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CNNA Wall Street discussion touches on long-standing issues

From left, Jason Milligan, Jackie Lightfield, Michael McGuire and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan present ideas Monday in the Wall Street Theater, during a forum organized by the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA). On screen is Milligan’s plan for the Fairfield County Bank buildings on Wall Street.

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.”

18 comments

jo bennett September 25, 2018 at 7:45 am

What is Zoning’s rationale for prohibiting a dentist office from a first-floor location – but it’s ok on the second floor?

Rebel INS September 25, 2018 at 10:29 am

A summary of last night’s meeting.
Tim Sheehan thinks $2.5 million is a lot tax revenue.
Jason Milligan accuses the city of being anti-dentite.
Mike McGuire really wants that train station.

Jason Milligan September 25, 2018 at 12:24 pm

Sid,

Where were you?

There was a chair reserved with your name on it in the front row. It sat empty all night…

Michael McGuire September 25, 2018 at 1:41 pm

@ Rebel INS and V –

If we get this station, we don’t need an Innovation District and tax breaks to business. Nor would we be saddled with future decades of lackluster economic performance which would mirror the decades of past lackluster economic performance.

Instead, we would get a thriving downtown and a load of business investment of all types (from arts and creative, to tech and professional services) brought in the by private sector. This would create, not only a very cool place to live/work, but a big increase in tax revenue from the downtown Wall/Main/West area.

This is clear, measurable and accountable plan. The case for this is demonstrated by every downtown located by a train station. While in the past that was not the case so much, the computer changed how we do business. That is why across this region, and across the country, we are seeing explosive growth in the downtowns serviced by train stations, over the past two decades.

But show me a downtown without a station and I’ll show you a sleeply, economically limp downtown.

V- My take away from last night is – no one is in charge; the City lacks flexibility; and the City is a poor communicator.

Jason Milligan September 25, 2018 at 2:19 pm

My CFO added up our total annual property tax bill. $486,000.

That does not include business property tax for furniture, fixtures and equipment, vehicles etc.

A half a million dollars annually to this city. Wow!

Michael McGuire September 25, 2018 at 2:41 pm

@ Nancy Chapman

Correction/Clarification. The $250,000 loss in value to our building was not due to the City cutting off the parking meter heads. It was the result of NPA imposing high (for the area) parking fees for the garages in the first place.

The parking fee’s imposed on the office buildings that use public parking lots/garages in the wall street area reduce the building value by 15-20%. The question is – is the loss in value (loss in grand list tax revenue) to properties impacted by the NPA less than, or greater than the benefit of having a parking authority?

Its not hard to figure that out.

Sid Welker September 25, 2018 at 3:22 pm

Jason, my grandsons extra inning baseball game kept me from attending. Thank you for the kind gesture of holding a seat for me but I did watch the event online today. I was quite in shock that Donna held herself together very well. I’ll leave it at that. Mr. Shehan, McGuire and yourself also came off very respectful and knowledgeable. Most importantly I didn’t see any combativeness or cheap shots. Well done but I still see through you. I did gain alittle more knowledge of how your mind works and hope you can prove me wrong.

Jason Milligan September 25, 2018 at 6:06 pm

Thanks Sid. I have proven a lot of people wrong. Not sure what you think you see?

You should be pulling for me. I am the underdog. I started my real estate brokerage business out of my condo on Pine St in South Norwalk in 2003 with $1500 in the bank. I don’t come from money. I have worked hard. I have had some success and failure. I am far from perfect.

One thing is for sure. I love Norwalk and want to make it even better. I also run a for profit business. Both things are actually very compatible!

Hope to meet you soon.

EnoPride September 25, 2018 at 6:44 pm

My takeaway is that Mr. Sheehan is asleep at the wheel. He lacks passion, vision and enthusiasm regarding this Innovation District. If ever there was a gathering for him to engage and to exhibit passion, vision and enthusiasm, it would have been this one. He seems to possess no sense of urgency in getting his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood and on assuring all those young new entrepreneurs who were present that he would proactively fight for what they voiced they needed to thrive in the Wall Street area. He even admitted that his department moves nimbly on things. Not exactly a shining report of your own work. If you’re asleep at the wheel, then should you even be driving?

