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Redevelopment Agency hearing on Norwalk Center plan draws critical crowd

Wall Street Neighborhood Association Chairwoman Nancy McGuire speaks to the Redevelopment Agency, Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 5:22 p.m.: NancyOnNorwalk’s first poll added. Correction, 1:47 p.m.: Bobbie Kinn. Updated, 9:39 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – The West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan has many good ideas but needs serious work, Norwalkers told Redevelopment Agency commissioners Tuesday.

More than 50 people crowded into a City Hall conference room for an early evening public hearing about the plan, which seeks to re-imagine the area as an “innovative urban environment.”   Some decried the absence of the Plan of Conservation and Development in the document.  The POCD is a city-wide master plan which is updated every ten years; a new one is expected to be the subject of a public hearing this month.

Others speakers defended new apartments.  Frank Farricker assailed the plan’s definition of blight for the area.  Some commenters jested about a sense of odd bedfellows: former Republican Common Council member Rich Bonenfant said he was nervous to be agreeing with former Democratic Mayor Bill Collins and historic preservationist Todd Bryant said he was worried that he was agreeing with real estate broker Jason Milligan.

A sampling of plan criticisms:

Collins

  • “I think this plan is totally inadequate and should be sent back to the consultants with the advice of the Board and the staff. First of all, it makes it sound important that the City pass some kind of Innovation District, which would provide tax relief with any developer who comes in within the defined area and builds pretty much whatever he wants. You know, we’re not novices at this. We know exactly what will happen. The people who build apartment buildings now will come back and build more apartment buildings… they will get their taxes reduced for it. I don’t see anything too innovative about that. I realize you don’t vote on the tax abatements but it ought not to be included in this document because it sets the wrong tone. It has the air of boondoggle about it.
  • The area is also eligible as a federal Opportunity Zone as part of “President Trump’s tax reduction bill for the rich,” he said.  “Almost any rich investor can come in, invest in more-or-less what he wants to invest in and get a tax deduction from the Feds. Norwalk has not laid out the criteria, we don’t have much to say about it. All that they have to do is put some money in, it may or may not be what we want to have built. Probably not.”
  • The plan doesn’t mention eminent domain and there are some awful buildings that need to come down, he said.
  • “Nothing in this document … talks about subsidizing the kinds of retail establishments or other attractions that we really want to have in NoNo, NoNo meaning north Norwalk,” he said.  He noted that subsidies could bring in desirable businesses like an ice cream parlor, a book store, or a New York City-style bodega.
  • There’s nothing in the plan to protect pedestrians from things coming down from above, he said; awnings would help.
  • Real cities do make a provision for restrooms. It makes a difference with who comes to your town, how many people come to your town and the quality of life in your downtown.”

 

Bonenfant

  • Your staff isn’t waiting for this process to play out,” Bonenfant said. “You are already going before Zoning looking for all the changes on a plan that hasn’t been approved yet.”

 

Bobbie Kinn

  • God bless the millennials for spending their money in Norwalk, but there are also older people downsizing and moving into the apartments here, Kinn said.  Kinn lives in an apartment near Merritt-7.
  • It’s not true that renters don’t pay property taxes, she said.
  • Building studio apartments is not going to increase the student population of Norwalk Public Schools.
  • Since wastewater is an issue, a “toilet tax” could be added.

