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Spinnaker pitches East Norwalk TOD development to P&Z Commissions

The latest artist’s rendering of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners’ plan for 230 East Avenue.

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. 

230 East Ave (1-9-18)

18 comments

Andrew January 18, 2018 at 7:04 am

I’m enjoying this proposal. On one hand it is going to TOD being next the train station, and the other parking is not a problem for commuters because residents will get up and drive away to their jobs elsewhere, leaving space for commuters to use during the day.

And then there is the always great traffic argument that this development will have no significant impact on traffic along East Avenue.

Mike Mushak January 18, 2018 at 8:34 am

The expansion of allowed uses on this site to include residential in an Industrial 1 Zone is not spot zoning by definition (see below), but a re-definition of an existing zone based on the goals and objectives of the POCD and our 2012 Transportation Management Plan as well as several regional plans covering Fairfield County, that recommend building housing near transit, and that also reflects the POCD recommendation to expand uses in our Industrial Zones to reflect market trends.

Manufacturers are not beating down the doors to build new factories in Norwalk, for better or worse, and if a factory was to suddenly show up and miraculously open up and employ 1,400 employees like the original hat factory or even let’s say 500 employees, the sudden traffic influx from shift changes would cripple traffic in East Norwalk the same way that Norden clogged Strawberry Hill Ave for decades whenever their shifts changed, even requiring traffic cops to prevent gridlock in that area of the city. Many folks remember that well.

Studies show that residential traffic is more spread out than office or manufacturing as many folks work different shifts, or work at home, or in this location certainly take the train. The “pig in the snake” effect of peak tidal traffic flow does not happen with residential use. Basically no one leaves all at once and arrives home all at once.

The same kind of expansion of residential use in an industrial zone happened at Norden Park and the sky did not fall nor was the neighborhood ruined, when a strictly residential 240-unit Avalon was built on that former industrial site.

In comparison this project is a 198-unit mixed-use building next to train station, with office and retail, that is completely surrounded by the “NB” or Neighborhood Business Zone, that already allows similar mixed uses including multi-family residential, retail, boutique manufacturing, and other uses. Expanding uses at this site therefore is in context with existing surrounding uses, and is therefore not a spot zone like the now withdrawn Cumberland Farms proposal that expanded retail into a strictly residential neighborhood.

Here is the definition of spot zoning from Wikipedia, which excludes zone changes that are “consistent with, and further the purposes of the general area plan” :

“The small size of the parcel is not the sole defining characteristic of a spot zone. Rather, the defining characteristic is the narrowness and unjustified nature of the benefit to the particular property owner, to the detriment of a general land use plan or public goals. The rezoning may provide unjustified special treatment that benefits a particular owner, while undermining the pre-existing rights and uses of adjacent property owners. This would be called an instance of spot zoning. On the other hand, a change in zoning for a small land area may not be a spot zone, if it is consistent with, and furthers the purposes of the general area plan.”

Bob Welsh January 18, 2018 at 8:48 am

How many parking spaces does Spinnaker expect to need for their 189 new apartments?

Of that number, how many already exist and how many would need to be newly created?

marija bryant January 18, 2018 at 10:17 am

TOD is great but there seems to be a disconnect in the parking logic. Doesn’t assuming that residents leave parking spaces to drive to work during the day go against the logic of living right at a commuter line? Yes, folks would have a car to get around town but would sit on their space during the workday when they would (ideally) be taking the train to commute. So, where do train commuters park that don’t live in the building?

Debora Goldstein January 18, 2018 at 11:41 am

Everyone should be very, very clear on the retail aspect of this plan. While presentations and drawings for this project on both nights discussed an increased amount of retail (a bank of storefronts along the newly built residential structure in the entry courtyard to “activate” the ground level area) and a reduced number of apartments (189), the application calls for exactly 1,500 sq ft of retail and a maximum of 195 residential units. The 1,500 sq ft of retail is the ground level of a two story building meant to front along East Avenue, close to the railroad bridge.

This is what the Zoning Commission will be approving, if the application is not modified, all discussions of what the developer is “considering” or “thinking about” as we proceed notwithstanding:

a. #11-17R/#11-17SP/#29-17CAM – 230 East Avenue, LLC – 230 East Ave/3 Rowan St/Osborne Av – Proposed amendments to Section 118-700 to permit transit oriented development (TOD) in the Ind#1 zone at the East Norwalk Railroad Station and special permit for 5-6 story, 260,663 sf mixed use development with 195 dwelling units, 40,955 sf office, 2,130 sf restaurant,1,500 sf retail and 15,939 sf Pooch Hotel (existing) in 4 separate buildings.

For those of you hoping for true mixed use at this location in advance of the TOD Study or the POCD, the developers intention (excluding the pre-existing Pooch Hotel) is for 90% of the sq footage to be office-type commercial and residential units and 10% COMBINED to be retail and a restaurant. That restaurant will be a roof-top restaurant and that 1,500 feet of retail will be another facade along the street frontage Mr Mushak has so endearingly labeled a “ghetto”.

