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POKO’s complications include parking problem, Collins says

The Tyvek-wrapped Wall Street Place, visible Friday from the “Leonard Street municipal lot,” now owned by Jason Milligan.

Updated 1:37 p.m., additional information; 1:24 p.m.: Copy edit. 

NORWALK, Conn. — Parking that was intended for POKO Phase I is now unavailable as it’s just been purchased by developer Jason Milligan.

That’s a scenario laid out Saturday by former Mayor Bill Collins, echoing sentiments delivered Friday by Milligan.

“Through some mistake, I don’t know, by the developer, by the city, by the concrete contractor, the POKO property itself does not have enough parking,” Collins said Saturday.

Milligan on Friday wrote:

“On the way down the tubes the zoning commission approved like 40 parking spaces to be moved from phase I to phase II. Phase I is horribly short on parking!

“It is supposed to provide 100 public parking spaces. How do they plan on doing that? Let’s remember that the city basically gave the large public parking lot to the developer for next to nothing!”

 

Milligan purchased 23 Isaac St., described in city documents as the Leonard Street municipal lot, from a legal entity connected to POKO Partners for $3.2 million, he said Friday. He also bought 21 and 31 Isaac St. for $500,000 each, in effect scooping up all the properties slated for POKO Phase II.

Mayor Harry Rilling and Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan in a press release threatened litigation, saying this violated the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the properties. The LDA required “that the ownership of the POKO property could not be transferred unless and until the proposed transfer was first approved by the Redevelopment Agency to ensure any future owner has the capability to complete the project per the requirements of the Land Disposition Agreement,” the press release said.

The Leonard Street municipal lot was sold to POKO for $50,000, but payment was not due until the Phase I parking garage was opened to the public, according to the LDA. POKO was expected to pay $5,000 a year for 10 years, for the lot.

The Phase I parking garage, like the rest of Phase I, is not open. Construction halted in 2016, after POKO Partners principal Ken Olson became fatally ill; Sheehan at the time said Citibank, which issued POKO a construction loan, had discovered a “budget gap.”

City officials have been working with Citibank to restart construction. The nondisclosure agreement that applied to those negotiations has expired, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said Monday.

POKO had the same $50,000 deal for the Isaac Street municipal lot, which is now covered by POKO’s partially built Wall Street Place Phase I, with payment due in $5,000 installments when the Phase I parking garage opened to the public.

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin on Monday confirmed that Phase I has less parking than originally planned but did not confirm that the parking had been transferred to Phase II. Kleppin wrote:

“The last modification the Zoning Commission made to the approval, which I believe was February 2016, indicates that 214 spaces were required and that the approval was modified as follows:

“the automated parking structure was being reduced from 215 to 155 spaces,
“surface spaces from 23 to 16, and
“43 parking spaces at the Leonard Street Lot.”

NancyOnNorwalk has on file a recording of the Feb. 11, 2016 Zoning Commission Plan Review meeting.

Norwalk Senior Planner Dori Wilson touched briefly on the automated underground parking garage that had been planned, explaining that a driver pulls into a bay and the machinery takes the car and parks it.

Three bays had originally been planned, but were being reduced to two, she said, describing that in a positive way as “now you can circulate around the garage.”

The automated garage was being reduced to 155 spaces, she said.

“You know, the cost of putting this project actually into motion, it’s just worked out the design better to have fewer spaces below,” she said. “They will also have the surface parking lot below where you come in and circulate below the building. The remainder will be in the surface lot at Leonard Street. This is Phase II of their plan…”

Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) in February said the $5 million grant awarded to POKO by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DECD) was “strictly for the automated underground parking garage.”

“I always said this guy was playing with other people’s money and the parking garage underneath was totally insane,” Hempstead said.

That garage has not been installed although the project’s foundation was developed to accommodate it, Sheehan wrote in January.

POKO spent $3,321,811 of the grant for “construction-related expenses,” with $1,678,189 available for a new developer, DECD spokesman James Watson said in October.

NancyOnNorwalk asked Collins on Saturday if perhaps the loss of the parking lot had inspired the threats of legal action.

“That could be,” Collins said, calling it a “fly in the ointment.”

“If Milligan has bought Phase II property and there is no place to put the parking, then we have a real problem,” Collins said. “I can see where the city would be understandably concerned about that. I am not on the inside, so I don’t know exactly how that lays out either. But I would think that the city has some cards to play here.”

Rilling did not reply to an email asking about the parking.