 

Farricker

  • The Regional Plan Association’s research into blight in the area is so flawed and so broad that it “calls into question whether this redevelopment plan is actually permitted,” Farricker said.  Farricker is the operator of the Wall Street Theater.
  • To qualify for a redevelopment plan, an area must have at least 20 percent of its properties classified as blighted under state guidelines, and 25 percent to meet federal guidelines.  Potential lead paint, or location in a brownfield area or floodplain qualify a property as blighted under the guidelines.
  • “Fifty-nine percent of the parcels are cited solely because they were constructed before 1979 and the consultant didn’t find a substantial renovation in the building district,” so they are suspected of having lead paint, he said.  Farricker called the lead paint issue misleading because it’s not nearly as expensive to do lead paint abatement as is described in regulations. “It is obvious to me that the mere presence of a 1979 home in itself should not make a home a blighted property,” he said.
  • Sixty-five percent of the properties in his hometown of Greenwhich were built before 1970.  “Greenwich is 41 percent blighted and would be eligible for redevelopment with a $1.8 million average home cost,” he said. “The agency needs to go back and find out which properties are blighted, for real, and make a case because it gets a little sillier after that.”
  • The floodplain is even sillier, he said, noting that the newly constructed Head of the Harbor South is considered blighted because it’s on the waterfront.
  • “I am having a hard time finding within the plan where that gives the responsibility to move forward,” Farricker said. “I don’t have anything against many of the proposals that were made. As a matter of fact, I think most of them were fantastic. But I do think that if you’re going to do a plan, you’ve got to be able to prove that it is permissible under the law, and you can demonstrate specific need rather than a hope for an ethereal plan for all of Wall Street.”
  • POKO’s Wall Street Place, St. Mary’s Church and Freese Park are brownfield areas, he said.
  • “I believe your methodology was very highly flawed by your consultant,” Farricker said. “Continue on with the planning process.  Continue on with the good ideas… I live in Greenwich but I see so often around here that good ideas get killed because you didn’t do the foundation work to make sure that everything about it appears to everybody to be up and up, and right onboard.  You should do it, but I really think you should do it the right way.”

 

Milligan

  • I like a lot of things about the redevelopment plan, especially some of the vague mentions of the zoning changes,” Milligan said.  Milligan is real estate broker who recently added the Fairfield County Bank buildings to the nearly 20 properties he owns in the area. “…I think some of these zoning regulations would accomplish a lot of our goals. I would hate to derail those if this massive plan gets derailed but I do believe the planners of Norwalk do feel victim of a ‘big is better’ mentality for a variety of reasons.”
  • “Big does attract large outside investment and that is exciting,” he said. “You don’t attract that without some of these big plans and special incentives. If we desire that outside investment then perhaps we continue on this path. But there’s a lot of local people, local and regional people, that can bring small and incremental change that is already happening.”
  • “It was hard to decipher between all the competing plans that are circulating right now,” he said.  He noted that the POCD is “largely ignored.”
  • “If blight is not the right classification, let’s make sure we get it right,” he said.  “Let’s slow down.”

 

Bryant

  • Historic preservation isn’t mentioned as much as it should be, according to Bryant, who is Norwalk Preservation Trust President.
  • “I was surprised to hear Frank talk about definitions of blight because effectively, that means that every historic building is blighted,” he said. “I realized the whole idea of having to declare areas blighted in order to get funding is kind of an artifact of urban renewal from the ’50s and ’60s. It was a bad idea then, and it has not gotten better over time. There has to got to be a better way to figure out who is going to get funding.”

 

Nancy McGuire

  • “If you walk around for 17 years and tell everyone you see that the sky is falling, people will eventually agree that the sky is falling,” McGuire said.  McGuire is chairwoman of the Wall Street Neighborhood Association.  She said that the message about the area has often been negative.
  • The Agency has done a good job since she and her husband bought a Wall Street office building in 2000, as there are more and more people walking the streets.  “What is going on is really cool and exciting,” she said, including a yoga business, crossfit, Café Aroma, Peaches, Katia’s Boutique, a ballet studio and an art gallery.
  • “Duleep’s building is no longer blighted, she’s got windows on the first floor, she’s got a broker,” and the coffee shop is “going to be expanding to a really cool kind of a Greek Italian meeting place,” she said.
  • “A lot of this has to do with the fact that the retailers and the business owners on Wall Street are coming together and we’re talking every week,” McGuire said. “We look at Wall Street as an open air mall from one end just about up to East Avenue, all the way down the other end, past the library and almost over to … Route 7.”

