NORWALK, Conn. — Speaker after speaker stepped to the microphone to sing the praises of the proposed SoNo Collection mall at Wednesday’s Zoning Commission public hearing.
With about 40 people present in the City Hall community room for the continuation of a hearing that began last week, 12 of 15 people who chose to speak to the commission said positive things about the plan presented by General Growth Properties (GGP), be it about potential jobs or the improvement of the city’s image that they said the mall would bring. Of the others, one had questions about the impact to her neighborhood, one was a lawyer speaking on behalf of Belpointe Capital and pushing back on GGP’s plan for a service road connected to Crescent Street, and the third was Diane Lauricella, offering criticisms and suggestions, as she often does at Norwalk public meetings.
“This is long awaited, I can’t thank them enough, I can’t thank you all enough because I know you are all excited just like we are,” Mellodye Ragin of SoNo Recording Studios said to the Zoning Commission.
She drew laughs when she said the Commissioners have to “maintain a poker face” but were thinking the same thing everyone else was thinking – “yes.”
The public sat through 1½ hours of testimony from GGP and from Parsons Brinckerhoff, an traffic consultant hired by the Zoning Commission, before getting its chance to weigh in on the SoNo Collection
Mary Ann Mahan, one of the few who did not sing the mall’s praises, was first to the lectern and said she was speaking for 27 units at 32 Pine St.
“A lot of us on Pine Street think that we will venture better in the traffic lottery if Pine Street is made one way in the opposite direction to which it is now,” Mahan said.
Mahan also addressed an environmental issue.
RTKL architects Vice President Robert Berry had said that GGP didn’t think a green wall would work for its parking garage because of maintenance issues – “You end up with a dead green wall that doesn’t accomplish probably the long-term goals of what you are attempting to achieve,” he said.
“I think it unfortunate that people are unwilling to maintain a green wall. I think that would be a very nice feature,” Mahan said.
She also said she didn’t like the idea of graves being “squished” to widen Crescent Street and had questions about the parking for the Macedonia Church.
The Rev. Albert Dancy said he was representing Macedonia Church in offering “enthusiastic” support.
“They have been very thoughtful in providing answers to our various questions and concerns. We believe the project will be an asset to the neighborhood,” Dancy said.
GGP asserts that it will create 2,500 permanent jobs in Norwalk and will spend $250,000 on a jobs training program that GGP Senior Planner Doug Adams said Wednesday could start as early as next spring.
This was the topic of many comments.
“The fact that there are going to be this many jobs in Norwalk is both amazing for the children because it gives them hope that when they graduate high school and either go into a training program or go into college that there will be work for them here, because some of them do feel despair right now that there isn’t going to be work for them. And also for their mothers, primarily, because most of them come from single parent families who may have more opportunities for jobs. This is going to be a great boon for the low-income community as well as for all the shops and all the restaurants and everyone else who is here,” said Carla Conway, who said she has a long history of working with low-income families.
“I can’t see any downside to this,” Conway said.
“It gives hope for employment,” said Georgana Rucker, a South Norwalk resident. “I hear talk about children but I am a senior, recently retired. We seniors still have to have a little income to make it so I am looking forward that hopefully I can be part of the employment. GGP has stated they will train us – you know I’m not going to be vice president, but a sales representative.”
Ragin said SoNo Recording Studios is #82 on the SoNo walking map that GGP has published.
“I am a small business owner… I am directly affected by this development and I support it,” Ragin said.
The 2,500 jobs make her ecstatic as she works with Norwalk youth, she said.
“Being a small business right outside a large mall, I am not intimidated nor are my neighbors intimidated,” Ragin said. “Even small boutique shops like Connie B’s, I think it is going to increase visibility for the smaller businesses. … Now we have Bloomingdale’s, which a lot of people love and it will bring certain caliber of people to Norwalk that don’t’ normally come to Norwalk. When they don’t find what they are looking for in Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s, they will visit Connie B’s. That’s my expectation of a mall. I really believe that because when I go out of town for malls I always look at the little boutiques.”
The job training isn’t just for lower or middle class people, she said.
“There’s a lot of rich people that don’t have jobs that will need to be trained how to bring it down a couple of notches. They are no longer VPs because they were laid off,” Ragin said.
The mall is long overdue and there are people who don’t want to shop online, she said.
“When they do open I will be there with my scissors hoping I will get to cut a little piece of the ribbon,” Ragin said.
“I am big supporter. I think the jobs it is going to create is fantastic,” Lori Kydes said.
