NORWALK, Conn. — Reviews were positive Thursday evening as changes, or “improvements,” to the plans for The SoNo Collection were reviewed by the Common Council Planning Committee.
The two-story sculpture garden now planned for the northern corner of the mall is a “major win” and the rooftop terrace is “terrific,” Steve Cecil of The Cecil Group said. A “magnificent job” has been done to improve the pedestrian experience on North Water Street, Mayor Harry Rilling said, and Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) called the “notch” now planned for the North Water Street overpass, close to the railroad tracks, a “compromise that benefits everyone.”
Although there was a little push-back from Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), the committee unanimously voted to send the latest documents to the full Council, a blessing indicating that they feel the conditions of the Concept Master Site Plan are being met.
“Most of the conditions from my perspective, and I put this in the memorandum, have been satisfied at the level which would be appropriate for that master plan approval,” Cecil said.
“This is a major milestone getting to this point,” Kydes said.
General Growth Properties (GGP) Senior Designer Paul Madden began his presentation by explaining that the area of the mall that is planned to be next to the West Avenue Interstate 95 on ramp is now planned to be a two-story sculpture garden, with glass walls on the squared-off corner.
GGP had originally insisted that the corner be diagonal to the street, with a plaza. The sculpture garden, “truly a public space,” would bring a “very landscaped edge to the building, nice place of pause and contemplation,” Madden said.
The rooftop terrace, which would face east to overlook the Norwalk River and Long Island Sound, would be active year round and would include a retail pavilion, he said.
GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams said that, yes, there would be restaurants up there, but the mall would still fall below the 6 percent of its total square footage threshold in that category, as promised.
Retail space was removed from the mall’s third level to create access to the roof, but the overall effect of the modifications was to “net equal” in that category, Madden said, being questioned by Kydes.
Adams showed a traffic diagram that showed predictions that 60 percent of the mall’s visitors would come from the north, down West Avenue. Half the visitors would go into the entrance planned for the middle of the mall’s northern block, and 34 percent would turn from West Avenue onto North Water Street, with some of them coming from the south.
Kydes asked how GGP got those numbers, as he suspected that East Norwalkers would come from the other direction. Adams said less than 2 percent of visitors would come up North Water from the other side of the railroad tracks, based on the traffic consultant’s “significant discussions” with the state, on previous traffic studies and three traffic counts – in 2014, 2015, and this year.
Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) wanted renderings of the mall from Oyster Shell Park, but Adams said those will come soon. A 3-D rendering of the mall should be done next week, he said.
There was significant discussion on the “slip ramp” that GGP has been proposing for its southern property, along North Water Street, driven by Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large). Adams said that Cecil had helped create solutions to that challenge; Attorney Larry Cafero said a continuous sidewalk is now planned on both sides of North Water to “allow the pedestrian experience to be far better than initially proposed.”
GGP’s latest design is being evaluated, Cecil and Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.
“To me the slip ramp is not a deal breaker,” Kimmel said.
But he wanted a 3-D rendition of the proposal, he said. “We deserve the opportunity to see what the pedestrian experience will be.”
Rilling said he had seen a drawing.
“I think you did a magnificent job on trying to resolve that,” Rilling said. “To me it looks like a real winner and I am on the same page as Mr. Kimmel and I think some other people – I think it’s time to bring this forward. I am hoping that that’s not going to be an issue that’s going to drag this out any further because I know you have some timing that is very, very important to the development and opening of The SoNo Collection. It’s important especially as we are coming into the springtime and so forth.”
“I don’t know what the most recent plan that you saw was, but there’s been some significant iterations, I think it was alluded to here this evening, that no matter whether the slip ramp is there or not there, there’s been dramatic improvements that have been made to that area and the pedestrian environment has been enhanced because of it,” Sheehan replied.
“I feel confident talking to Cecil Group and Mr. Sheehan, I think this issue will be resolved. I think we are almost there,” Kydes said.
Madden went on to describe the interior design, saying ideas were being inspired by SoNo and its industrial waterfront and New England coastline.
