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.