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Researcher: analysis supports Norwalk Redevelopment Agency’s West Ave-Wall Street plan

A graph prepared by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) as part of a feasibility analysis of the drafted West Avenue- Wall Street Neighborhood Plan.

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.”

16 comments

M. Murray January 3, 2019 at 6:38 am

Ideally, a tighter housing market is a good thing. It raises the value of the properties and rents accordingly. That in turn will bring in wealthier people with a higher tax base who can afford to pay more for houses, drive more expensive cars (which are taxed as property) and spend more money. That, with a mix of smaller one or two bedroom luxury apartments which encourage singles or couples with higher incomes yet less children who will spend money locally on dining and recreation without the added burden to the school system would keep a rotation of younger workers in the community with a thriving nightlife.

Lisa Brinton January 3, 2019 at 7:13 am

Yes, ideally a tighter housing market would be good for home values, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Also, apartments need to be scaled and in keeping with the character and size of Norwalk to make us a desirable city – not a Stamford annex. Many of these projects are not. Unfortunately, Redevelopment and this administration seem to prefer one size – BIG. Now, they want homeowners to subsidize, at the same time they deny private development on Wall Street. Go figure.

Norwalk’s lack of affordability is tied to an exorbitant property tax burden, driven largely by the school budget and a lack of willingness to deal with illegal apartments. We have bike lanes and a plastic bag ban, but contine to kick the can down the road on when it comes to reconciling land use and public education.

Redevelopment has given us a decade of Poko – with no end in sight. They’re rebuilding Washington Village @ ~ $600k cost per unit (more than the median price of a home in Norwalk) in a flood plain, while remaining tenants inhale asbestos dust.

As for Hartford’s data- they’re on the verge of bankruptcy, both as a city and state and simply view Norwalk, as a cash cow to feed the beast. They’re imposing a 5-6 year Billion dollar boondoggle Walk Bridge project on Sono and East Norwalk, courtesy of the administration’s Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI.) In return, Norwalk gets a rebuilt IMAX theatre (costs of which are going up – who will be on the hook?) and a new fence around Lockwood Mathews Mansion. We’ve been shortchanged for over a decade on the ECS formula for our schools, despite knowing residents are not as wealthy as Fairfield County or other towns around the state.

I believe the term for us in Norwalk is ‘suckers.’

Finally, the city informed homeowners in the recent Revaluation that our homes are worth more than what they can be sold for on the open market.

I don’t trust data coming from Hartford, Redevelopment or City Hall and strongly urge citizens to attend the public meetings on the West Ave corridor, as well as the POCD later this month, after all, we’re paying for it. #ourcityourfuture

Jason Milligan January 3, 2019 at 8:17 am

Can we take a wait and see approach before we give the Redevelopment Agency an expanded and gigantic area to lord over.

Wait and see how POKO works out? Maybe finish the Mall…

The redevelopment Agency has been in charge of the Wall Street area since the great flood of 1955. Was the reason they failed so bad because their territory wasn’t big enough?

The new unecessarily long and complicated plan has many good ideas in it, but 5 to 10 pages is more than enough to say it all, and we don’t need the Redevelopment Agency in order to use the good ideas in the plan.

Is anyone surprised that a huge unaccountable state agency supports a huge unaccountable city agency?

In the entire Wall St area the Redevelopment Agency has given us POKO and Head of Harbor. They have only had half a century so give them time and a bigger area.

When the Redevelopment Agency gets involved then everything takes longer, requires more red tape, and it costs more.

Can we wait and see what happens with the mall and POKO before we concede the entire center of our city.

There should be no rush.

Piberman January 3, 2019 at 9:41 am

With City Hall’s encouragement Norwalk is undergoing major population change with influx of renters and exit of longtime homeowners fearing further decline in property values and unstoppable punitive property tax hikes funding ever higher public Union salaries. Lower income renters are displacing higher income long time residents and retirees. The process accelerates as the remaining homeowners, now just 60% provide most ofthe City finances. While renters do not pay anywhere near their full share. That puts remaining homeowners financing the education of an ever more transient population. As potential homeowners bypass the City with an ever more diverse population and student body.

