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.