NORWALK, Conn. — The yays outnumbered the nays Tuesday as a series of Norwalkers took the time to talk to the Common Council about The SoNo Collection.
Brenda Penn-Williams is against the deal, but the Rev. Ray Dancy and the Rev. Lindsay Curtis are in favor. Oldtimers Patsy Brescia and Wini Mola said the mall will be great for Norwalk, even without a hotel, while Diane Cece held Mayor Harry Rilling to account on his opposition to a mall when he was a mayoral candidate.
In favor are Marge Costa, Mellodye Ragin, Shatique Fleming, Wini Mola and Bill Finger; levying criticisms and asking questions were Bob Welsh, Jeanie Yoon, Diane Lauricella and Ann Hoehler.
Also weighing in was developer Clay Fowler, former owner of the property.
Norwalk forced families and businesses out 20 years ago by using eminent domain, Penn-Williams said.
“To do what? Nothing. There was promise that affordable housing would be placed there. It didn’t happen,” she said.
She recounted the history – sold from French to Fowler, then sold to GGP, and said, “Once again, people had to give up their property and the city was supposed to make sure that housing was to be built. Once again, the city is being bought by developers. This needs to stop.”
She also urged that the LDA’s Article 21 be followed, that local businesses be hired in the building of the mall.
The project will bring jobs, tax revenues, and a Class A commercial footprint to Norwalk, Dancy said.
“The hotel being eliminated is of course disappointing to all but as I understand it GGP has spent a great deal of time trying to make a hotel work but ultimately determined that it would not work due to the cost,” Dancy said.
Not allowing it to be built would be a disservice to the city, he said.
The property has been vacant for a long time, Costa said.
“GGP is very supportive of all organizations in Norwalk. I think they truly do care about Norwalk, so I would just urge you to go forward,” she said.
“We believe the mall will be a boon for this city,” Curtis said, representing his church. “It does not make any sense for us to go backwards. I am always a deep believer in going forward and we see this mall as that opportunity.”
Having said that, Article 21 is important, he said, concluding, “We don’t want left over dollars.”
“I do not think you should let any developer remove the mixed-use component,” Lauricella said, suggesting a YMCA or an incubator.
“These types of things are happening in other cities and that would fulfill not only
putting GGP in better stead as really being willing to work together as a community and fulfill their promise to us for mixed use, it would show that the city does stick to what we make developer promise, and lastly it would be really cool for our city to have these things,” Lauricella said.
There aren’t many options for jobs in Norwalk if you don’t have a degree, Fleming said.
“For us who are still pursuing our education and things of that sort, I feel like a retail place or a mall would be in the best interest of us younger ones that haven’t been able to complete our career course yet,” Fleming said.
Not only that, but she loves to shop, and would like to keep the money in Norwalk, she said.
Mola said she’s been a real estate broker for 43 years, and a lifelong Norwalker.
“I have always hoped that one day we would have a Bloomingdale’s and/or a Nordstrom,” she said. “… A pipe dream, yes, maybe.”
She spoke to the Council 25 years ago about developing the property and met Doug Adams, now a GGP developer but working for Stanley Seligson then, she said.
“Doug and I never gave up on the property,” Mola said. “We both knew it would be something very special. Unfortunately, much time passed and there were many delays. Then the economy in 2007 took a deep plunge and real estate, and real estate development, came to a halt. In the past few years, we have seen Norwalk begin a vibrancy in so many new projects. Exciting things are beginning to happen again. Most exciting to me is to have GGP select our community to build SoNo Collections.”
She had joked with her husband about selling their home and moving into the hotel, to shop easily, she said.
“This in my opinion is a coup for Norwalk,” Mola said. “A major developer has chosen our community to build this beautiful mall. It has taken us over 25 years to develop this dormant property and losses of 100s of millions in tax revenue now on brink of starting this project which will enhance and showcase our community.”
“Consider the position of the city leadership that negotiated this deal,” Cece said, contrasting Rilling’s recent statements in favor of The SoNo Collection with his 2013 opposition to a mall.
Rilling had said “a mall generally does not generate good revenue stream and taxes,” brings in low paying jobs, and that it would be silly to move ahead without giving the idea a full public airing, she said.
