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Norwalk Zoners approve East Norwalk TOD project

An artist’s rendering of 230 East Ave., shown from Osborne Street.

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.”

33 comments

Enough April 6, 2018 at 5:49 am

{…} I don’t know why they have public hearings for since the PUBLIC’S voices are never listened to. The public said no to a mall. Oh look we have a mall. We’ve said no to more apartments, just look at the monstrosities on west ave. The public said no to this project as well. Seriously like come on already.
Edited to remove character assassination by innuendo, a violation of the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

Oh the humanity April 6, 2018 at 6:21 am

This neighborhood has such a nice “where is everybody” vibe and it’s going to be totally ruined by all these new residents walking the streets.

Tony P April 6, 2018 at 7:19 am

Housing sprawl across the city is the right thing to do? Did Sumpter actually say that? I am a proponent of this project, but not how it was proposed or passed. Should have waited for the TOD, which would have backed this up and taken the taint of backroom dealing away. And,we still have no idea what the East Avenue widening project will actually look like – no renderings, no drawings, nothing. So disjointed, when it doesn’t need to be. #lisaformayor

John Levin April 6, 2018 at 8:19 am

Higher density is good. I agree with Galen: walkability is key. It’s actually a great thing for the neighborhood, and the local merchants, in my opinion.

John E. Tobin April 6, 2018 at 8:29 am

At least the intended goal of “housing sprawl throughout the city” is finally on record. I would hope the commission rethinks requiring the developer to waste any more money on bogus traffic studies for this now suddenly “tight spot”.

Lisa Brinton Thomson April 6, 2018 at 9:14 am

@ Tony P – I’m shocked 😘 but thank you!

@ John Levin – with all due respect from your rural Cranbury retreat 🙂 it’s easy to comment when not waiting to squeeze through that ‘tight spot’ under the bridge.

When traffic studies only extend a year out – it kind of puts Norwalk’s overall approach to P&Z into perspective.

I want smart development as much as the next person. What I see is an unquestioning relationship between this administration and developers.

I bet taxpayers would love to know the ‘net’ tax contributions of all these apartments being added to the grandlist AFTER infrastructure and student enrollment are factored in? While at it, how about sharing the revenue from the illegal apartments. If you don’t know where they are, just ask the neighborhoods.

I have little faith in an administration that appoints a zoning board that doubles the value of a downtown parking lot, only to agree to buy it back, while at the same time, struggles to fund its school system. #economics101
#smartdevelopment

Tony P April 6, 2018 at 9:24 am

@Lisa, you had my vote in Nov. I don’t need to agree with everything to support a candidate who has commonsense solutions to this city’s biggest issue, which is planning and zoning. I’m sure @Patrick Cooper is equally surprised!

Bob Welsh April 6, 2018 at 9:40 am

John Levin since walkability is important to you, will you be advocating for a pedestrian overpass to Winfield Street and the Bob Jones University planned on your POCD?

Piberman April 6, 2018 at 9:49 am

With Norwalk 40% renter we’re making progress towards Bridgeport with 60% renter. Freshmen economics students know that renters don’t pay their full share of City services and further burden our declining portion of homeowners financing the City budget. Everyone of CT’s major cities (save Stamford) has high proportions of renters putting the burdens on smaller proportions of remaining homeowners facing punitive taxes. That’s why CT’s cities are failing. Including Norwalk. Students of municipal finance call it the “renter’s fallacy”.

Mayor Rilling likely doesn’t realize that his enthusiastic for attracting Developers building apartments is moving Norwalk closer to Bridgeport than he might imagine. Especially for a City with a Grand List stagnant now for nearly a decade with sharp declines in housing values as long time homeowners exit fearing ever more punitive taxes and further property declines.

Our national economy is booming. CT and Norwalk are heading in another direction. So bring on the Developers making good profits. Our politicians love Developers.

Al Bore April 6, 2018 at 9:59 am

Wow we are being squeezed like sardines, it is so difficult now to get around east Norwalk now this. Not a shock we have a lack of planning and zoning that allows anything. Norwalk is developer heaven you can do anything and the taxpayer’s subsidize the developers that get the tax breaks. Norwalk is doomed by the current administration. Come to Norwalk to rent until you find a nice place to live outside of Norwalk. Plenty of apartments for everyone as my property value goes down and my taxes go up. Great job city government you must be proud. Please answer the above from Lisa Brinton Thomson ( I bet taxpayers would love to know the ‘net’ tax contributions of all these apartments being added to the grandlist AFTER infrastructure and student enrollment are factored in? While at it, how about sharing the revenue from the illegal apartments. If you don’t know where they are, just ask the neighborhoods). I have no faith in the administration zero there is no smart development in Norwalk. If I could sell my house at a break even, which I can’t, I would get out in a flash no quality of life here just lot’s of traffic congestion, apartments both legal and many illegal, and declining property values. No one cares and no one knows what to do except build apartments.

