Updated, 2:15 p.m., copy edits; 5:57 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk eyes turned to Wall Street on Monday evening, as at least 50 people participated in a Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations forum in the Wall Street Theater, and more than 300 reportedly watched it on a Facebook livestream.
The forum, moderated by CNNA executive Board member Donna Smirniotopoulos and held in the theater itself, featured a slight confrontation between Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan and CNNA member Adolph Neaderland, comments from millennial Wall Street business operators, and familiar complaints about the Norwalk Parking Authority.
Real estate broker Jason Milligan, who is entangled in a high-profile legal dispute with the City and the Redevelopment Agency over his purchase of “POKO” properties, used the occasion to promote his ideas directly to the public. Milligan expressed dismay that Planning and Zoning turned down his request to rent space to a dentist and his plans for the Fairfield Bank properties, and called for greater flexibility in regulations.
Milligan’s opinions were one of three different versions of what needs to change to make the Wall Street area successful: businessman Michael McGuire, owner of 64 Wall St., blamed the removal of parking meters for depressing the area and said the key to revitalization is a Wall Street train station; Jackie Lightfield of Norwalk 2.0 said she’s no fan of the Parking Authority either but everyone needs to work together to make businesses successful – not just new ones, but existing ones – and called for a strategic vision.
Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan gave a presentation touching on what has already improved. As part of a presentation about the Wall Street/West Avenue plan, Sheehan said that the Waypointe development has brought an additional $2 million in property tax revenue and pointed to the theater itself as an example of growth. Sheehan was assisted by Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss, who cited 1,000 new apartments and increased foot traffic as area strengths and described the area’s car dominance as a weakness.
Milligan said afterwards that he thought 100 people attended; NancyOnNorwalk counted more than 50 about 10 minutes into the event. CNNA executive Board member Lisa Brinton, former Mayoral candidate, told the crowd she was “astounded” at the turnout.
“It is unfortunate that a volunteer organization had to get this together, that the city is not doing this,” she said. Afterwards, she said “everyone” had been invited, including Mayor Harry Rilling and every Common Council member.
Only Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) attended, as well as Planning Commissioner David Davidson, she said, during the event.
Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) contacted NancyOnNorwalk before the meeting, asking if a recording would be available; Melendez said she wanted to be there but didn’t think she could make it.
The event was livestreamed by the Theater; at 2 a.m. the Theater’s Facebook page said the video had 313 views.
Self-described “train station guy” McGuire said that Wall Street has every attribute for a successful urban downtown except a train station.
“What’s my vision for Wall Street? Restore balance,” he said. “How do you do that? Start with a station, a train station. Without a station we are just going to plod along like we have been for decades.”
Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker is now discussing the issue with activists, he said. “They are listening to us… we showed them the numbers and they said ‘holy smokes, you have something here.'”
The State Bond Commission in July approved $250,000 for a Wall Street train station feasibility study.
There’s a broad consensus on what the Wall Street area should be, Milligan said, and it includes keeping the area’s historic feel and allowing a mixture of uses.
His plan for the Fairfield County bank buildings, which includes small apartments with no amenities on site, “checks every box” and, “it should be allowed, it’s a piece of cake, that’s what we want, is it not?” he said.
Milligan later explained that the problem is the Zoning regulations allow two stories but his plan would convert third floor storage area to apartments.
“Getting that approved is impossible at this point,” he said.
Redevelopment is “in 75-80 percent agreement with where you are at,” Sheehan said toward the end of the evening.
“You may be looking at some things from Zoning that we think go a little bit too far but I think there is general agreement that this is a good project,” Sheehan said. He explained that many of Milligan’s recommendations including reducing the requirements for amenity spaces and parking have been taken seriously and incorporated “into our plan but ultimately the Redevelopment Agency, contrary to popular belief, does not control everything in the City.”
There’s a lengthy process, Sheehan said, citing the 10 years it took to get Transit Oriented Development regulations in South Norwalk.
Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin “wants to plan for the City of Norwalk and positively plan for the City of Norwalk,” Sheehan said. “I am hoping that that process is going to go smoother because he has been a direct advocate for most of what we have been advancing.”
Sheehan also explained that Milligan’s would-be dental tenant wouldn’t be Zoning compliant because members of the Zoning Commission decided to only allow medical offices on the second floor. A commission member raised the issue of eye doctors and dentists but “it was rejected,” he said. “They clearly considered it, they made a determination.”
Milligan also brought some of his fight with Redevelopment and the City into the discussion, at one point calling the partially-built Wall Street Place a “dark cloud hanging over the neighborhood.”
“The easiest, least expensive, smallest solution is what we should explore. There’s several parties that are not interested in that,” Milligan said. Milligan has criticized City officials for what he describes as a lack of willingness to talk with him about solutions for the area.
The most disturbing thing is how much has been in default over the history of the Land Disposition Agreement for the POKO properties, while “the effort of enforcement against me in the 3.5 months is staggering,” he said.
Citibank, current owner of the stalled Phase I, would cave if the same effort was applied, Milligan said.
“They are not in the business of fighting. They would cave, they would sell it to someone else, I think they could sell it in a heartbeat… until they enforce regulations on (the) current owner we are going to be treading water over there,” he said, drawing a smattering of applause.
Sheehan refused to get drawn into that discussion. Prior to the event, and also during the forum, he said he would not address POKO or matters which are the subject of litigation.
“This is one thing I do agree with Jason Milligan on: the key to success going forward is ultimately the city’s ability to be flexible and responsive,” Sheehan said at the end of the evening. “There is no question that we are not as nimble, being a governmental entity.”
