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Redevelopment ask for $500K inspires heated debate, pleas for SoNo park

The design for 50 Washington St., presented to the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in June.

NORWALK, Conn. — Private/public partnerships might help move Norwalk’s parks forward, Planning Commissioners said.

There’d certainly be interest in that but the city would lose control over the parks, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said last week, after taking flak for what Planning Commissioners saw as a misrepresentation in last year’s capital budget process.

Paperwork for last year’s capital budget shows that the Redevelopment Agency requested $500,000 for an upgrade to the 50 Washington St. plaza, with no further funding indicated in upcoming years.  Redevelopment was granted $300,000 but Sheehan was back, asking for another $500,000.

Planning Commissioner David Davidson informed Sheehan that he needed to provide an explanation of that discrepancy by Feb. 20; Commissioner Nora King also came down hard on the request.

“We don’t even have ballparks in parts of the city and now you are up to nine hundred and something dollars for this tiny park,” she said.

The entire budget for the project had been submitted to the Finance Department last year, Sheehan said, explaining, “The assumption is whatever we present for a budget, you have.”

Support for upgrading the plaza came from SoNo businesspeople, who have invested in the area, and from two local fans of the arts.

Nearly 1,000 people have participated in docent-led public art tours around Norwalk since 2014, with “virtually all” of the SoNo tours beginning and ending at the dilapidated plaza, Norwalk Arts Commission Chairwoman Susan Wallerstein told the Commission at its Wednesday public hearing on the 2018-19 capital budget.

“Unfortunately, the increasing deterioration continuation of the plaza has been an embarrassment,” she said. “…Norwalk doesn’t put its best foot forward with what is at that location.”

Aldo Criscuolo said he and his brother own the former Avrick building at 14-16 North Main St., and they clean up the park.

“Parks say a lot about the community. I think that park, as someone else said, is an embarrassment,” Criscuolo said. “Buildings are the heart of the city but parks are the soul of the city.”

The mall is going to bring people to Norwalk, and then there’s this park, he said.

“People are going to go off the highway, they are going to pull into The SoNo Collection. Are they just going to leave? Or are people going to drive down the street and see a park that looks pretty crappy?” he said. “So, I think these things tie into each other. We want to put a good foot forward for SoNo and for Norwalk.”

The park began in 1978 with a $49,000 grant from the federal government’s and the city has never invested money into its maintenance, said Joseph Criscuolo, co-owner of 14-16 North Main St.

“One of the reasons we invested in the building is that corner seems to be the dot on the ‘i’ of SoNo. It’s right there…. everybody sees it,” he said.

One of their tenants, Christian Burns, has invested $1.5 million in a Mexican restaurant set to open in May, he said.

“It’s substantially more than what the city has been doing and he’s just an investor,” Criscuolo said, predicting that the restaurant and its rooftop lounge will be a major draw.

At that point, Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio said that someone had spearheaded a petition with 70 names on it, and that the Commission had received a letter from the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce in support of upgrading the plaza.

That showed energy and commitment, and, “I would like to challenge the business community to do some kind of partnership and come up with some funding,” she said.

Davidson’s, King’s and Sheehan’s raised voices talked over each other, with Sheehan repeating that the Agency had asked for $500,000 request and been awarded $300,000.

“We’re not going to get into a big shouting match,” DiMeglio said, toning down the commentary just a tad.

The budget was always “just shy of $1 million and I think we are making revisionist history on this, which is to support what you wanted to do, which is ultimately was cut that request, down to 300, which was 30 percent (of the $985,000 budget) and basically prohibited construction,” Sheehan said.

“I just don’t understand how you have this tiny little piece of property and you feel that it warrants $1 million investment from the city of Norwalk to turn it into something when, literally, we are talking about entire ballparks being done for $2 million,” King said. “At some point, as a city, we have to start worrying about not just the urban areas but the neighborhoods that do not get taken care of.”

