Updated March 4: Photos added; Correction: Quote attribution changed to Leigh Grant. Updated, 8:52 p.m.: Photo added of plans, to show described Zoning compliance.
NORWALK, Conn. —A concerted effort was made Wednesday to convince the Zoning Commission not to approve a proposed Main Avenue development with a mysteriously-unnamed big box store, with no decision reached at the end of the evening.
The Commission decided to continue its public hearing until March 15, just to allow more comments about the big issue of concern over what is widely suspected to be a BJ’s Wholesale Club – traffic.
Commissioners said they had on Monday gotten a traffic study done on their behalf by a consultant, and hadn’t had enough time to review it. So, they continued the hearing, after three hours of testimony from both sides.
The site, 272-280 Main Ave., was the topic of much controversy in 2013, when neighboring condominium owners, members of the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners (NASH) and others raised enough of a ruckus to get BJ’s Wholesale Club to withdraw its application.
This application looks much different, as architect Bruce Beinfield has designed a village-like road frontage to conceal the big box component of the development, dubbed, “The Village.”
“At this stage, we do not have a tenant for the large retail building,” Attorney Liz Suchy told the Commission. “We have said that to you all along and we also have said should there be an indication of who that tenant is you can have a signed lease, we will let you know. We do not have a tenant.”
Numerous people in the sizable audience murmured, “I don’t believe that.”
“Over the past year there have been in excess of 40 companies interested … but we do not have a specific tenant,” Suchy said. “We were hopeful that we could provide that to you tonight but it just hasn’t happened as yet.”
Commissioner Galen Wells later asked about the signage for the development, as renderings did not show a sign that would be appropriate for a big retail store.
“Where is the BJ’s sign?” she asked.
“I think it’s on the front,” Peter Romano of Landtech replied, causing one audience member to comment, “He finally confessed that it’s BJ’s.”
Romano told the Commission that the applicant would be back with an application for signs once they know who the tenant will be.
Commission Chairman Nate Sumpter later asked if Romano know who the tenants would be for the smaller stores on the front of the building.
“There are no tenants that I am aware of,” Romano said.
Then it was on to the main event, as traffic engineer Michael Galante detailed the results from what he said was an exhaustive 10 month traffic study, explaining plans to put in a new traffic signal in front of the store and to synchronize lights up and down Main Avenue.
“There are some traffic issues out there, we acknowledge that. If we weren’t acknowledging that we wouldn’t be good traffic engineers. But we acknowledge that and we take that into account in our traffic study,” Galante said.
Sumpter asked him about trains on the Danbury line, which runs parallel to Main Avenue. Galante said there are two trains during the peak shopping hours on Friday, and one in the peak Saturday hours. The crossings and gates are part of the plans for synchronized signals, he said, explaining that although the computerized traffic modeling doesn’t include the trains there had been a conversation with the state on that topic, with agreements made.
Modern technology allows for traffic detection on the side roads, which the developer will pay to install, he said, explaining, “The coordination of all the traffic signals take that into account.”
Joe Fishinger of NV5, the city’s traffic consultant, took some wind out of the sails of audience members.
“The big thing is to make sure that the improvements that they are recommending, the retiming, the left turn slots, that as long as all of that gets implemented then we are in general agreement with their study, that what they are proposing will mitigate their traffic,” he said.
The plan to cycle the light in front of The Village quickly is reasonable, he said.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you that a signal will never back up past the driveway, there’s traffic on the road there always will be. But what they are proposing will help to mitigate that,” Fishinger said.
Starting the commentary for the opposition was Lee Levey of NASH.
“I find it interesting that the traffic consultant for the applicant chose not to look at current developments on Glover Avenue and future possible developments, along with the proposed changes to the Merritt,” Levey said.
Levey said 6,000 new residents are possible on Glover Avenue, where BLT, a Stamford developer, has won Zoning approval for three apartments and is rumored to have more applications in the works.
There are a lot of good things about the development, Levey said, listing improvements to groundwater runoff on what is a Superfund site but then asserting that there are fissures under the site and the water goes to the New Canaan pump station.
“We are drinking what comes off of this site. So, I think you have to think very carefully about this development,” Levey said.
Christine Names brought up the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Main Avenue and New Canaan Avenue.
“That’s really dangerous… I would really like to know who did the traffic study on that one,” she said, drawing an “Amen” from an audience member and applause.
State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142) said he was there not as a resident of the Rolling Ridge Condominiums but because he’d been asked to speak by constituents.
“I do agree as a citizen that another big box store on Main Avenue is just entirely inappropriate,” Wilms said, going on to assail Suchy’s comment that a tenant has not yet been signed up for the big box store.
“In my regular banking job, I work with commercial real estate with businesses throughout Fairfield County and I find that statement extraordinary, that a project of this scope to be built on a speculative basis, in this kind of economy,” Wilms said.
The state plans two projects that will affect traffic on Main Avenue, Wilms said. Not only is work expected on the Route 7/Merritt Parkway interchange is expected in 2019/21 but the Connecticut Department of Transportation plans to replace a bridge on West Rocks Road, and that will send 10,000 vehicles a day onto Main Avenue, he said.
“I don’t see how a traffic study can not incorporate the Glover Avenue project,” Wilms said. “… From a practical manner, since we have to live with this on a day to day basis, on a practical manner you have to include that. Because Main Avenue is inherently connected between Glover Avenue and this site here.”
Leigh Grant quoted author Vincent Scully as saying, “In my opinion, so-called traffic experts are so specialized that they haven’t any idea what they are talking about and are a danger to the structure of the state as a whole.’”
The crosswalk at Main Avenue and Ward Street is designed to kill you, Grant said, listing a host of traffic issues.
