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Norwalk Zoners question look of GGP’s proposed parking garage

The latest artists rendering from General Growth Properties (GGP) of its proposed mall, from Oyster Shell Park.

The latest artists rendering from General Growth Properties (GGP) of its proposed mall, from Oyster Shell Park.

Packets of information about the application for The SoNo Collection sit in front of Zoning Commissioner Michael O’Reilly on Thursday in City Hall.

Packets of information about the application for The SoNo Collection sit in front of Zoning Commissioner Michael O’Reilly on Thursday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — An idea thought to be “dynamic and exciting” by the developers of The SoNo Collection was looked at askance Thursday by members of the Norwalk Zoning Commission.

The proposed aluminum tubes on the side of the parking garage were a dominant part of the discussion at a brief Zoning meeting, where Norwalk Senior Planner Dori Wilson said the May 4 public hearing date will allow time for traffic consultants to do their work, although this meant General Growth Properties had to sign off on an extension on its application.

Attorney William Hennessey, in a Feb. 26 letter to the Commission, pressed for an April 7 hearing to at least get started, but the Commission stood firm.

A model of the mall might be available next week, RTKL architects Vice President Robert Barry said, explaining that the base of the model will be about 5 feet by 5 feet.

Mall bus stops were talked about right off the bat, with Wilson explaining that there are two existing bus stops in the area, one on either side of West Avenue, but they do not have shelters.

“That has to change right away,” Zoning Commissioner Michael O’Reilly said.

Wilson continued with a list of “a lot of little nuances” that staff is trying to work through and said GGP had worked to address questions from the commissioners.

New mall renderings were presented, showing a view from Oyster Shell Park. Zoning Commission Vice Chairman Nate Sumpter asked if this was just a “beginning stage.”

RTKL architects Vice President Robert Barry brought forward samples of the materials that are planned for the mall – expanses of brick will relate to the historic nature of SoNo and terracotta is planned for the southwest plaza and between Nordstrom and the glass box on the corner next to the Interstate 95 on ramp. But, “We couldn’t find a sample of what we are proposing to be aluminum tubes,” he said, going on to explain that RTKL did not want to create another building façade in the back.

The irregular shape of the parking garage would help create visual interest and the tubes “would have irregular spacing to them even though the order of them is regularly spaced across the façade,” Barry said.

“So each of the tubes is, say, three feet away from one another,” Barry said. “It has a slight deviation to pattern, which we feel helps mitigate the scale of it and also allows for opportunities, some very subtle lighting, but particularly allows for some contrast as you are driving down the road, particularly on 95, and you get various vantage points of the back of the garage from the vehicular car, kind of creates a Moiré effect, which again we think will be dynamic and exciting and again more importantly starts to mitigate what we feel is a complex scale to try to address.”

Reilly asked if there was a similar garage somewhere in the Northeast that the Commission could go look at. Barry said he couldn’t think of one but would come up with case studies.

“Does a garage necessarily have to look like a garage?” Sumpter asked.

Commissioner Linda Kruk asked Barry if GGP had considered green walls, suggesting that ivy might break up the expanse.

A materials board for The SoNo Collection.

A materials board for The SoNo Collection.

Hennessey said there are “all sorts of thoughts out there” and that the Redevelopment Agency is responsible for design review.

A lot of people are trying to ameliorate the look of parking garages these days, Commissioner Roderick Johnson said.

“This obviously looks like a parking garage,” Johnson said. “I mean, it is very, very, very upfront, this is a parking garage you are looking at. I can understand trying to break up the scale a little bit with the aluminum rods, but I mean this is a very important façade from the highway, it’s very important from East Norwalk, it’s important from the Oyster Shell Park, you know, from all over. So it is really almost the primary façade of the building because, north façade, you probably see it all. The West Avenue façade you’ll see really be appreciated at the street level mostly. The south façade you really won’t see much. This is the façade of this building that people are going to read and see. This is Norwalk. It is part of Norwalk, so I think we all are kind of getting a sense that we’d like to get a little bit more.”

Hennessey said the Commissioners had a list of questions and answers in their packets.

“Everybody has asked about the façade on the east side, including your staff. So I would say we are sensitive to the issue and we are continuing to work on it,” Hennessey said.

“It just looks like a garage, a very plain garage,” Sumpter said.

“We are just here to report where we are,” Hennessey said, promising traffic reports, architectural review from Redevelopment, “word smithing” on proposed zoning amendments, and “a lot more information on parking layout,” including the locations of columns.

As for questions, “You folks have been pretty good at telling staff what you need,” Hennessey said. “It helps a lot.”

The latest artists rendering from General Growth Properties (GGP) of its proposed mall, from North Water Street.

The latest artists rendering from General Growth Properties (GGP) of its proposed mall, from North Water Street.

