Updated, 1:52 p.m.: Photo and PDF added; 8:53 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Common Council members and Norwalk Zoning Commissioners last week reviewed the draft West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan, which the Regional Plan Association (RPA) has worked on for more than a year. Redevelopment Agency staff touted plans for small apartments, five opportunity sites, and an idea to move Norwalk’s bus hub to the SoNo train station area.
The Redevelopment Agency will hold a public hearing on the plan at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall room 330.
The plan identifies five “opportunity sites:”
- The former YMCA site at 370 West Ave.
- West Avenue between Merwin and Chapel Streets
- Wall Street, West Avenue, Leonard and Commerce Streets
- Wall Street between High and Main Streets
- The Norwalk Public Library and adjacent sites
The proposal would allow a maximum of 100 “micro-units,” apartments that are 400 square feet or less with fully functioning kitchens and bathrooms. It suggests establishing an Innovation District to build on the area’s “strengths as a medical, scientific, arts and design and technological hub of the City,” in the words of Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss.
There were no comments on the controversial Innovation District proposal at either Thursday’s Council Planning Committee meeting or the Zoning Commission meeting.
During a discussion with Council members regarding West Avenue between Merwin and Chapel Streets, Straus mentioned that street-facing parking lots are not ideal for a main gateway.
The suggestion that auto sales and repair sites would ideally be developed to provide for a “continuous street frontage along West Avenue” prompted Straniti, at the Zoning meeting, to ask if the European Auto Repair business and Curry’s Tire were going to be forced out.
“Nothing is happening on the sites without the owners of the sites actually facilitating it to happen,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said. “As long as those businesses want to remain there, they are going to remain there.”
That neighborhood has been a target for development for a long time and “a lot of things didn’t go as smoothly as hoped going years back,” Straniti commented, calling the existing businesses “perfect.”
No disagreement, Sheehan replied, describing the European Auto Repair business as beneficial to residents.
“All we are saying is the one-story scale of the structure should over time be integrated into something that obviously has a higher and better land use, that has more components to it,” Sheehan said.
Straus in the Council meeting mentioned that the Riverview Plaza at 24 Belden Ave. is completely vacant although there’s a cell tower on top of the structure. Sheehan added that the “interior buildout costs are higher than what they can get for rent rates.”
The plan recommends that Burnell Boulevard become a two-way street after Pulse Point, Norwalk’s bus hub, is moved to a more efficient location, near the train station, a move which would group public transportation assets together, she said.
Straus said she’s been in a micro-unit, and would be happy to live in one, after observing many innovative tactics to use the space well.
“They are amazing,” Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. She cautioned that “you need a well-established urban city life” for the apartments to be successful.
The rent will likely be $1,100 a month, Straus said.
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) asked if any studies had been done on tax revenues generated by micro-units.
“No, but they are renting at higher square foot basis than a market rate unit,” she said.
They’re tied to historic preservation and would go into buildings where market-rate units wouldn’t fit, she explained.
Straus explained that there are 10 Zoning districts in a .34 square mile area within Norwalk Center, and “it’s like spaghetti,” elaborating that the Central Business District is “very nuanced” and the CDB-A, CDB-B and CDB-C zones were slated to be merged into one.
Ground floor activation wouldn’t necessarily have to be retail, and there are plans to “incentivize density of scale with the existing built environment,” reduce parking requirements, and incentivize arts and artists, she said.
Norwalk Zoning Commissioners heard Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin explain nearly-completed proposals to change Zoning regulations in the Wall-West area.
Kleppin said the drafted Zoning regulations aren’t public yet because he is waiting for information on the projected impact of proposed changes on infrastructure needs and future school enrollment, and he’s also “still trying to argue with some of the parking folks” to try to reduce the parking requirements for new developments.
“We are still waiting for feedback from WPCA for infrastructure impacts as well as the taxing districts on water capacity,” Kleppin said. “The Board of Ed is getting us final numbers on school enrollment.”
All of the Zoning changes attempt to “on an incentive basis to add to the vitality of that (developing artist community) and at the same time add to that historic preservation but get the energy on the street that I think the area really lacks,” Kleppin said to Zoners.
The Zoning changes exclude the existing Industrial 1 zones, but the waterfront areas south of the recently-built Head of the Harbor apartment complex would be included in the CDB Zone, he said.
Those areas are conducive to large apartment buildings “because if you’re on East Avenue you’re not going to see too much,” given the 25-30 foot drop in topography from the road to the river, and the existing buildings on East Avenue serve as camouflage, he said, concluding, “It makes sense to connect those with the residential” use at Head of the Harbor, and, “It might be an opportunity as well to connect the waterfront trails that exist.”
“There’s not a lot of changes proposed for the West Avenue corridor,” Kleppin said. “We tried to put some incentives in there for commercial development and we also tried to tie site amenities to larger envelopes.”
“The tricky part really is Wall Street,” he said.
The buildings take up most of the parcels and “people for the most part” want to preserve the way they look, he said.
There are “some different ideas in terms of what you can do with the height,” he said. “We try to keep Wall Street a little lower scale but … what we tried to get was some of the amenities and some of the incentives that were already existing in some of the regulations and try to get them into the development.”
Planning and Zoning would allow a developer to add an additional story on a building if the project conforms to what is desired, he said.
A public hearing on the Zoning changes is tentatively planned for Feb. 25, Kleppin said.
“Planning Commission, Planning Committees of past have been working on this quite a bit,” Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) said Thursday. “Now we have the tools to revitalize the area and hopefully Zoning will do its part so we can move this forward.”