“We believe we have put together with material packages and some concepts that we are toying around with right now that truly have some great potential for branding this destination,” Madden said.
Hempstead asked if the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) had been signed.
Adams said GGP has signed it. The city has not, but only because attorneys are making sure everything is accurate, Attorney Eric Bernheim said.
“You’ll probably get information tomorrow about that exact issue. I’ll be sending some stuff out from my office,” Rilling said.
It will hopefully be done on Monday, Bernheim said.
The issue goes to the Council on Tuesday.
Cecil then began his review. He had been concerned about the hotel design, but it now has a front door on the plaza, he said, calling that a “great solution.”
“This is a fantastic project in terms of contributing public realm to the city of Norwalk from our perspective. In a quantitative way, they are exceeding what we consider to be qualifying public realm space,” Cecil said.
The indoor sculpture garden has “real benefits in New England,” and his concerns about the sharp angular design at the southern end of North Water and West Avenue, where a sign would proclaim, “The SoNo Collection,” have been ameliorated, he said.
He had been worried about the modern approach in close proximity to the neighboring church and “more traditional” nearby buildings, he said.
“We have had long discussions and I have become much more appreciative of their overall approach then I had been earlier,” Cecil said. “I think that the treatments and some of the architectural details in terms of how that is going to work and certainly the landscape details is important,” but the fundamental idea of breaking up the façade of the hotel mass to set back from the church’s presence to create a relationship with the forms “is actually fairly successful.”
GGP has convinced him that the architecture needs to be recognizable to motorists on I-95.
“I am fairly satisfied at this point,” Cecil said. “Certainly at the master planning level, they have done a good job and I think the reasoning is strong about why this makes sense to put into the context, which is what your guidelines speak to.”
The hole that had been planned for the North Water Street overpass, to provide light to the street and eliminate the sense of a tunnel, has been removed from the plan, Cecil said.
Instead, a “notch” has been designed for the eastern end, next to the railroad tracks.
“It not only brings in more light but it really changes your impression of what this building is doing and creates a sense of connection that we think is actually far better. So we are satisfied … architecturally it’s improved,” Cecil said.
This results in a “very traditional architectural gesture” to have a façade set back from an entrance, he said.
Kydes called that “a compromise that benefits everyone.”
Hempstead expressed dissatisfaction with the screening for the parking garage on North Water Street and asked what were the parameters of the master site plan requirements. Bernstein said he thought the screening would be part of design review, which comes later.
“We are satisfied they are going to do that,” Cecil said.
Hempstead pressed on the pedestrian experience, referring to language in the master site plan.
“The condition was ‘make sure there’s a great pedestrian experience,” Cecil said. “That is what we are working on.”
“It’s not as if we are once again starting from scratch a discussion of the underpass,” Kimmel said. “There are certain conditions and timelines and there’s believe, if I remember correctly, the word ‘frivolous’ in there. We can’t be frivolous. We have to be very serious. We are not going to micromanage every little detail that is going to happen in that particular part.”
Sheehan said the word was “unreasonably.”
“What we are seeing here is basically evidence being presented to us that a good faith effort is going on between the city and Cecil Group, and GGP to resolve these issues and that is what we wanted to guarantee,” Kimmel said.
Hempstead said it’s been 90 days since the Council approved the parameters of the LDA and the “devils and details” are still being worked out. He said he wanted to make sure there weren’t misinterpretations and pressed about public realm space.
Cafero said the specifics would come back to the Council later.
“One of the fundamental problems we are experiencing here is what is Conceptual Master Site Plan and what is final design,” Sheehan said. “This particular project, they are so far advanced in terms of the project design, that this is way beyond what you would normally see as a Conceptual Master Site Plan for any project, large or small, at the early stages. Quite frankly, at CMSP level there is an expectation that the project is going to evolve over time and that there’s going to be various changes that ultimately going to have to come back and seek approval of the public parties in the first place.”
New drawings, aritist’s rendering: mall 16-0204