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Opinion: Is Wall St cursed? Yes—by over regulation!

Jason Milligan.

Jason Milligan is a developer poised to purchase five Wall Street area properties from POKO Partners and the Fairfield County Bank on Wall Street. This is the third in a series of stories and opinions related to the status of Norwalk Center, asking the question, “Is Wall Street cursed?”

The Wall Street area has tremendous potential that can be realized only if local government cuts back its cumbersome regulations that stifle creativity and flexibility for investors and that leave residents and business owners staring at the same wilting Tyvek wrappers year after year.  The proper role of government Zoning regulations is to define the character of neighborhoods with the input of the people who live and work there—citizens, business owners, taxpayers.  The proper role of Zoning isn’t to crush creativity by tying a gym or café or storefront to every attempt to build affordable apartments.

My plan for the Wall Street area is to build small apartments in buildings with very limited recreation space. The City of Norwalk itself is the recreation space. Tenants can use the gym and café already on Wall Street, or go read a book at the library.  All of these apartments would be affordable by Norwalk market standards. If my ideas are wrong, I will have lots of empty apartments. The failure will be my problem, not the taxpayer’s problem. I will have to respond by either lowering the rent until we (i.e. my business), attract tenants willing to live under the circumstances we offer, or we will have to convert some apartments into recreation space, or we may have to change some apartments into office space or something else.

The process of iterations until we settle on what the market wants should be fast, easy and independent of government involvement, provided the buildings are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood as determined by its residents during the development of the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development).  On Wall Street this should be a cinch.  Many uses are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood—residential, retail, office, even light industrial. The government has created and is perpetuating this manmade, Wall Street curse. 

Luckily, manmade curses are easily lifted.  All it takes is the collective will to tweak the Zoning regulations to make it easier for people like me to risk our own money —not yours — to succeed or fail as the market dictates.

Projects that adhere to the character of a neighborhood should be fast tracked. Projects that deviate from the well-defined character of a neighborhood — say a prison in a residential neighborhood — should go through a very careful and very public process. Right now there is no distinction between projects that are in character and those that are out. Every project must endure the same cumbersome process. There are too many regulations and those regulations are too specific. They encourage or even demand uniformity. Big projects. Big units. All projects to provide all the bells & whistles — fitness centers, pools, community rooms, common kitchen, cafe, bowling alley, puppet theatre, what-have-you.

BUT small tweaks to the Zoning regulations for the Wall Street area could bring Norwalk some amazing results and lift the curse.

 Five zoning changes to lift the curse:

  1. Keep Neighborhood Character. Norwalk has completed several thorough studies and plans that define the character of the Wall Street Neighborhood. Put a clear definition of the character of the neighborhood at the front of the Zoning regulations to be used as a compass. The current neighborhood is a continuous historic streetscape with buildings that are 2-4 stories tall. This historic streetscape defines the character of Wall Street. Deviating from the character of the neighborhood should be extremely difficult. Right now it is very easy to deviate from the character of the neighborhood. Six stories or more are allowed if a developer offers extra “affordable” housing or some public amenities like benches, statues, fountains, or walkways. While extra amenities may sound nice, it may not be worth sacrificing the character of the neighborhood to get them. Besides, there are other ways to get them.
  2. End the on-site recreation space requirement. Investors should be allowed to provide as much or as little recreation area as they feel is appropriate for the building. This amount is not static. It can increase or decrease depending upon market conditions. The City of Norwalk wants to increase foot traffic in the area, but the regulations require each project to provide a tremendous amount of onsite recreation area that encourages residents to stay inside their buildings. These imperatives work against each other. Make the residents walk outside the building to the gym or cafe, and foot traffic increases naturally.
  3. Change the on-site parking requirement. The neighborhood character has been established above. Wall Street is an urban area. So the regulations should attract residents who are willing to walk. Increased foot traffic helps the existing businesses and encourages new ones. It makes much more sense to congregate parking into larger lots or garages to take advantage of economies of scale.  The Yankee Doodle garage is half full, and the Parking Authority would love more customers. Not everyone has a car. As it stands, car-less renters shoulder some of the cost borne by developers of the on-site parking requirement.  They should instead get a discount.
  4. Stop requiring 10 percent “affordable” apartments in every project over 20 units, and reclaim the definition of “affordable.” The state and city currently define “affordable” apartments as only ones that have a legal restriction recorded on the land records that limits the amount of rent that can be charged. The rent that can be charged is set by the state through the infamous CGS 8-30g.

CGS 8-30g requires that each city or town in Connecticut provide at least 10 percent of its housing stock as “affordable.” Norwalk currently complies with around 11 percent. Norwalk has decided that the best way to stay in compliance is to just require every project that is 20 units or more to provide 10 percent of the units as “affordable.”

