Planning Commissioners move East Norwalk TOD forward

Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn, center, shows artistic renderings of the proposal for 230 East Ave. at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Planning Commissioners on Tuesday gave a nod of approval to a mixed-use development next to the East Norwalk train station, with only one dissenting voice.

While David Davison argued that the city should wait for a Transit Oriented Development study to be done for the area, others said they were looking forward to Spinnaker Real Estate Partners beginning construction of its apartment complex on the site of the former Factory Outlet store.

The Commission’s approval, with amendments for open space and setbacks, means that Spinnaker will only need a simple majority for Zoning Commission approval.

Davidson charged that his colleagues do not plan, urging that a new city-wide master plan, or Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), and the recently funded TOD study direct the future of the East Norwalk train station area, and, “we should not be using a text change amendment to apply to a specific parcel.”

“This has been the cause of much of the disjointed development in the past,” Davidson said. “We should do our planning first and development after our planning. Allowing this key property to be developed in the absence of (the TOD study) will preclude appropriate development in the greater TOD zone once it’s established…. This may or may not be the best use of this property. But this is the key property in the TOD area.”

“We do plan,” Steve Ferguson replied. “That’s what we are doing here. No other proper uses were brought forward. This property has been not fully utilized over the years. The Commission has not seen a plan otherwise showing what other uses of that property could be.”

“I do feel like a lot of planning has gone into this project. I feel like it’s well done, it will fit the area,” Nora King said, explaining that she feels that the grant can fund a look at the surrounding area.

“Some people don’t want to give developers credit but I feel like we have a developer who has proven himself in Norwalk,” she said, continuing to say that Spinnaker Chairman Clay Fowler has done “a fairly good job” on most of his projects.

“I have faith that he is going to put his best foot forward with this. I think it’s going to enhance the area and it’s exactly the project that the city of Norwalk is looking for,” she said.

Spinnaker has proposed a mixed-use repurposing of the old hat factory at 230 East Ave., to include 50-60 apartments with other uses on its main floor, and contruct a new building for a total 195 apartments right next to the East Norwalk train station. The existing Pooch Hotel would remain on what would be a 3.62-acre development.

The project fits every goal the city has had in her five or six years on Planning and Zoning, King said.

“This is the kind of zoning reform that a lot of people have been calling for,” Mike Mushak said. “This is called for in the master plan, to look at our industrial zones on a spot by spot, individual basis and develop what’s best.”

You could say that the area should have been rezoned from its Industrial One usage years ago, but the Planning and Zoning Commissions aren’t “spot zoning,” because “spot zoning is when a zoning change does not fit the context or the master plan,” he said.

Some have said that traffic will get even worse by the railroad bridge with Spinnaker’s TOD development.

“I would argue that no one is going to live here that’s going to want to get in a car and drive,” Mushak said. “There’s lots of other places to live. If you are going to live next to the train tracks and listen to all that noise and be right there, you ae going to take the train. That’s why you live there.”

The proposed building is the same height as other buildings in the area and, “If this building was proposed to be a high rise here I would say put the brakes on… let’s wait for the study,” Mushak said. “But this is contextual. It’s a perfect infill project. It’s the scale that fits the neighborhood.”

The seller is anxious to sell, and the Industrial One zone would allow uses such as a bus storage terminal, a building storage yard or municipal sewage treatment facilities, he said.

“We could literally have AMEC, who is looking for a place to have a big contractor’s yard. We would have no control over one of the choicest sites,” Mushak said. “… We may end up shooting ourselves in the foot if we say let’s wait for the TOD study.”

Brian Baxendale, attending the meeting by telephone, said he agreed that the development would enhance the area.

Tammy Langalis said she supports the project overall, but had misgivings due to some of the public commentary that’s been submitted. Fans of the development outnumbers opponents, but she suspected that developers might have lined up the supportive emails, she said.

“The average person in East Norwalk is not being heard,” she said, dismissing Attorney Liz Suchy’s assertion that neighborhood meetings had been held.

