Norwalk Council mulls Innovation District

Two pages from the drafted Norwalk Innovation District brochure, prepared by the Redevelopment Agency.

The boundaries of the proposed Norwalk Innovation District.

NORWALK, Conn. — Up to $15 million in tax incentives are being contemplated as part of a new Norwalk Innovation District.

“An Innovation District is a defined geographic area within a city where research, technology, and creative businesses and institutions are clustered. The area offers amenities and an atmosphere that encourages open ideas and shared resources,” the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency states in its recently drafted Innovation District brochure.

Incentives, which would be funded by the city and the state, would be issued in three areas:

  • District Commercial Preservation Incentive
  • Skilled Job Creation Tax Credit
  • B Corporation Tax Incentive


“One of the things that we heard back from this committee was that we didn’t want to have a blanket incentive program, we want it tied to some level of job creation,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said to the Common Council Planning Committee on Feb. 2. “The jobs were basically the driver on this.”

The agency has recommended a 20-year special property valuation for district historic structures that are rehabilitated, in the preservation incentive that is the first bullet point, so that property owners would not see their property taxes increase because they fixed up the property.

“As the District gains momentum as a place of strategic innovation it will be important to bring new life into many of the District’s historic structures and ensure that they continue to positively influence the District’s sense of place, distinctness and architectural relevance,” the brochure states.

Such rehabilitations will have to be preapproved, the brochure states.

Businesses that create five or more new jobs in the district, with salaries of more than $50,000, would be eligible for tax credits equal to 2 percent of those wages, for up to five years and up to $5,000, the brochure states.

“We looked at best practices and other programs that worked,” Sheehan said on Feb. 2.

A B Corporation “is basically the type of business that you want to attract to this area,” Sheehan said, calling them “good for the environment” and “good to the community.”

“This incentive allows all new, sustainable businesses committed to creating jobs in the District to fully exempt their tax obligations for their real estate for the first five years,” the brochure states. The business must maintain “two non-related employees” with 60 percent of their time in the district, with the incentive capped at not more than 10,000 square feet.

Starbucks is an example of a B Corp, Sheehan said.

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) pushed for definitive explanations, asking for a return on investment for new developments.

“If you took Riverview, which is a completely empty office building, and somebody basically brought in a development concept that went into that building and filled it, or even took a floor of that building, they would end up having an incentive associated with that. It’s not necessarily tied to new development,” Sheehan said.

Hempstead brought up Norden Park as an area that was “never supposed to have housing,” that was thought of as an industrial area way back when.
While John Kydes (D-District C) said he didn’t see anything wrong with adapting to the times, Hempstead said, “It depends because once you give something up you never get the chance to use it again for what you want in the future. I think we need more jobs in the city of Norwalk.”

“It’s more than just jobs, though,” Sheehan said. “Quite frankly, you’ve got an area that – some areas of this district are advancing. But other areas, as we have gone through the data and everything else, are sinking. You have to have something that creates a reason for the investment to be there. Quite frankly, I don’t think you can say we are going to cherry pick and say, ‘well, if you are an office development then we are going to give you a huge incentive but if you are a contributing development that is creating activity, well then we have nothing for you.’”

The draft proposal will be reviewed by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and Redevelopment Agency Commissioners, Sheehan said at Thursday’s Planning Committee meeting.

BET approval is not needed but the Redevelopment Agency is seeking input on structuring the incentives, he explained.

Norwalk Hospital, King Industries and other District anchors are excited about the potential an Innovation District could unlock, Sheehan said.

Hempstead had come into the Redevelopment office and the wording of the incentives had been revised because it could have been perceived that existing “lesser contributing uses” could take advantage of the incentives, Sheehan said.

“This is clearly meant for businesses that are coming in,” Sheehan said.

Hempstead asked if Waypointe would be eligible if it were coming in today as a new project.

The overall project would be, but not the individual restaurants and stores on the ground floor, Sheehan explained.

The hope is to process a worthy application within 60 days, and the application committee “would be on call,” Sheehan said.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of activity,” he said. “Six to eight a year would be a lot.”

“This isn’t something that is going to be transformative in three years. I think we should have the expectation that this is going to take time to grow, and for the district to mature is going to come over an extended period in time,” Sheehan said.

Tom Livingston (D-District E) asked about “the $15 million cap” for the five year period, and Sheehan said it’s not a cap, “more understanding what the plan and incentives would be.”

Sheehan said, “I am not 100 percent confident, I am probably more on the other side, being confident that we are not going to reach the full $15 million over five years.”