“It’s not only more silly, but it’s substantially more serious tonight that you would move forward with plans to be continue to be written at the whim to the developer in virtually no benefits to the taxpayers of Norwalk,” Cece said.
Brescia recounted her time on the Council, and said that when she ran for mayor in 1975 the main topic was “what are we to do with Reed Putnam?”
It really began 50 years ago, with I-95 bisecting Norwalk, and the Route 7 connector gutting the center of the community, she said.
“I view this mall as an opportunity to bring our city together, to connect South Norwalk, to connect Wall Street, to bring a vitality, and an attractiveness to the center of our town as people come through it,” Brescia said.
As a real estate broker for 40 years, she seen the ebb and flow, she said.
“There have been opportunities over the last 40 years to have something done with Reed Putnam, but every time it got to the point of almost happening, the market changed and the proposed ideas for development there were no longer economically viable,” Brescia said. “…We have an economy and a culture that’s based on capitalism
… so to jeopardize or to criticize an investor because he is going to make money doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Welsh’s letter to the editor was interesting, she said, but rather than think about losing $45 million of revenue over the next 15 years, you might look back in time and think about the 42 years where Norwalk didn’t get $3 million a year in property taxes from the site.
Add that up, it’s $146 million that could have gone to the schools, she said.
Fowler said he is uniquely aware of the challenges the property presents and has watched GGP try to make the hotel work.
“We have one of the country’s smartest, most successful retail developers working with us,” Fowler said. “To second guess them would be like me telling Bechtel how to build the Tappan Zee Bridge, or me telling GE how to build a nuclear power plant. Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s are committed to coming to SoNo in Norwalk. Let’s show our commitment to them by moving these modifications to a final decision for approval.”
Hoehler asked about security in the mall as, “I want to make sure the mall is also safe for us.”
“I think low paying jobs beats no paying jobs. So I am not understanding, why we are against this mall?” Ragin said.
When she was a little girl she had uncles on Putnam Street, so she knows about people being displaced, she said.
“It is a big hole in the middle of town. Who on Earth would want to get off Route 7 connector and see this green tarp around?” Ragin asked. “…It looks awful for Norwalk. For someone like GGP who is this prestigious developer, again, I just don’t understand why anyone would say no. I mean, who are we here? What are we doing?”
“It’s important that what will be built on the mall site be financially feasible and be sustainable, not just for now but in the decades that follow,” Finger said. “…This is a unique opportunity to place SoNo back into the consciousness of the rest of Fairfield County and the surrounding areas.”
“Here we are again on what seems like Groundhog Day,” Welsh said, asking if the deal is balanced and equitable.
“I also support a balanced deal for Norwalk,” Welsh said. “It just strikes me that a payment of $200,000 in exchange for a gain in profit of $2 million is a little bit out of balance. I hope you will engage an independent real estate consultant to advise you on that.”
Yoon, a North Water Street resident, said most of the objectives of Reed Putnam have been realized, but requested that some of the $3.5 million go toward enhancing the public access to the waterfront. She also wanted to know where the $550,000 GGP has paid as a contribution to a circulator will go if no circulator is created.
“Why is GGP now requesting revision to the language when, at the meeting I was at last week, they said they would not have changed the parenthetical language had there not been a change to the hotel?” Yoon asked.
If GGP needs to change its anchor 15 years from now, Zoning should make the decision then, she said.
Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) answered some of the comments during the meeting.
“To the people who came out here and implied that this has been going on for years, and years and years, let me say that the city has always met its end of the bargain. It’s the developers that keep coming back and saying, ‘We’ve got to make a change.’ We go along with it and then they come back again. And then they flip the property to the next person. So, don’t ever think the city isn’t doing its part. we always meet our end of the bargain,” Bonenfant said.
After the meeting Rilling addressed Cece’s comments.
“If you are able to get further information, that maybe perhaps convinces you of something else, then you have to be willing to change your mind,” Rilling said. “You have to be open to that. I felt that once I started looking at the numbers… and the people that would be coming in to Norwalk to take advantage of our business, and the jobs that it would create during construction, and the fact that if we didn’t move forward with the mall that that would remain vacant for decades. All those things considered, made it clear to me that this was in the best interest of the community.”