Lightfield, in her opening monologue, said, “One of the issues about revitalizing a downtown is that there’s a lot of people who have a lot of opinions about what should happen but in the end we all recognize what a thriving downtown is, and that is a downtown that is filled with people who are engaged and either working, or living, or dining or shopping.”
There have been lots of plans, and talk about policy changes over the years, and businesses were promised that money invested in the area would lead to “more parking, better parking, more safety, lighting… all of the same things that we heard over and over again.”
“We have been told the same story for decades and yet Wall Street looks pretty much the same, with one little caveat. I would say that Wall Street looks a lot like SoNo did 35 years ago,” Lightfield said. She noted a burned out building and blighted buildings that look like they might become burned out.
“It’s not that the property owners are bad people and they don’t want to invest in their properties,” Lightfield said. “They just don’t believe that anything’s going to change and that’s because there is no transparency or trust with what the city says it’s going to do, with what the Redevelopment Agency says it’s going to do or what the developers say they are going to do.”
That comment drew applause.
“We need to get younger people involved in making decisions about the future because guess what people, they are the future,” she said.
Surrounding communities have free parking in their thriving downtowns, McGuire said. He criticized the Parking Authority for creating policies without consulting businesses.
“Having a Parking Authority operate the way they do is gutting the value of your urban core,” McGuire said. “That’s both SoNo and here on Wall Street, to the tune of 15-25 percent of the value of your buildings are lost and going to the Parking Authority.”
The removal of the parking meters under then-Mayor Richard Moccia lowered the value of his building by more than $250,000, McGuire asserted, asking audience members to “multiply that by every building in the urban core.”
It’s not that you have to get rid of the Parking Authority to magically make things better, but “no you have to do the hard work, you have to work with the businesses and the people that want to open businesses and get them to come here,” Lightfield said. “If you don’t focus on that we’ll still be talking about this in another 10 years.”
Nancy McGuire, who is married to Mike McGuire and works as a commercial real estate broker, spoke from the audience to say that she hasn’t been able to get one retail client to move to the Wall Street area, even though she has bragged about the lowest rent in Fairfield County. She called “lack of parking” the “number one reason.”
Smirniotopolous said that she had heard from a former Parking Authority member that it costs $80 or $90 to process a $25 ticket, and opined, “It certainly sounds like we need to rethink parking if it’s a big issue.”
“I am sorry, Tim, but not of your presentations mention the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development) at all. You ignore it,” Neaderland offered at that point.
“I have always accepted the POCD as an overall plan,” Sheehan replied, asserting that the POCD consultants had reviewed the Wall Street/West Avenue plan and there’s nothing inconsistent with the POCD.
“With all due respect I am not sure whether that it true,” Neaderland said.
“I don’t take that as ‘all due respect’ that you are calling me out and saying something is untrue,” Sheehan replied.
“I don’t know where you perceive that I don’t accept POCD as a plan for the entire city,” Sheehan said. “… It’s not intended to be a detailed plan. It is basically a plan that gives direction in terms of planning for the entire city. It doesn’t get down to a granular level of planning.”
The POCD is “the people’s plan,” Smirniotopoulos said a few minutes later. “I think this is where the people who participated in the workshops see a disconnect based on the feedback that we are getting from CNNA members who sit on the steering committee. … we don’t feel the plan that is shaping up reflects the information that we have shared.”
“That should come back to the Committee,” Sheehan said.
A born and raised Norwalker said, “all the departments want to scare people away. It’s impossible to get permits.”
Former Harbor Management Commission member Tony D’Andrea, owner of Select Plastics in Liberty Square, brought up the Walk Bridge.
Sheehan’s plan would encourage gentrification, and, “Why then are we spending $1.2 billion on a bridge to go up and down for industry that will not exist in the foreseeable future,” D’Andrea asked. “Why then are we not using that money to fix this issue here? Who the hell is in charge of this? This is now a culture of failure.”
“Everyone is trying,” D’Andrea said. “I know the people in Zoning. I know the people in Planning. I was part of the culture of failure for a long time, 14 years as a Commissioner and tried from the inside out to make it work. I can tell you, it ain’t working. We are still spending $1.2 billion… to make a bridge go up for stuff that you are gentrifying out within another plan in the same city.”
“We haven’t touched on the one thing that actually is the current administrations’ answer to who is in charge,” Lightfield said shortly thereafter, referring to the reorganization just approved by the Common Council. “I welcome that change.”
Jason Enters of M.F. DiScala mentioned that the area near Head of the Harbor South, a development recently completed by DiScala, had been struggling with a vacant building but is now thriving, with five businesses that include Peaches Southern Pub and Juke Joint and Rene Soto Gallery.
“Everybody here says, we should talk to everybody. Go talk to the business owners there and ask them why they are being successful,” Enters said. He later cited increased “density” created by new developments, including Head of the Harbor South, as the reason.
“You may lump us in as ‘these millennials,’” Nicholas Ruiz, co-owner of Troupe429, a LGBTQ bar and performance space at 3 Wall St., said later, disputing the density theory. “We saw that this street had cheaper rents. We knew that our money would do a lot. We knew we could fix up a building, touch up a storefront, and now the entire building is fully leased…. There are people with ideas, that can be successful non-millionaire people that don’t need these lavish developments. What we need is a space.”
“What we have heard repeatedly tonight is we are just not business-friendly,” Thomson said at the end of the evening. “We are not going to grow as a city unless we become more business-friendly, until we change our Zoning regulations that we have been talking about. We have plenty and plenty of plans. What we don’t seem to be able to do is to execute.”