There is NO public realm space, and no written plan for signage/wayfinding/permitting that will encourage full and robust use of “public” or “commuter” parking that the developer may be offering on this site, some of which is sandwiched invisibly behind one building and all the way at the end of the permit-holder commuter parking lot owned by the DOT.

I am not sure why the applicant is allowed to present drawings that include designs that are different from the application, but I would wager that the developer will only be obligated to the numbers that appear on the application.

Even if you accept the value case for a SINGLE PROPERTY to receive a TOD designation in advance of ALL study on TOD for this particular transit hub, we should all stick to discussing the same project, so we can fairly debate the outcomes.

Steve Mann January 18, 2018 at 11:44 am

Yes, marija, it’s called double-speak. On one hand the argument is that tenants won’t own cars because they’ll ALL take the train to work, and on the other hand, those same people will get in their (imaginary) cars and leave in the morning, thus freeing up parking spaces. Personally, I would welcome a well thought out plan for development, but this parking scenario is an insult to anyone’s intelligence.

Rick January 18, 2018 at 11:57 am

Its obvious with all the drama there is disconnect at city hall.

Avalon has put a hold on projects in the pipeline, Cashman and Wakefield has taken a step back , percents in empty units from NY city to Boston is rising , high end ,low end or subsidized units are taking a hit.News on housing is not the time to build there is no money in it unless your working a deal with the city.

Screw google earth read the Wall st , read it twice if you cant keep up just read the news each day and ponder what is the best investment for the city.

Even better read your police log most of the large luxury and regular apartments the residents are losing their cars , reposses is term that used in the log daily.

What if you rent next to the rail and then rent your space out would that be cheaper for a commuter? What is a space now?

If our experts used , the area is hard hit with break ins and the influx of renters would deter crime then maybe that would be some logic. Then again using that logic won’t pull in renters will it?

If Spinnaker pitches, Liz has spit on the ball.

Debora Goldstein January 18, 2018 at 1:47 pm

How can you suggest there is a general plan for the area, when the study for such a plan has just been funded?

Granting the zone change to the BUYER gives the OWNER a unique benefit here. The owner is getting a premium sale price for the zone change designation that no other I-1 property owner will benefit from because this will be the only TOD property in the zone. This walks, swims and quacks like spot zoning.

At the end of the day, the wrong question is being debated. The question is not whether this is a good project, or whether Mssrs Fowler and Fieber are good people with good intentions. It’s whether a zone change of this magnitude should be accorded to a single property using criteria derived to design a zone for an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT AREA OF THE CITY, when a perfectly good study, funded by the state is about to begin.

If we didn’t accept text amendments at the same time as project applications, we could look at this request rationally. First the zone change, then the project and it’s fitness for the zone.

Nora K King January 18, 2018 at 3:12 pm

The plan seems to fit the area. I like what was presented and think it will be a huge improvement for the area.

Pamela Parkington January 18, 2018 at 3:42 pm

Deb, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

Ok, so we wait, deal falls through, what then?

Are you good with having a Storage Facility there? Because I and many others are not.

That will certainly drive down home values and further depress the area.

Oh by the way everyone, there will be 201 parking spaces below ground.

Debora Goldstein January 18, 2018 at 4:14 pm

Pam, it’s not about the project…it’s about East Norwalk. After a very cooperative process, the city applied for, and was awarded $125k to plan the area.

Put a cover over the developers plan and pretend you don’t know that it is Spinnaker. Now ask whether it is appropriate to change the special permit exception for I-1 to permit dense residential R-3 housing on ONE PROPERTY to facilitate a SALE of a property.

Nobody does TOD for a single property, and nobody uses the zoning code based upon years of study around one transit hub to cut and paste a TOD zone around a completely different transit hub.

It appears at least two Planning Commissioners have already made up their minds about what East Norwalk’s roads, rails and neighborhood around the train station should be, and that is unfortunate, because this is the first time in decades that the city and the state are giving the community a choice, and the rush to facilitate the sale of one property is going to take that away.

We had no say in the Walk Bridge, the roadway lowering, the “taking” of local businesses and residences, etc. We had no input at all when the East Avenue “improvements” were stopped at Fitch St, instead of running all the way to Exit 16.

As long as you are focused on a YES-NO on the project, instead of focusing on the zoning language change, you are missing the point. Once the language is changed for this one lot, and a zoning map created to define TOD, all 31 acres of I-1 around the train infrastructure will be fair game for six story dense residential housing with only a special permit application.

It simply won’t matter what the TOD Study says after that, because the zone change that normally comes AFTER a study, with public hearings, etc, will already have been set.

East Norwalk is not a robust transit hub like South Norwalk. We shouldn’t be required to wear it’s hand-me-down TOD study/regs.

Rick January 18, 2018 at 5:22 pm

November saw an annualized rate of 4.6 billion in new construction in the storage sector ,those REIT’s are people like Brookfield the probably openers of the Sono mall. Headlines are the party is coming to an end in the storage business.

Todays news is US jobless rate is at a 45 year low Ct figures say it has risen

With all the talk of new buildings has does anyone look at the economy and what tough shape the state is in?

Industry giants are saying on the average where state are doing well building is not the way to go, that is the case with malls , apartments and storage facilities. Why should Norwalk continue to follow the wrong path?

