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Former Norwalk Mayors address question: Is Wall Street cursed?

A view of Wall Street from Michael McGuire’s window, late last year.

Correction, 5:51 p.m.: Alex Knopp promised before this article came out to write an op ed. (Correction updated, May 3)

NORWALK, Conn. – You might think Wall Street is cursed.

Ponder recent events:

  • POKO Partners finally began construction on Wall Street Place, only to have the project stall after developer Ken Olson contracted a fatal disease.
  • The city sought to buy the lot next to the Norwalk Public Library but missed the opportunity, and eventually paid developer Jason Milligan $460,000 for a 6-year purchase option, locking in a $4.9 million price for land he paid $2.65 million for.
  • The Wall Street Theater has been renovated, with the assistance of taxpayer dollars, but a lawsuit filed by its contractor has led the theater to file for bankruptcy protection.

 

Wall Street businessman Michael McGuire prompted this inquiry with comments at the March 1 Common Council Planning Committee. It’s been 16 years since the 2004 Wall Street Redevelopment Plan was created but the area has not improved, he said, as the rents he charges for his office building at 64 Wall St. are approximately the same but his expenses are going up,

“Look around and you say, is the area better? Maybe it’s a wash, because we have a bunch of development … new housing, which is good. You know, the theater is still there but then we’ve got other issues like POKO,” he said, prompting a rebuttal from Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.

The 2004 plan was primarily for multifamily housing focused on three developments, two Head of the Harbor sites and POKO Partners’ Wall Street Place, Sheehan said, announcing that he’s still confident that construction will resume on Wall Street Place,

Will it? What’s happened to Wall Street?

NancyOnNorwalk queried several Norwalk officials and stakeholders, seeking an explanation for the seemingly long-term quagmire that is Wall Street.

 

Michael McGuire, property owner since 2000

Wall Street is not cursed, it’s just burdened with “leadership by committees …  No one is in charge but everyone has a say,” McGuire wrote in an email. He provided his take on the history of Wall Street, continuing:

“History post WW2 – Norwalk’s main downtown was Wall/Main until roughly the 1960’s.  People blame the [1955] flood for the demise but that was really not the main cause.  It was economics as the new shopping center format (retail strip centers) took shape on Westport Ave and that took 2+ decades to run its course but it was done efficiently as the market clearly showed the way and was well ahead of the ‘committees’.   It syphoned off good retailers from downtown.

“Next the focus was on SoNo which started in the 1970’s and continues its revitalization today.   It’s been a slow, drawn out process with many bumps along the way but all in all successful…but could be doing better if the ongoing parking issue is resolved (more on that below).  The long-term nature of the SoNo redevelopment is due to the market playing catch up with the ‘committees’ – just the opposite from Westport Ave.  Hence more room/time for unintended consequences.

“Throughout this time period (up through mid-1980’s) the Wall/Main/West area was declining – no worries as all neighborhoods go through cycles and most would agree (at the time) that Wall/Main would bounce back.  After all it was the City Center, right?

“Coming into the late 1980’s early 1990’s we have the focus shift to the Connecticut Avenue corridor and the Big Box era held sway until recently.   The redevelopment process was fast and efficient as again the market was well ahead of the ‘committees’.  Today’s focus is on 95/7 and Waypointe/the apartment boom, another ‘committee’ centric process but with bigger players with much deeper pockets.

“Looking back Norwalk has seen constant major changes that have reshaped our City, mostly in a good way.  But the key takeaway here is that everything noted above is very, very real estate intensive.   Each time period reflects a significant change to a neighborhood.  Seemingly small policies decisions imposed on major neighborhood changing plans can have a dramatic follow on effect – both positive or negative.  The following are examples of seemingly small policy decisions specific to Wall/Main that had big impacts.

