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.
“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.”