While she’s very concerned about impacts to the infrastructure and the “horrible” problems that will be caused when the Connecticut Department of Transportation rebuilds the neighboring railroad bridge and lowers East Avenue, “I think you can study things to death, too, though,” Langalis said.

“Maybe this is one of those situations where you don’t wait for the TOD because we think they are going to tell us what we already know, in this situation,” Langalis said. “… If we lose a good developer and end up with some industrial use then maybe we have lost an opportunity to improve the neighborhood and perhaps improve the businesses across the street.”

Chairwoman Fran DiMeglio said that as an East Norwalk resident, she welcomes the project.

She spent a lot of time driving around the property and the neighborhood, and the existing, vacant old factory is “one ugly building,” she said.

People riding the train or getting off at the station see “a desolate spot” in a prime area, she said, likening the vista to East Baltimore.

The surrounding area is a hodge podge of laundromats, strip malls and auto repair facilities, with bad sidewalks, an area that needs revitalization, she said, concluding, “to me, grant really is needed to look at what is this area going to be, beyond just the train station.”

“I say to myself, can we wait? I know, ‘don’t do it for a developer.’ … I am hoping it will become a catalyst to open up to the rest of the neighborhood,” DiMeglio said.

The vote was six to one. DiMeglio encouraged citizens to come to next month’s Zoning Commission public hearing on the topic.


Al Bore February 21, 2018 at 6:48 am

Mr. Mayor, our weak common council, and our lack of planing and zoning please before you let the developers that control you build more apartment buildings as we watch the disappearing sky line go away to over development, for just once please think first. The traffic, the infrastructure can’t handle it, our schools that are over crowded, and the cost of it now and in the future will be astronomical. This will take it’s toll on the tax payers and the city will forever be changed for the worst. You are ruining what was once a city people came to live and make it their home and you are turning it into a place where people come to rent for a while until they can find a nice place live and purchase a home some where outside of the too over crowded city of Norwalk. THINK just once and listen to the taxpayers who know that this is the wrong direction for Norwalk. We need a professional city planner and we need one quickly. Bring in businesses to Norwalk we have plenty of vacant buildings like Norden place. Norwalk is being ruined due to a lack of planning and poor zoning all which has needed to be changed for decades and our city government proved for decades they can’t do it. They just don’t know how period. Norwalk (The rental city) our new slogan! Shame on you all, are property values have been stagnant for a reason and it is not because you are doing a great job.

Rem February 21, 2018 at 8:16 am

Converting large buildings into apartments has great short term gain but long term the city loses low cost floor area for business. That will drive up rent due to less stock meaning it will be less attractive for businesses to come to Norwalk. It would be beneficial to hear from City Council how they will address citizen concerns such as Al Bore above.

Mike Mushak February 21, 2018 at 8:59 am

@Rem, the project has over an acre (about 45,000 square feet) of office and retail included, which includes the entire first floor of the old factory building. The developer stated the office will be geared towards innovative tech and live/work setups with folks living upstairs and working downstairs.

The new buildings are no higher than what’s there now and are about the same height as the old factory on Van Zant around the corner, so these clearly are not “high rises” or out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

John E. Tobin February 21, 2018 at 9:48 am

We all knew the outcome of this vote before it was taken, but after reading this article I do feel much better about this project.
#1) I now know that no one who lives there will drive.
#2) I am comforted by the ringing endorsement that the developer does a “fairly good job” on “most” of his projects.
#3) And I now know that seeing one plan means The Planning Commission does plan because “the Commission has not seen a plan otherwise showing what other uses of that property could be.” Which reminded me that last night we had no plans for dinner, so we asked our son what he wanted and he said cookies and ice cream, since we were presented with only one plan that’s what we had!

All aboard, the Zoning Commission is the next stop on the madness train.

marija bryant February 21, 2018 at 10:22 am

We plan “islands” in Norwalk – approving this development here and that one there and, in the end, winding up with a patchwork that doesn’t connect and doesn’t work. Norwalk is better than this – or could be.

Michael Foley February 21, 2018 at 10:32 am

John your funny ! and sadly correct this plan was approved the first day we read about it the paper, I hope you enjoyed the cookies & Ice cream. You might want to stock up it going to be along couple of years !

