This is an Open Letter to the Planning Commission:
I am writing to you regarding tonight’s meeting and direct your attention to Item III. b) Zoning Commission referral – #11-17R – 230 East Avenue, LLC – Proposed amendments to Section 118-700 to permit transit oriented development (TOD) in the Industrial No. 1 zone at the East Norwalk Railroad Station – Report and recommended action.
This is to respectfully request that the Planning Commission recommend AGAINST the approval of the text change amendment requested by the applicant. In addition, I would ask that the Planning Commission consider requesting a moratorium of nine to twelve months on permit applications and text amendments in an area defined by a one-mile diameter around the East Norwalk train station so that the Planning Commission, which is charged with carrying out the Plan of Conservation and Development, and the City, which will be conducting a state-funded TOD Study around the East Norwalk train station may permit the local bodies to consider, draft and adopt land use comprehensive plans and/or development regulations (or amendments).
The City of Norwalk’s Planning Commission, Zoning Commission and the Common Council’s Planning Committee are the appropriate venue to determine whether and where a Transit-Oriented Development overlay is appropriate and may be permitted.
Using a text change to the properly created and appropriately crafted zone in South Norwalk to generate a zone consisting of one property in East Norwalk usurps the Planning Commission’s authority in this area and effectively transfers it to the Zoning Commission. Once the text change is permitted, and the new map created, any future developers can use the same mechanism to add their lot to the map, bypassing the TOD planning process entirely.
The creation of the TOD zone for South Norwalk is highly irregular. Other towns consider, plan and define an overlay district for TOD. It is not typically done by amending the special permit exception process as done here. The effect of approving this text change is really to implement zone change from I-1 to R3. There is a process for changing a zone, and this simply isn’t it. It is important to remember that, even in the context of South Norwalk’s train station, the creation of a TOD zone was done for an for the entire area, based upon years of studies and public outreach.
For years, the economic development plan for Norwalk has focused primarily on the Norwalk Center and the Redevelopment Area. Many pages of the 2015 plan are dedicated to discussion about the sections of the City in the Redevelopment Area. A lack of focus on Economic Development specific to East Norwalk’s central business zone means that we don’t even know what zone change is the appropriate tool to jumpstart a robust, thriving community.
For example, many of the goals (other than housing density) for this area might be more appropriately achieved by rezoning this plot as an R&D zone. Locking this keystone property in as a one-plot TOD area will hinder the city’s stated Economic Development plans in general, and specific to this area. The Economic Development plan calls for TOD around South Norwalk because that is where the study has been focused.
The Plan of Conservation and Development suggests concentrating office space around the transit centers, and it calls for “Harbor-oriented retail/visitor development within walking distance of the Maritime Aquarium and SoNo.”
TOD connectivity in East Norwalk must necessarily be different from South Norwalk. Not only hasn’t it been studied, but it is currently in flux. Bike lanes changes, new traffic signals and roadway lowering and widening East Avenue are all on the drawing board, as is a restructuring of the railroad bridge and platform. Every roadway around the train station is two lanes wide, with little opportunity for significant traffic management without major infrastructure changes. We cannot base East Norwalk transit oriented development decisions on connectivity studies done around South Norwalk.
Proper TOD planning calls for defining an entire area, making appropriate infrastructure improvements to the TOD area (connectivity), and not just allowing additional increased density and reduced parking.
Allowing this keystone property to be developed in the absence of appropriate TOD study will preclude appropriate development in the greater TOD zone, once it is established, and will stunt the development in the area for another generation. The City must create the plan for this area, (in concert with the residents,) not a single developer. Indeed, both the City and the State have significant investments right now in planning this area–$190k in the Plan of Conservation and Development and $125k in a state grant specifically granted for the study of this area.
There is virtually no on-street parking in the NB1 zones of East Norwalk as it is. If the parking density calculation for this property is not appropriate, it will exacerbate the competition for parking on the streets of the residential areas around the train station.
The most overlooked item of all, in this proposed development is the fact that not all transit hubs are created equally. Just as it would be inappropriate to take a TOD plan developed for the Stamford or Bridgeport station and use it for South Norwalk; it is also inappropriate to use South Norwalk’s station as a template for East Norwalk. Nobody has yet considered whether the station itself can handle the increased residential density there. South Norwalk is an integrated transportation hub, with 800 parking spaces and platform lengths that can handle ten train cars. It reported handles 1,900 weekday commuters and is ADA compliant. It has manned ticket booths, convenience businesses and public bathrooms, as well as indoor shelter for commuters.
East Norwalk’s commuter parking is scattered over multiple lots, with one as far away as the other side of the highway. It currently handles about 600 commuters on platform lengths that can handle four cars (the platform renovation will permit six). There is no indoor shelter, one service business, no public bathrooms and tickets are available only from automated ticketing machines that malfunction in the cold weather. The state’s own study of this station indicates that it is not ADA compliant and the dangers during icy weather will increase if the City goes ahead with the plans to lower East Avenue.
South Norwalk, which already has an active and well-funded planning agency, got years of thinking, planning and study before an appropriate TOD area was mapped and an appropriate plan for the area developed. Not only is East Norwalk going to be precluded from the same type of robust study and consideration; but, if the City permits this text amendment, it will be the second time that the city has failed to provide East Norwalk with the opportunity to do so. When the TOD grant study money was last available, two years ago, the City was precluded from applying for it, because it failed to approve an ordinance to join WestCOG (WCCOG – Western Connecticut Council of Governments) in time to apply.
For decades, East Norwalk has expressed a desire for a village district for its “downtown”. The neighborhood has a strong preference for a walkable, town square with a maritime feel and neighborhood businesses. While it is recognized that the area around the train station is currently zoned for I-1, it should be patently clear that the zone and the preferences of the neighborhood are incompatible. Permitting a hyper-local zoning decision of this magnitude in advance of a considered zoning change will rob the neighborhood of the ability to design the “gateway” to the rest of the community.
No Obligation to Property Owner
Unlike typical zoning arguments that come before the City, in which a controversial use is available “as of right” or via “special permit”, the current proposal is not an instance of an existing property owner seeking to develop his/her own property. Even a strong property rights supporter has to recognize that the plan being proposed is not currently within the scope of the existing zoning codes, and that it is not an application of the existing owner. The City is under no obligation to alter a zoning code to facilitate a property sale. It does not serve the interests of Norwalk to alter a code to facilitate the use of the property by a future owner while planning efforts are underway to determine appropriate development in this area.
Once again, I respectfully request that the Planning Commission recommend AGAINST the approval of the text change amendment requested by the applicant. In addition, I would ask that the Planning Commission consider requesting a moratorium of nine to twelve months on permit applications and text amendments in an area defined by a one-mile diameter around the East Norwalk train station so that the Planning Commission, which is charged with carrying out the Plan of Conservation and Development, and the City, which will be conducting a state-funded TOD Study around the East Norwalk train station may permit the local bodies to consider, draft and adopt land use comprehensive plans and/or development regulations (or amendments).
For what it’s worth, I believe that some level of residential density is likely to be appropriate for this area. However, without the appropriate study, nobody is competent to determine what density level, and what mix of uses will be best. Giving the POCD and the TOD Study time to yield results will allow us to make informed decisions.
(Citizen) Debora Goldstein