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New Norwalk POCD given thumbs up, thoughtful criticisms

Stantec principal Larissa Brown demonstrates the summary page of the 2018 draft Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), Wednesday in City Hall.

Updated, 4 p.m. Nov. 5: Copy edit. Updated, 8:46 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – The long-awaited first draft of the 2018 city-wide master plan received its first criticisms Tuesday, and some proclaimed it well-done.

“I think you have made tremendous progress in the last four or five months,” Planning Commissioner David Davidson said, during a joint meeting of the Common Council and the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) Oversight Committee. “I think you have a plan here that covers most of the things that have been discussed. My only concern about this plan is that it should be an action-oriented document.”

The meeting was the first opportunity for the Committee, made up of community and staff members, to look at the document, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.  The Committee’s comments will be incorporated into the draft, which will then be offered to the public for review, probably by the end of November.

The Planning Commission will hopefully hold a public hearing in January, the Common Council will vote on the plan.  The Planning Commission will give final approval, Kleppin said.

Larissa Brown, a Stantec principal who has served as the lead consultant for the City in developing the latest 10-year-plan required by state statute, explained the plan’s “big themes,” and spoke of transitions happening in Norwalk and the nation overall, with challenges and opportunities for Norwalk.

“Change is a reality in every community,” Brown said. “… One of the things that’s sort of a theme that goes throughout this plan is that Norwalk needs to be more proactive, more systematic and more data-driven in order to shape change to be successful. Because, it’s like saying, ‘Change happens.’ Either it happens to you or you’re in the drivers’ seat and you kind of decide what you want to see happen and you work to try to make it happen.”

Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King said that it would be helpful for citizens who are not deeply immersed in City politics to know that he plan has “a lot of things identified that are priorities of the city already that are currently being worked on.”

King mentioned that Mayor Harry Rilling was not in attendance because he was at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) conference.  Former Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton and some of her supporters snickered derisively when King said that CCM is bestowing an award on Norwalk for work done to get regular Zoning permit functions online.

“A lot of things are currently underway so as we are starting to go through the prioritization process I think it would be really helpful to either have a side document or some notes in this document about things that are in process,” King said.

“I cannot know everything that is even going on,” Brown replied, adding that she included references to Rilling’s reorganization. Former Brinton campaign treasurer Debora Goldstein, one of about 20 people in attendance, leaned to Thomson to joke about “brownie points.”

The draft document has a chapter devoted to Land Use, which states: “No real ‘culture of planning’ exists within the city. Longstanding conditions make the city responsive to immediate developer proposals rather than proactively guiding long-term change. Instead, planning initiatives should lead to and directly influence land use and zoning actions.”

The plan refers to “placemaking” and explains “Performance Zoning,” “Form-Based Zoning,” and “Hybrid Zoning,” later referring to “Tactical urbanism.”

Norwalk has been complaining for 10 years that its Zoning regulations have the power of law but its master plan does not, Board of Education member Bruce Kimmel said.  Kimmel is a former member of the Common Council.  There was talk about “totally revamping” the Zoning regulations but “that’s a bigger job than we thought, we didn’t get very far,” Kimmel said.

He asked if once the plan is approved a consultant could be hired to draft Zoning regulations in accordance to the plan because “the Zoning folks find themselves in incredibly ridiculous situations sometimes” and “having an ad-hoc task force of volunteers I don’t think will cut it going forward.”

Brown said that in her opinion, the highest priority should be given to the plan’s recommendation that the Zoning regulations be rewritten.

Those comments drew applause from Brinton and her supporters.

“It’s in your plan,” Davidson said. “…  You’ve got, 1,000 actions in here; I haven’t counted but that’s my rough estimate… unfortunately they are not prioritized so you have a serious problem with implementation.”

Brown said it’s not her place to prioritize, and Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak said that’s a legislative function, not for a consultant.

“I think the idea of prioritizing is not what the master plan is about,” Mushak said. “Because it’s a wish list and it’s all going to cost money. Rewriting the zoning code is going to cost, could be a few hundred thousand dollars.”

“It will cost more than this plan,” Kleppin said, referring to Stantec’s $195,000 contract.

“I think as a document this is way beyond our current master plan,” Mushak said. “I think you have done an amazing job and with all the criticisms… the idea that you are going to tell us what our priorities are is just a misdirection. I can see it evolving into something that is really going to be useful for the city.”

The plan suggests a four-year university in Norwalk’s downtown, an idea that drew some comments.

“I agree with you, I think the more we bring academics into the city of Norwalk the more we can grow,” Planning Commissioner Nora King said, asking how that could be accomplished.

“The idea is not necessarily that Norwalk will attract a four-year college or an actual university,” Brown explained. “At a minimum, there will be some NCC presence downtown. Now they are already going to have a presence in the mall.”

The institution could be regional, a business college or an arts department, to generate activity, ideally something to spark economic or entrepreneurial growth, she said.  “I don’t think it’s realistic that Norwalk can get a research university but … to get some kind of academic presence.”

