NORWALK, Conn. — The SoNo Collection is in danger of losing its heart, a Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Commissioner said Wednesday, speculating that the planned mall would no longer be good for Norwalk residents.
Latanya Langley, after saying she was venting on behalf of the community, went on to vote with the three other Commissioners present to allow GGP to present its argument for removing the hotel from its planned mall, seeking amendments to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) and Urban Renewal Plan for the last parcels of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan.
In other words, go through a process seeking Norwalk approvals to build the mall without the hotel.
Lisa Cooper also said she had mixed feelings. Tom Devine gave GGP a chance to offer a more positive take. Lori Torrano was absent.
Langley’s comments came after more neutral efforts by Chairman Felix Serrano, who was part of the confidential discussions Mayor Harry Rilling led between select city leaders and GGP, to pin down GGP reps on the more controversial aspects of their late inning request to change the plan. Her comments led Serrano to divulge that he, too, had reservations about the secrecy of that process.
Langley said she wanted to talk about the elephant in the room.
“When we first started this project I was promised a BMW,” Langley said. “Then as we moved along, ‘Well, Ok, we can’t provide two tires,’ and, ‘You know, we’re not going to give you leather seats anymore,’ and, ‘You know, actually, it’s not going to be a M4, but it will be a 325,’ and, ‘Now, you know what, it’s going to be a motorcycle, but it’s still a BMW, and you can still get to where you want to go!’ That’s what I am hearing. My concern is, the initial approval had public access to the waterfront, it had housing opportunities, it had all these reinvestment positioning, and I feel like I’m buying a motorcycle and I no longer have my BMW, and you’re trying to convince me that we are still getting the same deal, and I don’t feel like I’m getting the same deal. And, you are paying me to agree to something else other than what I came here for. So, I guess I need to feel comfortable that you are not going to come back to me and say, ‘You know what? You can’t even give me an engine now. Now you have a bike.’”
GGP, in discussions with Rilling, Common Council leaders and Serrano, developed what was originally described as an “agreement” to drop the hotel in exchange for paying Norwalk $3.5 million. The hotel is not a feasible investment, GGP has said. The company is planning to begin digging a foundation before getting approvals from three Norwalk governmental bodies to drop its hotel, saying that it needs to open by October 2019 to satisfy its agreements with its anchors.
GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams responded to Langley by saying that he didn’t see the removal of the hotel as a major change from what was approved.
“I am talking about the beginning of the process,” Langley said. “You want to go from the last meeting, but it took time to get there. Every single time we came from the table we are losing something else. I am saying, ‘What else will there be between now and breaking ground?’”
“I think we were upfront,” Adams said.
What was previously approved for the property, the 95/7 site on West Avenue, didn’t work for Spinnaker Partners and certainly didn’t work for GGP, said Adams, whose time in Norwalk dates back to the original clearing of the property through eminent domain.
The components planned for the original 80 acres in the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan are there, in the area, just spread out differently than was hoped, Adams said, repeating an interpretation that he and Attorney Larry Cafero pitched several years ago when GGP first began trying to sell its mall to Norwalk.
“I think the reasons we were excited were because there were so many elements to the project that would impact and benefit Norwalk citizens,” Langley said. “Now it’s just become a mall. I am not sure how we got here but I feel like there’s been a number of steps that got us here and I am concerned that we have lost the human part of all this, which is our citizens.”
The people who will work in the mall will not be able to afford apartments here because there isn’t enough affordable housing, she said.
“Where is the heart of the mall? Which is the Norwalk citizens,” Langley said. “I am getting nervous that this is becoming someone else’s project that is being dropped in our town. It’s not benefitting us anymore. We are getting paid off to have this project here but it’s not benefitting us.”
“The overwhelming impression I get is it’s wanted, it’s needed,” Adams said. “…I do think the community of South Norwalk in particular really wants this.”
There was some discussion of where the $3.5 million would go, with Adams saying that’s up to the city. Affordable housing had been mentioned, as well as work toward community centers, connectivity and business incubation, he said.
Given that there were discussions that didn’t include everyone, and she found out about the “agreement” by reading “the paper,” she found it difficult to trust, Langley said.
