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Blank: Time’s up on attempted Norwalk Zoning regulation change

Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank. (File photo)

Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank. (File photo)

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.

11 comments

Debora September 15, 2016 at 7:18 am

Characterizing the retail recommendations as those of Mike Mushak, is meant to make him look like an outlier. Mr. Mushak was advocating that Zoning follow the recommendation of studies and reports paid for by the City and prepared by professional consultants.

One again, we are going to have significant changes made to a section of the city that are imposed by the choices of a developer instead of recruiting businesses that for in with an overall plan.

Voters should vote down the charter reform proposal in November until it comes back with real recommendations for reforming the planning and zoning management in this City.

Two more observations.

Zoning had no problem creating spot zoning to allow Lowe’s to ADD a big box store, but it is not okay to PREVENT a big box store?

When the City is motivated to pass something quickly, it breaks all land speed records to do so. Look at the expedited process used to approve GGP’s mall-which required that an LDA be changed first. This proposed zoning change had already been under discussion for at least that long.

Lisa Thomson September 15, 2016 at 7:54 am

Adam, Thank you for your candid if not depressing honesty about the fate of the potential BJ’s site. So, whose job is it to make sure these repeated issues raised by the community and published by the press are addressed in the regulations once and for all? The P&Z Board? P&Z staff? The mayor, who campaigned with a photo op against it?

For example, the last time you came to Rowayton to discuss P&Z issues, FAR came up. It has again, as McMansions make their off the water and into the small streets in town. Greedy ‘developers’ spec out oversized homes with builders on small lots (courtesy of our P&Z regs) in order to flip a house and turn a profit on their unsuspecting neighbors. I believe you have been contacted by Tom Livingston to come back to Rowayton to see if we can grandfather those built, but stop the destruction of our community. FAR needs to come to Rowayton before every house built between 1950-1980 turns into a McMansion.

Mike Mushak September 15, 2016 at 9:25 am

Good article, and an opportunity to set the record straight in a sea of misinformation. My zone change recommendation for Main Ave. was a compromise I made to gain support, from the recommended 10,000 SF max. retail recommended to 30,000 SF, but it still failed based on a deliberate campaign of misinformation from a couple of commissioners, and astonishingly even city staff. Let me explain.

The BJ’s proposal was just over 100,000 sf and would generate over 700 cars per hour at peak times, that the applicant told us would be handled by changing the timing of lights by CT DOT (Main Ave is a state road). I pointed out the pedestrian walk light at Perry Ave had been broken for years despite multiple requests to the DOT from the board of Laura Raymond Homes, a senior living project who had residents injured trying to cross the street there trying to get to CVS. I confirmed this myself and was nearly killed as the walk sign refused to change to allow me to cross after waiting 10 minutes.

I also found evidence that DPW had complained about the CT DOT stubbornness on fixing the timing of traffic lights all over Norwalk, sometimes taking years of requests from our own officials. When the BJ’s traffic engineer stated that all the state had to do was push a button in Hartford to change the timing of lights in Norwalk, laughter erupted across the room by the commission, staff, and the public.

In another note, the comment from Emily Wilson that traffic has “plummeted after Super 7 has gone in” is just glaringly wrong. The plan I based my study on is not ambivalent about this fact at all as she states. It is clear as can be about this. The plan by national transportation engineer Vollmer (now Stantec) was completed in 2006, using data from 2006, and Super 7 had opened almost 2 decades earlier, in the early 90’s. Super 7 had nothing to do with this. The traffic count in 2011 on Main Ave in the recession was still 23,300 cars per day.

Furthermore, in a 2012 SWRPA Study called the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safery Corridor Study conducted for our entire region of southwest CT, this Main Ave corridor was identified as one of the most dangerous stretches in the state for pedestrian and bicycle safety, with an average of 20 accidents per mile. My motive for the zone change was to protect public health and safety and quality of life, which is what motivates me every day on all of the issues I work on in Norwalk.

