NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Zoning Commission on Wednesday approved the application for The Village, planned for the property commonly called “the BJ’s site,” with a 5-2 vote.
The majority of the Commissioners felt that the traffic situation for the development had been sufficiently addressed, said Commissioner Galen Wells, who voted for the project.
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 includes a big box store component hidden by a village-like street front of smaller stores and restaurants, a façade designed by architect Bruce Beinfield. Parking is underneath the big box store, in the back.
That’s a 85,000 square foot building, with 63,900 square feet of active retail, behind a 11,900 square foot building fronting Main Avenue.
“The 2 story scale of the buildings is comfortable with the neighbors, and the traditional pitched roofs of the liner buildings enhance the character of the building. The landscaped sidewalk will invite people to walk, and shop, while dramatically enhancing the neighborhood,” the application for a special permit states.
All this, on the Superfund site formerly occupied by ELINCO (Electric Indicator Co.), and subject to ongoing water remediation efforts.
The unnamed nature of the big box store drew skepticism and derision from opponents, who said it was disingenuous to claim that a developer had drawn up plans without a tenant in mind.
Wells, at last week’s Plan Review Committee meeting, suggested that perception is everything and that if people think of it as a possible Whole Foods instead of a possible BJ’s, they’ll feel differently.
“I think we can’t let that cloud our perception,” Wells said. “I don’t think out of character with the neighborhood. The developer is aware of the brownwater problems… that’s a good thing that’s in favor of this application.”
But traffic dominated the conversation.
“I believe in six months they would have to give us an update on the traffic, and if anything has to be fixed, I do believe that they will work to fix it,” Commissioner Michael Witherspoon said.
“I am not personally convinced, despite very professional traffic analysis, that the impact of this group is not be very difficult to ameliorate, despite what they are planning,” Commissioner Roderick Johnson said. “I am particularly concerned about the heavy trucks leaving the service drive, which is not controlled by heading north and having to make its way somehow back to 95.”
Developers say that retiming the lights on Main Avenue, at their expense, will address many of the existing problems and make traffic flow better even with a big box store in the neighborhood. This was affirmed by a city consultant, NV5, and has the input of the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT).
An additional turn lane is also planned in front of the store, where a traffic light will be installed.
“I think having two or three stores aligning the street and aligning the sidewalk is exactly the sort of way you have for a project in that area,” Commissioner Doug Stern said. “I think that the traffic studies don’t incorporate a number of variables … all of the traffic effects that it will have on the side streets on Main Avenue as well as all of the projects that are going to be built. I am just not satisfied with the traffic study.”
He suggested that the ConnDOT should make improvements on Main Avenue without the development, but Wells said that won’t happen.
“Somebody said the DOT could come in and make those improvements themselves but getting their attention when there is no current project going on is very, very difficult. … I think that we will all be long gone before that actually occurs,’ Wells said. “So, I think it is actually opportunity here to improve the traffic flow and I think the traffic flow on Main Avenue will not improve significantly until something is done to allow people get from Route 7 out on the Merritt going north. The fact that the northbound exit was stopped pushes all of this traffic onto Route 7 to get out to the Merritt.”
“I’m quite convinced that the traffic studies were done extremely thoroughly,” Commissioner Joe Passero said. “I have heard as much as anything in the six months that I have been here.”
The empty space at 272-280 Main Avenue is a tremendous eyesore on a heavily trafficked route, he said.
“We need to have something substantial on that property,” he said, comparing the plan to the Stop & Shop and the Bob’s Store down the road.
Commission Vice Chairman Lou Schulman ticked off other factors considered under a special permit.
“No question, this is a very large facility. On the other hand, architects have done I think a very good job, not only hiding the bulk of the building but hiding the parking as well,” Schulman said. “I have mixed feelings about it. My neighborhood, I don’t want to see any trucks shortcutting by going on Perry Avenue and coming on to my street, but I can’t make a decision based on my personal preferences.”
Rolling Ridge Condominium Association members aren’t happy but the other neighbors don’t seem to mind, he said.
“I think they have been persuasive in talking about noise, odor, fumes, dust and many of the ways in which they are going to minimize those impacts,” Schulman said. “…There’s virtually no open space here but they have done it seems to me a fair job in terms of buffering the property.”
Commission Chairman Nate Sumpter missed much of the testimony on the development but stressed Wednesday that he had listened to all the hours of recordings and read all the traffic studies.
The study presented by NASH was invalidated because it addressed an outdated study presented by the applicant, he said.
Schulman said the same thing, stressing that he was impressed by NV5’s validation of the plans.
Retiming lights on West Avenue has helped, Sumpter said. The Village has a smart design and the development will create jobs and revenue for the city, he said.
Voting for the plan were Sumpter, Schulman, Passero, Witherspoon and Wells, Wells said. Voting against it were Stern and Johnson.