NORWALK, Conn. – It’s a “go” for a developer seeking to build 189 apartments next to the East Norwalk train station.
“I really couldn’t be more happy to see this go through,” said Joe Passero, one of seven Zoning commissioners to vote unanimously Thursday to approve the controversial mixed-use development at 230 East Ave.
The approval changes the Industrial One Zone to a Transit Oriented Development area, just on 3.62 acres between East Avenue, Rowan Street, Osborne Street and the railroad tracks, owned by Spinnaker Real Estate Partners.
“I am comfortable that this approval does not represent spot zoning,” Commissioner Lou Schulman said.
Controversy was inspired partially by the Commission’s willingness to consider a Transit Oriented Development in East Norwalk, ahead of a recently arranged TOD study for the area. Some complained that it was inappropriate to take a regulation designed for South Norwalk and paste it onto a small area of East Norwalk.
“I am sensitive to all of the comments that were made about waiting for the TOD study and that,” Commissioner Richard Roina said. “… I have personally spent hours reading about Transit Oriented Districts in other parts of the country and here as well, so I feel really comfortable saying a 3 acre parcel which is directly abutting the railroad station is a suitable location for a Transit Oriented District development.”
The development would feature 189 apartments, 39,492 square feet of office space, 5,550 square feet of retail and 4,260 square foot restaurant, and maintain the Pooch Hotel now open on the property.
Spinnaker plans to repurpose the old vacant hat factory, built in 1927 and later the home of a factory outlet, with apartments on its upper floors and office, retail and other uses on its lower floors. The company would build a new 5-story apartment building on an adjacent parking lot; units would range from studio apartments to two bedrooms. A small, stand-alone retail structure is planned to face East Avenue directly adjacent to the railroad tracks.
Spinnaker Partners Chairman Clay Fowler in January said that if approved, construction would probably begin early next year and take 15-18 months to complete.
The Commission attached conditions to the approvals: Spinnaker will have to work with Zoners on a compromise regarding the height of the building planned to face Rowan Street, and return for final approval. This would not involve another public hearing process.
Stantec, a consulting firm hired by Norwalk, recommended that the Rowan Street building have a 10-foot top floor setback to minimize the appearance of height of the six-story building from the street.
“It’s their preference not to do this… but they did not say it was impossible to do. So that’s why we’ll work on a compromise,” Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin said.
“In reality it’s a five-story building. The only reason it is six story is a quirk in our zoning regulations which looked at the Osborne Street facade, which is a six story reveal,” Kleppin said.
Another condition imposed by the Commission would allow Spinnaker to return to change a ramp planned for the retail structure to an elevator, which would go up to the railroad tracks.
Protections were taken for a future use of the Pooch Hotel, should that go out of business, in another condition. Spinnaker is also required to do follow-up traffic and parking studies.
“It’s a tight spot so we want to make sure it’s actually functioning as everybody envisioned it would,” Kleppin said.
Roina called the project spectacular, great for the area and in keeping with the size of nearby buildings.
Some have questioned online why the Commission is in a hurry to protect the interests of two parties, Spinnaker and the owner of the old factory building.
“I don’t know anything about that but I think there is a benefit proceeding sooner rather than later for two reasons. Number one, we are dealing with a local developer who has got strong ties to Norwalk,” Roina said.
Daniel Jump at the public hearing criticized Spinnaker’s Ironworks mixed-use development in South Norwalk; Roina said Thursday that “I haven’t heard any complaints and I certainly don’t see it.”
Secondly, “It would be great to finish or get a major head start (on the project) before the Walk Bridge construction heads in.”
The Connecticut Department of Transportation plans to rebuild the aged railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, and at the same time renovate the East Avenue railroad bridge and modify the roadway there, in direct proximity to 230 East Ave.
“I totally agree with Richard,” Commissioner Galen Wells said. “It’s hard because a lot of friends of mine are on the other side of the issue here, however I really feel this project will bring walkability, vibrancy, life to the neighborhood, a neighborhood that really sorely needs it.”
If the Commission waited for the study as some suggest, this opportunity would be gone and no one knows if it would “reassert itself,” she said, predicting that it could be six or seven years before there is another chance to redevelop the old factory and its surrounding parking lot, given the Walk Bridge reconstruction.
Some opponents said they wanted to retain East Norwalk’s “village” feel; Passero, who said he has spent half his life in East Norwalk, opined, “There is no village right now in east Norwalk.”
It’s a terrific project that will revitalize the area, he said.
“I have perhaps a slightly more in depth understanding of what a TOD project is and what a successful TOD project,” Schulman said, explaining that he’s been to TOD seminars and visited TOD sites in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
Schulman was the Norwalk Transit District’s chief executive officer for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2015.
“I believe the proposed project contains elements for successful TOD development including mixed use, relatively high density development at a transit hub that has both rail and bus service access,” Schulman said.
There might be an impact on traffic but once the East Avenue work is finished, the impacts will be “smaller still,” he said, professing sympathy for neighbors who objected to moving ahead without the completion of new Plan of Conservation and Development but explaining that Stantec’s memo reassured him.
“I think the industrial zone in that location is inappropriate,” Roderick Johnson said. “A Transit Oriented District is obviously the correct zone for this site, adjacent to the East Norwalk railroad station.”
“I believe this is what Transit Oriented Development is for and i believe that when this study is complete, and is finished, I do think it will say this is the right decision,” Commissioner Michael Witherspoon said.
“After much consideration I, too, believe that this particular project at 230 East Ave. is a good one,” Commissioner Nate Sumpter said.
“I have driven around that particular area, like many of my fellow commissioners, a number of times and I can only see this project as revitalizing that particular area,” Sumpter said. “What I really like is that we are not just concentrating on South Norwalk. The city is much bigger than South Norwalk, so to be able to have housing sprawl throughout the city I think is an excellent thing for us to do.”