7 comments

M. Murray March 4, 2016 at 6:34 am

Why did they have to make the parking garage look like a parking garage? Why didn’t they make it look like the sun rising over the ocean, or the sun setting over the desert mountains. They could have even made it look like rolling fields of wheat. Making it look like a parking garage will make people feel like they live in a city instead of this quaint little country village of Norwalk.

Mike Mushak March 4, 2016 at 7:31 am

I do not like this attempt to “screen” the garage. I agree with M Murray that you expect garages in cities, and yet it doesn’t have to be a plain concrete boxy structure.

I see the Maritime Garage from my house to the west of SoNo up on Golden Hill (but not Russia to be clear), and it is large but not unattractive. Parking garages have built-in horizontal voids that inherently make them less bulky than say a warehouse, and the trick is to add texture, color, and good lighting to create visual interest. Certainly a few cities like Miami have covered their garages with greenery or fancy details but that is overkill here, and that ends up blocking the views from within which are crucial to maintain in my view. (Bad pun).

And please go look at the attractive and functional Norwalk Hospital garage, which went through zoning approval when I served on the commission a few years ago.

The hospital garage looms over the city and is visible from the highways, and in consultation with the staff and commission members in our meetings the architects added a brick pattern and texture and other details that mitigated its visual impact, without compromising the sweeping Harbor and Sound views from garage users inside the building, which in any garage we build in the city might be a visitor’s first and last impression of Norwalk which is a valid experience to respect.

I recall insisting on “full cutoff” shielded lighting for the hospital garage, as I did on every application (sometimes to the amusement of a couple of the “less-enlightened” commissioners who are mostly gone now), to mitigate the glare of traditional lights at night, and that could have re-created a “Close Encounters” spaceship landing on the hill above the city and impacted nearby residences with nuisance lighting which is a common problem with bad lighting all over the city.

I also recall at Spinnaker’s Ironworks project, the architect Bruce Beinfield specified a simple colored concrete mix for the exposed garage facade that faced towards the empty parking lot which is now The Pearl. I don’t recall how successful that was since construction started at the The Pearl almost immediately after Ironworks was completed, and the parking lot was closed to the public. But it’s worth noting anyway.

My long-winded point is: please do not compromise the awesome views from within the garage with tricky or gimmicky details, views experienced by customers who you want to return to the garage again and perhaps entice to explore the city they can see from the garage.

Concentrate on adding texture and color to the structure which is easy to achieve, and with good shielded lighting let the parking garage just be what it honestly wants to be, a garage.

However I would suggest a row of beautiful long flowing colored banners on flag poles (think medieval flags) spaced evenly across the top deck facing the highway and the east, to add movement and color to the landscape without blocking views from the rooftop garden that is planned. These flagpoles can be repeated in a few other locations to create a theme.

This simple gesture, perhaps with changing colors depending on the seasons, will add movement and whimsy to the building and be guaranteed to catch the sea breezes in that location. This will by far be much better than aluminum pipes that block views, and provide something beautiful and playful to look at from traffic on the highway and from surrounding areas of the city.

Peter F. March 4, 2016 at 9:43 am

Well, if it’s OK to return to an adult conversation. . . I’d say Norwalk is correct to push back against this design. GGP is not an organization with creative architects. They build malls, so if we are to have something that is less industrial looking, we’ll have to insist on more thoughtful work. It’s not like it’s impossible:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlee2010/7643920260/lightbox/

Ken Werner March 4, 2016 at 11:56 am

The aluminum pipes not only look like an inexpensive, paste-on approach to concealing the structure’s “garage-ness,” but they also conceal the rather nice sloped horizontals of the decks. The effect is to replace a basic simplicity with unpleasant and confusing visual complexity. I like the direction of Mike Mushak’s suggestions.

Adolph Neaderland March 4, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Although it is a bit late in the game, with hindsite, P&Z should have been concerned with the “looks” of the mall early on.

The mall will be an imposing set of structures visible from both directions of I95, from East Norwalk, and the harbor.

A creative architectural design should be a must – the concept of banners, common to amusement parks and used cal lots will not fill the bill.

Another example of our need for an Architectural Review Board.

Jlightfield March 5, 2016 at 10:56 am

Architectural design guidelines are long overdue. Some cities specifically state that garage decks cannot be visible and that buildings must wrap around them. This is a good discussion about what Norwalk wants to be when it finally turns the corner after 400 years.

Either you are trying to maintain a skyline of buildings as if you are a historic maritime small city, or you are okay with being a suburban town that prefers to display a skyline of garages. To visually reflect on the difference, Boston where corporate America wants to get it’s digital groove back, requires buildings to conceal garages. Providence where America’s future designers get their degrees does not.

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