NORWALK, Conn. – Upbeat feelings about a possible mall in SoNo were stoked Wednesday by developers looking for support at next week’s Norwalk Common Council meeting, where the fate of the project may be decided.
“In essence, we would love for all of you to come out and express your opinion on the project if you like what you heard tonight,” General Growth Properties Associate Developer Rob Jakubik said at the GGP town hall in the South Norwalk branch library. “Obviously we are going to take your input under consideration as we go through design review.”
The town hall was dominated by questions from two members of the Bike/Walk Task Force, with a smattering of questions from South Norwalk residents, chiefly about jobs and GGP’s reasons for choosing Norwalk.
On Tuesday, the full Council will finally have its chance to vote on the latest Land Disposition Agreement for the 95/7 site – where GGP would like to build The SoNo Collection – which the Planning Committee has been hashing out since March. The LDA includes the business terms for the site and conceptual master site plan for the proposed high-end mall.
The vote is crucial, although it represents only half of the approval process that would allow GGP to approach the Zoning Commission. The Redevelopment Agency also must approve the new LDA, but if Council members vote against it, GGP will have to start over again with new elected officials. GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams said last week that starting over would likely kill the project.
Adams and Jakubik stressed the two major stumbling points to the approximately 15 people gathered on the library’s second floor. GGP will not build its mall without the North Water Street overpass that has offended some Council members, they said, as it wouldn’t be commercially viable. GGP is simply looking for flexibility in design in regards to public realm, they said, responding to the Planning Committee’s vote last week to take one of the West Avenue plazas out of consideration.
“It doesn’t seem crazy,” Bike/Walk Task Force member Gunnar Waldman said, asking why people object to the overpass.
The overpass is 335 feet long, with an opening to allow light through 265 feet from the front end, Adams said.
“We have spaces longer than this in every mall that is enclosed and activated,” Adams said.
As an example, he said, GGP has a mall in Las Vegas that has “a gondola river down the middle.”
“I am not saying we are going to turn North Water Street into a gondola. We have tremendous experience in creating spaces and activating them and making them inviting,” Adams said.
The overpass, referred to as a “tunnel” by some, would “just about fit” City Hall into it, Adams said. The “skylight” is about the size of the conference room the town hall meeting was in, he said.
Last week, Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) led opposition to the plaza GGP has proposed as public realm space at the northern end of the site because it is along the ramp for Interstate 95 and GGP would have landscaping there anyway; it didn’t create the space as public realm.
On Wednesday, Bike/Walk Task Force member Jud Aley said his first reaction to the plaza was that it was “throw away” space.
Jakubik said a potential design could include covering the space, maybe build a sculpture garden with an elevated landscape that would screen the ramp and block fumes.
“All we are asking for is the flexibility. We would like the flexibility to design these areas so they can be considered to be public realm,” Jakubik said.
The plazas “look small but the one on the south side is 5,000 square feet, which is about twice the size of most of the retailers in South Norwalk,” Adams said.
“We are just asking for the ability to come back; don’t pre-judge locations until we come back,” Jakubik said.
The $5 million a year expected from GGP in property taxes for the next 10 years (it would increase then as the Enterprise Zone expires) is nice, but that isn’t much in terms of a city, Waldman said.
“It would build a school a year. Do the math. It’s a good thing to do – $5 million a year and, we think, very little in services,” Adams said.
Waldman asked about the “circulator,” a transportation system to which GGP would contribute $550,000. He wanted to know how the yearly operating costs would be covered and said $550,000 wouldn’t go all that far toward new buses and things.
Adams said the idea was generated out of community outreach efforts a year and a half ago. The city liked the idea but wanted to expand it beyond what would strictly benefit the mall, to give options to the many people moving into the area in new apartments being built or expected to be built.
It would probably cost around $1 million a year to operate three buses 12 to -18 hours a day, Adams said. The city is obligated to spend the $550,000 on other transportation uses in the project area if the circulator idea dies on the table, he said.