“Maybe (Milligan) has in mind taking over the POKO property at some point,” Collins said. “Somebody is going to take it over sooner or later. If the bank can’t get what they want for it, I think it reverts to the city.”

Milligan said Monday that he is not looking to buy Phase I, and declined further comment.

Of Milligan, Collins said, “You’ve got to admire the guy. He is shrewd. I certainly have not read the Land Disposition Agreement myself, so I don’t know whether it’s possible for POKO to sell their portion of property without city approval or not. Tim Sheehan is a reasonably careful guy and if says they can’t do it I would lean in his direction.”

17 comments

Mitch Adis June 5, 2018 at 6:52 am

The RDA doesn’t have a clue. So,with all due respect Mr. Collins, I would not put much faith in Mr. Sheehan. Just look at what he’s done so far. Mr. Milligan is playing chess while the city is playing checkers.

Jlightfield June 5, 2018 at 6:59 am

Wall Street is filled with historic buildings that have no onsite parking. Why should we treat Phase I of Wall Street Place any differently? The remaining surface lot parking should be rezoned to parking only. Whoever buys phase I should be allowed to determine the highest and best use that they want, sort of how GGP managed to turn a mixed use project they bought into a retail only project. The difference being, is that now in 2018 we understand that Redevelopment doesn’t understand what commercial development should entail, the common council diesn’t Understand commercial development, and the Mayor doesn’t understand commercial development.

So instead of trying to incentivize commercial development they should all go back to square one, and develop a plan and legislation to protect the municipal assets of the harbor, the parking, the small business community, and the residents. So if someone wants to build something in the downtown, the focus would be on the design and facade of the building, how it contributes to the streetscape, how the public interacts with the ground floor, and how it contributes to the downtown vibrancy.

Wall Street should be removed from the urban renewal plan, a TIFF district should be created and the funds derived from the district should be reinvested into the district into sidewalk improvements, traffic calming, public activation of the harbor waterfront, programming, and parking. And by parking, it should be with an eye of land acquisition to supply shared parking for the district.

Bill NIghtingale June 5, 2018 at 9:13 am

what a mess. But we’re going to count on the Redevelopment Agency to get us out of this?

Michael McGuire June 5, 2018 at 10:14 am

Alleviate the parking problem by allowing the nearby Yankee Doodle Garage (which has been running at a 25% occupancy rate for the past 17 years if you remove the automobile dealer storage, of 50% occupancy if you include the automobile storage) to house the shortage from POKO Phase 1.

Or how about converting a sufficient amount of the oversized ground level (which is way to big for retail down here) be converted to surface covered parking?

Or how about both?

The optics for the City are really poor and reflect a City that, through its short-sightedness, hinders bona fide business owners that want to invest in Norwalk. Clearly not an inducement to relocate too, or invest in Norwalk.

carol June 5, 2018 at 10:38 am

enough,let an able reasonable man McGuirs rebuild downtown ,it is the only way it will get done. AND TIME FOR TIM SHEEHAN TO GO!!!!!!

John S June 5, 2018 at 10:58 am

Can someone tear that thing down and put a paved parking lot back?

Are any of the surrounding businesses still operating? After this lot went away it became tough for anyone to get around over there.

What a mess….

Jeffrey Hall June 5, 2018 at 2:55 pm

Jlightfield: “Wall Street is filled with historic buildings that have no onsite parking. Why should we treat Phase I of Wall Street Place any differently?”

Offhand, I’d say that a good reason for the public to expect parking here is that they developers got a sweetheart deal for the municipal lot, and cheerfully took 5 million taxpayer dollars to build a parking garage, without even pretending to build a parking garage.

U.S. Blues June 5, 2018 at 4:40 pm

collings, rilling…how inept do these “leaders” cough-cough have to be? (Maybe underhanded when it comes to rilling)

Rusty Guardrail June 5, 2018 at 4:50 pm

And people want to park in a surface lot, nobody likes multi-level garages with their narrow ramps, tight spaces, and potential for crime. Automated parking might be better, but I don’t think anyone wants that either.

Michael McGuire June 5, 2018 at 5:53 pm

FYI for all interested parties

There are much better solutions than tearing this building down and starting from scratch.

The custom built, automated parking garage system for the POKO project is sitting in a warehouse in NJ and ready to go. Likewise, the below grade improvements to the POKO property (which I had a front row seat in watching the construction) are in place and ready to receive the parking system.

