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Norwalk Dems grill Rilling, Igneri, on GGP, ‘BJ’s, Grasso

Common Council President John Igneri (D-District E) eyes Diane Lauricella at Monday’s Democratic Town Committee meeting in the South Norwalk Community Center.

NORWALK, Conn. — The optics aren’t good for Norwalk Democrats, Diane Lauricella said Monday, putting Mayor Harry Rilling and Common Council President John Igneri (D-District E) on the spot about recent events.

While Lauricella was focused on the “BJ’s Wholesale Club” for Main Avenue and on the awarding of a $3.4 million paving contract to Grasso construction, others at the Democratic Town Committee meeting pressured Igneri and Rilling on GGP’s request to excise the hotel from its plan for The SoNo Collection.

The negotiations with GGP were “very tough,” Igneri said.

State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) had asked what the justification was for accepting $3.5 million from GGP as compensation for not building the hotel, whether that justifies what would have been paid in property taxes over the life of the project.

“Everybody is sitting back after the fact and saying it should have been $10 million, it should have been $15 million,” Igneri said. “The negotiations were very protracted. We asked for substantially more and had them walk out. We are also running a problem that if they don’t get started by a certain date they will lose one of the anchors. That could disrupt construction. Long term, if we don’t go through construction now, we could be looking at that hole in the ground for another 20 years. By the time they sell the property, and everything else goes through.”

The Council is voting Tuesday to move the mall request along, get the ball rolling.

“Tomorrow is approving the process they will go through over the next few months in terms of public hearings,” Igneri said. “The current LDA (Land Disposition Agreement) gave them the right to ask for modifications, which they did. Now we are going to say, ‘Yes, let’s go through the process.’ That’s all that’s going to be said there.”

“Given the negotiations, I think we are very happy with the $3.5 million. I think they are going to spend that money wisely in the area to make it more attractive,” Igneri said.

Rilling addressed the issue later.

The LDA gives GGP the option to declare a use to be infeasible, he said.

Mayor Harry Rilling updates the Norwalk Democratic Town Committee on Monday in the South Norwalk Community Center.

“We are optimistic that it will go forward,” Rilling said. “We know that it’s really a great project for the city. It’s going to bring in jobs while the construction is going on, it’s going to bring in jobs when they open up.  They are still looking at opening in October 2019. In order to let them to do that, we have to have these expedited meetings over the next few months.”

GGP is expecting to pull its permit for a foundation on about May 9, he said. At that point, it will pay the $1,022,500 for the air rights over North Water Street, an easement.

“You should see a lot of activity starting to happen, because they are committed to going forward,” Rilling said.

GGP has already paid $550,000 as its part of a transportation circulator; originally, the company said it would provide a trolley but when the talks expanded to include a wider area this transitioned into a financial contribution.

The $3.5 million will go to improve the urban core, Rilling said, explaining that the technicality is that, as with any government, it will have to go into the general fund first and then the city will have to figure out how to allocate it to do the most good.

Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin asked about a fund to create housing for people who make between $35,000 and $65,000 a year, referring to as 35/65 housing, given that housing had originally been planned for GGP’s site, on West Avenue adjacent to Interstate 95, and originally created by taking properties through eminent domain.

She also expressed concern that “local people will have some shovels in that ground.”

Rilling said that GGP’s LDA did not include housing, but said the possibility of using the GGP cash to create a 35/65 fund is being studied.

“That is what I would like to see happen and we are going to be working to make that happen,” Rilling said. “Yes, I have talked to them about hiring disadvantaged businesses. They are required to work with people locally … and we are working with them.”

 

 

‘BJ’s’ and Grasso

The votes for The Village at 272-280 Main Ave., commonly called “the BJ’s site” and the former home of Elinco (Electric Indicator Co.), and for the Grasso paving contract were tough, Lauricella said, worrying aloud about what voters will think.

“We vowed that we would never have another big box,” Lauricella said. “That was the campaign strategy in 2013. There were four years for us to advocate for change. I know we had some Moccia throwbacks on Zoning.”

Residents complained about Grasso’s Zoning violations, she said, speaking of “optics” and “squandered” opportunities.

The Grasso Companies LLC is legally a separate entity from the Grasso companies that owe the city perhaps $270,590 in property taxes and are guilty of Zoning violations, Igneri said.

“Legally, we couldn’t hold them accountable for what went on with the father,” Igneri said, explaining that the Council added language to the contract to “make it stricter and we have the right to take the contract away,” while continuing to pursue Joe Grasso, Sr.

“We continue to hear, unfortunately, that they are starting at 5 a.m.,” Igneri said. “So the police are trying to enforce that.”

As for “BJ’s,” he said, “I am as surprised as you are. That’s all I’ll say about that.”

Rilling took a more proactive tone.

Economic Development Director Elizabeth Stocker is working with the developer to try to get a tenant “other than the big box store they want,” Rilling said.