I don’t like that the gentleman from Factory Underground when speaking mentioned that Mr. Sheehan had offended him in a past business related meeting by hand gesturing that all he hears is “Blah, Blah, Blah…”, and that if the gentleman brought in more people, then he would listen. How disrespectful. How marginalizing and dismissive a stance to take with a young businessman. Mr. Sheehan should be kissing the feet of this gentleman and any businessman willing to set up camp in the Wall Street area.

Mr. Sheehan’s disrespect to the gentleman reminded me of his infamous answer to Question 10 of the NoN Q&A a while back, where he dismissed/marginalized the input of the Norwalk residents who participated in the POCD Survey. Mr. Neaderland was correct last night in pointing out that Mr. Sheehan has not valued that POCD Survey and the engaged public’s input as he should. I really feel that we need a more dynamic, proactively engaged, respectful individual who understands the tremendous value of the business owners and residents of Wall Street to drive this Innovation District.

Norwalk native September 26, 2018 at 5:09 am

Was Mayor King in attendance?

The Artist formerly known as Mayor Rilling would do well to run away and hide from his most visible failure.

Lisa Brinton Thomson September 26, 2018 at 7:50 am

The mayor and common council were all invited, as was the BOE. Only Mssrs. Livingston and Barbis attended. Nearly 100 people turned out to discuss why Wall Street continues to flounder. As everyone on this site is aware, there are a host of reasons – many tied to P&Z regulations, and outlined in this story. However, the greatest applause line in the audience went to Jackie Lightfield, when she said, “there is no transparency or trust with what the city says it’s going to do…” That pretty much summed it up. While POKO I was not discussed (because of the lawsuit) there were enough anecdotal stories from businesses about how difficult the city is to do business with- again mostly tied to P&Z regulations that 6 years ago this mayor campaigned to fix. I supported him then – I do not support him now. Until city hall gets serious about professionalizing its operations, instead of relying on ‘winks and nods’ nothing will change in Norwalk – except higher tax bills and lower property values.

Jason Milligan September 26, 2018 at 11:11 am

Phase I is not part of any lawsuit! It probably should be. Citibank is the sole owner of Phase I, and they have been for over a year. Phase I is the Tyvek Temple. I have nothing to do with it! It is in massive default.

I own parts of phase II & III. Neither phase II or III was ever fully assembled nor was it ever viable. At present the properties I own are 100% compliant with the LDA agreement. (Except for the manner in which they were transferred-without permission) The most significant restriction for the property I own is that at least 88 public parking spaces must be provided. When I bought the properties there were 40-50 public spaces available. At present there are 120 public spaces available for public use!!

Phase I is required to always provide 100 public parking spaces including during construction!! If the 100 could not be provided on site during construction then the owner needs to be providing 100 temporary public parking spaces elsewhere. Currently they are providing NONE!

Suing me has served as a wonderful distraction from the real issue. Phase I is a failure. Citibank has owned if for well over a year-They basically foreclosed on the property when it failed. I have NOTHING to do with it.

If Citibank wants something from me to help fix their failure then I am all ears and I am more than willing to try to help.

Can we please focus our attention where it should be—

FIX PHASE I!! FIX PHASE I!! FIX PHASE I!!

Steve Serasis September 26, 2018 at 2:33 pm

No mention of the cumulative parking authority policy that has received 100 signatures on a petition. Or especially that no one knew about it except one person in the audience. Now that the businesses in attendance know and the canvassing being done since. Everyone will know. For such a fact of the meeting to be exempt from the article is astounding considering the appall the audience had once I brought light to the policy publicly.

Debora Goldstein September 26, 2018 at 5:38 pm

If a train station were such a panacea for business, then you would think East Norwalkers would be lobbying for their own station too…oh, um. Never mind!

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