 

Diane Lauricella

  • The plan should include more green infrastructure, including green rooftops.
  • “Please include the river as a historic structure. It is,” she said. “As the first president and founding member of Norwalk River Association, the river is a historic asset and should be in this plan as such.”

 

Lisa Henderson

  • “The crowd in this room should be an indication that the community is paying attention and not currently in favor of the plan,” Henderson said. “Many people here spoke about the many issues that should be looked at.”

 

Other thoughts

Quintard Avenue residents also made a showing with at least four people complaining about Firetree LTD’s plan to open a federal prisoner halfway house in their neighborhood, which is resulting in a ‘sober house’ instead.

“No matter how many times we come to the open meetings, we give our opinion, but you know what, you guys do things behind closed doors, that’s not acceptable,” Sandy Schmidt said.

Quintard is not in the area that would be governed by the West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan.

The meeting began at 5:30 p.m.

“I think this is a very inappropriate time to hold a hearing,” Collins said. “5:30 in the afternoon is sort of an advertisement that you’re not looking to have a lot of people come… 5:30 is pretty monumentally inconvenient for a great many people in town.”

Asked about that by NancyOnNorwalk during a break, Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano said the public comment period has been open for weeks, and residents may submit their thoughts via email or telephone. There are two days left in the comment period, he said.

Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said the Agency hasn’t received many emails about the plan.  Comments may be e-mailed to [email protected]

 

Agency response

Straus told Commissioners, after the public hearing had ended and most people had left, that more work is needed before they can consider approving the plan.

“There are some things, we’ll see if they require further research and due diligence. But I am hoping to get it done in a month so we can stay on schedule,” she said.

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Timothy Sheehan agreed that work was needed, but disagreed on her timeline.

The Agency needs to “ensure that what we have is ready to go for Council and Agency approval,” Sheehan said.  He called Farricker’s criticisms “important.”

“The Commissioners need to be comfortable that that blight finding is a solid finding because that’s one of the findings that you have to make relative to the plan,” he said.

The Agency unanimously voted to extend the Regional Plan Associate’s contract at a cost of $25,000.  Straus said  that only $65,000 had been spent of the $150,000 that had been budgeted for the plan.

Agency staff would do work in-house and then go to RPA, Straus said.

 

The public comment period on the draft West Avenue-Wall Street Neighborhood Plan ends Thursday. You can contact Strauss at [email protected] or call (203) 854-7810 ext. 46787 to participate.

13 comments

Sue Haynie January 9, 2019 at 6:56 am

In general, I see mostly positives with the Wall Street/West Avenue plan and I’m excited about it. I’m excited to see movement towards a healthy and vibrant city center and urban core for Norwalk and for my part of town.

Fixing up Wall Street will help all of Norwalk but some parts of Norwalk w/out their own Post Office, library or town center are more directly affected. Wall Street, with its long-term decay, is the ‘downtown’ for Cranbury and Silvermine residents and crucial to these neighborhoods’ quality of life, sense of identity, and property values.

We pay a lot of taxes but it often feels like Norwalk views my neighborhood merely as a profitable appendage. A real estate listing for a Norwalk house a block from where I live says this in its ad: ‘..a back to nature feel while minutes away from shopping, restaurants and downtown Westport…’ My Westport Ave/Wolfpit area is equidistant to downtown Westport and Norwalk’s Wall Street! People can debate whether Wall Street is ‘blighted’ or not, but the real estate market near me is pretty clear in its consensus.

I hope that the RPA’s outreach plans extend beyond the residents of Wall Street/West Avenue, almost all of whom were renters according to the Draft Report, and is extended to residents in neighborhoods outside of the Wall Street footprint, Residents who live in neighborhoods that are tied, whether they like it or not, to Wall Street’s ‘civic institutions’ like the Post Office and the Library and its urban core.