“One:   Deciding to lever the parking assets to kick start Wall Street was and is a great decision.  However, choosing POKO Partners to manage and build Wall Street Place, largely based on the social do good aspect of the POKO plan (vs. more feasible plans put forward by better qualified builders), was the undoing of what should have been a grand slam.  Seemingly small decision (choosing POKO) – huge negative impact.

“Two:    Deciding to install parking meters on Wall, River and Main Streets in the early 2000’s was a much-needed change for the good.  This created an undeniable retail resurgence that was gaining strength throughout the mid 2000’s.   However, the follow-on decision to cut off the meter heads, but leave parking fees in parking lots and the YD garage, resulted in the long, slow death of the retail resurgence on Wall and Main.  This was due to the highly valuable street parking spaces (the lifeline of a downtown retailer) being clogged up by none customers.  The resulting weak retail market made this prominent small business area look shabby.  Small decision – big impact.

“Three:   Creating a Parking Authority was arguably a good policy.  However, creating a mandate for the NPA to be self-sufficient, without a corresponding mandate to ‘do no harm to business’ resulted in the biggest anti-business policy in my Norwalk experience.    Small decision (leaving out the do no harm clause) – big impact.

“Four:    Not having a blight ordinance – Duleep’s burnt out Wall Street building, seven years and counting.   Small decision – big impact.

 

Bill Collins (Mayor, 1977-81 and 1983-87)

Former Mayor Bill Collins said he feels sorry for former Mayor Alex Knopp, who “worked hard but it was the wrong time.”

Knopp, who initiated the Wall Street Place development, put his back into it but then Moccia unseated him after four years, bringing “no vision, no excitement and “no enthusiasm,” Collins said, opining that even if Knopp had succeeded in winning another term there wouldn’t have been much he could do as the economy collapsed.

“If that’s a curse that’s what happened,” Collins said. “The economy was not good. The leadership was not good. Nobody really put their back into getting the ball rolling….That was bad fate.”

Collins was mayor during over SoNo’s initial resurgence, including the construction of the Maritime Aquarium and renovation of Washington Street.

“It would have been better if incorporated uptown ‘NoNo’ into the planning more,” Collins said. “SoNo worked but we did not pay much attention to Wall Street area, which even then was depressed and would have taken more vision than maybe I had. But… uptown got left behind. There was unfortunately no new vision that came along to bring it up to speed. Even today, it’s status quo.”

 

 

Richard Moccia (Mayor 2005-2013)

“While I have over the past few years refrained from criticizing any political figures, I am forced to respond to Bill Collins,” Moccia wrote in an email. “Bill Collins talking about excitement is amusing.  Because he was about as exciting as watching a baked potato cook.”

Moccia answered Collin’s comments by writing, “Alex did work hard, and I continued working with POKO on the same basic plan that Alex developed.  Unless Bill was at all the meetings I had with Redevelopment, POKO, and the lawyers, then I would suggest that he is talking from ignorance.”

“One member of my party, Nick Kydes, was opposed to any affordable housing being included,” Moccia wrote. “Then the recession hit.  It became a domino effect, delays, political objections and then the recession and then eventually to the point we are at now.  I guess that could be considered a collective failure.”

“Some of the of the obstacles that arose were beyond anyone’s control,” Moccia wrote. “Firstly, the owner of the Globe Theater asking for a exorbitantly high amount for POKO to buy it. I know the amount of 2 million was mentioned. This delayed many of POKO’s plans.”

Former owner Mary Kyriakides sold the theater to the Wall Street Theater Company for $1.5 million in January 2014, after Moccia left office. She is listed as having bought the theater in 2008, for $555,000.

Moccia continued:

“As Mayor at the time I would have to accept some responsibility as some of it happened on my watch.  I am sure that Mayor Rilling probably is getting some of the heat right now, although there are situations beyond his control affecting the project.  I hope that my efforts although at the beginning stages will ultimately lead to a vibrant Wall Street.