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 21, 2018 at 11:01 am

What’s the point of writing to the Planning Commissioners if they’re not going to touch upon the thorny problem of what amounts to spot zoning to benefit one developer? It doesn’t matter how good this developer is. One commissioner’s opinion of how ugly the building is now does not pass for planning.

The important takeaway from this sorry decision is that Harry Rilling owns this land use body, with the lone exception of Mr. Davidson. He may well own the Zoning Commission also, though I am less certain about the ZBA. As long as these commissions are populated through mayoral appointments and we keep electing (well some of us) the same mayor, we can expect the same results moving forward. Benefits will continue to accrue to rich developers and homeowners will continue to bear the financial and quality of life burdens for the City.

Follow the money from campaign to development. It’s eye-opening.

Lisa Brinton Thomson February 21, 2018 at 11:50 am

Agree with all the comments from previous posters. “The vote was six to one. DiMeglio encouraged citizens to come to next month’s Zoning Commission public hearing on the topic.” Really? Based upon the comments by the commissioners, save Mr. Davidson, this is a fait accompli because Norwalk has never met a specific zoning change it didn’t like.

I don’t know if this project is good or bad. What I do know is once again, Norwalk ‘planners’ are making spot zoning changes. After all, it’s the Norwalk way and partially the reason why we are a hodgepodge city with a stagnate grand list that can’t support its school system.

One more thing. Are any of the commissioners from East Norwalk? I feel that part of town has been absolutely abused over the years and is reflected in the traffic when I drive around there. Two of the commissioners were from my side of town. Would they have approved this change (before a TOD study) near our train station? Hmmm….

Al Bore February 21, 2018 at 1:37 pm

Mike Mushak what about traffic in the surrounding neighborhood, oh that’s right these people won’t drive therefore they won’t own cars. John Tobin great post I enjoyed it, thank you!

V February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

What vision do the zoning folks have for the “mixed use” portion? More restaurants? Beyond a quick excerpt of work/live. Be more definitive in that? what dynamic sort of companies would envision putting roots in Norwalk CT in this location? You kind of get the feeling that in the end this development will be ALL apartments and nothing but apartments. Perhaps these fine folks should take a ride by some of local reservoirs and see first hand how low they are.

Lisa Brinton Thomson February 21, 2018 at 2:33 pm

Thank you Nancy for the clarification. Missed the sentence about Fran. John Tobin, your cookies and ice cream analogy is spot on, very funny and sad at the same time.

Adolph Neaderland February 21, 2018 at 2:51 pm

Another example of bypassing an integrated “plan” for the city.

We are spending time and money to evolve a Plan called POCD and undercutting it simultaneously. Why bather, just spot zone whatever is proposed.

We are aware that locals to this parcel are not happy, in fact incensed with the process of ignoring the community. They do not want this spot zoned project, are in favor of a well conceived comprehensive balanced city plan, that includes light industrial to shore up the low paying commercial businesses downtown.

Listen to the community!

Patrick Cooper February 21, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Here are some questions I have for our Planning commission.

1. How many (legal) apartment units are there in Norwalk?
2. What is the overall occupancy?
3. What is the average number of people per occupied apartment?
4. What is that percentage to our latest census?
5. What is the total property tax bill paid by these apartments as a percentage to the grand list?
6. What is the plan? How many more? Including these 250, and the 710 unit Grist Mill Village, the additions at Waypointe, the Head of the Harbor, the dozens of others – what are we shooting for?

Someone please explain to me why adding 10,000 apartment units to a city that already has 20,000+ is good for the property owing property tax paying residents who foot the bill?