Sheehan said he was open to more privately driven reconstruction, “but let’s make that policy clear because I do agree there would be more interest in that. With that investment, the city ultimately needs to concede control of that park.”

“It’s inappropriate for us to say this public park is different from other public parks…. it’s an urban park that has been disinvested for the city for a long period of time,” Sheehan said. “Much like Ryan Park, that has had massive disinvestment that the Redevelopment Agency has had to go out and get $3 million worth of grant money to improve that park and get it moving again. And again, I am up here talking about urban parks. I am the Redevelopment Agency. (Acting Recreation and Parks Department Director Ken Hughes) can’t put them in because he’s got a laundry list of his needs for parks, that have a much greater public demand.”

Wallerstein volunteered that the city had mixed a public park with private investment, in the little strip of land next to Donovan’s on Washington Street.

“It’s conceptually an interesting idea to pursue… if you give up too much in the process of soliciting private funds, you need to be careful with it,” she said.

Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak, a landscape architect, said 50 Washington St. needs all of its hardscape replaced, that Redevelopment isn’t just talking about simple landscaping.

Mushak said that 10 years ago, he thought he’d volunteer and install new bricks in the plaza, but that wasn’t possible due to its deteriorated condition.

Water got under the foundation of the steps and froze, shifting the steps and creating a hazard, he said.

“For me, the money, I would never say $1 million, or $800,000, is too much to spend on an urban park,” Mushak said. “To be quite honest, I thought that was meager because this is not like ‘a park.’ It’s an urban park.”

There’s been no maintenance, Sheehan said, volunteering that he had envisioned private sector investments in that area.

“You could have concerts, yoga sessions, all kinds of things on a daily basis if you dedicated resources,” Sheehan said.

Landscape architect Eric Rains has come up with a “very smart up to date design,” with an Ironworks-like fountain that “would change everything,” animating the street and making the park a destination for nearby apartment dwellers, just like Matthews Park has become busy with Waypointe residents, Mushak said.

If funded, the plaza would be complete in the fall, before the new SoNo hotel opens, Sheehan said.

Burns said he owns Cask Republick and has seen SoNo’s foot traffic go up in the last four years.

The plaza “has to change,” he said. “It’s a serious, serious, detriment to what we are trying to do in SoNo overall. If we don’t do something to keep moving forward with that, I don’t think it’s going to continue.”

A startup business was going to move into 50 Washington St. but delayed because of the condition of the plaza, he said.

“We are making a heavy investment in the restaurant,” Burns said. “The way we are going to make it looks is going to be something so incredible for SoNo.”

Judith Bacal concluded the commentary.

She lives in South Norwalk and supports the arts, had not intended to speak but the more-than-hour-long discussion had her “fired up,” she said.

“The city is at this place where it’s about to be an amazing redeveloped community and we have a bunch of these little eyesores,” she said. “The parks are so important to make the development something that connects to people. I just think that that park in particular, I am standing in support of that being really, really important to do that park. I think the city has a responsibility to invest.”

The Planning Commission’s public hearing will remain open for written comments until the close of business Feb. 14, DiMeglio said.

14 comments

Sue Haynie February 12, 2018 at 7:34 am

The Washington Street Plaza park is truly an ‘eyesore’. I always thought it was such a mess because the 50 Washington Street owners weren’t taking care of it–I didn’t realize it was a City ‘park’.

Do a public/private partnership. Fix it.

It’s at the heart of an intersection of downtown Sono. It’s a hub for Norwalk’s summer art festival. It’s an embarrassment.