Work with what you have and find solutions. There are many paths to a solution.

However, allowing this to languish much longer may result in a City created blighted downtown featuring a 5 story, decaying wooden fire hazard sitting over a 40 foot deep hole in the ground. This is one possible future.

A different possible future could be a City-owned automated, underground parking garage with a private sector owned, 101 unit, market rate apartment complex above. All sitting next to a new train station in a thriving downtown that has seen tremendous growth in the grand list.

A train station is a key feature – it provides the value enhancement to the POKO project making this fiscal train wreck more palatable and feasible to all involved. Likewise doing away with the social do good provides more financial flexibility.

Every developer I spoke with is interested in this project, and each one cited real concerns with the design, debt levels and entitlements. The design they can work with – the debt levels and entitlements they can not.

The City has most control over entitlements as well as value enhancement by creating a train station. They can choose to take over the parking lot and allow the YD garage to make up the shortfall. And/Or the City can leverage its position to buy out debt if need be.

Since it was the City’s idea in the first place the City really needs to take ownership, and leadership on this. To do anything less will be much more costly in the long run.

This is complex stuff – ask for help.

jlightfield June 5, 2018 at 7:11 pm

@jeffreyhall, I gave the public funds some thought before I took my position on it. I looked at whether anyone to date made a profit on this, and concluded that no one had. Not the bank who presently owns it, not POKO and certainly not the city. If some new developer removes the current building, then yeah, I’m being hasty in a total haircut on the project. If the current footprint stands, then I say eat the loss, and build a building that meets today’s market demands, forgo parking on site, and accept a surface lot for the near future.

I’ve been working on an autonomous vehicle project in Stamford. Based on current analyst thinking, the demand for turns arounds, drop-offs and idling will only increase so the rush to reduce surface parking seems uniquely flawed. The number of car trips is expected to rise, so congestion is not easily solved, so addressing the double parking and drops off/pickups seems prudent. Like anyone who plans for the future, I could be wrong about the trending direction of vehicle use, but that is why you plan for things and build in contingencies. Thanks for pointing out the public $ aspect.

Nancy McGuire June 5, 2018 at 8:33 pm

Easy change to relieve parking: Make Wall Street one way from West Avenue to River Street. Add angled parking on both sides with 2 hour meters to keep office workers from taking up the spaces from retailers. These towns seemed to have figured that out: Greenwich, New Canaan, Westport, Austin-Texas, and Bedford Street in Stamford. Seems like a logical, no-brainer solution. Given the current race track through there, I fear for my life every time I cross the street for coffee.

And yes, the retail space on the first floor of the building is quite large for current demand from local retailers. Perhaps McGuire has a good point. Put street grade, garage parking towards the back of that building.

Michael McGuire June 6, 2018 at 10:07 am

Here’s another thought –

Make the Wall Street area a TOD zone to accommodate lower parking requirements. That would, of course, entail making a train station.

Hey, if it works for 68 and 70 South Main Street (See The Hour page A3 article in today’s paper entitle “New Life for Old Moose, Odd Fellow Lodges”) why wouldn’t it work here?

Finally, maybe someone can help me understand this – as I understand the City may sue Milligan (and Milligan wants to invest his and his investor’s hard earned money into Norwalk) to stop his investment in Norwalk, and in the process hold the entire Wall Street area hostage for how long? All over around 43 parking spaces!

And all this in the hopes of kick starting a broken development that is so poorly conceived that no developer will get involved unless major changes are made to the debt structure and entitlements.

And all the while there are over 200 public parking spaces available every day just one block away.

Am I missing something?

Patrick Cooper June 6, 2018 at 11:58 am

@Mike McGuire – the only thing your missing is the elephant in the room. But – you can’t say it here because “ascribing motives” is against the comment policy (trust me on that one). What does every 9pm detective say? Follow the money.

marny Smith June 9, 2018 at 11:40 am

I don’t see any mention of the Garden Cinemas which is one of Norwalk’s unique small businesses. There are plenty of people looking for good films – foreign, documentary, indie, – as alternatives to the loud, flashy, gun-rich offerings at the other Norwalk movie theaters and the only place to find them is at the Garden. We should be protecting small businesses that are not slated to take up one of the projected 80 spaces at the Mall. Parking for the Garden in the spaces adjacent to their building is often tight and several times we have had to give up and go home because there was no place else to park. We are elderly and wouldn’t go to the movies if we had to walk from a parking garage several blocks away.

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