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 3:19 pm

Wow, a whole acre…this is how the project shakes out (using the actual uses permitted in the zoning code, and the figures provided for the Zoning Commission Agenda tonight)

78% – Residential units totaling 215,025 sq ft (189 studio, 1br & 2br)
12.5% – Office space totaling 34,650 sq ft
1.5% – Rooftop Restaurant totaling 4,260 sq ft (2,130 sq ft active)
2% – Retail totaling 5,550 sq ft (4,163 sq ft active)
6% – Animal Care Center totaling 15,939 sq ft (existing Pooch Hotel)

33% – Exterior on-grade Parking Spaces (104)
66% – Underground below-grade Parking Spaces (207)

The developer “may” allow commuters to use perhaps two dozen of those underground spaces. The shared use of parking is likely to be among the commercial tenants in the property and the residents of that property–unlike commuter parking, the need for these spaces is created by the development in the first place.

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 3:34 pm


That’s the point. This zone wasn’t “planned” by planning or zoning. It was “planned” by a developer. The upcoming “plans” in the form of a TOD Study and the POCD (10 year master plan) won’t be able to use this property for a comprehensively designed Transit Oriented Development ZONE because it is now a Transit Oriented Development PARCEL.

Nobody designs TOD property by property. Except Norwalk.

And nobody designs a Transit Oriented Development District without comprehensive study of the infrastructure and connectivity in the area.

South Norwalk got years of study and plenty of public meetings before this zone change passed based upon the conditions in SOUTH NORWALK.

We are now cutting the INCREASED DENSITY and REDUCED PARKING requirements meant for South Norwalk (and ONLY those two requirements) and pasting them in East Norwalk.

A study of the stations ALONE would suggest this is folly. South Norwalk has platforms that can handle 10 cars, had indoor shelter, live ticket sellers, 800 parking spots and bus hub connectivity. East Norwalk has platforms that can handle only 4 cars (6 when the DOT is done), has no indoor shelter, has only automated ticket machines that don’t work when its cold, parking dispersed all the way to Exit 16 and a single, off street bus stop.

The DOT’s own assessment of this property indicates it is not ADA compliant. The steep slopes here make the already treacherous ramps adjacent to this parcel even more so. A comprehensive plan might call for this development to pony up for decreasing the grade and adding some ADA accessibility as part of an overall plan for the area–but even if the study recommends this next year–we won’t be able to ask this developer to do it.

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 3:36 pm

And as an East Norwalker, I’d appreciate it if the Commissioner who has previously called this area a “ghetto” stop disparaging this neighborhood by also suggesting it is unsafe at night. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Bob Welsh February 21, 2018 at 4:19 pm

Deb: Thank you for the additional info. Do you know if any parking spaces currently available to commuters will become unavailable if this project is built?

Mike Mushak February 21, 2018 at 4:25 pm

There were many reasons, perhaps a dozen, listed in the Master Plan supporting this project, including the one recommending rezoning underused industrial sites like this one to encourage development. I’m working in the field today or I’d list them all, but if anyone wants to see them I can probably post it later.

These 15 or so reasons were all listed in the resolution to approve voted on last night by the Planning Commission, along with other references supporting dense mixed use projects like this next to transit stops listed in millions of dollars of other studies, including the 2012 Norwalk Transportation Management Plan, 2015 WestCOG South West CT Long Range Transportation Plan 2015-2040, and the 2017 WestCOG Western Connecticut Economic Development Plan.

All of these plans reference a huge projected future population growth in Norwalk over the next 20 years to support projects like this, and the need to build density near transit to mitigate traffic on the existing road network.

The main reason our housing costs are among the highest in the country are because of the shortage of housing, so it’s classic supply and demand at work. As we build more housing to absorb the population growth and make up for decades-long shortages, housing choices increase for folks of all ages and abilities and incomes, neighborhoods are revitalized with new economic activity benefiting small businesses like restaurants and other services which means jobs, and the grand list increases to help pay for the investment we need to stay a viable and attractive city with good schools and safe stable neighborhoods and a high quality of life.

Smart growth like this is actually being done in all cities around the country, and Norwalk doesn’t exist in a vacuum where these same demographic pressures and planning trends somehow don’t exist.

Plenty of studies show folks of all ages including millennials and retirees want to live in, and businesses want to locate to, areas near transit stops that are also walkable and bikable, which is why GE left its isolated 1970’s era suburban campus that some younger employees called the “morgue”, to go to a vibrant downtown location in Boston. These were the words of the former CEO, not mine.

