NORWALK, Conn. — Property next to the Norwalk Public Library was on the market for a year before a developer bought it, intent on building apartments in a lot used by library patrons for parking.
Jason Milligan has said this before but recently produced an email to prove it, after being asked about Mayor Harry Rilling’s pre-election statement suggesting that Milligan knew it was for sale – when the city didn’t – because he’s in commercial real estate and had an inside track.
Milligan won Zoning approval for a 69-unit apartment building on the lot at 11 Belden Ave., only to face a legal challenge from the Norwalk Public Library Foundation. A settlement was reached; the city agreed to pay $460,000 for a six-year purchase option for the lot, but Milligan subsequently balked, with a deadline passing and no completion of the deal.
Rilling in the last days of his campaign promised that he’d fix the parking problem at the Norwalk Public Library main branch.
“We’re still working towards a plan,” Rilling said in a pre-election interview with NancyOnNorwalk. “I think everybody wants to get it done, and there are other options available to us that we are exploring, as well. That property is very important, and I believe my predecessor, and I know I did, reached out to the owner of that property and asked if they would be willing to consider selling it to the city.”
Former Mayor Richard Moccia, who Rilling unseated in 2013, in an email, said, “I never had any direct conversation with the owner that I can recall. That being said, there might have been some contact between the then Library Board and the owner.”
“There have been so many conversations and suggestions and hopes and desires over the years regarding the use of the lot to help ease the Library’s parking challenge,” former Library Board Chairman Stan Siegel said in an email. “I am sure that during the terms of Mayor Moccia, and then Mayor Rilling, that option was raised as a possibility and/or a hope. Perhaps a review of the Board Minutes over those many years would uncover some actual discussions.”
Library Board minutes from January 2012 to December 2013 show no mention of parking at the library.
Rilling in the November interview said:
“We were told, ‘No, we’re not going to sell the property.’ I think I might have reached out two or three times. I’m not even sure, but I know I did reach out at least once or twice. Then Jason Milligan, being in real estate, I don’t know whether he reached out to the owner of the property, and the owner might not have wanted to sell it to the city for whatever reason, and he ended up purchasing it, but he has an inside track. He’s in real estate. He knows perhaps when these things, if this thing came on the market within … There’s no filing ready necessary to put it with the city, the city might not necessarily know that it’s on the market, but Jason Milligan found that it was on the market and he purchased it.
We will keep working, and I have all the confidence in the world that, as I said, this problem did not occur in a Rilling administration, but it will be fixed in a Rilling administration.”
Milligan forwarded NancyOnNorwalk an April 2014 email from Cushman & Wakefield’s Private Capital Group, advertising the property. Milligan bought it in February 2015.
Asked in the pre-election interview if the city had been asleep at the switch, Rilling said, “… If this had been advertised in the paper that, ‘Hey, this property is for sale.’ It appears in the real estate, sometimes in the business section of the Hour or something, that would be different, but I would like them, the critics, to tell me how they know the city was asleep at the switch? How did they know that this property was on the market and the city didn’t? All I know is that I did reach out to the owner, we wanted to buy that piece of property.”
He later speculated that perhaps the owner didn’t want to sell it to the city because the city wasn’t interested in owning the bank on the property.
Rilling was in a conference early last week, and NoN was not successful in attempts to contact him.
“My understanding is the city had spoken with landowner when the idea of purchasing that property came up,” Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said. “It wasn’t for sale at the time. It shocked us when it came on the market. They knew we were interested. So, we can’t speculate why they didn’t let us know, but they knew we were interested.”
However, “It’s not like that’s the only solution for parking at the library,” she said.
If there’s property that the city vitally needs and there is no other way to obtain it, eminent domain is an option, but, “There is a difference between wanting to do something and having to do something,” and there’s a cost benefit analysis, she said.
“There was an idea that maybe obtaining it would make it easier to park at the library,” King said. “The city approached the property owner, they weren’t interested in selling it. The city moved on to other ideas because it wasn’t deemed at the time something that the city wanted to go through eminent domain on. When it came back around, we started talking to Jason about whether he wanted to sell it.”
Milligan confirmed that discussions continue about his property.
That April 2014 email was the first time he heard of it being available, and it was listed on Costar & Loopnet.
“Is it that the city and library board weren’t paying attention? Probably true,” he wrote in an email. “Appointing Alex Knopp to the library board was a smart move and I doubt this would have happened under his leadership as chairman. I don’t blame mayor Rilling for missing the listing.”