Another astounding comment Enily Wilson made, and I’m glad it has come up again for the new zoning commission to see what dirty tricks have been played in the past and to never let down their scrutiny of “facts” presented by anyone, was that a city staff member (Dori Wilson, no relation to Emily), under the direction of then-chair Joe Santo, had intentionally skewed the data to exaggerate the impacts of a multiple member of 10,000 SF stores.

When I brought this up in a private meeting, I was begged not to release this to the public as it would embarrass the staff. I did anyway as I couldn’t believe what I had seen, and the staff was obviously not used to having their numbers checked or being questioned. Those days are past I hope.

Here’s what staff did. Dori Wilson used the highest generator of traffic she could find, convenience stores (like a 7/11) to come up with her bogus conclusion that the zone change to limit retail size would generate more traffic than the BJ’s would have. I immediately questioned the plausibility that 10 convenience stores would ever locate next to each other in a row, which of course is absurd.

Please note that convenience stores generate multiple times the traffic of other types of retail. If you want to sway the analysis, of course you would pick the highest generator of traffic even if it defies common sense. It also completely ignored the fact that local traffic at small footprint retail is a lot different than regional traffic, and that the standards allow a discount for local traffic since it likely may have been on that road anyway. This part of the equation was ignored completely. It was deliberate and sleazy, in my mind, to work so hard against professional recommendations which wasn’t the first time I saw our staff do that.

Thus is the bogus analysis Emily Wilson was referring to in her comment in the article. They all knew it was bogus but it was more important to have staff generate a false analysis than it was to get at the truth, as if somehow creating a false argument against a zone change to protect public safety based on professional recommendations was totally acceptable. This cemented in my mind the need to reform our broken planning and zoning process, where recommendations by professional planners are routinely ignored for petty reasons based more on politics, personalities, and egos than what is best for the city.

This is the level of incompetence and corruption of process I witnessed in my 6 years on the zoning commission, and why my commitment to questioning “authority” is so important in Norwalk as it is everywhere.

Please Google the “Westport/North/Main Corridor Study” and look on pages 72 through 76 to see the millions of dollars of road widenings and property takings from existing businesses and residences that will be necessary if a big box store generating regional traffic is approved for Main Avenue. I rest my case.

Isabelle Hargrove September 15, 2016 at 11:05 am

@ Lisa – Not just for Rowayton, FAR should be an issue for all residential neighborhoods.

Based on the imminent appointment of a New Canaan town planner as our new P&Z Director, it is very obvious to me that the current administration is not up to the challenge. We can only hope that in the very near future, a mayoral candidate will emerge with a sharp focus on updating our planning & zoning code and processes as well as a vision for Norwalk.

Lisa Thomson September 15, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Isabelle, Agreed. Without a workable master plan or City Planner – which this administration seems unable or unwilling to address – each neighborhood is left fending and fighting for themselves, as building after building go up. It is disgraceful. Should we start a petition 🙂 One thing I can assure is that a banner is going up on my wall this election season to tell my neighbors to vote NO on charter revision until progress is made on P&Z.

Tony P September 15, 2016 at 1:42 pm

When Mike’s right, he’s right.

Kind of surprised at the negative feelings about the potential NC planner being hired here? Would have been sort of nice to have West Ave/Waypointe with two and three story midrise buildings (like a downtown NC) vs what we have? This guy certainly can’t be worse then what we had. And maybe he see’s the need for a planner and advocates for that. Maybe Lisa and Ms. Hargrove have intimate knowledge of his job skills or on the job performance, but dismissing the possibility of him actually improving things before he even gets the job is over the top, to me.

Casey Smith September 15, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Beinfield 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.”

Don’t we have that already in Norwalk out on Richards Avenue where Costco is located? I was one of the protestors who felt that Costco would cause massive traffic jams and gridlock when it was being proposed. Oddly enough, although I am out that way a couple of times a month, I’ve never been gridlocked there.

The place I have been gridlocked is trying to head west on Connecticut Avenue at the exit ramp across from the Silver Star. Oh, it’s greatly improved with the widening of the exit ramp if one is getting off the thruway and turning east, but going west toward Scribner Avenue is still frustrating.