Bill NIghtingale April 6, 2018 at 10:53 am

Is that rendering picture a self storage complex or an apartment complex? hard to see the difference

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 6, 2018 at 11:21 am

🎩 🎩🎩 off to the mayor for another high density multi story, multiunit apartment development with enough other things thrown in to qualify as “mixed use” and close enough to a platform only station to be TOD! Bravo! These things take time though. Every seat at both tables—Planning and Zoning—and the internal hires—need to be on the same page and politically loyal. Not as difficult as it sounds when the mayor appoints whomever he pleases regardless of their interest or qualifications and the Common Council refuses to engage in any public vetting, which is the least they could do for their constituents—unless the party is the constituent that matters.

@Bob Welsh, I believe Stantec Phil heard ringing support at the Cranbury POCD workshop for locating a free public pool on @John Levin’s property.

Adolph Neaderland April 6, 2018 at 1:10 pm

It’s strange that nothing in the applicant’s proposal or in any [email protected] documents is there any detailed pro-formafinancial statement showing the financial benefit of this or any other of the “mixed” use projects to the city.

What has been shown: after several thousand residential units have been approved and built, is that Norwalk’s Grand List has only increased by 3% since 2014! Proof of a failed financial review process by our city management, and an unwarranted burden on us, homeowner taxpayers.

I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get data related to the effect of tax abatement deals that are related to all the hi-rise residential units has had on our grand list and property taxes.

Would you believe that no one in our tax department has this information? All fingers point to the Redevelopment folks, not really part of our city governance, yet affecting our taxes.

What we need is overall responsibility, not a fractured organization with no one in charge!

Niz April 6, 2018 at 1:24 pm

A very minor amount of Property tax payers in east Norwalk showed up to engage in this project in previous months. It’s why despite opposition it’s going up I
I think 40% of property owners need to show up for these matters
Folks need to engage with neighborhood associations to get the information and support needed

Rick April 6, 2018 at 1:37 pm

Nancy could have written this outcome a year ago. At least now taxpayers realize who runs the city and who matters and who cares. There will another none of the lawyers are ready to retire, none of the board members are ready to find another ego platform to spit from, and yes the politicians are ready to decide whats next.

Stantec now has a lifetime contract.

Hugh Sling April 6, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Foregone conclusion. Doesn’t matter who objects. So-called public hearings are a sham.

Our money should fund education, but instead it goes from our hands into the scammers’ bank accounts.

If the Messiah were to show up and object it wouldn’t matter to the Mayor and his {..} flunkies.
Edited to remove a vulgarity, a violation of the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

APB April 6, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Has anyone thought about suing the city officials involved in this continuous development at the taxpayers cost? IS THERE a lawsuit in there, I am curious? If this is truly all tax payer money and it’s being spent in a way 95% of the tax base is against, there must be someway to legally stop the behavior and not just throw up our hands and say well that stinks, but what can ya do? I’m thinking zero transparency, allegations of backroom agreements, no regulatory authorities willing to be accountable for any decisions in planning, development, zoning, etc. There must be a legal lever or two to pull to stop the bleeding and turn this ship around.

Clearly the mayor has enough public backing that he’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to honor any campaign promise. So how do we the taxpaying public, say enough is enough with our actions and not just blogging out here on this wonderful news site?

Lastly, please don’t chime in with any South Norwalk, Firetree, Quintard line. It would be much appreciated to have this be a positive dialogue.

Carol April 6, 2018 at 4:09 pm

Maybe some of these apartments will have patios, where they can sit outside, enjoy a glass of wine and watch the trains go by every half hour, or better still open their windows for some fresh air at night .

Rick April 6, 2018 at 4:33 pm

@ Donna

Yes a pool, lets all stand with the mayor and fill it up.

Why chime in we know who the towel boys are.

APB thanks for asking The Mayor has had his name on a document put on by a third party long before the sun came up on Firetree , is that the suit your wondering about? That is news if that’s what your fishing for.

chime in? Those poor kids at Ryan park still don’t have anyplace to play that’s a fact.

Another Opinion April 6, 2018 at 8:54 pm

This year’s 3.7% advertised mill rate increase should be pause enough to scorecard all the new development and evaluate how the number of new apartments are impacting Norwalk’s bottom line. The anxiety level for property owners will continue and further erode confidence in market values if expectations of lower real estate values and higher taxes continues. The city owes all of its stakeholders a complete breakdown to the most granular level the justification for this trans formative shift in zoning and development.

Debora Goldstein April 6, 2018 at 11:47 pm

@APB,

Short answer: Yes. Folks are considering suing. Standing usually exists only for abutting property owners, however.

To be clear, AT THIS TIME, the developer on this particular project is not receiving any taxpayer subsidies from the City, State or Feds. The East Norwalk TOD project at 230 East Avenue is unlike other developments in other parts of the City in this respect.

In this case, the wasted taxpayer funds are $125k in a state funded grant to study and make recommendations for appropriate TOD development that is PARTICULAR to this area and this transit infrastructure. Instead, without any neutral advance study of the area, the ZC just agreed to use hand-picked sections of the zone designed for the South Norwalk train station and apply them to East Norwalk. South Norwalk had several years of studies done to develop their code. East Norwalk? A cut and paste command on a computer.