Kimmel and others suggested that there should be a plan to monitor the process inspired by the plan, when it’s approved.

“We don’t have a process to monitor what we are doing,” Kimmel said, suggesting periodic formal reviews to be inserted into the POCD as an appendix.

“It’s about also looking at opportunities that we didn’t know, that don’t happen to be in the plan, or are there barriers that turned out to be bigger,” Brown said. “…It’s really to have a discussion of how we’re doing in moving toward the goals.”

King said she agreed that there should be a formalized review.

Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said it’s always bothered him that goals and priorities aren’t set every term, that maybe it should be done as part of the election cycle. He predicted that capital budget funds will be diverted next year to address flooding issues.

With an annual report, departments and agencies would discuss priorities as part of the budget process, Brown said.

“If you have a plan, you can tell economic development people to go out and look for the kind of development that you want, plus developers don’t have to be mind readers,” Brown said.

Members of the public were given three minutes each to speak.

“Mr. Mango” prepares a smoothie, Tuesday on Wall Street.

“I think it’s a very thoughtful plan. It’s thorough. I wish I had more than a day to read it,” real estate broker Jason Milligan said.

NancyOnNorwalk received a link to the draft via email; Kleppin and the Planning Commission did not plan to put out the draft until the Committee had weighed in, sources say.

Milligan went on to recount some of his issues as a Wall Street property owner, speaking of a young dentist who wanted to open a first floor dental office only to be rebuffed by the current Zoning regulations, and of “Mr. Mango,” a cardiologist from Colombia who is operating a food truck and is frustrated in his desire to rent from Milligan.

“The roadblocks are way too many,” Milligan said.  He argued that small businesses cannot afford to comply with the Zoning regulations.  Milligan’s remark inspired Brinton to call out from the audience with her only comment: “You’ll never be able to fund the schools unless you have businesses in this town.”

10 comments

Jason Milligan October 31, 2018 at 8:39 am

The POCD is fine. It is wonderful. It is also not much different than the last POCD or the Redevelopment Plan. These plans cost hundreds of thousands and 90% of what they tell us we already know.

The hard part seems to be doing. Perhaps there are too many academics involved in the leadership of the city.

Of the 33 people around the table last night only 1 owned commercial property. None were developers.

There are some very simple changes that Norwalk can make to its zoning regs that would have a profound impact on filling vacant commercial. The cost to implement is virtually free.

The problem is that if you have never signed a commercial lease as landlord or tenant then you don’t know how many roadblocks and hurdles our town government throws at you.

Stantec points out some very important points like Norwalk should focus more on its goals, and allow greater flexibility with guidelines instead of rigid rules. That is what successful cities are doing.

Create an environment that makes it obvious that we value entrepreneurs and small business. Currently, Norwalk has the opposite reputation.

Steve Kleppin-Why don’t you take the easiest 5 zoning changes and put them through immediatley instead of moving an omnibus through that will take forever(2 years, so far) and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?

How much would it cost the city if you changed the regulations to allow dentists on the 1st floor in the central business district?

The way you suggested that myself or the young dentist would change the regulations would have had a total cost of around $10,000. How does that make sense?

Push the job of writing zoning regulations onto entrepreneurs or landlords just so you can show them who’s boss! You win. We lose!

Find a way to do make the small changes that are widely supported and that don’t cost the city money.

There should be a suggestion box that allows anyone to make suggested changes. Then the commissions can discuss the proposed changes, and you can pass the ones that make sense.

Matt October 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

I was at the D’Amelio and Duff debate and couldn’t help to notice the yellow tape and construction in the former library. I wondered: if City Hall was planning to have 300+ people at the debate that perhaps they could have moved it to the auditorium a place that is more attractive until the library finishes its makeover. Then I thought that perhaps this makeover was going on for a long time and perhaps the city just doesn’t care what the residents think. I then thought of Wall Street .

Bruce Kimmel October 31, 2018 at 9:21 am

Good story. One additional point:

The POCD, for the first time, has an entire chapter devoted to education in Norwalk. It deals primarily with the Norwalk Public School System, but also addresses issues related to NCC. Our current POCD only contains a few paragraphs about education. The new plan is a big step forward.

Having a detailed section of the POCD related to education means the city’s Planning Commission, as well as other agencies, will have to consider the fiscal impact of various projects on our schools.