I would imagine that a truer test of the traffic numbers would be to look at the Costco site and see how the traffic numbers stack up. I’m sure they did a traffic study before the site was approved by Zoning. Actually, it might be more accurate in terms of numbers since Connecticut Avenue is Route 1 and the traffic volume might be higher than it is for Main Avenue.

EveT September 15, 2016 at 5:08 pm

That “since Super 7” comment made me do a double-take! Wasn’t the Route 7 connector built many decades ago?
Yes, we need FAR citywide. And regulations about the height of buildings in relation to the width of the street (in other words, light & air regulations).
We need more reasonable parking regulations such as ensuring that residential buildings have to have enough parking ON SITE for their residents.

Peter Franz September 15, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Casey Smith RT1 and Main Ave. are apples and oranges. Many extra lanes exist to allow left or right turning traffic to filter off the primary 2 lanes of traffic on RT 1, plus other differences.

This is exactly why it’s important to read the detailed explanation Mike Mushak just put forward. This study has been done, and it’s a No for a big box store on Main Ave.

Jlightfield September 15, 2016 at 8:07 pm

Ugh. So much misinformation here. The Main/Westport Ave study suggested for commercial development where the Elinco site is. Further down towards Cross street the plan suggested smaller scale mixed use neighborhood business.

You only need to drive the corridor to see why such transitions were called for. But in my case I was in the committee. Ymmv.

Yeah it’s funny how Lowes could encroach into a residential neighborhood. Same thing happened with Toys R Us. I guess it comes down influence and agendas.

I had no problems with BJs at this site, nor do I have an issue with any retail or mixed use here. I do have an issue with how the facade presents on the street and the curb cut location.

Yet once again we are playing armchair critics on an issue that really is the domain of economic development. A retail strategy plan would be helpful. But when you have a quasi governmental agency running amok in Norwalk calling all the shots with its outdated development plans because of a lack of urban planning curiosity, then you get the reactive policy playing out.

I’m sure the new Burger King farther up the road will generate more drive thru traffic. But here we are worrying about retail, a dying business.

Mike Mushak September 16, 2016 at 11:57 am

I agree with Jackie Lightfield that there is misinformation here. Contrary to her suggestion that the study recommends big box here, it clearly does not. The Westport/North/Main Study of 2006 is quite clear about limiting big box stores on the Elinco site. Here is the recommendation from the study:

“2.2 Central Main Street/Main Avenue (Segments 2 and 3)

For the segment of Main Avenue between Linden Street and Union Avenue, we recommend that retail stores be limited to 10,000 square feet and that drive-through facilities be prohibited. This size threshold is below the mini- mum required for a typical medium-box drugstore, and the drive-through restriction will further discourage high traffic-generating chain stores. As a result, we project that several properties that would otherwise have been redeveloped with retail will instead be redeveloped with residential.

Reduces potential growth in traffic through these segments of the corridor and encourages mixed-use development and the retention of small, locally owned businesses. If the Linco and Muller sites are redeveloped for residential purposes, the land use changes envisioned here would encourage the gradual conversion of the remainder of the corridor to uses more complementary to residential development on those parcels.”

The study also concludes that if big box is not limited in this stretch to only the Stop and Shop site that is along the Merritt Parkway to the north, then millions of dollars of intersection and road widenings would be necessary to handle the regional traffic. The 140 small and mostly local businesses in that stretch serving a mostly local population, as well as local neighborhoods of Cranbury and Silvermine that will take the brunt of the overflow shortcut traffic when this stretch becomes gridlocked, will be impacted greatly by the addition of a flood of regional traffic into what is already a congested and dangerous area, with one of the highest accident rates of any stretch of state road in southwest CT as determined by a SWRPA study in 2012.

Just look at the failed intersection of Main and New Canaan Ave, the famous Dunkin Donuts intersection causing scores of accidents to this day, that was approved by the city.
Now imagine adding 700 cars per hour at leak times to that intersection.

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