 “As far as obstacles, there was the Duleep building fiasco.   From my side of the aisle, some Councilmen who felt strongly about overdevelopment and too much housing.  I got the impression that they thought they could keep Norwalk the way it was in the 50’s and 60’s with mom and pop stores, and did not buy into the idea of affordable housing and outside developers.

 “With regards to the Head of Harbor project, I am happy it is progressing, Mike DiScala is a respected developer and businessman in town.  There were some obstacles with Zoning and constant criticisms from a person who claims to be an environmental expert and, again, politicians opposed to developers.  But in retrospect, I probably concentrated too much on the POKO project and should have been more aggressive on helping the Head of the Harbor project.  That being said I am glad that Mayor Rilling has helped advance Mike’s project.”

Douglas Hempstead, Common Council 2003-present

“I was old enough to see the flood, but I was only 4 at the time,” Hempstead said, explaining that he was told that major retailers such as Macy’s were interested in building in the Wall Street area but downtown merchants “didn’t want a large department store being there because they thought it would put them all out of business. That’s how they wound up with a Pathmark, with an office building.”

Norwalkers didn’t want office buildings on Connecticut Avenue because there was a boom down on Route 7, “and all the neighbors were complaining, ‘We’ve got historic buildings and these tall buildings, 15 stories, 12 stories, we don’t want them up and down Connecticut Avenue,” Hempstead said.

Therefore, the retail left the town center and went to Connecticut Avenue, he said.

In the 1980s, “You drove down Connecticut Avenue, you had a trucking depot where Stop and Shop was, a lumber Ring’s End-type place where the CVS is on the corner up there. Old McDonald’s farms where the office building is. Drive-in movie theater where Best Buy is now. You had a trailer park where Sports Authority was,” Hempstead said.

There were old cabins and, “It was pretty under developed, even going into the 80s up there on Connecticut Avenue,” Hempstead said.

Therefore, the retail went there, because the Wall Street property owners were not a cohesive group and it’s hard with individually owned buildings, he said.

“The urban renewal style is ‘just take it all,” Hempstead said. “That’s what happened to Washington Street. The city did eminent domain and took it all and turned it over to one developer. (Norwalk Center) just never evolved. There’s not many apartments up there, either. As crazy as it sounds there were a lot of people living uptown (before the flood), because over the river there were a lot of apartments.

The issues predated Redevelopment, he said, asserting that back in the 80s and 90s an effort should have been made to plan the area along a theme and concluding, “I think it’s been a victim of its time.”

 

Editor’s Notes: Knopp was responsible for choosing POKO; Moccia had the parking meters removed. Mayor Harry Rilling has not responded to emails on this topic; Knopp initially did not respond but promised on April 19 to write an opinion piece on the topic. 

This is Part I of a series. Portions of Mike McGuire’s emailed response were bolded by the editor. 

10 comments

V May 2, 2018 at 9:16 am

Cursed? Laughable. How about starting with the inept leadership and the fact not one mayor has taken a lesson from any former mayors’ mistakes. The political cronyism and cozy relationships with local developers are the real issue here.

Debora Goldstein May 2, 2018 at 9:44 am

I’m sorry, but this isn’t “shining a spotlight on how Norwalk is run”. A bunch of opinions and ex-mayors criticizing one another.

It does highlight one thing. Ex-Mayor Moccia made it clear that the Common Council had a lot of sway over land use decisions.

The current administration has made it very clear that this Mayor controls everything, even to the point of keeping them in the dark about citizens who wish to serve on land use commissions because said citizens might not agree with the Mayor’s “vision”. Seats on commissions stay empty rather than rock his boat.

PIBerman May 2, 2018 at 10:08 am

Students of successful major redevelopments of shabby Downtowns know that hiring major league expert advise and securing commitments of capable developers with strong records is the path to success. And doing it piecemeal depending on local or small developers leads to Norwalk’s challenges. Over the years City residents have paid a price for our peculiar governance where there are no requirements for either Mayor nor Common Council. Rather than securing Professoinal Management as have most cities across the nation. So its a good bet 50 years from now Downtown will look pretty similar to what it is now.

