Updated, 3:30 p.m.: Clarification regarding DECD funding, a$5 million grant.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is suffering from a lack of leadership that affects its residents and businesses, unaffiliated mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson said Thursday, adding that Norwalk will not be taken seriously as a thriving city if its core “continues to languish.”
Brinton Thomson met with reporters in front of the stalled Wall Street Place development, backed by key supporters, to again assail Mayor Harry Rilling’s leadership, advocate for a city manager and “sanity in land use decisions.” The press conference prompted a much sharper reply from Rilling than Brinton Thomson’s previous barrages, as Rilling said it did “little more than highlight Lisa’s inexperience and lack of understanding of what leadership means.”
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
“I’m standing before the POKO development, which is in much the same shape as the day Harry Rilling stood here a few years ago, newly minted as Mayor, touting it as a shining example of Norwalk’s ‘moving forward,’” Brinton Thomson said. “In fact, this project was put together during the Knopp administration and advanced during the Moccia years. That didn’t seem to bother my opponent as he put a point on the scoreboard.”
Asked about that later in the day, Rilling said that the Merchant’s Bank was still standing when his administration began so the corner of Wall Street and Isaac Street isn’t in “much the same shape.”
Rilling in May 2014, six months after he was sworn into office for the first time, held a press conference to celebrate the beginning of demolition on Merchant’s Bank, as POKO Partners began construction on Wall Street Place after at least eight years of delay.
Rilling met with POKO shortly after taking office and got the project moving, he said Thursday evening, echoing his comments in 2014.
The project has since stalled again. Construction stopped more than a year ago, after POKO Partners principal Ken Olson became ill; Citibank foreclosed on POKO’s loan in March and has been working with a developer to restart the project, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said in September.
Asked after her press conference if she knew Olson’s illness was the reason for the end of POKO’s construction, Brinton Thomson said, “It was a bad project from the beginning. If the project was sound, it wouldn’t matter. He’s got a company that would keep building it.”
Asked during her remarks what she would specifically do to get the construction going, Brinton Thomson referred reporters to Michael McGuire of the Austin McGuire Company, a commercial real estate company, whose office is across the street from Wall Street Place.
“I think this is way too complicated for any one developer to take on,” McGuire said. “They don’t really have the background to do this. To do a property like this that has so many strings attached, it’s like buying into a lawsuit. Because you still have to buy the property, its insufficient parking, and every string attached has a price tag that needs to be unwound.”
POKO lined up Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHAFA) 9 percent tax credits and a Competitive Housing Assistance for MultiFamily (CHAMP) grant as part of its financing for Phase I of Wall Street Place, and tjhe Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) awarded it a $5 million grant. The project also featured an underground, 220-car automated parking garage.
Reporters asked Brinton Thomson why she had McGuire answer the question. She said she’d seek advice as mayor.
“That’s the difference between being a manager and being a politician,” Brinton Thomson said. “Like I said, I want to get a city manager onto the ballot but in the meanwhile I would look to experts in the field to advise the city. Mr. McGuire is one of those and there would be others.”
“I try to bring experts to the table here, I don’t try to stay at a 50,000-foot level and wing it,” she said. “I try to bring people who know much more about topics than I do. That is how I would be as mayor and it would be very transparent.”
McGuire mentioned all the new apartments in the area, characterizing that as 1,700 new units in the last decade. A Wall Street train station would be a gold amenity for the area, and would stimulate the completion of Wall Street Place, McGuire said.
Brinton Thomson said she supports a Wall Street train station.
Rilling has said he supports the idea also. The bipartisan budget passed by the legislature Wednesday includes $250,000 for a feasibility study on a Wall Street train station.
In other comments, Brinton Thomson said she’d bring the Redevelopment Agency and the Planning and Zoning Departments closer together, and she would like the Planning Commission to merge with the Zoning Commission to become one Board, as it once was.
“The Parking Authority is an autonomous agency,” she said. “They have their master plan for parking, I am not sure how it fits into Planning and Zoning or the Redevelopment Agency. Once again, there’s another agency that operates autonomously and that’s where I think we need to bring together some more centralized planning.”
The Parking Authority began a $200,000 parking study in September.
“It’s really a city-wide look,” Carolyn Krasnow of Walker Parking Consultants said to the Council Planning Commission on Oct. 5. “We are looking at every area.”
