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Norwalk goes ahead with $460K deal for 6-year option on lot next to library

From left, Norwalk Public Library Director Christine Bradley and former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp on Monday show off the “just signed” agreement with developer Jason Milligan to “preserve” parking for the library.

Updated, Jan. 25: additional information regarding history of the dispute; 2:28 p.m. Jan. 23: Additional comment from Jason Milligan; 10:33 p.m. Jan. 22: Full story posted. 

NORWALK, Conn. – A deal meant to preserve parking for the Norwalk Public Library is going forward.

Both Mayor Harry Rilling and developer Jason Milligan said late Monday that they had just closed the deal brokered months ago by former Mayor Alex Knopp, with the city agreeing to pay $460,000 for a six-year purchase option for Milligan’s lot at 11 Belden Ave.

“Just a short time ago but ironing out some final arrangements tomorrow,” Rilling said in a text message.

“We are extremely pleased that we can now turn the page and start thinking about the future in a serious way,” Knopp said. “We have solved the major short-term problem of providing on-site parking now we can start a community planning process about the long-term prospects for improving and expanding the library. … This time, when we take the chain down in the next few days we don’t plan to ever put it up again.”

Milligan bought 11 Belden Ave., a property that includes the People’s Bank and a parking lot that library patrons had used for years, in February 2015, after receiving an email advertising its availability in April 2014. In April 2016, he won Zoning approval for a 69-unit apartment building on the lot only to have the Knopp-led Norwalk Public Library Foundation appeal the Zoning decision.

A settlement was reached in June, with Rilling, Knopp and Milligan taking down the chain that blocked entry to the lot as they announced the news; though the Common Council in July approved to deal, Milligan balked in September and deadlines passed with no completion of the deal.

The chain went back up, blocking the public from parking in the lot.

Rilling, before last November’s election, said that the library parking issue didn’t start under his administration and it would be solved under his administration.

On Monday evening, he said the deal is largely the same as was brokered by Knopp, with the same cost for the six-year purchase option and “minor modifications.”

Milligan said he has bought the property next door to the library, at 15 Belden Ave., and that “smoothed over” issues, opening up options that had been unavailable and restarting the conversation with the City.

“Buying 15 Belden allowed for us to provide more parking for our needs on site and therefore eliminate the request for any parking at Yankee Doodle garage,” Milligan explained in an email. “In addition, the insurance clause in our agreement was improved in the city’s favor in response to conditions of the City Council’s Approval.”

Owners of 15 Belden Ave. sued Milligan – under the entity 587 CT Ave LLC – in October 2015, alleging that 19 of the parking spaces required for his development would be on their property. The case was withdrawn in December, according to the state judicial website.

Monday’s deal is a “less than a one percent change” from the deal approved by the Common Council, and no further approval is needed from the Council, Milligan said, during a phone call.

Knopp said, “These final negotiations were complicated and difficult because of all of the land use questions involved in multiple pieces of adjoining proper and the unusual nature of an option agreement that has to take into account activities that might occur three, four or five years from now. These issues were all overcome because in the end all of the parties wanted to complete the agreement.  I want to commend the Mayor’s Office for its support and the developer for looking to the future rather than the short-term development prospects of his 69 units behind the library.”

The plan has been to revamp Milligan’s 28-space lot to make it between 39 spaces and 50 spaces, depending on the final configuration and stripping.

“The Mayor’s Office has arranged a meeting tomorrow for the Mayor’s Office and myself with the Norwalk Parking Authority to start planning how the city will be assuming the management of the leased parking lot and planning the schedule for the spring, for construction work,” Knopp said.

“After many false starts I am extremely happy, personally, and my expectation is that maybe in five or six years somebody will be able to find the narrative of these negotiations and the horror story felt at the library. But all’s well that ends well. Again, I want to thank everyone for putting the interests of the city first,” Knopp said.

While his 69-unit apartment building project is dead, Milligan said he hopes that apartments are built there sometime in the future, in a collaborative effort with the city.

“Now it is time to try to do something exciting! Expand the library, increase the parking, and allow for some small ‘affordable’ housing to be built,” Milligan said in an email. “Affordable by market and reality standards not some wacko government mandated standard based upon complicated formulas, extra compliance, and deed restrictions. Affordable compared to the price of other comparable choices.”