Adams said GGP did not decide who would be in the meetings, nor is it responsible for the way Norwalk’s government works.
“We certainly felt we dealt openly,” Adams said, after mentioning that Council caucus leaders were in the negotiations, and caucuses discuss things in private.
Langley said she didn’t even know where the $3.5 million figure came from.
“If you say you’re giving it back to the city, I don’t feel comfortable with what’s happening with that money,” Langley said. “I don’t feel comfortable with what’s happening with this project because… enough people are not part of the discussion. There’s a lot of side discussions.”
Devine suggested that there would be public hearings.
RDA plans two public hearings, the Council Planning Committee plans one and the Zoning Commission will have one.
Serrano said he had been concerned about the secret discussions from the beginning.
“But the intent that the mayor had called these meetings was to start to have… discussions that would then come to a point where we needed to come before the bodies and present this, because we are not approving anything we are starting the process,” Serrano said.
Adams had said he had been transparent.
Serrano said, “You also wanted to make sure that those discussions were confidential.”
“I never insinuated or actually said that the discussions we were having should be confidential from members of this agency or from members of the Common Council. That was not my direction nor my company’s intent,” Adams said.
“Your official from Chicago did say that clearly,” Serrano replied. “You may not have said that but your Chicago guys did say that because you wanted to make sure there wasn’t any concern or risk to your anchors while these discussions were happening. So, let’s be clear.”
“Someone has to voice the concerns of the community when it comes to these discussions,” Langley said. “I don’t like the hallway meetings. There is more than one voice in Norwalk other than the mayor, other than the two heads of the Common Council. Stop the side conversations.”
“I hear you,” Adams said.
Cooper said she agreed. As a member of the Committee that met on Saturday mornings in early 2015 to iron out beginning details of the changes needed for GGP to move ahead with a mall, she remembers discussing mixed use, she said.
“You made it sound wonderful, sound like something that we should invest in, but now to hear that’s completely gone, I do have mixed feelings,” Cooper said. “…It makes you leery a little bit.”
“We weren’t asking to build that third use,” Attorney William Hennessey said. “We were resistant. I think the city felt it was important and we felt it was something we would undertake, but with a certain degree of reservation and hoped that we could make it work.”
The LDA has many, many words about the hotel because GGP spent many hours talking to Norwalk’s legal department about their reservations, he said.
“We sat around for a long time and said this might not work,” Hennessey said. “It particularly won’t work if we are the second hotel in South Norwalk, what are we going to do? Because we all agreed at that point that what nobody wanted was a failed hotel at the top of the mall… We were hoping that it would work. It didn’t.”
The office market is still soft and an office tower in that spot would be disadvantaged by not having a large, corporate lobby, in addition to the problem that you can’t lease it 3.5 years ahead of time, Hennessey said.
GGP isn’t hiding anything, he said.
“We know it’s an important change to you,” Hennessey said. “We know how much we discussed that third use… but it doesn’t work and we still desperately want to build this project in a way that will make it financially successful, which will increase the tax base.”
Devine asked if GGPs’ malls have had a positive effect on the communities they’re built in, giving Adams the chance to describe the effect Providence Place had in Rhode Island, spurring development of the downtown.
Devine asked if GGP has looked at other ways to put the mixed use into The SoNo Collection.
“I would have to seek a different development with different anchors, and I don’t know what that is,” Adams said. “I have been asked many times what is our Plan B… at this point, we don’t have a Plan B. This is our property.”
It’s not fair to call it an agreement, it’s a proposal, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.
“I think there was some inaccurate wording used by some,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think there has been any agreement made by anybody, individual, Board or Commission, with regard to this. I think GGP recognizes… this is a proposal, not an agreement.”
Hennessey said he wanted to head off another potential public misperception.
GGP is not being presumptuous and arrogant by paying for a foundation permit and beginning to dig before it gets the additional approvals it needs, he said.
“We are moving forward because that is our only way to get that project built,” Hennessey said. “If you should determine that that’s not the project you want, then we are prepared to stop. We understand the risks. We are taking the risk. We are doing it with the hope that you will see the sense in it and that you will agree with us.”