Rem February 12, 2018 at 8:41 am

Very surprised that Planning Commissioners think that the Washington Street Plaza could be rebuilt for a mere $500k. Even at 800k it’s a bargain. And most importantly, it would pay itself off in less than 10 years with all the draw it will bring to the neighborhood. It’s like comparing apples to oranges to say that a ballpark could be built for $2m when an urban square like this has substantially more work because of its function and location — demolition, removal/moving of existing utilities or unknown factors, new pavers for a plaza, new stairs/retaining walls, regrading for a lawn, irrigation for the lawn, adding a water feature (adding pump rooms, mechanicals for that), new lamp posts, etc, — and a ballpark has what exactly other than field lights, some earth moving and a few chain link fences? (Actually I think the city overpaid for those ballparks, but that’s another story)

There are *countless* well documented cases of how infill parks, squares, plazas, such as these that do enormous public good for revitalizing a downtown area. Please don’t let Commissioners who get hung up on technicalities at previous meetings prevent Norwalk from being a better to live and work. If anyone has had any experience of doing alterations or additions to their own house would know, the price you get quoted before construction usually ends being a different figure once you finish. It’s completely normal.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 12, 2018 at 9:10 am

The problem is not the cost. One million for a hardscaped plaza in dire need of rehab is not exorbitant. The problem is when the Redevelopment Agency spearheads a project, there are regulatory and statory requirements that drive up the costs. I agree this plaza needs to be rehabbed. But the monies might be better spent if they didn’t have to be filtered through the RDA first.

Victor Cavallo February 12, 2018 at 11:14 am

This is what the Planning Commission does best and hardly credited for; being the first line of defense against the sometimes obscenely exaggerated and reckless spending estimates that the departments claim they need year after year and which they sometimes fight hard to get but don’t even use. Happy to see that the PC is standing up to this. Shoot it down and if the PC is later overridden by the BET and the Council, they’ll have to take responsibility to explain to taxpayers why the city should spend a near-million dollars on a sliver of land that’s sparsely used, while the same borrowed money can instead be earmarked for education or critical infrastructure.

Adolph Neaderland February 12, 2018 at 11:23 am

It’s quite evident that this is another example of “planless” governance.

Trying to cope with expenses on a one-by-one project Coping with projects on a one-by-one basis losses sight of the overall issue.

I feel certain most of the committee do not run their personal lives without some overall accounting of funds in, required expenses and careful analysis of, and prioritizing the balance.

There needs to be a PLAN.

Michael McGuire February 12, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Wow – for $900,000 Wall Street could have a train station directly connected to the Pulse Point Bus stop. I think that would add a lot more to Norwalk’s bottom line.

Now, if we could only fix POKO and Duleep….

carol February 12, 2018 at 3:06 pm

why when we need something for the arts and fixing a very needed park we get shot down. this is not moving ahead,it is dying of old age and so is sono.

Bujji February 12, 2018 at 6:35 pm

Ahhh, Mike McGuire glad you chimed in with the obligatory train station argument. Sooner or later you’ll get that station – don’t give up.

This park is beyond depressing. As it sits there’s no hope but a dilapidated dark run down littered piece of cement. But if Norwalk sees fit to giving away slivers of land with contingencies this would be perfect opportunity. Perhaps one of the stand up developers – i.e Kinol or DiScala could take on this project in accordance to Mayor Rilling looking the other way on many other projects going up and around town?

Michael February 12, 2018 at 10:14 pm

I’ve been advising–and have grown–tech startups over the better part of the last decade. Though having grown up in Norwalk, I’ve come to know the aesthetically nauseating exterior of 50 Washington Street–which has gone unchanged (mention of the first floor’s renovation does no justice; band-aid on a disguiting soar, really). From a commercial standpoint, I find the building to be a perfect illustration of what the antithesis of modernity and ‘change’ would likely take form. The plaza is painful (literally, as its uneven grounds are hazardous); I do agree that it needs to be upgraded– but *please* do not ignore the fact that this building is nonetheless representative of Norwalk’s unique identity– and dramatic transformation. Maintain its historic, ‘red-brick’/industrial past; infused with elements of modernity and brilliant glass-work, we could have a potential, commercial ‘Pearl’ of Norwalk at hand. Either by public or private means… something must be done about the exterior, concrete/yellowish shell.