Knowledgeable analysts know this process has transformed each of CT’s once proud cities.
As renters displace homeowners and home values decline. Norwalk will soon be a renter dominant City as is Bridgeport and all our other major CT cities. Bridgeport is 60% renter.
Mayor Rilling’s lasting legacy may well be an unprecedented transformation of Norwalk into a renter’s City. No doubt not his intention but the economics of a renters city transformation are well documented.

Curiously most long time City homeowners understand the implications of a renter’s City. For the foreseeable future buying homes in Norwalk (and elsewhere in CT) are poor investments. Those familiar with Long Island’s economy, especially Nassau, know the end result. Housing values declining for years and years and then remaini unchanged for decades with property taxes upwards of 3 to 5% of assessed values. Without the import of long time homeowners public Union salaries are virtually unrestrained, e.g. $100k + for PD and FD officers.

Becoming a “renters City” Norwalk joins CT other large cities (save Stamford). The “great failure” of the City’s “political elites” was not understanding the importance of encouraging a large business sector providing good jobs, property tax relief and stability to the City. And its now irreversible. So Norwalk’s future is an ever more transient, more diverse renter population with declining home values as the tax burden increasingly falls on remaining homeowners. That is our future. And not reversible. Sadly.

Michael McGuire January 3, 2019 at 6:47 pm

Lisa and Jason make very good points. I would add that the most pro-active means of effecting positive change in the Wall-West-Main area would be to for the City and RDA to focus on infrastructure and policies that support appropriate development. These include a do no harm parking plan, cleaning up POKO’s legal issues to allow for a market clearing sale to a real developer, modify zoning regs to reflect today’s needs, set the stage for the Wall Street train station to be built by private sector developers, then step aside and let the private sector be the driver. Note that everything noted above is measurable and doable.

We really don’t need a $15M Innovation District or RDA approval of everything we do on the land use front. That just slows down the process, increases costs, injects higher risk, and chases away investment dollars.

Ron Morris January 3, 2019 at 9:08 pm

Lisa and Piberman
All the 2 of you do is seem to complain. Please tell us one thing either one of you have done to better Norwalk. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

Rayj January 4, 2019 at 6:15 am

>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Leakage means to me something gone elsewhere . Where else can you find Home Depot, Lowe’s, Stop and Shop, Shoprite, walmart , Kohl’s, Best Buy-and a mega Liquor store, all within 5 mins of each other? And we have Amazon. Using Wikipedia as a source disturbs me.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>. FUZZY Thinking.

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>

50 steps? Ok, what are they, how will they be communicated to those who are supposed to implement them , and who will judge the completion ? A checklist?

Piberman January 4, 2019 at 11:16 am

Ron Morris:
Look up the literature on City development. Healthy cities attracting new homeowners have both affordable property taxes and major business areas with good jobs for local citizens. Norwalk has neither. City Hall is beholden to our high paid Unions who live outside the City. And business avoids Norwalk for al the well known reasons. City Hall doesn’t hire business development professionals.

With our current tradition of electing officials lacking business expeience and knowledge of City development economics we know our future. And those citizens with substantial business experience and familiarity with City development economics will avoid public service knowing their wanted.

There’s a reason Norwalk is the County’s most transient City with declining property values attractive to renters and exodus of long time homeowners. And it all has to do with the quality of City governance. Norwalk officials are never called to “duty” in Hartford for State service.

Some tasks are just beyond us. Norwalk is what it is. Once upon a time it was an attractive well governed City where homes appreciated in value and sold quickly when put on the market. Those days are long behind us.

Isabelle Hargrove January 4, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Why is it that every single idea, project, and plan from Redevelopment and city hall always involves taxpayers’ subsidies? Reading through this article, the consensus is that Norwalk is under-retailed and suffering from a long-term housing shortage. Wouldn’t logic dictates that under such demands, developers should pay us to build instead of the other way around?

The commenters are 100% correct, turn down the Innovation District. Fix Poko, focus on providing the right infrastructure and zoning for the private sector to flourish. Fix the problems instead of giving our money away yet again.

Cecilia Andy January 4, 2019 at 1:00 pm

Norwalk’s homeowners have not benefited from all the taxpayer subsidized development as displayed by the high mill rate and multi-year stagnation and decline on property values adjusted for inflation. Further, the homeowners constantly are under assault by the archaic zoning regulations that constantly threaten the residential quality of life here. Attempting to develop a nursing home on a residential street along with the Quintard half-way home are just two recent examples.