“We are really trying to look at the city, for example how parking can work with development, that’s why we are looking at studies being done by other consultants,” Krasnow said. “We are going to coordinate with them because there are other consultants working on this as well. Our goal is to think about the ways in which, and help give advice on the ways in which, parking and development and growth go together because parking can support that and it can not, it can be a hindrance.”
Brinton Thomson on Thursday said, “We need to move our operations away from political mayors. I will make sure that we have a discussion with the goal of hiring the city’s first trained and certified city manager—one that will understand the needs of a city our size.”
Rilling has recently said that Norwalk has three city planners on staff.
“There’s a difference between having credentials for a city manager and actually being structurally organized to act as the city planner,” Brinton Thomson said.
While some have said that a city manager wouldn’t be accountable to the public as it wouldn’t be an elected official, Brinton Thomson said the city manager would be held accountable in the same way as a superintendent is.
A city manager position would need to be created via a charter revision; it would require a two-thirds vote from the Common Council to create a Charter Revision Commission, and a revision to create a city manager doesn’t appear to have support from Council candidates.
Rilling specified a new charter revision commission in the 2017-18 operating budget, Brinton Thomson said, producing a document to prove it and explaining, “It’s not just me, it’s in our budget.”
“There will be a mandate from the people,” she said. “This election isn’t about me this election is about the issues I stand for. Ergo, if I win, the public is supporting those changes. I would create a bipartisan Council much the same way I influenced the bipartisan ‘Board of Ed.’”
Brinton Thomson is the founder of the education reform group Red Apples.
“Doing what we did on the ‘Board of Ed’ and doing what we have been doing to move the professionalism of our school system with a strong superintendent and a bipartisan Board is exactly what the city needs,” she said.
Brinton Thomson also criticized Rilling for the state of 45 Wall St.
“Around the corner from where we are standing is another building which suffered from a tragic fire in 2010, and has still not returned to being a tax-contributing business that is part of a robust and attractive neighborhood,” she said. “There has been little progress during four years on my opponent’s watch. Again, there were multiple opportunities to intervene and help over the past four years, and this administration chose nothing. Protecting the citizens means actually making the hard choices, not just talking about them.”
The Council Ordinance Committee in 2013 created a residential blight ordinance. In December 2014, one year after Rilling took office, Norwalk Chief Building Official Bill Ireland sent blight warning letters to the building’s owner, Ganga Duleep, and TD Bank, the lien holder, beginning a legal process.
Ireland has provided NancyOnNorwalk with regular updates on the building, explaining that there is a court process and that the situation is particularly complicated in this case. Although there appears to be no progress from the outside of the building, Ireland in early October provided NoN with photos to show that work is progressing inside, and a new kitchen is being built behind the building.
Brinton Thomson said, “I may not have every answer, but I recognize that Norwalk citizens want their voices heard. They want to have a city that they can be proud of and they do not want a small group of individuals dictating to them. True leadership means willingness to make a decision, and to put Norwalk First. We’ve had four years of ‘not at all.’ Now, let’s ‘Do it Right!’”
That was a reference to Brinton Thomson’s successful 2016 campaign against two charter revision questions on the ballot.
Asked about Brinton Thomson’s myriad remarks, Rilling, in an email, said:
“I’ve refrained from attacking Lisa thus far. I prefer a positive campaign speaking to my accomplishments and vision for the future. All I’ll say on this is that this press release does little more than highlight Lisa’s inexperience and lack of understanding of what leadership means. She fails to appreciate the complexity of the issues facing Norwalk and offers simplistic solutions thought up in a vacuum and researched on Wikipedia. She has failed to build any coalition or support for her agenda on the common council (which we all know is necessary to do any of the things she has promised.) This is not leadership. Leadership is identifying the challenges, building a coalition and rolling up your sleeves to get the work done. Lisa’s disconnection from the people who live here (8th happiest in the country!) and constant negativity will not serve her well on election day.”
NoN asked McGuire why he feels Brinton Thomson is the person to bring charter revision and a city manager-style government to Norwalk.
“I think she is just shining a light on it,” he said, explaining that the people in city government aren’t bad, it’s the process that is at fault.
“Enough people have been living here to see this and all you really need is to shine a light on it,” McGuire said. “I wouldn’t say she is going to do it herself, but no one person is capable of doing that. I think it’s more of a rallying cry.”