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:
- “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.”
- “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.”
- 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.
- 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.”
- “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.”
- 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.”
- “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.”
- 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.”
- “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.”
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]
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.