The recurring theme I hear from most homeowners here is the life mistake made when purchasing their homes here. It’s sad to say the least. Unfortunately, hoping for change has proven to be a loser’s proposition in this city.

GlindaGoodwitch January 4, 2019 at 7:03 pm

The economic climate in Norwalk is no longer affordable to those of us who have bought homes, raised our families here, and payed our taxes. The way this city is headed makes it difficult , if not impossible, to be able to remain here.

Ken January 4, 2019 at 8:20 pm

My feeling is Norwalk spends FAR too much money trying to become something it may never be ready for. When I hear “Vibrant urban core” I want to throw up. Urbanization is NOT a good goal. Urbanization comes with EVERYTHING Norwalk has worked hard to get rid of. Todays “Vibrant” is tomorrows derelict. To days bright urban core is tomorrows urban blight.
There are neighborhoods in our city where people have lived in HOUSES for 300 years. Whats wrong with single and double family homes instead of concrete and steel caves.
In addition this “Urbanization” NEVER EVER gives us a break. Some commuter making six figures can live for half what they could in the city but it means my taxes go up. And they do, no matter how anyone convolutes it our taxes nearly double every twenty years and on a longer span its even worse. Homes that were taxed $300 in the 70s are over $10,000 now. And the ONLY noticeable difference is urbanization. At this point honestly every new dollar thats sent should offset those who LIVE here until the RESIDENT taxpayers are getting a decent deal. If we get ten or twenty new million on the grand list give it back to us, it should represent excess anyway.

Patrick Cooper January 4, 2019 at 8:43 pm

@Cecilia Andy – very well said. “Life mistake” – ouch. But so, true.

Like CT as a whole (hole?), and much of the Northeast in general, Norwalk lean’s decidedly left towards the democratic party. The candidate’s qualifications, character, and financial report cards be damned, party affiliation is all the Norwalk voters seems to know, or care about. Both sides. It is a classic case of voter’s abjectly ignoring policy & legislative proposals (clear self-interests) in favor of tribalism. And both parties stoke those passions in their respective bases. Gang affiliation without the finger signs.

To be fair, the classical conservative credentials of the traditional republican party have been vaporized of late, making even exceptionally qualified and proven candidates like Fred Wilms untenable to the current voter – because by party (and to be fair – platform) he is associated to “that guy”. For the GOP to be viable again in CT, and Norwalk, a reckoning is surely needed. Mr. Cafero said as much in his adieu speech this past November.

The upshot is – it is a one-party town, and under our most political mayor (in my 24+ years) Rilling, they know how to circle the wagons. Great for the D-party, but sadly – just terrible for the taxpaying residents – at least those who don’t have their nose and fingers in the trough.

The result is – this non-representative municipal government is all but deaf to our concerns, blind to our problems, and dumb about how the city should evolve. The new definition of “phony” is the public hearings: all they do is let the hot air out of the balloon. A real Bronx cheer. The real, final decisions are made in executive sessions (secret), before the hearings are even held. The contempt for joe-citizen is brazen. The charter is absent any teeth to compel accountability. Performance metrics are a myth.

If you think this assessment of mine is off, watch the POCD hearings scheduled this month. See if what the “public” desires carry any sway with this deaf dumb and blind administration. Until the Norwalk taxpayer & voter begins to hold their elected officials to a higher standard, meaning accountability (removed from office), we will continue to be treated as flotsam & jetsam.

Here’s a proposal: every official running for office in Norwalk must do so under a single party affiliation – the “Norwalk Party”. Perhaps the “U” Party, as in – for you. There are no Dem’s, no GOP, no Green, no Workers, no Communist, no anything. Just – the person, who they are (character), what they have accomplished (credentials), what they believe (vision), and what they propose (policy). No more single line voting. Talk about anarchy.

Piberman January 6, 2019 at 11:32 am

Both New York City and Boston have really tight housing markets. And they’ve been tight for decades. Reflecting two of the world’s most dynamic cities. Even loyal Norwalk Democrats wouldn’t claim Norwalk is a dynamic City. Not with a stagnant Grand List for a decade and exodus of long time homeowners seeking relief from falling housing values.
Freshman level economics and finance ought underpin local discussions of governance.

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