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Norwalk Zoning approves ‘The Village’ for ‘BJ’s site’

A rendering of “The Village.”

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.

18 comments

Rem April 20, 2017 at 8:54 am

This just makes me livid. The site was zoned for a smaller building and the developer pulled all the strings to maximize footprint. And it’s an eyesore that is trying to hide the fact it’s a box… You’re not fooling anyone. It doesn’t fit with its 1 storey brick low-end strip mall neighbors.

I think in a few years time Norwalk should revise the city tagline.

Norwalk: The Sound of Traffic in Connecticut
Norwalk: Walk Faster, Drive Slower
Norwalk: Land of Big Box Heaven
Norwalk: We do Shopping, Nothing Else
Norwalk: Come here for Cheap Thrills & Super-sized Fills

Donna April 20, 2017 at 9:09 am

The problem is not the developer, nor the architect. The problem is the dysfunctional city government, including a zoning commission of political appointees. When will Norwalk revise its charter to make these elected positions so that commissioners will be beholden to the citizens?

What is unsurprising is that the developer has offered to re-time the lights at its own expense. GGP also mentioned re-timing lights for the SoNo Collection. Programmable lights have been around for decades. We already have them.. The City just can’t find its way to programming them. No wonder Norwalk is ripe for the picking every time a developer passes through.

Since we can’t fire the Zoning Commissioners, maybe we can vote everyone else out of office.

Disgusted April 20, 2017 at 9:21 am

A sad day for the surrounding community. The only thing left to do now is for NASH and surrounding neighbors to start the twitter chant: #Boycott BJs!

jlightfield April 20, 2017 at 10:12 am

This a vast improvement to the Main Ave. corridor and will encourage more pedestrian activity in this section. Main Ave. overall is a brilliant example of the difference when planning studies are undertaken by planning and zoning instead of the Redevelopment Agency.

Specifically, zoning plans in this area called for village scale buildings, with active street facing activity, parking behind new buildings, reduced curb cuts and a focus on pedestrian scale improvements.

An update to the Wall Street plan is currently underway by the Redevelopment Agency. For those that really care about active downtown urban areas that are appealing and walkable, it is important to support initiatives that promote small business economic development over selling public property for private development.

Donna April 20, 2017 at 12:38 pm

The desire of many Norwalk residents to have brick and mortar shopping at every price range conveniently at their doorstep cannot be overstated. The GGP reps said Tuesday night at their info session that most of the comments from the previous night related to clamors for an outlet mall rather than high end retail.

While some citizens may lament unruly retail overdevelopment in every sector of the city, many others seem to revel in wanton displays of a consumer driven economy on every corner. BJs here. Walmart there and there. 1,000,000 square feet of retail situated a few yards from other chronically vacant retail. The people want to shop! And by gum, the City wants to let them!

Somehow Stamford successfully marketed itself for mixed use developement and revitalized that city, launching the political career of our current governor. But Norwalk would happily put a dome over its head and call itself a Mall. Maybe the city can requisition a few thousand motorized shopping carts to make shopping super easy and less calorie consuming for the residents.

I just have one question for the zoning commission and the Council. How long before casino gambling gets an engraved invitation to come to Norwalk? I’m thinking maybe a riverboat with a fried butter concession.

Laura Lamorte April 20, 2017 at 1:13 pm

The very sizeable and influential community who opposed the approval of this Special Permit application are deeply dismayed that the majority of Commissioners disregarded the substantive and valid concerns and testimony of Main Avenue neighboring residents and instead favored of an out-of-scope development for this location, the tenants of which have not been disclosed to the public. We think there was ample evidence to deny it based on the requirements of a Special Permit. It appears that, once again, our Commissioners do not appreciate the adverse impact of this type of development on our City and surrounding neighborhoods. Once again, regulations work in favor of applicants whose outsized and low-quality developments erode the quality of life and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods and give very little back to us in the form of tax income.

The claim that a structure of this size will make the neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly is delusional. Shopping at stores of this size is done in bulk and transportation to/from will be by car, not on foot. Many of us will not benefit from a membership-based establishment.

I take issue with Commissioner Wells’ trivialization of our concerns by seeming to suggest that are “perceptions” are misguided and that we might be placated if it were a Whole Foods instead of a BJs or whatever mystery store is planned. She obviously missed the point about which many neighbors testified: that a big-box store will draw far more traffic and cause unimaginable congestion from around the region than would a business such as Whole Foods which already has locations in Darien and Westport.

We are worried that the Commission did not fully vet the potential environmental impacts of this former SuperFund site to the neighboring region, including air, water, and noise issues.

We are incredulous that the applicant’s traffic study is being considered as valid before the State makes a decision about the Merritt Parkway-Super7-Main Avenue connection.

We are baffled that no one wants to consider the impact of a likely future development of Metro-North Railroad service along this corridor.

The fact that regulations do not require applicants’ traffic studies to consider the impact on neighborhood feeder streets infringes on our quality-of-life rights and makes us feel deeply unempowered. This will not be forgotten come the next election.

Sara April 20, 2017 at 1:40 pm

This is bad news. The Dems used to blame Esposito and the Republicans for the Big Box stores producing so much traffic on the Post Road. Now the Dems seem to be welcoming Big Box stores with open arms on Main Street.

anna russo April 20, 2017 at 2:24 pm

To keep hearing “Whole Foods” as a store that would take up residence is absurd – Norwalk does not have the demographics to support it and as already mentioned, ones in Westport and Darien.