Innovation District brochure 18-0301


Donna Smirniotopoulos March 6, 2018 at 8:17 am

The RDA brochure does not specify which kind of Innovation District the committee envisions: anchor plus, re-imagined urban areas or urbanized science park (though the last seems better suited for Norden Place). Chattanooga, a city roughly twice the size of Norwalk, has debuted an Innovation District. But Chattanooga also invested in infrastrucure first, via the local utility, EFB, which installed a fiber optic network to all homes, enabling lightning speed connections. Cablevision, meanwhile, is still trying to sell me a faster connection, and Eversource has been largely mute about infrastructure upgrades.

The concept is great—take an area of under-utilized and/or abandoned structures linked by a few key “anchors”, like Norwalk Hospital, Lockwood museum, Wall Street, Library—and mash-up living and working environments to spark connections. I hope the BET asks RDA who’s going to pay for all the new sidewalks, street and sewer upgrades needed to make this work.

Jlightfield March 6, 2018 at 9:19 am

Let’s see, what could possibly be a reason for parts of the area to be ”analyzed” as ”sinking?”

1. The failed strategies of the redevelopment agency that has resulted in a super block district that is a pedestrian wasteland?

2. The reality that reliance on ground floor retail is failing nationally?

3. The debacle created by giving away municipal parking lots, and municipal streets? The outcome being that it gave us a construction filled chaos instead of maintaining and preserving the parking elements that contribute to an active district no matter what you call it?

4. The continued lack of urgency to address public realm blight such as boarded up indies on a commercial street for over a decade? Construction equipment abandoned by failed redevelopment projects? Jersey barriers in place of protected sidewalks?

The businesses that have chosen to move into the area have done so because they want to create a friendly and active community that supports their businesses. The so-called anchor institutions are there despite the efforts of the redevelopment agency to put them out of business.

So now the Norwalk homeowner is being asked to subsidize the failure of the Redevelopment Agency to properly manage projects that generate increased tax revenue.

If the mall was such a great idea, why did we need to extend enterprise zone tax subsidies for GGP? If the mall is supposed to catalyze development because any property within walking distance to it will be attractive for development, then why is this plan coming out now? Is Redevelopment saying it lied when it sold the enterprise zone extensions 4 years ago? Or are they saying they are lying now when they explain they need further incentives because otherwise new investment and development won’t happen otherwise?

What happened to all that state money that was obtained to address the pedestrian experience and reroute traffic at Wall/Belden/Mott and West?

Is the Common Council supposed to forget that money has poured into the Redevelopment Agency to address ”sinking” contributing factors?

Years pass and the song remains the same.

The same people keep promising that this time it will be different. I say maybe Norwalk can borrow a hashtag –#timesup. Call you council reps and say No More Redevelopment Plans in this area. We’ve suffered enough.

Lisa Brinton Thomson March 6, 2018 at 9:23 am

The three most pressing and INNOVATIVE actions city leadership can do for that area (and I’d settle for just one of them being resolved) is 1) fix POKO, 2) get the train station going again and 3) sort out the Duleep property. Then we can talk innovative district. Mr. Mayor and Common council, please use some common sense.

Rick March 6, 2018 at 10:36 am

Does Sheehan have the evacuation plan for King Industries ? (trick question)

This seems to be one more package full of favors delivered to the taxpayers thru a volunteer council where strings have been attached.

Doug is on it, who woke Tom up for this meeting?

I must be losing my mind I agree with Jackie in part .and agree with Lisa,

Where did all this data come from the last Christmas party?

When does Burger King open on water st?

The money we are talking will buy a lot of firemen and police officers, anything sinking has been done intentionally for how long? How long has Sheehan been here?

For am agency in charge of so many things without professionals working the trenches and so many who have said the agency should be replaced why is the city even talking about any of this?

The agency under Sheehan has done a great job on Ryan park more projects like this should land the city over the top.

When most proposals are given to the city on a silver platter, one question should be asked do you trust the person with the platter?

If the answer is no why are they even in charge?

Patrick Cooper March 6, 2018 at 11:31 am

@JLightfield – very rare that I agree with 100% of your points in any given post – but this one is a unicorn. Spot on. My ongoing question – not unlike many tax payers in Norwalk – is just exactly how is it that the Redevelopment Agency is able to create mess after mess, mistake after mistake – and still have the authority to continue to operate – essentially with impunity. Let me emphasize that word – impunity – which means “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action”. Lying then, or lying now – is about right.

