Remember the Avalon apartments on Belden Avenue & the original plan for Fair Street Housing? In each case, our Common Councilors & the City did not negotiate well for or choose to support more affordable housing. It is not the job of business to provide affordable housing; our government represents the needs of all our citizens & residents &, with our input, sets the standards to be met. To accept a (tall)”boutique hotel,” instead of showing that Everyone’s needs are included, would further erode the public’s, especially poorer & minority people’s, Faith in government.

Gina September 18, 2015 at 8:37 am

The jelly in the center of the jelly donut is the messiest part. And the GGP project, coupled with the initiative for more affordable housing, sounds like exactly the kind of mess Norwalk does not need….unless the city sets the correct terms for the developers and addresses the affordable housing issue head on. More housing–affordable or not–means more kids in the Norwalk schools. And over the long run, that is a very expensive proposition. A housing plan without a plan to upgrade and improve the public schools is a lose lose. Greenwich has been able to achieve some of these goals due to a strong business base and a relatively large town footprint. They’ve kept property taxes on the low side, and the schools are excellent. So while I’m usually strongly in favor of more affordable housing (plus the state mandates it), adding high density housing without addressing the future impact is just plain reckless. Nobody wins in a city that’s low on commerical tax revenue and high on low income citizens. If the City counselors didn’t negotiate an appropriate plan for affordable housing that looks to the future impact on the town, they were not doing their jobs.

Bruce Kimmel September 18, 2015 at 9:32 am

Since the public hearing, I made some inquiries on the sewage issue that was raised at the public hearing. GGP has been in discussions with DPW officials on the mall’s impact on the waste water treatment plant. Any additional costs to the treatment plant will be covered by GGP.

Tony P September 18, 2015 at 10:31 am

@Missy Conrad – I don’t know the history of either project you reference. However, I would offer the opinion that I think, in this case, it’s a win that there is no housing attached to this development. That means no added children to the schools, so the tax money, when paid, can actually be applied to offset more of the base. It’s how you keep taxes flat – which should be the goal of government – not to support housing for others. And, as I’ve crowed about on several posts related to this issue, Norwalk HAS affordable housing. Norwalk has, as has been cited, MORE than it’s fair share in relation to neighboring towns, and even MORE of it is set to come online in the next 3 year time frame. In fact, Wall Street Place is 40% affordable/workforce housing and Washington Village is a public housing complex with workforce housing ‘scattered in’. Amazing how Ms Suib and Fair Housing want to have a mall developer contribute to 35-65 housing (whatever that is), but where has Fair Housing been with the Washington Village holdup? I sincerely hope that whatever monies are being asked for ‘affordable housing’ are NOT given, and instead put to use to further build out infrastructure and the area around the proposed mall. If people can’t afford to live here, they shouldn’t. There are plenty of ‘affordable apartments’ in Bridgeport.

Elsa Peterson Obuchowski September 18, 2015 at 11:32 am

@Kimmel, thank you for this additional information. It is important for all of our public decision makers to consider secondary effects of all development, such as the effect on sewage disposal.

Suzanne September 18, 2015 at 11:49 am

It is appalling to me that a “no kids” policy is being proposed to integrate housing in this project plan.

Our taxes, the majority of our taxes, pays for a public school system that has been mediocre but is looking at a tenth chance to become an excellent (please note this. I purposely do not say “good”), system.

Every time I see this “no kids” thing, I wonder at the point: Norwalk as a retirement community? Norwalk as a two-income, no kids yuppie community? Or, better yet, Norwalk as a vacation community? Bring your kids for the holidays but don’t stay.

If we are to be a truly healthy culture, we need to look at every demographic and accept that the human race makes up everyone including, shockingly enough, children, which we can all say, we once were.

Tony P September 19, 2015 at 7:36 am

@Suzanne – I don’t think anyone has talked about a no kids policy. I think that in the context of this particular mall development, the fact that there is now potentially no residential attached to it is actually a positive thing. With all of the on-going residential development going on, coupled with already completed residential projects and projects that are about to kick off in the next year, I’d say that allowing GGP to amend the LDA to take out the housing requirement is a good move. There is currently a facility study going on at the BOE to determine just how much all these developments are going to impact the schools. And what, if any, additions need to be made. Another commenter already pointed out it. It’s not going to be cheap – school building construction, addition of staff, etc all cost money. Money that GGP’s mall can help to offset in the form of property taxes. Quite frankly, yes, we could use more of the ‘two income, no kid, yuppies’ around town. Which is why I’m baffled at the opposition to building single family homes at the White Barn property. Someone needs to pay for the large number of people that use city services and don’t pay for them. And, for the record, as a former NPS employee, the schools are not ‘mediocre’ – I’m quite certain that if you look at Norwalk’s DRG, we score at or near the top in all major categories. If you want Darien/Westport/Weston type of results, perhaps you should go to those districts and check out the ‘demographic’ there vs here.

Suzanne September 19, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Tony P. Please reference the most recent graduation rates as described by the school superintendent. Dismal. I think “demographics”, which means, all white all of the time districts, is an excuse not to have better performing schools. It is a form of institutional racism to say that the poor, black and Hispanic prevent education from being excellent. Norwalk’s schools are perceived as mediocre and, frankly, that counts as much as all of those teach to the test scores. It counts in particular when it comes to property values and how much homes are worth in Norwalk as opposed to, say, New Canaan. If I sound a bit peeved, I am. It is a gross misrepresentation to say Norwalk could compete with its neighbors if only the demographics were different. There are plenty of districts across the nation that deal with kids and parents who are immigrants, poor, uneducated, etc., and produce well-educated kids. Living off test score reputations does not increase the value of our homes, less valuable because the education system is not perceived to be good enough to value them more.

M. Murray September 20, 2015 at 11:25 am

Norwalk has more than its share of affordable and low income housing. We need more high end housing, which brings in more property taxes, and less drain on city services. Norwalk should focus on making any affordable housing be elderly housing, which is less of a tax burden on it the citizens.

Suzanne September 20, 2015 at 11:33 am

Tony P, See above comment re: “affordable housing be elderly housing” from M. Murray or ” More housing–affordable or not–means more kids in the Norwalk schools. And over the long run, that is a very expensive proposition. A housing plan without a plan to upgrade and improve the public schools is a lose lose” from Gina, just two comments on this single column as to why additional children in our community would be a liability.

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