Rich Tehrani said he is CEO of Apex Technology Services, located at 800 Connecticut Ave., across from Norwalk Hospital.
“We wholeheartedly support GGP and what they are doing with the SoNo Collection,” Tehrani said.
Not only are there 2,500 jobs, but GGP will pay $5 million for a building permit, he said.
“We probably all know this is the most challenging time for retail in most of our lifetimes,” Tehrani said. “The fact that we are going to see potentially 100-200 new stores coming into the Norwalk area in such a challenging environment is fantastic from the standpoint of having the opportunity to have places to shop but also to provide jobs for some of the younger people and the disadvantaged people who need to work in retail…. GGP should be applauded for what they are doing.”
“The people that need jobs will have jobs. Beyond that there is significant tax revenue to the city. I know if the mayor were here he’d really be smiling because cities need additional dollars,” Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Ed Musante said.
Plus, “Nordstrom and Bloomingdales will be coming to Norwalk,” he said. “There’s no Nordstrom and Bloomingdales in any other part of Fairfield County – they are coming to Norwalk. That says something about Norwalk, it says something about the community, and elevates Norwalk to a place where it really should be in the discussion.”
Former Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Patsy Brescia spoke of the long history of GGP’s land, part of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan.
“I fully support and am very excited about this opportunity to finally develop the Reed Putnam … It goes back probably 50 years where most of that property was blighted,” Brescia said.
There was “no income, no excitement, no pluses for our community. Now we are presented with pluses,” Brescia said.
The Maritime Aquarium enthusiastically supports the mall and has ideas for cross promotions, Aquarium President Brian Davis said.
Like, parents drop their kids off at the Aquarium on a Saturday morning and then go shopping while the kids are looked after by the educational staff, he said.
“There will be components that we didn’t think about and we will work our way through it… But I think at the end of the day this project is going to be outstanding for our Norwalk community, it’s going to be extremely beneficial to the Aquarium and we are absolutely looking forward to being partners with GGP for a very long time,” Davis said.
But Attorney John Knuff, representing Belpointe – Waypointe, the Berkeley and other properties in the area of West Avenue, Butler Street and Quincy Street – said the developer has serious concerns about the traffic plans, although it supports the mall.
One major suggestion was for GGP’s service road, planned for behind the mall and adjacent to the railroad tracks, to be a public road and allow two-way traffic coming in on a widened Crescent Street.
This was supported by a number of speakers, including Councilman Steve Serasis (D-District A) and Mike Mushak of the Bike/Walk Task Force.
“He is absolutely right, there is a connectivity problem,” Serasis said.
“I want to make sure it’s connected from Head of the Harbor all the way through SoNo,” Serasis said. “I don’t want the SoNo Collection to stop and that’s SoNo now, and the rest is forgotten. So the connectivity and the roads are important. … We need people to go beyond the mall into the actual SoNo we have already developed.”
Making Crescent Street into a two-way public road was recommended in the 2012 Connectivity study, Mushak said, going on to assert that the Golden Hill Association supports The SoNo Collection.
“We understand that you have to break an egg to make an omelet and we understand there’s going to be major construction. We also understand traffic will be a lot heavier on West Avenue and we will adjust. This is what we do,” Mushak said.
The Golden Hill Association has been pushing for and has endured many construction projects in its area, one of the oldest in Norwalk, Mushak said.
“We always knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel,” Mushak said. “We know that in this case it will be painful for a while but we are going to have this amazing complex that will provide 2,500 jobs. So I wholeheartedly support it. Many people I know support it – I am pretty active in the community and certainly when the biggest neighborhood association nearby the mall supports it I think you have a winner on your hands.”
Lauricella recommended a green roof, solar energy and reducing waste, among other things.
Sallie Marsico, the last speaker, said GGP had made a tremendous effort on its “really excellent” public realm areas.
“I think it’s going to make this mall unique among the mall business and people are going to want to see it. It’s going to be talked about within the mall industry, it’s going to be exciting and it’s going to set a whole new precedent for malls, which is what they have needed for a long time,” Marsico said.
She, too, wanted to see Crescent Street opened all the way to North Water. That would be the route she would take, she said.
But, “I think GGP has picked an excellent site not only in terms of its location but … for the hospitality of Norwalk,” Marsico said. “I see it and experience it all the time and I think this is a great place to put a mall, especially for women.”
That ended the public speaking portion of the hearing. The Commission will continue its deliberations at 7 p.m., May 18, Chairman Adam Blank said.
The Department of Public Works will look into Mahan’s request for one-way traffic on Pine Street, Commissioner Emily Wilson said.