In addition to the thousands of deed restricted “affordable” apartments, Norwalk has hundreds of apartments that charge rents that are affordable in every way minus the deed restriction. Without the deed restriction, they actually count as unaffordable in the 10 percent calculation, which is a misrepresentation of the true situation in Norwalk. Changing the state definition of “affordable” should be a long term goal of every Norwalk citizen, but for now Norwalk can create a trial program in the Wall Street area that does not require 10 percent of the apartments in each project to be “affordable” and still safely remain in compliance with the CGS 8-30g. At present, Norwalk is safely within the state standard of 10 percent affordable housing stock.  Meanwhile our many neighboring towns are well below the bar.

  1. Abandon out-dated rules like coverage, FAR (floor area ratio) and density tied to land area. This tweak is a bit technical and a beyond the scope of this article. The point is that the zoning regulations in Norwalk are overly complicated, but they could be simplified with a few tweaks.

 

Lifting the Wall Street curse is easy.  Let investors take all the financial risk—not taxpayers through subsidies—and let the market forces drive the details as long as the big picture honors the Neighborhood Character as defined by those who live and work there.  I promise you, the Wall Street Neighborhood character is not wrapped in Tyvek.

18 comments

Nora K King May 22, 2018 at 8:41 am

Jason – the city should trust you because you have the best interest for the city of Norwalk?

Patrick Cooper May 22, 2018 at 8:44 am

Taxpayer’s of Norwalk – pay attention. This is the closest thing to a “love letter” that this city has received from a developer in a long time.

What’s to love? Simple: the developer wants to create value through improvements, and -he’s willing to take the risk’s associated. THAT position – is huge.

Consider Jason’s optics – Wall Street has promise, and he wants to help transform that latent potential into reality. The benefits accrue to the neighborhood and the overall taxpayer (via the grand list), and as the investor – his reward is commensurate with his risk. As it should be. But here’s the critical part – if it goes south, he – the developer – is the primary source on the hook for losses. Not the taxpayer.

I’ll leave it to the newly energized Wall Street Association – who have real skin in the game – to comment on the various positive’s and drawbacks of Mr. Milligan’s plan. But from a pure economics standpoint – the core argument is a proven winner. Let the market decide. Harry – that’s on page 2 of Samuelson’s Econ 101.

It’s a sad fact of life, as you age – certain body parts stop working as well as they did in your youth. It appears – our mayor and the rubber stamp CC has lost hearing. No matter the outcry – no matter the pushback – they refuse to listen (or simply can’t hear) to most Norwalk citizens who plead for planning and zoning reform. This municipal government – when it comes to playing developer and making land use decisions – is the Cleveland Browns of CT. Get them out of the process. To Jason’s point – let them just create rules that spur creativity, investment – and business (not taxpayer) associated risk/reward.

Good luck Jason – I’m sure things will get easier in December of 2019.

Jason M. May 22, 2018 at 9:06 am

Nora,

I happen to have the best interest of the city in mind, but that is irrelevant. I have owned my business in Norwalk since 2003, and I lived in Norwalk for 8 years.

The point is for the leaders of Norwalk, who intrinsically have the best interests of Norwalk in mind, to craft very detailed definitions of the character of each neighborhood.

Then anyone willing to deliver results that Norwalk has established as desirable can risk their time and money to give the city what it wants.

Should Norwalk only insist upon good intentions?

Donna Smirniotopoulos May 22, 2018 at 10:37 am

@Nora, since when did the City choose developers based on their good intentions for Norwalk? Best as anyone can tell, some are chosen based on campaign donations. A lucky few are getting enormous tax breaks while residential property owners pay full fare.

Hard to figure where the good intentions are along North Water Street. Between Enterprise Zone tax abatements, tax exempt status (Maritime Aquarium) and the Parking Authority (a 10 million dollar garage), I can barely find any tax revenue coming into the city from prime waterfront real estate that has already been redeveloped. What gives?

Jason Milligan isn’t asking for our tax dollars. That IS in the best interests of Norwalk IMHO because he’s not taking anything out of my pocketbook or anyone else’s. Maybe the problem is we’ve let the wrong people decide what IS in the best interests of Norwalk, and they haven’t done a bang-up job. Every time a developer offers a fountain, we give him an extra two stories to play with. That’s how the City looks out for our interests.

Lisa Brinton Thomson May 22, 2018 at 11:02 am

Thank you Jason.

Nora, If Jason wants to take a chance with his OWN MONEY to buy and improve buildings, some which are literally fire traps on Wall Street (I know because I scoped a few out looking for a campaign office) …then let him! The City screwed up on the Library deal with taxpayer money. I don’t blame him – I blame the city.

Nancy May 22, 2018 at 11:46 am

Jason was able to profit from the sale of the Library parking lot at the cost of the City. But we are one lucky community in that he wants to put that profit right back into the neighborhod. It could have been invested in a city with a booming economy, no state income taxes and an exploding population, like Texas!