Norwalk’s “Great Trajedy” is that our City officials remain unable to take the great gift of GGP’s Mall and use it to spearhead a major revival of our Downtown. It’s a once in a generation gift. Hiring a City Planner from leafy New Canaan or an Economic Director from tiny Newtown tells everyone about how City Hall approaches revising our shabby Downtown. Stamford showed how it could be done.

So the best we can is encourage a few profitable apartment buildings. That there’s no rush for retailers to build stores and serve the new renters in recent years tells us our future. We can see this in the empty first floor spaces north of the Aquarium that have been empty now for years. With Professional Management not much changes in Norwalk. Past always seems Prologue.

Bob Welsh May 2, 2018 at 11:29 am

As Norwalk considers how to revitalize Wall Street, the opinions of former mayors — and others — regarding past efforts are most relevant. Thank you Nancy for this piece.

Diane Lauricella May 2, 2018 at 11:53 am

Thank you Nancy for dipping your toe into the issue of all who may really be responsible for Wall Street area’s troubles. I hope that you will be able to emerge your “whole leg” into the muddy waters on this one as some that were quoted in Part One seem to have selective memory. Paraphrasing, if we do not learn from our historic mistakes then we are destined to repeat them…

For those that have been around for decades, the accountability can be shared by many, including City staff, land use boards and commissions, Mayors, Council folks, Task Forces, the Redevelopment Agency, etc..

While each of the officials are quoted in Part One as giving their opinion, some are certainly suffering from a selective memory…

Head of Harbor South (HOHS): Having former Mayor Dick Moccia try to blame me for the stalling of the Head of Harbor and Wall street development is a cheap shot and untrue. He may be entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts. I was in favor of the Head of Harbor South plans in lieu of a dumpster company or some other unwise use partly because they would clean up an old industrial polluted site and develop a harbor walk. This political shot is almost laughable in lieu of the way his Administration let many pollution problems, including toxic sites along the harbor, languish for years.

The record will also show that I have been a long-time advocate for including the value of the Norwalk River and the Harbor as an economic engine for the revival of the Wall Street area. I am happy to defend the River/Harbor when others won’t.

During the Esposito Administration, including Zoning officials and the Common Council, I was opposed to the LeBlanc Company’s application to place a DUMPSTER COMPANY (yes, can you imagine what the rats, noise and stench on a summer’s day would have done for developing Wall Street?) in the very footprint of where Head of Harbor South now stands. The application was accepted by staff and Land Use officials at the time during the Esposito Administration even though it flew in the face of the Wall Street Plan that was begun in the Collins Administration. In addition, the Norwalk River Initiative Committee’s (that I was a part of) recommendation opposing harmful land use development like waste containers near the Riverside were approved by the same Esposito Administration and Council. Ironic right? It ended up that the newly-elected Knopp Administration opposed this poorly-rendered application, spoke out about it, and the LeBlanc Family wisely withdrew their application (Circa 2001 or 2002). Now that was ultimately a good decision.

Then, years later under the direction of the Moccia Administration and DPW Director Hal Alvord, the electric utility(then-CL&P now Eversource) needed a place to store polluted groundwater in large tanker trucks coming from their regional underground high-voltage power-line construction project along Westport Avenue and the same Administration wanted the tanks placed at the DiScala HOHS site. Yes, I was opposed to that because it was a possible threat to the river, citizen health and our harbor and I even suggested several other locations as there were plenty of other sites to store the tanks close to the construction area. I think those tanks were at the HOHS for more than a year!

More history…It was my understanding that former Planning and Zoning Director Mike Green put up roadblock after roadblock for HOHS including FEMA restrictions. In addition to Historical Commission issues and road access issues…all while Mayor Moccia had influence over land use officials and staff.