The application for The Village was approved without a tenant lined up for the big box component. Attorney Liz Suchy was adamant that no deal had been made, but residents believe it’s a BJ’s Wholesale Club.

Rilling said Stocker has talked to a furniture design center, which has also expressed an interest in the Wall Street area, about going into the Main Avenue development. There are probably six or seven possibilities, he said.

“We are still in negotiation stage,” Rilling said. “While I say it cautiously, it’s not a done deal but we are hoping that we can find somebody else to go in there. You know, nobody was a bigger opponent of BJs than I was back in 2013, during the (mayoral) campaign. As the mayor, I am precluded from speaking out about any project coming in, once the application has already been made, simply because that’s why Zoning Boards were developed, to keep the politics out of it. So, if I spoke out against it, and it was an as-of-right use, that could be a tremendous lawsuit against the city. So, we are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping it doesn’t go in. We are still not sure what they are going to have there, but we are still trying to find somebody else to go in.”

The Main Avenue façade designed by architect Bruce Beinfield for the project is beautiful, Rilling said.

“I’ve been talking with NASH, not Frank Nash but the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners, and others, trying to work with them, see how we can work with them to make it the best we can,” Rilling said.

“As the president of the NASH, I can tell you I never had a conversation with him,” NASH President Heather Dunn said in a late-night phone call to NancyOnNorwalk, calling that comment “surprising.”

Joe Tamburri, at the DTC, asked Rilling why it’s the city’s responsibility to find a tenant for a developer.

“That’s why I hired an economic development director, to aggressively go out and pursue people to come into our city,” Rilling said. “That’s why I have her, that’s her job.”

Rilling said he had a meeting Monday with the new director of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, outgoing Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Ed Musante and the chamber’s staff about keeping small businesses in Norwalk, attracting new ones.

Tamburri asked if the Main Avenue developer was aggressively looking for a tenant for its big box. Rilling said yes, and, “We are still working to get somebody into the Elinco property that would create less of a traffic problem, would be less offensive to the neighborhood and would be more acceptable to the residents.”

14 comments

Notaffiliated April 25, 2017 at 7:32 am

I chuckle Mayor… I’m not allowed to speak on zoning decisions, but if I did speak on BJs, I’d continue to be against it. Let’s keep our fingers crossed…..

THE TRUTH April 25, 2017 at 8:04 am

I really seems that good old Harry lives in a fantasy world. He is so lost as to what the people of Norwalk actually want. Harry the people of Norwalk DO NOT WANT A MALL. Can you get that through your thick head?

Bill NIghtingale Jr April 25, 2017 at 9:17 am

So no one wants big box retail. But our zoning commission has to approve a big box retail store otherwise we’ll get sued. now we are working to find a non big box retailer to go in the newly approved big box retail site.

brilliant!

Lisa April 25, 2017 at 9:26 am

So the $3.5 million is going to urban core – AKA Redevelopment – because that’s going so well! Can we please just have some elected officials with a vision and a plan to execute??

Donna April 25, 2017 at 9:29 am

@Bill, this is a case of “if you build it, they will come.” Maybe they can negotiate a lease with the developer of an indoor baseball diamond.

In Westport, neighbors were so protective of their peace that the high school was forbidden for years from having night games. Here though neighbors try to preserve reasonable tranquility by opposing overdevelopment of an already strained corridor, the zoning commission–most of whom were appointed by Rilling–approve the application. And now Rilling, in a belated move, says he’s trying to negotiate with someone other than BJs. But BJs appears to be what Rilling and zoning commissioners want. So while Rilling was conveniently against BJs as a candidate, now that he’s mayor, he’s not allowed to speak his mind (but he is allowed to appoint commissioners who presumably vote in accordance with his mind).

The mayor’s re-election coffers are bursting at the seams with money from local developers. Clearly, GGP and others have a vested interest in keeping him in office. If this isn’t quid pro quo, I don’t know what it is.

Wineshine April 25, 2017 at 9:31 am

Sorry but isn’t the tail wagging the dog here? GGP is the “seller”, selling the city on the mall idea. If negotiations are “tough”, shouldn’t they be tough on GGP? Why is the city operating from a position of weakness?

As far as the hotel being dropped from the plans, no reasonable amount of compensation is acceptable for the alteration. Why? It drastically changes the complexion of the finished product! The city gets a one-time paltry sum of dollars, the value of which declines with inflation, in place of a long-term revenue-producing entity?

Sue Haynie April 25, 2017 at 12:36 pm

I’d like to see the mall built and believe it will be a real asset to Norwalk. I’m very glad to see Mayor Rilling voice his unambiguous support.

Just another Norwalk voter April 25, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Let’s see ……… the 97/7 property was vacant for about 10 years until GGP cam along with the idea to build a mall which would create jobs for a whole lot of people in Norwalk. So now a few residents (who most likely never liked the mall idea in the first place) are objecting to any modification to the original agreement, complaining that GGP’s payment of $3.5 million to modify the original agreement is not sufficient, etc., etc., etc….. These few believe that the mayor and Common Council should let GGP walk rather than build the mall.

