Updated, 9:15 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s housing market is tighter than both the county and the state, and more of Norwalk’s retail needs will be met locally when The SoNo Collection opens.
So said a Hartford researcher to Common Council members on Dec. 6, as she explained a Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) market analysis done to examine the validity of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency’s West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan. CERC is a “nonprofit corporation and public-private partnership that drives economic development in Connecticut by providing research‐based data, planning and implementation strategies to foster business formation, recruitment and growth,” according to its web site.
The plan, which includes zoning changes and an “Innovation District” component to incentivize development, is expected to be the subject of a Redevelopment Agency public hearing Tuesday. Agency staff members are slated to give a detailed presentation about the plan at Thursday’s Council Planning Committee meeting. A public comment period ends Jan. 10.
The analysis presented in December by CERC researcher Sarah Ficenec used 2016 census data, the most recent data available, she said.
CERC feasibility study 20190103 (part 1)
CERC feasibility study 20190103_0001 (part 2)
According to the analysis, comparison of Norwalk to Fairfield County and Connecticut shows:
- Norwalk has a higher portion of working-age population as well as fewer families and retirees
- Norwalk has a greater variety of household types than Fairfield County or the state does
- Norwalk households have higher incomes than Connecticut but lower than Fairfield County
- Young, mobile professionals who are not ready to buy and lower-income, asset-constrained families who may not have the financial means to purchase are the largest components of the existing population
That last bit of information suggests that 400-square foot apartments might be a good addition to the housing stock, Ficenec said. She later explained that rental vacancy rates in Norwalk are lower than Fairfield County or the state, with Norwalk at 3.9 percent, Fairfield County at 5.8 percent and Connecticut at 6.5 percent.
Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-District D) emphasized that this is based on 2016 information; Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said the 700+ apartments planned or under construction on Glover Avenue, near the Merritt 7 complex, are not reflected in the data.
Ficenec says her data indicates that in 10 years, Norwalk will have more households that filled with young workers and also more retiree-based households. Therefore Norwalk will need 785-950 more single-person housing units in 2030.
This led Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) to quip, “We need another Waypointe in 10 years.”
“There are other issues influencing the housing market just beside the natural evolution of Norwalk’s population,” Sheehan said. “… It’s not a good thing to overbuild the housing market. We need to be cautious with where we’re going with that.”
“There’s a fine line when it comes to housing,” Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) agreed.
“We are not saying we’re at too much housing simply because the market is exceedingly tight,” Sheehan said. “So right now, we are in a good spot and we could be a little bit better, and have more flexibility in the marketplace but you don’t want to have an explosive growth situation occur where you really overpopulated the market, or saturated the market with housing.”
Moving on to industries, Ficenec worked her way to a retail analysis. “Leakage” is retail demand not met locally, inspiring residents to shop elsewhere, she said.
The “general merchandise” leakage in Norwalk is 100 percent. Wikipedia defines general merchandise as goods that do not fit into one category, such as groceries or hardware.
“Industries that are leaking are ones that are probably going to be resolved by the mall,” she said. “OK, so that was easy.”
Norwalk’s employment profile by industry is similar to the County and the state, while the number of businesses is growing and the employment is declining, she said.
Livingston asked if there is one particular industry that would work for Norwalk.
The healthcare field is growing and Norwalk already has a strong relationship with Western Connecticut Health Network in Norwalk Hospital, offering jobs that are “good multipliers,” Ficenec said.
Hempstead looked for a “sweet spot” employer for the under-served group of young adults who cannot afford to leave home yet.
The key is not to focus on one group but look at the range of possibilities and see different opportunities, Ficenec said. She added that CERC gets calls every day from businesses that say they want to move to Connecticut.
“I know that’s not what the news stories say but we do have this,” she said. “… You want to be open to possibilities that may come down and understand how an industry that may not be growing as strongly as it once did, why is that happening? Maybe there’s ways it can turn around. We have workforce needs in the state that we are not matching, so how can you help with that?”
Sheehan said there’s a big opportunity in light industrial manufacturing.
“I think this area, given what it has as inventory, is ideal to attract that,” Sheehan said. “What ultimately we need to do is to free up the land use regulations so that light manufacturing, which is completely different than the old heavy industrial manufacturing, that you couldn’t put with mixed use or residential, now you can integrate that.”
The analysis supports the drafted West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan, Sheehan said.
“The objective of this was basically to put what we were coming up with in terms of concepts relative to the redevelopment plan into determining whether there is economic reality around that, and seemingly there is,” Sheehan said. “I mean, there’s always further work to do in terms of analysis… We satisfied that there’s at least an economic base that can support what we’re looking to do.”
The plan includes a proposed Innovation District and changes to the Zoning regulations, with 50 implementation steps aligned to the municipal departments responsible for implementing them, according to a memo from Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss and Community Development Planner Sabrina Church.
The vision is for a “healthy and vibrant Urban Core Neighborhood with a strong economy driven by innovation and collaboration that is accessible, authentic, lively and affordable for residents and businesses,” they state. “… CERC conducted research into industry, demographic, housing, retail and employment conditions in Norwalk and the surrounding region, both current and projected, in order to determine how the vision and recommendations for the Redevelopment Area are supported by various market and economic data. CERC determined that the data demonstrate that the Redevelopment Area is very well-positioned socio-economically to meet the vision and goals of the Redevelopment Plan.”