The legal lever is the one that this administration tried to used to its own political advantage a year and a half ago. Charter Revision could be used to fix the structural problems with the processes in land use–empower our planning commission, require professional management and to implement outcome based planning and budgeting that would prioritize what the community wants for itself.

Rick April 7, 2018 at 12:05 am

Any infrastructure work have to be done for this new complex?

Just curious the additional land taking on Fort Point was expected or was it just added for the walk bridge?

Who gets taking to court the city or the builder or the board members?

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 7, 2018 at 12:46 am

Bill Fischel, a Dartmouth economist and zoning expert, coined the phrase “Home voter hypothesis”. The idea is that people vote with their feet. The problem in Norwalk is that many cannot afford to do so. Their primary equity investment is here. And they can’t afford to pull up stakes and move elsewhere.

To @APB’s point, Debora is correct. Only abutters have automatic standing. The rest have to take a number. This is why getting testimony into the record is so important.

Clean up land use, and you save the city.

Debora Goldstein April 7, 2018 at 1:26 am

@Rick,

No infrastructure except that they are realigning the curb cut on the East Avenue side to align with Winfield Ave. East Avenue widening will put a new traffic light when it is done. Also, have to look into the brand new reference to an elevator (ain’t it wonderful that a project undergoing approval is allowed to be altered at will?)

The land taking on Fort Point is a surprise. It is probably part of one of 17 mitigation plans required in followup to the FONSI on the Walk Bridge. More surprises coming. Stay tuned.

An appeal would go to ZBA. Any lawsuit would follow a failed appeal and would likely be pressed against the City. You know the drill. We all do.

Rick April 7, 2018 at 1:48 am

Thank you Debora,we are still as an angry pack pulling for you all.

Anyone?

The sewage plant seems to have a lot rental Frac tanks by the sewage station anyone have any idea why they need to have over a 100,000 gallon temporary tanks on hand?

The tents behind them is also odd , hiding whatever they are going. Not to mention the convoy of dump trucks that enter early morning hours around 4:30 .

Sue Haynie April 7, 2018 at 6:13 am

Glad to see this development. It’s good for the the city.

East Norwalk is blessed with its own train station but the station belongs to anyone who wants to use it. Right now, East Norwalk station is very unappealing and why is that OK?

I live equal-distance from East Norwalk and Westport train stations. If I go to Westport station, I can have a coffee,sit down and enjoy the scenery. If I go to East Norwalk station, I can buy a coffee at the gas station and wander around the parking lot.

Bryan Meek April 7, 2018 at 6:53 am

I guess all it takes is a pretty drawing to convince some to continue to pack every last square inch of the city with cheap apartments.

How peaceful looking without the long line of dump trucks?

And they seem to have electrified the train track as well, getting rid of the overhead 550v catenary wires.

Can we see a 360 degree rendering of the new neighborhood? Did the brand new multi million TTD electrical substation across the street get buried under ground or does it have trees planted around it now?

Rayj April 7, 2018 at 10:55 am

EN station is a blessing for those who daytrip to the city on Sat and Sun. Powers that be, please remember that taxpaying citizens of Norwalk would also like to use the station when all is said and done.

Rick April 7, 2018 at 1:28 pm

Im still here talking fire safety, this newly approved project does or doesn’t contain the new proposed fire laws surfacing out of Ct.? Even our own fire dept came out and said give us more protection on any building including a high rise . Its not about coverage its about safety. Why after two years would the State of Ct want to change and enhance safety on all new construction?

“Give me the sprinklers,” one of our best and respected fire official on the Norwalk dept was just quoted in an recent article.

Ct new laws are only days away from the state house to be passed,yes there is opposition , one comment was if a condo owners water was shut off it would shut the sprinklers off to the unit as well. or in other cases unit owner would tap into the sprinkler lines if they were shut off nonsense opposition of course by builders.

It would be shame if this was also pushed through the city to also save on the building expense in light of a clip I shared from Boston on a building similar to the one on day st ironically by the same Trintity Financial company is building in Norwalk. Its not even been a year since this incident.

http://www.wcvb.com/article/building-under-construction-catches-fire-in-dorchester/10235397

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 7, 2018 at 4:13 pm

Increased development and density is appropriate near a train station. What evidence did the applicant present to the Planning or Zoning Commission to suggest this specific development—with exactly this number of units and this distribution of retail and commercial office space —will yield the economic stimulus needed to grow Norwalk’s Grand List? I saw no economic forcast. And none was requested. Why not? Shouldn’t all development be geared towards economic stimulus in order to stabilize property taxes, grow the grand list and fund the schools and other city services?

Nonpartisan April 8, 2018 at 9:21 am

@debrra G

Taxpayer subsidies are in every project with a subsidized housing component.

Any building with subsidized housing has a lower rent income. The lower rent income make the building less valuable. That translates into a lower grand list and lower tax revenue.

The subsidy is between 35 and 50% if the annual real estate tax bill. This is why the large number of new apartments have not significantly increased our grand list.

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