No immediate future is going to bring this state back, hard work and new politicians may work , Norwalk had its chance to grow with vision right now the vision is clouded by experts.

Who is keeping track with whats going on in Hartford? They don’t pay our bills we are paying theirs.

Donna Smirniotopoulos January 18, 2018 at 6:46 pm

Increased density near the East Norwalk train station is inevitable. This does not mean this specific proposal by Spinnaker is the best possible outcome for the area. A few things to consider before people jump on the “looks better than what’s there now” bandwagon:

The application is from a developer WHO DOES NOT CURRENTLY OWN THE PROPERTY. That’s right. A prospective owner/developer is asking for a TEXT CHANGE for something he does not own.

The application calls for 1500 square feet of retail. I sat through both meetings, and the amount of retail kept shifting. The presentation both nights included retail NOT SHOWN ON THE APPLICATION.

The number of residential units keeps shifting as well, from 195, to 180 and back up again.

The aerial shots and renderings were misleading. The rendering of Rowan street was off the charts, showing a broad boulevard lined with trees. Does Spinnaker plan to fund this fantasy?

Two members of the Planning Commission seem to have made up their minds before public comment has closed on the hearing, tentatively slated for early March. Should Mike Mushak and Nora King recuse themselves in light of their apparent bias in favor of this proposal?

Mr. Mushak has demonstrated bias with regard to certain individuals and persons who fit a particular class, whom he dismisses as Trump supporters, millionaires and newcomers (or all three). Can we trust Mr. Mushak to listen to these people without prejudice? Many East Norwalk residents own beautiful and expensive waterfront homes. Mushak has indicated that their voices and opinions are tainted by their wealth and privilege.

What mechanisms can the PC or the ZC put in place, should they decide to proceed with the text change, to ensure that the distribution of residential to retail does not change over time? Developers have returned to ask for favors based on the changing market. No one wants to see this as a 90% residential development. It’s already 80% Residential.

Text Change Amendments should not apply to specific parcels and developers. Text Change Amendments are meant to apply to a zone, and not a parcel. The application is irregular on its face.

Norwalk JUST received funding for an East Norwalk TOD study. The study would include this area, naturally. Allowing the study to be completed in advance of developing this property would enable competitors to vie for approval and Norwalk would wind up with the best proposal rather than merely the first. No one, neither the PC nor the ZC nor the citizens at large, should lose site of this because they’re blinded by the shiny object in front of them.

Finally, we all need to consider the possibility that the developer is looking for a text change in order to purchase the property and spin it off at a profit with the approvals already in place. This wouldn’t be the first time Spinnaker asked for zone changes and then flipped the property. Reed-Putnam was theirs before it became an enterprise zone. Spinnaker won the enterprise zone designation, with its lucrative tax credits, before they sold the property to GGP. The developer may have very little intention of executing this project.

Donna Smirniotopoulos January 18, 2018 at 8:49 pm

@Nora King, please allow for the possibility that East Norwalk neighbors may not see this as an improvement. Also consider that, though this proposal may look nice, in advance of the TOD study that has yet to begin, how can anyone know this would be a positive change for East Norwalk? The Planning Commission cannot know this. Adding nearly 200 residential units at this spot may not be optimal and may not be the only option. Something smaller with more retail and public space could be a better option. If the PC approves the text change, we may never know the potential of this parcel. In my opinion, adding 180-195 apartments and possibly 400 cars, does not sound like a recipe for vibrancy in East Norwalk. The tenants who commute by train won’t vacate their spaces. Those who do drive aren’t fulfilling the vision of a TOD.

Adolph Neaderland January 19, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Nora, I admit to being a “naysayer” when our Planning and Zoning folks cherry pick spot zoning changes to favor a developer.
Norwalk needs a comprehensive PLAN (currently under way as the 2018 PODC) before another major block of land is locked out.
In light of the POCD activity, there should be a moratorium on major projects until the ’18 POCD is completed, to assure a future fit.
We have a poor record for considering the unintended consequences of looking at projects piecemeal, as they come up.
(As an aside, I also do not think the city should be responsible for developer profitability, granting tax abatements as an example).

Rick January 20, 2018 at 7:11 pm

City council in Bridgeport gave up its authority to approve tax breaks for developers. The city gave this task economic development office.

Now they want to limit tax subsidies and put it back into the hands of whom the people elected.

What a novel idea.

Ken February 28, 2018 at 6:42 pm

I don’t think voices from anybody who doesn’t live in East Norwalk should have much if any say in the matter of zoning changes. Our “Planning commissioner” has a vision of urbanizing Norwalk. Hardly an impartial voice as one with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Its up to us to decide what road we want to go down. Ever increasing population and expenses or common sense development along lines we can sustain. Its important to remember that every run down apartment complex, empty development, every slum, was once a visionary’s dream sold as an answer to an areas needs. We can see run down and empty developments in other cities all around us. Its really a choice between East Norwalk becoming Bridgeport or not. Id resist virtually ALL efforts top further urbanize our city. Urbanization always comes with higher taxes, higher violent crime, higher poverty, increased vice crime. All the things smart people move away from.

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