If done correctly, I honestly see Norwalk as a future ‘startup’ hub (forget Stamford, with its quick pastel developments and “thriving downtown”– of largely vacant buildings stuck in the 60s and 70s). Norwalk has a highly unique, though time-sensitive, opportunity that it *MUST* take advantage of. Apologies if it’s a bit dramatic, but 50 Washington has always been THE tallest building in the city. Open it’s walls/exterior, introduce natural lighting–redevelop the building as semi-mixed-use, even; modernize the transmission and communications antennas vis-à-vis structural aesthetic spires…at 13 stories, even a restaurant and/or bar at the very top would produce sweeping views of SoNo, the harbor/Sound and the rest of a city-wide revival. This is an opportunity to have residents and visitors *ENGAGE* with this building.

Redevelop smart. Tap into the city’s very own developers and architects. The material opportunity is feasibly great–though requires investment; how has the latter become so rare/limited?

For what it’s legitimately worth, I’d just ask that the bare minimum *NOT* be applied to a city with so much potential. Why would we focus right now on a park surrounding an office building/area which has a negative perception to the city’s own residents? The proposed ~1MM park would be absolutely appropriate– though only if its centerpiece (i.e. 50 Washington) was itself transformed. I would love to move one of my ventures into SoNo–and 50 Washington would be in an ideal location–though, right now, it’s not ready for the tenants it undoubtedly deserves.

Joe February 12, 2018 at 10:38 pm

I was paid to attend the commemoration ceremony of that metal “sculpture” on the left side of Wash Sq Park that looks like a pile of dog poop.

The old man sculptor took me aside that day not only to brag about how much he was paid ($10,000) for that mess, but he also snickered that he had never even seen the completed “artwork” until that day.

Money well spent. Let’s do it again!

Debora Goldstein February 13, 2018 at 11:10 am

The full cost of the project was just shy of $1mm. Last year, the RDA put in for $500k as 50% of the project. It did not indicate that it would be coming back for the other 50%., so it is easy for the PC to have the impression that if 50% could be sourced from other sources, then 70% could.

The problem with this park is that in any other city, this would be the plaza for the building, and not a city park. The idea that it is an “urban park” is a result of what is there now. There’s no reason to insist that it remain an urban park, instead of revamping it into a greenspace-type park.

Redevelopment has access to funds that the Parks department does not have, including extensive planning for the area. Parks in other parts of the city have to rely on whatever planning the city can afford, and whatever maintenance the City can afford. They do not seem to ever get showered with money as the Oak Hills Park Authority did when the State Bond Commission magicked up over a million dollars for their park improvements.

Instead, we have airquote-“non-profits”-airquote taking up residence in city parks and setting up shop, with little compensation for the tax-payers that are struggling to come up with money to keep up with the needs of the parks as they are.

Michael McGuire February 13, 2018 at 1:18 pm

@ Michael – agreed.

Maybe the City could dentate the land to the owners of 50 Washington St. in return for a commitment to revitalize and then maintain the plaza and look into changing the exterior to the building.

That could be a win-win if its feasible to revamp the exterior. I love the roof top restaurant deck idea, for that I would put up with the parking hassles of SoNo to partake.

Debora Goldstein February 13, 2018 at 6:08 pm

If the original grant to purchase the park was open space money then them we can’t use it for anything else unless the city acquires a like parcel in exchange. Given that sono is already losing a park (to school construction) and was unable to find replacement parcel in sono, it would be unwise to try a land swap here. How many “parks” will sono have to give up?

The obvious choice here is for the city to have RDA go back and have the design simplified. Perhaps recs & parks and dpw can share some of their $110,000 in tree planting funds (per year).

Alan February 13, 2018 at 11:06 pm

It wasn’t that long ago that this Plaza was completely redone. New pavers, lighting, etc. Ten years? Maybe more. It”s clear that Norwalk isn’t interested in maintaining this property. Why not hand it over to 50 Washington St. and the Avrick building? They will use it to animate SONO with some ac tivity. Perhaps Mike Mushsak”s friend’s may not be able to have weddings there, but 50 Washington St. owners must be horrified at the condition of their front yard.

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