Kevin Kane October 31, 2018 at 10:29 am

As I read this recap, it seems Norwalk is completely lost on establishing clear priorities as well as accountability and potentially we paid for a study that studied a study and as a result, is merely something we may already know. Is it an inventory of ideas or an inventory of solutions?
I’m skeptical of outside help at times and in some cases, the answers to the problem resides within the people already on the payroll. All that needs to happen is the factions get together for a week to establish priorities.
I’m familiar with a very brutal but effective process led by private equity in the theme of what is a common tactic: “strip it n flip it” – in other words, strip the company down to its core objectives and priorities, go at those hard and with accountability and ruthless abandon (yes, and money too) then flip the company when it is fixed.
The core of the process is all managers bringing their top priorities to a week of meetings. Each makes their pitch for their top 10-12 then the 300+ “priorities” are aggregated and evaluated while ALL are in the room to identify the keys and agree on a plan. The projects are ranked based on High Effort, High Return (focus here with caution), or High Effort Low Return (don’t do these), or Low Effort High Return (do these immediately) or Low Effort Low Return (take a cautionary approach) – all gridded in 4 quadrants, x and y axis. If someone comes bitching why #213 was not done, a VP could pull out the justification and send the person bitching on their way. EVERY WEEK the top priorities are presented for status, risks, and next steps. EVERY employee from the broom pusher to the President have their objectives and KPIs tied to the large corporate priorities.
There is your template. Get after it. I’ll get it started: dentist offices on 1st floor is the king of low effort, high return – do it then tell the world. 4 year university in Norwalk? that would plot off the chart in the direction of High Effort, Low Return….High as in stoned high.
#privatesector101

Michael McGuire October 31, 2018 at 11:00 am

Lots of talk about revitalizing Wall Street in the POCD which is great.

The key issue to revitalize Wall Street is to reactive the train station that was here. Nothing else the City or Redevelopment could do would come remotely close to attracting business and residents than this one simple initiative.

Every downtown in Westchester and Fairfield that has a downtown train station (expect for Bridgeport) does very well. A train station is a huge economic generator.

Similarly downtowns and commercial area that are not economically robust all have a common feature – they are not within walking distance to a train station.

Norwalk Redevelopment and the City of Norwalk could achieve the revitalization they claim to seek by fighting for the reactivation of this station. We don’t need sophomoric plans that funnel $15,000,000 in taxpayer subsidies when the private sector can and would develop the Wall Street station at little to no cost to the taxpayer.

POCD recommendation – that at least 50 percent of the Appointments to P&Z , and 75 percent of all appointments to the Redevelopment Agency and the Norwalk Parking Authority should be commercial real estate industry experts (minimum of 10+ years of experience).

Why? 50% of the major P&Z issues, and 75-100% of RDA and NPA issues involve complex commercial real estate.

At present – I don’t believe there is one truly qualified commercial industry professional appointed to P&Z, RDA or NPA. Is it any wonder why Norwalk’s is so challenged on these fronts?

Piberman October 31, 2018 at 11:48 am

Does anyone really believe our City Hall has the management and business capabilities to actually implement a meaningful Master Plan that would dramatically change our embarrassingly shabby Downtown to a welcoming Downtown that would attract residents and visitors alike. We have a basket full of Master Plans. Challenge has always been implementation. And that’s not going to happen in Norwalk without either Profesional Management of our troubled City. Or election of officials qualified to run a small Wal Mart. Master Plans are citied as “progress” by our local politicians.

Stamford showed how major redevelopment can be accomplished with great success. But Norwalk’s City Hall lacks the management and professional capabilities to learn from the Stamford example. So we’ll have much future discussion of “Master Plans” in Norwalk. Demonstrating our “commitment” to Downtown. But not moving the needle much forward. It’s how our City Hall works.

Jason Milligan October 31, 2018 at 4:34 pm

@Kevin Kane I love your analysis.

Mike I love you and the train station but it is high effort, high reward. We will keep after it.

At the same time we need to do all of the low effort, high reward stuff. There is plenty.

Since Norwalk Government does not have the experience or skills to lead & manage the only way to achieve success is to get out of the way. It is okay to recognize ones limitations and it is safe to get out of the way so long as there is good vision and clearly defined goals that all must adhere to and work towards.

Dentist on Wall st should be approved by the end of the week. Convene a special meeting, change the procedure whatever, but make it happen!!

Kevin Kane October 31, 2018 at 5:45 pm

Thanks guys, all good stuff! I’m thinking the Coherent Nancy On Norwalk Commenters could form a gutsy coalition with a Tyvek Flag as our guiding beacon atop our headquarters – nothing like starting out our firm with a zoning violation. I’m thinking GSD, LLC* has a nice ring to it and rolls off the tongue eloquently….

*Get {…} Done, LLC

Edited to remove a vulgarity, in line with the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

Jason Milligan October 31, 2018 at 9:52 pm

Can someone get Steve Kleppin to explain why is not willing to sponsor the 1 sentence text change to allow dentists?

Is it too easy?

Too inexpensive?

Is there any opposition to it?

Why does he insist that private citizens or potential businesses rewrite the zoning regulations? Is he not the head of zoning?
Can he actually do anything or does he just want to study things and try to sound important public meetings?

Steve you are not in college anymore? This isn’t a case study. There are real people, and real businesses involved. It might help you to spend a bit more time with them instead of consultants and other academics…

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