David May 22, 2018 at 11:49 am

This article is fantastic and a clear statement of where zoning can go wrong and harm the growth of the city. Although…anybody who thinks a six story building would in any way harm Wall Street’s neighborhood character needs to unclutch those pearls!

Jason Milligan May 22, 2018 at 1:29 pm

@Nancy-There is NO profit from the lease-option with the library. At best we got a reset to zero after several years of effort. If the city exercises the option then there will profit, but that is 5 years away and unlikely. The option price is high by design. We don’t want the city to buy the property. We want to find a way to collaborate.

The cost to get the apartment project approved, and then to fight in court cost roughly $300,000 taking into account architects, surveyors, lawyers, engineers, traffic consultants etc. Each public hearing is like a $10-$15K night. 3-5 different professionals charging several hundred per hour.

A large part of the bank building was intentionally kept empty in anticipation of having a construction zone. Lost rent & carrying costs were over $200,000.

The settlement with the city required the approved apartment project be cancelled and no application for any another project can be made without the cities permission for another 5 years+. The library has 5+ years to park on a good portion of our property, which means our tenants cannot.

Perhaps the biggest expenses that do not show up on an income statement or balance sheet are the negative hit to my reputation, the enormous amount of time invested or lost opportunity cost.

It was a learning experience, and a chance to do better the next time!

Michael McGuire May 22, 2018 at 1:54 pm

Jason’s points regarding zoning issues are well thought out, supported by market info, and would benefit Norwalk overall if implemented.

I would hope that Norwalk leadership would pursue an open minded review of Jason’s ideas. Doing so would benefit all of Norwalk.

Cheryl May 22, 2018 at 8:54 pm

Jason…
What’s in this for you? Do you stand to make any money from this? Or are you doing this out of the kindness of your heart for free?

Lisa Brinton Thomson May 23, 2018 at 7:27 am

Cheryl, What a {…} question. Of course he thinks he will make money – that’s called business. Something sorely lacking in this city and state. The inside of the majority of those buildings on Wall Street are dumps. Do you subscribe to the alternative of the administration giving tax credits with YOUR money to their friends ‘who love the city’ versus someone risking their own capital? Why do you think so many middle class and retired families are leaving this city and state? The public sector is killing us!!!
Edited to remove an insult, a violation of the comments policy.
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

Diane Lauricella May 23, 2018 at 7:40 am

Jason presents several really good ideas that offer to kick start the library end of Wall Street, build REAL affordable housing, and begin long-needed reform of our Zoning regulations. Please talk to him.

There is an immediate need to reform and modernize our land use regs including Zoning and reasonable sets of standards that protects the public interest while also allowing the development community to look at reasonable standards and go forth. Things at times have gotten out of control.

Note of caution: Totally depending upon “market trends” is partly what got us the retail Big Box circus years ago, gobbling up precious industrial zones that if better managed would have provided a mix of clean industry/good-paying local jobs, office and residential and better tax base diversification that would have shifted more of the tax burden away from homeowners to a more fair and stable mix.

Lastly, to try and shift/share at least some of the blame about the library lot…several administrations had opportunities to secure the land around the library and did nothing productive…this deal was the last chance to save this parcel for library expansion and the Zoning Commission at the time, with with staff forgetting about written plans and Adam Blank Chairing, gave Milligan his permits, rendering the land worth more $$$. Other City “tools” were not used, including eminent domain…for decades! Not Jason’s burden… but ours…Republican and Democratic administrations.

Jason May 23, 2018 at 7:50 am

Cheryl,

Making money is certainly a goal. It is not the only goal, and there is no guarantee. Losing money is also a very real possibility.

Success will breed more success for me and the area. So hopefully you and everyone else in the city is rooting for success.

Michael Foley May 23, 2018 at 8:10 am

This Could be a Fantastic thing for this area ! Good Luck Jason. The past attempts have been a disaster. Btw I don’t know Jason but hopeful that this area is developed and becomes area that business will flourish, the Theater will succeed and maybe even a train station one day !

EnoPride May 23, 2018 at 10:43 am

Good Luck Jason! I too am hopeful that your vision can take off and recusitate this blighted, long suffering area FINALLY. Area desperately needs to be carefully and mindfully developed (hopefully in coordination with some members of the Norwalk Historical Society) and deserves to be showcased as the historic gem that it is. Wall Street district’s great bones are there to guide you, and it sounds like you have some buzz and support from the residents. Now let’s get City Hall and P&Z onboard. A no brainer I feel…

Paul Lanning May 23, 2018 at 12:34 pm

The theater would be succeeding NOW if it offered a full schedule of performances that people want to attend.

Lisa Brinton Thomson May 23, 2018 at 1:10 pm

Nancy, Suggesting something is a ‘foolish’ question denotes an insult? Really?

Chris K May 29, 2018 at 5:13 pm

@Jason, I wish you luck. These sound like smart and reasonable changes. With regard to #1, Norwalk and other towns should really be moving away from use-based “zoning” and towards form-based codes.

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