On Tuesday, Milligan wrote, “The next step should be designing a campus that combines resources & space. The design should expand the library, add onsite parking by going down or up or both, and still have space to build affordable housing on the site. The Library sits on a very prominent corner and it should look nice, and it should be designed to improve traffic flow, allow for complementary uses, and take advantage of synergies like shared parking. Unfortunately, consultants who have never built anything will probably need to be hired and the ideas studied for a year or two.”

He continued, “Maybe if there is enough public support and pressure something exciting and dramatic could happen soon.”

As for being sued by the Library Foundation after he won Zoning approval, Milligan on Monday said, “I didn’t like that process, I am satisfied with the current results, I hope that additional results come quickly.”

The resolution is a “good thing,” and, “hopefully we get something better than that apartment project because that was never what we felt was the best possible solution for that site,” Milligan said. “We thought ‘something grander’ when we acquired that piece and we were always hopeful of doing some collaboration. So we’re happy we’re headed in that direction because it has possibilities. … We saw that the library didn’t have enough parking and we thought that that corner could be so much better, it could accomplish a lot of goals and it could be a centerpiece for that area.”

 

Original story: 

NORWALK, Conn. – A deal meant to preserve parking for the Norwalk Public Library is going forward.

Both Mayor Harry Rilling and developer Jason Milligan said late Monday that they had just closed the deal brokered months ago by former Mayor Alex Knopp, with the city agreeing to pay $460,000 for a six-year purchase option for Milligan’s lot at 11 Belden Ave. 

“Just a short time ago but ironing out some final arrangements tomorrow,” Rilling said in a text message.

“This time, when we take the chain down in the next few days we don’t plan to ever put it up again,” Knopp said, referring to the roller coaster history of the deal.

Milligan in April 2016 won Zoning approval for a 69-unit apartment building on the lot at 11 Belden Ave., where library patrons had parked for years, only to face a legal challenge from the Norwalk Public Library Foundation. A settlement was reached, with Rilling, Knopp and Milligan taking down the chain that blocked entry to the lot as they announced the news; though the Common Council in July approved to deal, Milligan balked in September and deadlines passed with no completion of the deal.

Rilling, before last November’s election, said that the library parking issue didn’t start under his administration and it would be solved under his administration.

On Monday evening, he said the deal is largely the same as was brokered by Knopp, with the same cost for the six-year purchase option and “minor modifications.”

Milligan said he has bought the property next door to the library, at 15 Belden Ave.

“That allowed us to do some things with the parking to help smooth it over and they got some stuff they wanted on insurance,” he said, explaining that Monday’s deal is a “less than a one percent change” from the deal approved by the Common Council, and no further approval is needed from the Council.

 

“We were extremely pleased that we can now turn the page and start thinking about the future in a serious way,” Knopp said. “We have solved the major short-term problem of providing on-site parking now we can start a community planning process about the long-term prospects for improving and expanding the library.”

20 comments

Dorothy Mobilia January 22, 2018 at 8:12 pm

This is great news. Norwalk deserves a 21st century library, and patrons deserve the right to park there and benefit from all it has to offer. The library is a cultural anchor for downtown Norwalk, and hopefully the city fathers will enable it to grow and become a true beacon for this historical area.

The Norwalker January 22, 2018 at 8:48 pm

This is great News!! Norwalk deserves a Library that can compete with the surrounding towns!

Maybe they could put a video camera out in the parking lot to catch people who park there and walk off to the Court or somewhere else…..

Donna Smirniotopoulos January 22, 2018 at 10:41 pm

The City has agreed to buy a $460,000 chain to open up parking for the library. Make the library a community center where people want to go, and where they’ll actually appreciate the extra parking and the associated costs. Building a 21st Century Library does not begin with a parking lot. We have information at our fingertips 24/7. A vibrant urban library depends on more than books and card catalogues.

Kay Anderson January 22, 2018 at 10:47 pm

Terrific news – thank you Alex Knopp, our former mayor. Under Chris Bradley’s leadership, our library serves the entire community creatively and literally leaps into the future.

