Updated, 1:16 p.m.: Minor edit.
NORWALK, Conn. – A rooftop restaurant and a celebration of East Norwalk’s hat factory history are among the plans for 230 East Ave.
The proposal to “spot Zone” a transit oriented development on one property next to the East Norwalk train station has been a topic on back-to-back nights for the Planning and Zoning Commissions. On Tuesday, Clay Fowler of Spinnaker Partners shared with Planners his vision of creating an “exciting, creative place” at the former factory outlet, and on Wednesday, architect Seelan Pather Leed told Zoners that Spinnaker has learned about place making and wants to continue the streetscape of East Avenue with its storefronts.
Spinnaker, under the entity 230 East Avenue LLC, has an agreement to buy four properties totaling 3.62 acres at 230 East Ave. and 3 Rowan St., provided the Zoning Commission approves Zoning changes in the area to allow a transit oriented development (TOD) development.
This comes ahead of a just-funded study on an East Norwalk TOD district, drawing ire from some East Norwalk residents.
“We don’t have all the information that we need to suggest to us what ought to be happening there,” Zoning Commissioner Lou Schulman said Wednesday, calling it a quandary.
“In a perfect world, everything would be put on hold until all the studies were done,” said Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin, whose department in December won a $125,000 state grant to fund the study. “Selfishly, I wish (the study) was going on city-wide so I could get a complete handle on things all the time but you know I don’t live in that perfect world and applications come in, projects come forward so we have to work with what we have.”
The proposed regulation, drafted by Spinnaker’s attorneys, addresses only that particular property next to the train station “so it’s not predisposing any outcomes to any other area,” he said.
“I think that’s a benefit. I think we can look at this site in the context of what TOD for the area can be. Again, I think it’s important to note that it’s just this site,” Kleppin said. “If you are going to do TOD at this station, it’s going to be this site. So I think there’s opportunities later on to look at the other areas. Obviously as you get closer to particular neighborhoods things would obviously scale down because the development in those areas is not the same.”
The effort to create a new Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), otherwise called the city-wide master plan, might result in an East Norwalk neighborhood sounding board meeting before the public hearing on the TOD proposal, he said.
On Tuesday, Planning Commissioner Nora King said she’d already been asked “a ton of questions” about the project.
“I mean, I would rather see this than a self-storage unit, which I know someone is shopping around to do that, as well for that location. This makes much more sense to me but I really don’t get the traffic… and the parking,” she said.
The traffic there is already abysmal and the Connecticut Department of Transportation plans to revamp the roadway in connection with its Walk Bridge project, she said.
Everyone would like ConnDOT’s Walk Bridge plans to be further along than they are but the materials that are available have been studied thoroughly by Spinnaker’s traffic engineer, Michael Galante, Attorney Liz Suchy said.
The traffic report indicates that the area won’t be made significantly worse by the development, she said, to which King replied, “It is already unacceptable now.”
Spinnaker is deeply familiar with the Walk Bridge because of its Ironworks project, an apartment building next to the railroad tracks in SoNo, Fowler said.
“It’s not that it’s happening but that it’s happening over a long term,” he said, of the state project.
“Yes, we acknowledge that there is a traffic issue on East Avenue effectively from coming off the highway to getting to Cove because the road alignment is not good it’s got the weave,” Fowler said. “… We understand that is all going to be corrected with the East Avenue bridge reconstruction but that East Avenue bridge reconstruction is not in the immediate future. … We acknowledge traffic and there is not a lot that can be done until that is really fixed so we are not going to tell you stories out of school.”
Spinnaker plans mixed use on the property, rather than office space, because of the parking issue, he said, explaining that apartment dwellers don’t typically use their parking spaces during the day, freeing them for commuters.
“We want it to be lively. To be lively we need a variety of uses so we will have commercial, which will be a daytime use,” he said. “We’ll have some office but we’ll have some retail which will be a community/neighborhood use. We have had several meetings with community, with neighbors and other community spokespeople, who are highly desirous of enhancing that little area, maybe as a catalyst to additional rejuvenation or continued rejuvenation of the neighborhood. Retail would be helpful to that. We would have retail where it’s appropriate to have.”
There are “high and low” locations for restaurants, he said.
Spinnaker plans to reuse the existing concrete building and construct a new building next to it. Architect Seelan Pather Leed called a concrete building “the best you can build for any use,” with fire safety aspects that allow an assembly space on the roof. In this case, a restaurant.
Some of the best restauranteurs in the area have expressed some interest, Spinnaker reps said.
Spinnaker would like to have activities in its plaza similar to what it’s done at Ironworks, Fowler said.
“We’d like to make an enhanced streetscape in that little driveway through the two buildings with different markings, different pavement potentially. And also put some retail or office facing that area so we can have a little more density of non-residential use in that very public area,” Fowler said.
On Wednesday, Leed talked about the property’s history as a factory that once employed 1,400 hatters.
“That history should be brought back to life with photographs and collections in the lobby,” he said.
Part of the existing building, which is made of steel instead of concrete, would be removed to provide a courtyard with a sense of place, a sense of entry, he said.
There might be a rooftop pool for tenants as well, Leed said.
Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak on Tuesday asked Fowler if the company has considered work/live studios.
“Yes, we have explored that,” Fowler said. “We hope to make this a very exciting, creative place. The building speaks to creative work, whether it be software development or startups and we are very hopeful that the commercial area in the part of the yellow area will be a place where we can look to that new economy, startup type folks. We have been approached by some of the larger I would call it software/internet companies in the area to potentially do a dormitory style facility for them, where they actually could live and work in the same place. It’s too early to say that that will be a use but we are tailoring our philosophy about the building to that sort of user.”
Mushak pressed on the height of the building, gaining confirmation that it would be the same height as 25 Van Zant St.
“I am 100 percent certain that a TOD study would recommend this project. 100 percent certain. It’s housing and mixed used next to a train station,” Mushak said, going on to detail other studies that have recommended housing and mixed use next to a train station, including the 2012 Norwalk Transportation Management Plan and the Western Connecticut Economic Development Plan released in November.
“I think if we look at the holistic planning environment of Fairfield County … all the plans are recommending high density development next to train stations,” Mushak said. “To wait a year or however long it takes for another study to basically say the same thing – I think that study is going to deal with areas beyond the train station, which we need that information, but certainly not right next to the train station. I think if this were three blocks away I would say let’s halt. But I would certainly recommend not putting a moratorium on this… this is classic TOD in my mind. It fits, based on everything I could find.”
Planning Commissioner David Davidson asked Kleppin to compare Spinnakers proposed density with the densities approved for Waypointe and Highpointe, and the South Norwalk TOD.
“I want the public to understand the density issues,” Davidson said. “…I think we are building dense projects that are even more dense than Waypointe. I have a real problem, I think the public has a real problem, with what Waypointe ended up looking like. I think it’s important to get a context.”
Spinnaker’s proposed mixed use complex is currently planned for 189 apartments. If approved, construction would probably begin early next year and take 15-18 months to complete, Fowler said.
Mushak said that he’d looked at Google Earth to get a feel for the area, and it looked like there are empty storefronts.
“I’m like, you drive by that, you’re going down to Marvin Beach or wherever you live in all these neighborhoods, and then that burned out building across the street, it looks like a ghetto. It looks like an area that has been burned out, or the buildings are empty. And they have been empty a long time… I have been living here now close to 17 years. I don’t remember that area ever really thriving,” Mushak said.
Folwer replied, “We are going to make it look a lot better than it does now.”
This story was done from recordings.