Wall Street area: Lastly, let us not forget when, during an economic boom in the 90’s, the Esposito Administration decided to let the Seligson organization be responsible and become the preferred developer for all of Wall Street instead of only the West Avenue sites they really were interested in. Once again, the City squandered good governance by failing to offer a development competition for a different developer for Wall Street during an economic boom. Don’t even ask why the Redevelopment Agency at the time allowed this and the Chamber of Commerce lauded it. Another not-so-small decision that had a big consequence.

A historic study of the development of the Wall Street area could help someone gain a Master’s Thesis or PhD for there were additional decisions similar to Mr. McGuire’s statements that cumulatively caused this.

I look forward to Parts 2, 3, 4…

Lisa Brinton Thomson May 2, 2018 at 11:58 am

This story epitomizes why mayors need to get out of the real estate business. Lack of financial expertise and too many conflicts of interest. It’s costing residential property owners a fortune. How many more land use mistakes can Norwalk take? How higher do property taxes need to go before residents realize that Norwalk needs professional management?

On Thursday night, May 3rd, there will be a public hearing on tax breaks for special developer friends in Room 231. This administration is now proposing to give away our money, at the same time they raise taxes, raid the rainy fund and underfund the BOE. When only 28% vote in local elections – its like taking candy away from a baby!

Here’s a recommendation Mr. Mayor and Common Council – why not clean up the practices at City Hall and make Norwalk an easier place to do business? Clean up the permitting processes in zoning and ordinance instead of giving away our money.

Michael McGuire May 2, 2018 at 3:54 pm

Nancy – thanks for writing this article. But I think you are overly harsh on Wall Street. It’s not a quagmire – its the 3rd largest CBD (central Business District) in Fairfield County with over 1.2 million SF of office and over 1,700 new housing units built in the last decade.

It’s also the heart and soul of small business in Fairfield County which is why I’m such a proponent of a train station here. For all the challenges and “lack of love” its gotten in the past it shrugs that off and continues to move forward.

In helping to put the Wall Street Neighborhood Association together I’ve found huge interest and a lot of energy, excitement, and creativity coming together to make this a great place to live/work. Everyone agrees that it has “great bones”, its why they are here in the first place.

I don’t think we need to do much to push it over the top and make this a thriving area like downtown Stamford’s small business area centered around Park Square West, lower Summer, Broad and Bedford (5-8 minute walk from the train).

We have a plan to reactive the Train Station which the mayor is supportive of, and Duleep is moving forward, slowly but there is light at the end of that tunnel.

The City should focus on cleaning up the POKO mess by lowering the social do good component to the standard 10%. Use the rainy day fund if you have to – at least that’s an investment in the City. We are all hoping for some good news on that front.

However, I would seriously slow down this Innovation District which just might be another small policy decision with large scale, long-term negative consequences. CC members should demand proof form RDA that this is truly needed, especially in light of the huge progress being made on the train station front.

Rick May 3, 2018 at 4:07 pm

great article Nancy pretty much breaks it down to who owns what..

The City should focus on cleaning up the crime the car full of pocketbooks theft the other night shows crime exists on WALL ST along with the car left on milk crates at Waypointe within the last two days.

Its funny Wall st thinks they are next yet Stantec is planing on a new Ct ave after all the business shifts to the for now mall.

No real work has gone into Wall st now that Stantecs cohorts will buy the mall and they alone will determine what wall st will be not the city nor the bar owners on wall st.

Wall st was going to what someday? Im not sure tyne same vision is possibly with the new semi transparent mall facility where may opt your big business will probably end up.

The way the Merritt buildings are emptying a mall there looks just as good as wall st but with a platform.

Time for wall st to own the cost of crime there the rest of the city cant keep sending help for alcohol related crimes now the kicker is the cell phone scene along west ave and wall st.

You have to admit want to make the city appealing lets catch 100s of cell phone users going to wall st , bet that put a damper on local traffic this week.

But Norwalk is so smart.

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