Contrary to the views of some residents, $3.5 million is not a “paltry sum” – I suspect any Norwalk resident would be more than happy to receive a $3.5 million payment …….. I know I would love to see $3.5 million in my bank account.

The mall will not only create decent paying jobs that many of Norwalk’s residents would love to have, but give many residents the opportunity to work for good companies. That’s on top of the property taxes and, hopefully, the sales tax revenues our representatives in Hartford are talking about sharing (are you listening Bob Duff?).

More jobs for Norwalkers, more revenues for Norwalk from property and sales taxes, and one less empty lot around Norwalk is a win-win-win. We don’t need more parks along noisy I95 or apartments or condos or vacant office buildings. And we certainly don’t want to look at an empty lot for another 10+ years.

diane c2 April 25, 2017 at 3:38 pm

@sue haynie hmmm…versus his unambiguous opposition 3-1/2 years ago, as a candidate for mayor?
And what exactly do you like about a mall? Low paying jobs?Reduced tax revenues? Regional draw for wealthy suburbs?

Bob Welsh April 25, 2017 at 5:06 pm

@Just another

What I support is Norwalk being fairly compensated for changes that create an estimated $2 million in added value for GGP.

Under the proposed deal GGP pays the lumpsum equivalent of $200k/year for concessions worth about $2 million/year.

I’m not a professional real estate analyst; hopefully the Common Council will engage someone who is, and ensure a balanced deal for Norwalk.

Gordon Tully April 25, 2017 at 5:09 pm

@Wineshine asks the right question: why is the city operating from a position of weakness? The answer is that the Redevelopment Authority and the city are amateurs operating in a world of development professionals.

In theory the Redevelopment Authority is set up to level the playing field by obtaining top-notch legal advice and professional leadership to engage with developers in a fair fight. Sadly, it has failed to do either, and we have been walked over by one developer after another.

It is ridiculous to blame Harry Rilling for having an incompetent Redevelopment Authority around his neck, or for the inability of the citizenry to agree on practically anything. Trying to develop a consensus in Norwalk is an exercise in herding cats.

Ever since I came here 20 years ago I have wondered why Norwalk has such trouble governing itself, given its tremendous potential, and have come up with no definitive answers and few thoughts about how to solve its many problems.

I think if the citizens could focus on actions that have some chance of success, getting involved so they can take account of all the relevant circumstances, that would be much more productive than simply badmouthing from the sidelines.

As for my opposition to the mall, it is based on a world view that few people share, and so should not be considered as a practical option. Given the (wrong) assumption that almost everyone in the country agrees on (namely that things in the future are likely to be similar to things present), the mall is the only feasible way to develop the site. My preference for a vacant site stems from my belief that the mall will go bust a lot sooner than most people think.

Through circumstances rooted in past bad decisions, GGP has the city over a barrel. In reality, whether or not there is a toney hotel on the property is not going to make much difference in keeping the site active at night. Mixed use is not a reality unless people live there, and that option was foreclosed a long time ago.

And as for BJ’s, if you don’t prohibit big box retail by law, how can you tell a property owner that they can’t build big box retail in a zone that allows it? The law is the law. When I was on the ZBA, we had to approve many projects that I thought were ill-advised, simply because the ZBA has to enforce the law.

Jawboning and persuading and negotiating are important, because we have few other tools at our disposal. So get involved and help make the best of a flawed situation.

Diane C2 April 25, 2017 at 5:51 pm

@ Gordon’s comment “It is ridiculous to blame Harry Rilling for having an incompetent Redevelopment Authority around his neck”…

But it was Harry Rilling who appointed three of the five commissioners who make up the agency, appoint it’s director, approve projects, extend enterprise zones, etc.

And now, tonight, on the eve of a hastily scheduled Special Redevelopment meeting, Harry Rilling is appointing former zoning commissioner/chair Adam Blank to the Redevelopment Agency!

Independent April 26, 2017 at 6:15 pm

What don’t you understand? No Mall and No BJ’s! Stores are closing across the nation and you want to build a mall? Main Avenue is a parking lot now. You have the line for the car wash and the traffic backed up everytime the train goes by stopping all traffic.
If BJ’s does go thru, you’re going to have to limit size, parking spaces and hours.
Linden Street and Aiken Streets already congested with cut thru traffic.
So done with Norwalk.

Debora Goldstein April 26, 2017 at 10:14 pm

@Gordon,

Please, please, please keep speaking on the project from your perspective. If you hadn’t pointed out the obvious design flaws, we would not have gotten the skylight in the “tunnel” over the roadway, among other things.

If you are correct about the viability of the mall, then we ought to be more worried about a giant, empty mall than a giant, empty hole in the ground.

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