Jason Milligan January 9, 2019 at 8:19 am

At what point in the regular meeting did they talk about the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are wasting to sue me? They have used way over $200,000 in legal billing already with no end in sight. For all that money they don’t have even the slightest victory to claim.

Are they suing me because I have remedied some of the last real blight in the Wall St area, and without blight their very existence is threatened?

Sadly the Redevelopment Agency has to fight for the blight. (At least the classification.)

In reality, there is little to no real blight in the Wall St area, and by having that classification hanging over the area it hurts potential and discourages many people.

Ironically the property with by far the most blighting influence on the area and the city is the Tyvek Temple. Followed by the former El Dorado Club. Both properties under heavy RDA influence, control and litigation.

It is time to thank RDA for their service to the Wall St area and to graduate from their control. Clearly they have helped to get to this point, and now it is time to move on.

RDA can and should remain as advisors, and they should laser focus on the areas will real blight.

Perhaps the Wall St area should become a Village District to ensure that the character of the neighborhood endures.

Forcing quaint Wall Street into the same massive zone as busy large-scale West Ave seems like a bad idea.

Pros & Cons January 9, 2019 at 9:20 am

Lively civil dialog – nice summaries, Nancy! Note to self: Farricker lives in Greenwich, Milligan lives in New Canaan, Dick Harris lives in Westport (Council article photo).

Jason Milligan January 9, 2019 at 10:45 am

Pros & Cons-I am not sure of the implication of your note to self? Please explain the relevance.

Many people that work in Norwalk spend more active time in Norwalk than the people that live here but work outside Norwalk. Our livelihoods are here and we have a huge stake here.

The added benefit is that we bring the best practices from other towns to the city of Norwalk. We are actively engaged citizens who serve the communities that we live in and work in.

Would you prefer people who live at Merrit 7 apartments or Avalon whose only time spent in Norwalk is to sleep and the few minutes to get on and off the highway before & after work?

I lived in Norwalk for almost 10 years and I have worked here for almost 20. I also volunteer here, and I invest time for civic engagement.

Steve Serasu January 9, 2019 at 10:57 am

Pros and Cons: And I from a Norwalk, who had made valid points, with the most knowledge, in regard to the proposed $15 million “innovation district.” Which is what my statement focused on, as other points were already covered very well by the aforementioned…did not make this article. It’s unfortunate. As the city taxpayers do not need to pay double for something that the State grant people regected our City for. Namely an $8 Million innovation district grant. Wall Street was deemed undesirable due mainly to infrastructure and blight…so what have we done to rectify the undesirable area in the 2.5 years that have passed. Nothing. So now the project is not only feasible. But requires double the investment with no “real” innovation district plan that is laid out properly?

Matt January 9, 2019 at 11:12 am

Wall St District should be dubbed: The Nation of Litigation. One doesn’t have to look to far down the road to 93 East Ave where litigation kept blight alive for over 10 years. Good times!

Adolph Neaderland January 9, 2019 at 12:15 pm

For whatever reasons, NON failed to note the fundamental issue of conflicting priorities raised by Jason Milligan, Bill Collins and me, namely the bastc conflict between POCD (the mandated citywide Plan) and the several segmented Redevelopment plans.
POCD, the citywide Plan reflects the broad views and expectations of all the city ‘s diverse neighborhoods, namely a global view of the city as a whole unit while Redevelopment’s focus is based on specific sections of the city, as independent entities.
This issue is exemplifies by Redevelopment’s Plan to build out the Wall Street area with multistory, mixed use residential units, where as at the October ’17 POCD citywide meeting, the clear consensus of the 180+ attendees from all the Norwalk communities ( and further reiterated at the local neighborhood sessions) was “no more multi-story residential mixed use buildings in downtown Norwalk”, clearly spelled out and highlighted in Stantec’s 1st report.
As an aside, it was disappointing that neither the Mayor nor. R.Kleppin were present to hear the push-back to the presented Plan.