Jeanne January 23, 2018 at 6:50 am

Wonderful news! Hope the free public library always gets to keep its parking free and open to the public, too.

Diane Lauricella January 23, 2018 at 8:50 am

Thank you all, especially former Mayor Knopp and Chris Bradley for making lemonade out of a multi-year, multi-administration lemon. Thank you Mr. Milligan as well.

This is not only about parking and a chain. The naysayers first must understand why this deal was the last chance to develop this central, historic location into the 21st Century Library we deserve.

Library Naysayers, please look at the decades of poor city planning that missed opportunities to purchase and swap land….the staff that gave poor advice and the officials who were not “brave enough” to employ eminent domain years ago before the site received a Zoning permit!

Where were the critics when City residents paid dearly years ago as developers had advantage when City took property by eminent domain and paid for major public improvements for what is now the GGP Mall site?

Let’s move forward and ensure the Library re-design process is inclusive, creative and positive.

Donna Smirniotopoulos January 23, 2018 at 10:21 am

@Diane, a lack of planning got Norwalk to the place where paying $460k for an option to buy is praiseworthy. Norwalk continues to lurch from crisis to crisis because it either doesn’t have a plan or doesn’t follow the plan it does have (2008 POCD).

Already Planners are praising a proposed text change to allow a residential overlay near the East Norwalk train station before either the POCD or the East Norwalk TOD study are complete. We are content to allow appointees with zero accountability make decisions that impact our quality of life for decades. We are content to allow deals to be brokered in the dark. We are content to stay home on Election Day and allow 9% to make decisions for the other 90. We are content to morph into a city of transients where the likelihood of public engagement shrinks by the day. To me the library parking lot deal is emblematic of the way things work here. Cronies and townies hashing out half-baked deals behind a curtain. In what universe does lifelong resident status uniquely qualify someone to plan for a city’s future or manage its day to day operations?

Fingers crossed that the 2018 POCD will make similar deals impossible going forward.

McKeen Shanogg January 23, 2018 at 11:15 am

To the comment that “A vibrant urban library depends on more than books and card catalogues”: If you go on the library website and sign up for email updates, you will quickly learn that both the Belden Avenue main library and the South Norwalk library have an amazing variety of community programs and events going on just about every day of the week. Click on “E-newsletter” on the home page to sign up.
For those who don’t want to subscribe to the emails, you can see the calendar here https://www.norwalklib.org/calendar.aspx

Reasonable Doubt January 23, 2018 at 2:06 pm

How is this a good deal? True, we now have parking at the library where we did not have that before AND that is a very good thing. But before we all watch our elected officials do a collective “high-five” I think we need to reflect on the added costs to us, the taxpayer, due to poor management by the Library Board and the City.

The City/Library could have, and should have, bought this property for $2,650,000 in 2015. Now the cost will be a $5,345,000 plus all the time and energy needed to secure this negotiation in 2024.

I think we the taxpayers are due an apology and a promise not to do dumb things like this again in the future. Someone should take responsibility for the inaction that would get them fired in the private sector.

While we are on the topic – where are the Wall Street Theater Patrons going to park since the unfinished POKO deal is tying up all that parking? Will we blame the Theater Owner when he can’t make his payments from poor patronage due to the lack of parking? Can’t wait to see how the City is going to solve that one!

Beverly Lysobey January 23, 2018 at 3:07 pm

This is a wonderful outcome to a story with a lot of ups and downs! The parking will be an asset for the Wall Street area and the entire community.

Diane Lauricella January 23, 2018 at 3:20 pm

@donna The whole point is that “We” and “I” are not content…it should never happen again….but the Library issue is different than the unwise East Norwalk TOD leap- frogging of taking action before planning. This library situation is a unique circumstance…many mistakes leading up to this final outcome.

Again, as I specifically stated, the previous library sitch was a product of poor planning, was emblematic of historically-poor City planning, but this indeed…wait for it….was the last best chance out of thousands of previous chances…to preserve the Library site expansion and we citizens have a right to expect it will be done with better planning mechanisms under development.