Another question is, are they just incompetent? Or is it something far more nefarious? Because the optics of this looks very much like another giveaway. The Waypointe question – exactly. I mean the 15 million in incentives – those are different from the millions we are spending to provide the infrastructure costs that should accrue to the developer – that’s not a subsidy? Last question: why does the common council look the other way? Every single disaster.

Here’s a thought. Mr. Sheehan – you have 2 months to present a workable solution for POKO, or you – and the entire RDA – should be summarily excused, the agency disbanded, and every project currently under your purview should be folded, period. Clock starts now.

Adolph Neaderland March 6, 2018 at 11:32 am

What am I missing? Suddenly a need for an “Innovative District”? After the barn door was left open?

Where were the Redevelopment and or our P&Z folks when the ideal innovative structures in Norwalk on Glover Ave were demolished in favor of a zone changed residential development? Out for coffee, no doubt.

Is this another example of our poor planning expertise?

Another independent “Innovative” project in parallel with “Norwalk Tomorrow”?

Let’s wake up! Integrate the Redevelopment and Parking Authorities into a coordinated POCD City Plan!

Lots of Norwalk folks on and off the City payroll are spending time and effort to clean up our planning shortcomings. A waste of time?

All we need now is creative leadership.

carol March 6, 2018 at 11:58 am

time for redevelopment and tim sheehan to leave norwalk,he is a constant disaster,no planning and costing us $$$$$$$.

Donna Smirniotopoulos March 6, 2018 at 1:15 pm

@Adolph, agreed integration between redevelopment and parking authority‘s is essential. We need a comprehensive POCD that includes funding requirements and consequences for failure. We also need planning and zoning commissioners who are accountable to constituents. Our land use bodies do not have voters as constituents. Their only constituent is the person who appoints them, the mayor. And therein lies the problem.

Paul Lanning March 6, 2018 at 3:31 pm

No More Taxpayer Money To Developers!

Today’s Hour reported the Wall Street Theater’s bankruptcy filing. Remember all the rah-rah surrounding this project? Now millions are allegedly owed to contractors, plus the $1.7 mil that came from Hartford. The theater could have spearheaded a turnaround for Wall St., but there was no game plan whatsoever.

Spelling B March 6, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Does it matter that Redevelopment doesn’t know how to spell Devine or that they paid for signs calling part of this same area an Arts District?

Michael McGuire March 6, 2018 at 5:52 pm

Innovative Companies need innovative and tech savvy workers.

Tech savvy workers (millennials) like and choose to work for Innovative Companies that located in older, historic, funky downtowns even if said downtown is run down.

In fact, being run down is almost preferred. But a key element needed in the downtown is an easily assessable (by foot, not bus) train station. SoNo is a great example – it was a very tough place in the 1970’s and look at it now.

Re-activate the Wall Street Train Station. Anything less, even while noble and good, is a Band-Aid.

Donna Smirniotopoulos March 6, 2018 at 6:25 pm

There’s no point creating an Innovation District without a train station. Tim Sheehan sees this as a long term plan and is banking on millennials who want to live and work in an urban core. My three millennial children probably won’t be looking to live in an urban core in 2026. In fact, older millennials are already starting to look for more space, and suburban neighborhoods in the Carolinas are growing. The point of a long range plan of development (POCD) is to anticipate leading trends, NOT to invest in lagging ones. Also many Norwalkers are attached to the idea of neighborhood and community—ideas that don’t always translate well in an “innovation district” mashup. The East Norwalk TOD application from Spinnaker’s Clay Fowler, for example, features a nice industrial design. But the people of East Norwalk have said they identify their part of the city has having a nautical or maritime village character. In this regard, Old Town Alexandria is a better role model for us than Brooklyn.

The people who populate our land use boards and who work for our agencies and authorities have no constituents. No wonder the people feel they don’t have a voice in local planning,

Debora Goldstein March 6, 2018 at 6:53 pm

Perhaps the $125k TOD Study for the East Norwalk Train Station would have recommended such a zone there.

Bill Nightingale Jr March 6, 2018 at 9:35 pm

And I just posted this comment last week…..

Thank you Debora for the rehash of this nightmare. What a joke to claim Poko ever contributed $15m. Fact is they never really had any significant equity in this. Very similar to how there is zero equity in Norwalk Theater (which the city will have to take ownership of sooner than later).“

In news today they filed bankruptcy with $15m liabilities. Sorry Norwalk taxpayers!

Paul Lanning March 6, 2018 at 10:11 pm

The theater could succeed if it was professionally booked, marketed and operated. Who owns it now?

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