Also, to answer a comment above, rental apartments absolutely do pay property taxes. Landlords aren’t exempt from paying property tax unless they are in an Enterprise Zone which defers the full tax for 7 years although a percentage is still paid every year up to year 7 depending on the location.

This project is not in an Enterprise Zone.

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 4:52 pm

Bob, I haven’t wanted to waste P&Z staff time to research the exact number of spaces that are available now. I can’t tell on an overhead view of the site which ones currently are MTA paid spaces (maybe the parking authority knows?), especially because the spaces have been traded back and forth amongst the City and MTA over the years. I just don’t know the history. I do know that the most recent swap to take the long strip of parking back for the commuters along the rail track is because the DOT is going to need it for staging when the East Norwalk Railroad bridge work is done in coordination with the Walk Bridge..

The developer certainly has reason to want to get this built before that work begins so they aren’t underfoot with construction on both ends of the parcel.

You might look at the site layout plan dated 11-30-18 on the p&z web site (https://ct-norwalk2.civicplus.com/1746/Applications-Pending), especially the greyed area, for the number of spaces that will be undergrounded. These are not part of the commuter parking currently, after the swap, but they certainly won’t be made available for commuters after this project goes through–even if a TOD study recommends consolidating the disparate parking lots around the train station itself.

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm

One other thought–and I am not suggesting the developer will do this–only that they CAN do this.

If this project is approved, there is nothing to stop the developer from going back to the ZC and asking to modify the approved project to remove all the retail that was recently added to make this more “mixed use”. If the ZC deems this a “minor change”, there won’t even be a public hearing on it.

Remember, the only retail in the original version of this plan was 1,500 sf of retail along East Avenue, which is NB-1 anyhow.

And AGAIN, I am not saying this plan is good or bad. There are pros and cons to it. But I do believe that East Norwalk deserves to have the area studied, with at least a fraction of the due diligence accorded South Norwalk, before we apply the TOD designation to a single parcel–especially one that would be the focal point of the entire TOD area.

I am not convinced that East Norwalk’s transit, pedestrian and road infrastructure can handle the kind of density that South Norwalk can. The stations are completely different in their capacities, service levels and in what the surrounding connectivity can handle.

Debora Goldstein February 21, 2018 at 5:33 pm

No need Mike. Here they are, along with some of the other POCD language that would ALSO be considered as part of a comprehensive TOD plan for the area (not just increased density and reduced parking and not just for a single parcel.

Many of them call for the kind of study that South Norwalk got for it’s TOD zone. NONE of them, nor do any of the other studies you name, specify exactly THIS amount of density around THIS train station. None of them suggest a one-size fits all TOD density for Rowayton or Merritt 7 or East Norwalk based upon the TOD specs specific to South Norwalk.

Locating new businesses adjacent to transit corridors will greatly increase the likelihood of public transportation options in the future.

Balanced Economic Growth
Balancing Uses
In the past, the City has successfully avoided the problems associated with single-use districts—such as “bedroom” communities and office parks. These problems can include greater traffic congestion, undue tax burdens on select sectors, and overdependence on particular industries. Future redevelopment planning should identify underperforming sites that detract from their surrounding districts, and which can accommodate and benefit from growth. Additionally, by placing new growth near transit centers, increased congestion and other potential consequences of new development can be minimized. Compact development patterns, sensitively designed and based on transit centers, should include efforts to preserve open spaces and other public areas.

Balancing Opportunities
Balance also means being diverse—economically, racially, by age, and in many other ways—a characteristic valued by current Norwalk residents. A sustainable economy supports a mix
of industries—from shellfish to software—requiring a diverse housing stock that doesn’t “price out” the very workers on whom these industries depend. Recent research suggests that “the condominium is out of reach of all but the top 30% of households in Norwalk while the single family home is beyond the reach of all but the top 9%.” A commitment to housing affordability means embracing compact, neighborhood-conscious, transit-based development.