Buying urban property rights with public dollars is not new, should be used sparingly, but is one tool in the toolbox of development.

Is this the best deal ever? No, but it is the best deal after years/decades of poor decisionmaking.

Lisa Brinton Thomson January 23, 2018 at 5:19 pm

While ‘taking down the chain’ is cause for jubilant celebration, it would also be nice to know what the future plan of the library is, particularly after doubling the price of the land and spending nearly a half million dollars on ‘temporary’ parking. Being generally supportive of the concept, I am also one of those naysayers who prefers to deal in hard numbers and facts. For example, how many users does the library currently service? How do our numbers compare to neighboring towns like Darien or Westport or cities like Stamford? How much was spent on those libraries? Is there an overall strategic plan (POCD) for the library or are we now ‘winging’ it with another special interest group detached from those who will end up footing the bill? Will it be the usual Norwalk geriatric politicos (and I include myself in that category:-) doing the strategic planning or will the city engage younger people for the next generation library? What will make Norwalk residents living closer to the Westport or Darien libraries want to use their own when stuck in mall traffic? Will it offer programs targeted at new apartment residents in the West Ave and Wall Street corridors?

I’d feel a lot better about ‘the deal’ if as a taxpayer I knew where all this was leading, instead of reading political high fives on what was clearly a botched and expensive land use deal.

Paul Lanning January 23, 2018 at 6:36 pm

In reply to “Reasonable Doubt” , parking for the theater is a non-issue, because the theater isn’t being professionally booked/marketed/operated to draw capacity crowds ongoing.

Sid Welker January 23, 2018 at 11:46 pm

The usual poo poo party participant’s had to chime in with their two cents. Stop and smell the roses for once.

Mitch Adis January 24, 2018 at 8:48 am

We could have provided valet parking over the next 50 years for less than spending $5 million to buy the property.

Another option would have eminent domain. We used if to build a mall and nobody blinked. I think a library would have gotten wide support.

Donna Smirniotopoulos January 24, 2018 at 10:19 am

@Sid, the way this city gets deals done is not worth poo-pooing. After all it’s just our tax dollars we’re complaining about and a history of dysfunction and poor planning. I’m sure the new Comms director tne mayor wants can spin this so it makes sense.

Jason January 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm

Let’s ignore the legal costs involved and the unnecessary confrontation required to forcibly take private property through Eminent Domain. Does everyone realize that if successful it requires the city to pay fair market value for the property when they take it. We would & could argue for a fair market value of $6 or $7 Million! A shovel ready apartment project for 69 units is worth $45K to $60K per unit or $3.2 to $4.14 Million total, plus the People’s bank building worth $2.5 to $3 Million. Also, why would the city use Eminent Domain that requires a legal process and the eventual payment of fair market value when the seller is ready, willing and able to work with the city without a legal fight?

The City had been asleep at the switch, and they have made plenty of bad choices, but entering into this parking lease with option to purchase is not one of them.

This transaction cancels the 69 unit project and preserves all available options. 1 of the options is that the city can buy the entire Peoples Bank parcel. That should be the last option.

The 1st option should be to remove the building at 3 Belden Ave that is currently owned by the First District Water Company. It is an old tired narrow building that has substantial deferred maintenance and it is not ADA compliant. It blocks the view of the library and it could provide the closest most convenient parking. It also is the best area for potential expansion of the Library.

The First District is a huge supporter of the library so this should be a very easy decision. Former Mayor Frank Zullo is the chairman of the First District.

In the unlikely event the First District would not support the library with this parcel then 3 Belden is the parcel that warrants serious discussion of Eminent Domain.

With 3 Belden added to the Library campus there is room to add substantial parking by going underground, up a level or both. There would be room for expansion of the library and there would be room for us to build affordable apartment units. Finding a way to allow for apartments will help keep the costs down for the city and it would provide patrons for the library & customers for the First District Water Company.

Diane Lauricella January 26, 2018 at 2:49 pm

@Jason The reference to Eminent Domain was for property years ago, in the 80’s and 90’s, long before Mr. Milligan purchased it…and before the site had any land use permits.

For this final iteration, Eminent Domain would not have been a good tool to use, given the site had received a Zoning permit.

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