NORWALK, Conn. — An effort to change the Zoning regulations to prevent a big box store on Main Avenue was stymied by “significant pushback,” Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank said.
The most recent example of that was in May, when then-Commissioner Emily Wilson cited “interesting traffic numbers” to rebut the idea that there is a problem on Main Avenue.
“I am aware of the potential for a new application coming in on the ‘BJ’s Site’ and it is my understanding that if a zone change is proposed they will have more than enough time to get in their application prior to the change becoming effective – which will exempt them from the new regulation,” Blank said in a Tuesday email to NancyOnNorwalk.
The “BJ’s site” is 272-280 Main Ave., the former home of ELINCO (Electric Indicator Co.), where BJ’s Wholesale Club sought to build a store in 2013. Developers pulled their application to the Zoning Commission after a significant community outcry, but the parcel was sold in November and there’s a new plan afoot.
Architect Bruce Beinfield said Monday that he has developed a concept that calls for a big box component hidden from the road by a friendly façade of small retail establishments and restaurants, a pedestrian friendly development that he described as being good for the neighborhood.
Beinfield said there was a new owner for the property but declined to say who. Records on the city’s website show that Main Norwalk LLC bought the property on Nov. 5 for $7,995,000; the previous owner, 272-280 Main Avenue LLC bought it in April 2012 for $5.5 million.
One NancyOnNorwalk reader asked why the Commission had not changed the Zoning regulations to prevent a BJ’s Wholesale Club – or another big box retailer – to open on Main Avenue.
Former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak tried in 2013, shortly after the BJ’s application was pulled. Blank was not on the Commission at that point but said Mushak sought to impose restrictions on the size of a single retail user on Main Avenue.
“For example, if you had a lot that could accommodate 100,000 sq. ft. of retail, you could not lease the space to a single user to occupy the whole 100,000 sq. ft. Instead, you would still be able to build 100,000 sq. ft. of retail, but it might have to be split into more like 7 users at 15,000 per ‘store’. I don’t recall what Mike’s proposed per store sq. ft. limit was but I believe it was in the 10,000 to 30,000 sq. ft. range,” Blank said.
Mushak, in a comment on this site, said his proposal was “based wholly” on recommendations in the 2006 Westport North Main Corridor Study and Plan, completed in December 2006. That died in committee, he said.
In January 2014, then-Commissioners Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk voted against Mushak’s proposal, as two/thirds of the three-member Zoning Committee.
Blank attempted to bring the issue up for consideration again in May.
“I got significant push-back on this as staff had some studies that would suggest that having multiple smaller retail stores creates more traffic than a single big box user. I never came close to having support from the Commission to pass a reg. change,” Blank said in his Tuesday email.
A recording obtained from Zoning tells that story.
The overall traffic on Main Avenue has plummeted since Super 7 went in, and the Westport North Main Corridor Study and Plan is ambivalent, Wilson said.
“We put together a list of everything that the study had proposed. One by one none of them seemed to make any sense at this point with the rest of all the considerations on Main Avenue,” Wilson said.
If you restrict the size of a retail store to 10,000 square feet then you have the possibility that a developer would put 10 10,000-square foot stores on the “BJ’s site,” which would actually create more traffic than a BJ’s Wholesale Club, she said.
Wilson called it spot-zoning; Blank disagreed, saying the attempted Zoning change would be “taking the neighborhood’s concerns into consideration.”
“It is a commercial area. We are going to have commercial in there and it’s going to generate traffic,” Kruk said.
“I agree, and maybe the neighborhood is wrong in their concerns. But I am more than happy to go to a public hearing and go to a vote,” Blank replied.
Neither Commissioner Nate Sumpter nor Commissioner Doug Stern supported Blank’s effort; Stern said it seemed he had stepped into a 10-year old debate without enough information.
Wilson repeated that a strip mall might increase the traffic problems.
“How do you as a Zoning Commissioner say ‘This is a better idea because the neighbors want it this way,’ when we have sat down and looked at the information and seen this isn’t really the truth of the matter?” Wilson said.
Wilson and Kruk have since been replaced by Commissioners appointed by Mayor Harry Rilling but Norwalkers who were hoping for a Zoning change are likely to be disappointed.
“It is conceivable that with the recent change in membership I might now be able to muster the votes to pass a reg. change,” Blank said. “However, such a change would not go into effect until after the change was adopted by the full Commission after a public hearing and then published in the paper – So that would most likely be somewhere near the beginning of December.”
A new application is likely before then, and would be exempt from a new regulation, Blank said.