Andrzej Pienczykowski April 20, 2017 at 6:07 pm

“Not Norwalk’s” city officials in actions

The decision on its own is not the only sad thing. Even sadder is the fact that voting commissioners were listening in two sessions where citizen after citizen asked to deny the permit. Statement 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.” is arrogant and equivalent to “The taxpayers don’t know what is good for them.” There is no question that the city needs revenue and this may be retail area. At this same time:
1. It is not a “big box” store area
2. The traffic concerns are serious
3. It is against current development guidelines
4. Citizens were very involved working against this development
5. General retail is in decline and it is going to leave a “gaping hole” there
6. “Whole Foods” would be misplaced, “Trader Joe’s” however more appropriate for Norwalk’s wallets and the size of establishment. That proves again how little this official knows about not his city.
This city lacks real plan. Our current officials are very reactive approving whatever comes across their desk. Having such involved community it should easy to draw up serious plan and find community members willing to help pursue desired prospects for this and other properties. Now we know who we should not elect next time!

Diane C2 April 20, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Very discouraged by last night’s vote, but do want to thank Commissioners Johnson and Stern for their understanding of the impact this development will have, especially traffic.
I was startled by Commissioner Wells’ and Chair Sumpter’s interpretations of the proposed traffic “improvements”, especially their lack of understanding of the bottlenecking and gridlock which is likely to occur on Main Ave. not unlike Connecticut Avenue, both of which are controlled by the state. (Commish Sumpter, also, may not realize that his West Avenue comparison is apples to oranges – there are no big box developments on West Ave (yet)and the timing of traffic lights is controlled by City.)
It’s amazing that dozens of residents, and representatives of an entire neighborhood and a condo complex, spoke out against approval, and it passes anyway.
What’s worse than their lack of understanding the traffic smoke and mirrors, clear as day to residents who live right there, was their disregard for the Special Permit criteria K, which states the application MUST comply with the current POCD. It does not. It is completely counter to the POCD, which recommended the implementation of the corridor study plan. The fact that zoning, most of whom were appointed by Mayor Rilling and approved by his Democratic controlled Council, failed to amend code to restrict this development doesn’t mean the commission should automatically approve it. It STILL does not comply with the POCD, regardless of zone changes.
Time for a lot of changes in Norwalk, starting where the buck should stop….

Peter Franz April 21, 2017 at 9:08 am

Did the BJ’s on Connecticut Avenue increase pedestrian traffic? Of course not. To suggest this oversized big box shopping solution will, is absurd.

I am completely for increased pedestrian use, through safe and careful planning. This project does not represent either.

This project will simply turn more Norwalk residents into Amazon shoppers.

Donna April 21, 2017 at 9:36 am

The POCD–touted as the City’s long term vision–is now a mere mirage, a worthless piece of paper. To the extent that Mayor Rilling appointed most of the zoning commission, it’s time for Rilling to go. Norwalk should be looking to Stamford for smart development strategies, including many mixed use developements. Even Bridgeport’s plan of development shines compared to Norwalk’s. There is something transparently and hopelessly small town and cronyistic about Norwalk city politics. The former Chief of Police intends to be a three term mayor. This isn’t Mayberry, folks.

Adolph Neaderland April 21, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Responding to jlightfield, adding another low wage paying box store in an area where the local community is opposed, will further compound the unintended consequences of Norwalk’s questionable business plan of box store/residential high rise expansion.

Consider – Norwalk no longer has a YMCA, nor a book store, has a boxed-in main library and a great symphony orchestra that previously required 2 performances to satisfy it’s membership and is now “hanging on”, generally not filling the house.

What we do have is a plethora of pizza houses, liquor stores, transient renters with essentially no stake in the community, a long list of short lived restaurants, overcrowded schools and big box stores paying low wages.

What we really need is creative city planning to reinvigorate the local economy with higher paying jobs in technical based companies.

The Main Avenue property would be an ideal location!

Adolph Neaderland

jlightfield April 22, 2017 at 10:20 am

@Adolph Neaderland, economic development isn’t a zero sum game. Main Ave. is zoned for commercial land uses, which include everything from big box retail to office buildings etc. In the last twenty years, the scale of what type of business has operated has changed on a property by property basis. Medical retail replaced media, professional services replaced fast food, drug stores morphed into convenience stores, residential became commercial and so on. The plan and accompanying zoning regulations have supported these uses and as new buildouts occur the street has improved to become more pedestrian friendly.

The renters that you so easily dismiss are the ones that move to this area to fill the jobs of the tech corporations that are producing the high paying jobs. Companies will not grow where they don’t have a pipeline of skilled workers, and that pipeline isn’t growing fast enough to satisfy the demand for workers.

Our schools are not overcrowded, compared to the enrollment of the mid-90s. Then there were 17k students enrolled. Now we hover around 11k. The difference now is that with a smaller population space is being utilized differently and so classroom capacity is an issue. Our reduced school system enrollment is a result of failed economic development that resulted in chasing away young people over many decades. For that matter, the loss of the YMCA and any bookstore is also the result of Norwalk’s demographic makeup, Norwalk’s media age is 40.4 compared to New Haven at 30.3, or Stamford at 35.9.

Decades of failed planning can’t be corrected overnight. Economic development is a long-term effort. This project replaces a vacant lot with a retail center that is scaled to the neighborhood and commercial corridor that it is in. The effort by the development team to activate the pedestrian experience with street accessible spaces, large sidewalks with pedestrian-scaled landscaping is a vast improvement.

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