A.3.1 Encourage office development in appropriate locations
A.3.1.1 Direct office development to areas near mass transit (rail, bus, public and corporate shuttles, and other modes) to help minimize the need for adapting the capacity of infrastructure systems

B.1.1.1 Conduct an ongoing assessment of City infrastructure capacity and determine its ability to accommodate development projections and plans
B.1.1.2 Encourage new development around transit access, and allow new development which does not exceed the capacity of infrastructure systems (roads, sewers, water, etc)

The dependence on the automobile can only be reduced by a combination of improved public transit and pedestrian-friendly redevelopment based on transportation hubs.
E.1.1 Provide an efficient and effective system of transportation
E.1.1.1 Support improvements to public transit and traffic management measures as the highest priorities
E.2.1 Encourage the use of public transit by supporting convenient, reliable, and efficient transportation services
E.2.1.4 Coordinate Wheels bus service with train arrivals and departures, including provision of reverse commute rail shuttle
E.2.1.5 Encourage Metro-North to continue to review and adjust train schedules to meet the needs of residents and the businesses they serve
E.2.1.8 Provide adequate parking at train stations

E.2.2 Create an enhanced intermodal station at the South Norwalk Station
E.2.2.3 Plan for active around-the-clock uses at the South Norwalk Station
E.2.2.4 Ensure a quality public environment at the South Norwalk Station
E.2.2.5 Consider designating a redevelopment area at the South Norwalk Station to help achieve goals for transit enhancements and transit-oriented development here

F.4.2.1 Enhance pedestrian experience to support related economic revitalization and encourage transit use

E.5.1 Support economic growth in the city with appropriate parking strategies
E.5.1.4 Provide adequate parking at train stations; encourage new uses to share the current parking supply

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 21, 2018 at 8:41 pm

@Nora King, I don’t see Debora Goldstein’s analysis of the tragic reasoning that led you and five other appointees to approve a TOD in a vacuum as anti-development. More like anti-do whatever we think might look best. I attended the initial Spinnaker presentation. A few commissioners seem to have already made up theirs minds that they liked this development. Mike Mushak announced he knew what the outcome of the East Norwalk TOD study would be. It was like listening in on a decorator showing off his designs to a roomful of near-gushing clients. For a minute I didnt know who was asking whom for the favor.

Opposing bad development does not make anyone a naysayer, as much as the PC might now want to drown out the criticism.

Nonpartisan February 22, 2018 at 9:23 am

@ Patrick Cooper

Spot on

I’ve been asking the same questions

I’ve also asked if a cost analysis has been done on comparing tax income of an apartment building with 0, 5, 10, and 15% subsidized housing.

What I got was a deer in the headlights look.

Adolph Neaderland February 22, 2018 at 2:21 pm

Hard to understand how this project should be considered before any POCD feedback has been completed.

That is, unless this is a case of collusion, with a predetermined outcome.

Lessons not learned – making cherry picked decisions without a comprehensive PLAN virtually always has unintended consequences.

Similar issued over the years, along CT Ave has left this city without a YMCA (or other similar facility), and without a bookstore, a crisis mode school building program and an essentially flat grand list.

Why spend the time and money to redo the 2008 POCD if it is to be ignored again,

Debora Goldstein February 22, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Yes, Nora. I’m 100% FOR doing the TOD Study the State of Connecticut has graciously given us $125k for, even while they are working diligently to close a budget gap. I’m FOR making sure that money is not wasted.

Part of the reason we got that grant was because ALL of the East Norwalk stakeholder groups wrote endorsement letters for the study. And they did so, in good faith, believing the City was FINALLY, after all these years, going to do some planning in the area.

Since you are making this personal, I would point out that we still haven’t heard what your reaction would be if this were proposed around the Rowayton train station.

Townie February 24, 2018 at 8:55 am

Wow…..just reading all the comments opposed to this and other proposed projects in Norwalk is scary. What is going on with our leadership. Right or wrong, the people that live in Norwalk, raise their kids here, in our public schools, shop at local stores and use local merchants and service, all while footing the bills by paying RE & PP taxes, would seem to have a greater say, than the special interest groups. BTW – judo to Mike Wrinn. Another great job at picture holding.

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