Paul January 9, 2019 at 12:53 pm

Norwalk’s priority should be focused on helping local business owners prosper to enhance the lives of Norwalk citizens (especially in various areas that have been forgotten). This will result in creating a solid community base.

Bill Nightingale January 9, 2019 at 3:40 pm

Collins is 100% correct that the RDA hearing time of 5:30 is really a message that they do not care or want to hear public opinion. This has been the m.o. of the redevelopment agency for years – lack of transparency. Meetings at impossible times. How is the public really supposed to know there is a public comment period going on except for the few geeks who read their agendas and legal notices? The RDA does an awful job communicating with the public.

Further, why on earth does the RDA cling to this terrible idea of an innovation district when the federal government has already made it an Opportunity Zone?

But most importantly why on earth does the RDA insist on a plan – their non transparent and conflicted interests plan – when there is a very public transparent POCD in the works and soon to be completed? Who is Tim Sheehan to tell us we need micro apartments?

The talk of zoning reg changes sounds fine if done with the accountable zoning commission. Blight: that should be handled via city ordinance.

Finally, the RDA has utterly failed at everything it does. It needs to be held accountable and abolished and we should not be developing our city based on RDA recommendations and plans.

The RDA is a joke and needs to be shut down – and soon.

Pros & Cons January 9, 2019 at 7:48 pm

@jason Milligan et al Just sayin’ that doing business/investing/owning real estate in Norwalk is not the same as sending your children to Norwalk Public Schools. Commitment to diverse small cities starts @ home.

EnoPride January 9, 2019 at 11:04 pm

So sorry I had to miss this meeting. Wanted to hear and support the business owners and engaged residents. Glad you got a good turnout. Thank you all for representing Norwalk so beautifully. I will agree with Mr. Collins that the time of the meeting was tricky and not conducive to getting a larger number of people there. A few other people I know wanted to get there but couldn’t. Hhhmm…

Former Mayor Collins makes so many great points that we should re-elect him on the spot. Where were Mayor Rilling and Mr. Kleppin for this most significant and spirited discussion? Burnt out from the East Ave. underground power line meeting the night before? Mayor Rilling’s absence at such a hot topic meeting is glaring. That’s okay… Mr. Collins represented and showed his support beautifully. If only City Hall would heed his sage advice…

Quote of the meeting, compliments of Frank Farricker:

“ I live in Greenwich but I see so often around here that good ideas get killed because you didn’t do the foundation work to make sure that everything about it appears to everybody to be up and up, and right onboard. You should do it, but I really think you should do it the right way.”

Holy Cow but this says it all. It truly embodies the perception of so many engaged Norwalk residents. Wake up, City Hall! This quote is spot on and points to shoddy management which lacks transparency, is heavy on cronyism/egos, marginalizes and/or dismisses brilliant input of business owners and the public (POCD Survey?), lacks organized and thorough research, sells out to developers, etc., etc. It is getting old and we are getting tired. Norwalk desperately needs a different, more intelligent, more dynamic style of management in City Hall to take the city to the next level.

The RDA in its current form needs to be abolished. If it ain’t worked yet, then it ain’t ever gonna work!

Jason Milligan January 9, 2019 at 11:47 pm

Pros & Cons,

I will not dispute your commitment if you have kids that you send to Norwalk public schools.

Congratulations.

Do you think you are a net benefit or burden to this city? Meaning to you pay in more than you use?

I pay $486,000 per year in property taxes and growing. I use no schools and minimal public services. I don’t even get a beach or Oak Hills pass any more.

I volunteer my time and my ideas and I help fund this city.

Do you want my money, time and ideas to help make Norwalk better?

Must I concede that you are more committed, more noble and just better in many ways?

What exactly is your complaint? It seems petty, but maybe I just don’t get it.

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