“Will you ignore the overwhelming opposition of your neighbors and of your community and let them cause irreparable damage to the safety, welfare and wishes of our community?” NASH President Heather Dunn asked the Commission.
But the next speaker spoke in favor of the project.
“I am sure many residents of Norwalk would welcome a BJ’s store, super supermarket, in our city without having to travel all the way to Fairfield, Stratford, and in the case of the Food Bazaar in Bridgeport,” Joanne Horvath said, after calling the property a vacant eyesore.
The traffic on Main Avenue is caused by a poor Route 7 interchange, and the state is planning to fix it, she said.
“BJ’s has not caused this problem and it should not be penalized,” Horvath said. “… Only a company that has big pockets can develop this property in order to support the pump house, filtration system, and really cannot be subdivided. … Do you really want a vacant property or something added to tax rolls?”
Deb Goldstein said it was strange that the state told this developer not to consider potential growth in the area because when the state considered its own plans for East Avenue the deciding factor in its decisions was the proposed growth.
Goldstein suggested a homework assignment for Commissioners: Google “Dark Store.”
When one big box store in a community goes out of business owners of other stores petition to have their property values lowered, thereby paying less taxes, she said.
Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the Zoning Commission had not addressed the issues uncovered by the BJ’s application in 2013.
The choke point at High Street was not part of the traffic study, he said, asserting, “The traffic study for this needs to be extended out. Something like this cannot happen in a closed vacuum, and that is what happened.”
Beinfield’s design isn’t just lipstick on a pig, it’s also eye shadow, he said.
“Unless the Commission itself can start looking at the land uses up there and say, ‘You know, even though our Zoning requirements allow for this kind of intense unit, is it appropriate for the area? Are those apartments appropriate for the area?’ Yes, they’re allowed, but you get another bite at the apple to look at those kind of things,” Hempstead said.
“Call it what you want, The Village is just another smoke screen for large membership-based discount club that will only serve to create disruption and unsafe living conditions in our neighborhood. We just don’t understand the drive to turn main avenue into another Connecticut Avenue, with no guarantee of tax relief for Norwalk residents,” Laura Lamorte said.
Diane Lauricella attacked Galante’s mention of train volume, pointing out that ConnDOT is planning to build a new train station on the Danbury line and there’s talk of electrifying the tracks. The site would be a great place for a hotel or other clean industry, she said.
Diane Cece talked of “Empty Hole Syndrome.”
“I think in Norwalk what we can’t do is allow our Commissioners to be pressured into a bad decision because something has sat empty for a long time,” Cece said. “In fact, when we do that, we may encourage developers and land owners to knock things down and leave empty holes, knowing that ultimately someone will say, ‘It’s better than having an empty hole there.’ Perhaps you wouldn’t agree with me but I cite the mall as the example there as well.”
Some speakers claimed that the proposal does not conform to Zoning regulations, that no store with more than 10,000 square feet can be built.
Suchy, in her rebuttal, attacked that right away, saying, “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Other speakers referred to studies, that specifically said a big box store shouldn’t be on that part of Main Avenue.
“You have never changed the regulations to incorporate any of those suggestions,” Suchy said. “If that had been the case we would have been required to abide by them. We are abiding by the regulations as they exist today and there is no disputing that.”
As for the unchanged Zoning regulations, Suchy said, “This commission started a discussion on changes to the Main Avenue corridor back in the spring but none were effectuated.”
Former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak tried unsuccessfully in 2013-14 to change the Zoning regulations for Main Avenue; former Commission Chairman Adam Blank tried again last year, also unsuccessfully.
As for Wilms’ comments, Suchy said, “I think it’s a wholly appropriate use for the zone because of the way Zoning regulations currently exist and the way in which we have abided by them.”
“I am surprised that Rep. Wilms as a banker would take the position that developing the site in this way could somehow be contrary to expanding the grand list,” Suchy said.
It’s a $21 million development; the building permit alone would be $350,000, she said.
“I find it interesting that many keep coming back to the concept that there is something else that is better for this site,” Suchy said. “The site has been vacant since 2000. It’s been empty with no structures since 2007. If something better was going to come along I would think it would have come by now. It’s five acres of vacant land that is generating $38,000 a year in taxes…. I would like to think that there is something else, that something else would have come. If it had been a higher better use, my client would have found it.”
“We are not talking at all about sales tax, but real property and personal property taxes from this site would be tremendously improved at a time when the city is looking at developing the sources of funding anywhere it can. You are trying to build new schools. This is a site that is vacant. It would seem to me that this is appropriate from a fiscal perspective,” Suchy said.
Galante and Suchy both said that a traffic study addresses current conditions – developers cannot guess about what is coming down the pike.
Hempstead, as a former Zoning Commissioner and “head of real estate for a large Norwalk company” should know better, Suchy said.
“He should know that we can’t and don’t add unprojected, unplanned projects to a traffic study. Doug knows that. As he should also know, as he does, so (the developer) can expect to be able to rely on Zoning in place. The uses allow the maximum developmental potential,” Suchy said.
NASH had, on Monday, presented a traffic study it commissioned in 2013, asking it to be considered as a rebuttal to the application.
Suchy objected because it was done for a different application, with different conditions. Commissioners Louis Schulman, Richard Roina and Michael Witherspoon said they agreed with her.
The study will not be considered, Sumpter said.
“I like this project. I wish we were voting tonight but we just got all this stuff,” Roina volunteered, referring to the Commission’s traffic study, which was paid for by the applicant.
“I was reading one of the reports during Attorney Suchy’s presentation,” Roina said.
“That’s really why we decided that we wouldn’t be making any final action tonight,” Sumpter said. “It’s because some of the entire information we have.”