“Norwalk downtown, to me, it needs a consolidated circulator similar to what you have in Albuquerque, N.M., or West Palm Beach, to sort of knit this together, create this environment with bike lanes and everything we want. We can’t do it on our own because it involves all of the land owners. It really has to be driven by the city,” Adams said.
“We can run a shuttle that goes around South Norwalk to our mall for quite a number of years for this, but what we chose, and the city liked, was ‘let’s try to create a bigger system and you’re going to contribute to that system,’” Adams said.
Aley asked how many restaurants would be in the mall.
“We have estimated four or five,” Adams said, describing larger restaurants.
“We would typically generate a demand for twice this, whether it’s 10 restaurants or four restaurants, but typically we have the larger, national-style restaurants,” Adams said.
The leasing team for the mall has just been established, Jakubik said.
One South Norwalker took note of the big outdoor staircases that GGP has planned as entrances to The SoNo Collection, asking about people falling in snow.
“It’s longer term better for us to put snow melt systems in the sidewalks and the stairs than to shovel,” Adams said.
“One of the great things about the center, too, it’s going to be brand new, it’s going to incorporate all of the latest technology and all the latest systems in terms of environmental impacts,” Jakubik said.
Another woman asked if people would have to be “qualified” to take GGP’s job training program. Adams said no; there would be a nominal fee just to make sure that students are really interested, he said.
The hotel proposed for the location would be a little shorter than 50 Washington St., Adams said, in response to another question.
Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s were chosen as anchors because there’s a hole in the market, Adams said, answering more questions. GGP chose Norwalk because it saw a gap in the market and because of presence of I-95 and Route 7, he said.
Another woman asked about the long term sustainability of the project.
“People can be a little bit fickle,” she said.
“We have invested a fair amount of money already. We bought the site so we are not testing it out,” Adams said.
“Our industry has shifted. It used to be we wanted to be a destination … Shopping is a social environment, that’s why online shopping is still 6 or 7 percent of all retail, because people want to come out and experience and go shop together with people. So this is a great community to do that because you have a lot of stuff going on already.”
Diedra Davis, who is being paid by GGP to do outreach, had invited some of the people at the event.
“I don’t want people to close their minds. I just want them to come out, see it themselves and ask questions, give their input,” she said to three women who were leaving.
Joyce Davis said she would go to next week’s Council meeting.
“I think this would be an opportunity for all of the community to be involved,” she said. “A lot of the building that has been going on is very high end. In terms of them saying, ‘Would it be sustainable?’ I think it will be, because the money is already here. It’s just a fact that how much all of the residents will be a part of it and contribute to it, just feel like they are a part of what is happening in Norwalk. Because I think a lot of folks that were born and raised here have been kind of pushed out economically. Because you can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s are high end, but, she said, “In terms of are there residents in the area that can support it and sustain it? Absolutely. Is there going to be something there for everyone? That is what I am hoping for. It sounds like that it is from what’s been presented here. I need some more information, but as far as what has been presented here I have to say yes.”
Waldman said his major concerns were connectivity and livability.
“What I don’t want is a mall that will draw resources away from downtown, away from that livability for the sake of its own business model. If as they say they have put a lot of effort, and I don’t know yet if this is real or lip service, but it seems real enough,” Waldman said.
The Council needs to put in checks and balances to make sure GGP delivers on what it is promising, he said.
“In principle I am not a fan of malls, I don’t shop in them,” Waldman said. “But I have lived in towns where they have worked and towns where they haven’t. It’s interesting. Again, I am cognizant of the fact that we have had a hole in the ground for 10 years. What’s the point of nothing?”
“I do expect it to pass,” Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. We can no longer hold up projects like this that’s been discussed for the last few years.”
Any Council members who still have questions or reservations are just stalling, he said.
“I think it’s time we start moving this project forward. It’s time to get Norwalkers to work, with these jobs, and it’s time to start filling up this eyesore that’s been here 13 to 15 years,” Simms said. “We lost a lot of tax revenue under the Republican administration using eminent domain, taking these small businesses and homes. For what? I mean, we lost millions and millions and millions of tax revenue over the last 13 to 15 years, for what? Now we have the opportunity to get some of that back and really help the folks out here in Norwalk.”