Updated, 8:59 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Wall Street area small business owners and Norwalk community activists made their pitches Tuesday to Common Council members, arguing that no tax incentives are needed in the Wall Street-West Avenue area.
They found support in one Council member, Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-District D).
“I’ve been with five Mayors. This is the new (plan) coming up,” Hempstead said. “It’s the fifth plan I’ve seen for the Wall Street area. All right, five plans and we can’t even get the fence around the park, Freese Park, on the other side of the parking lot, fixed.”
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Hempstead joined with Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) and Council members Michael Corsello (D-At Large) and Colin Hosten (D-At Large) in digging into the details of the developing ordinance with nearly three hours of discussion, after which the Committee voted to table the proposal to their next meeting. Members hope to have more information, including a summary of Enterprise Zone impacts, by then.
Committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) commented that they’d gotten much work done.
Everyone who spoke was against the ordinance as proposed.
“This is an ordinance looking for a purpose,” Kevin Dailey said. “It is so poorly concocted that the very people it is designed to help, large developers, don’t like it. But more importantly, where is the feasibility study that shows the Wall Street-West Avenue area to be in need of tax incentives to develop? Answer: There is none.”
“If you allow the incentives to go through the result is distorted marketplace where the only true players are the big boys,” Michael McGuire said. “With incentives come the disturbing ability for a preferred developer to acquire property at a higher price.”
“I think it’s so terribly sad how I just invested all this money in this beautiful area. And the city is not doing the same into me, because there’s not beautiful trees, that are not right in front of Wall Street-Main Street. Garbage is left outside and it’s disgusting my clients who are coming in are seeing this why is it not being cleaned up?” said Katia Garçon, owner of House of Katia at 12 Main St.
“I think we’re going about this ass backwards,” Adolph Neaderland said. “You don’t put the cart in front of the horse. This proposal is a tool, a tool toward a goal. But the goals have not been set. So what we’re doing is creating an environment where the goals are going to follow the tools and that’s wrong.”
Larry Allen said he’s been running a business at 40 Wall St. since 1995.
“I’ve watched Wall Street go from like the dust cobwebs, the weeds rolling up the street, when everything was boarded up,” he said. “… I’m all for a development and growth ‘cuz it looks good being born and raised here in Norwalk and just to see it and to live through it. But my question to the board is, you know, where do we fit in, when all this is happening in the end, you know, how are we going to survive with all these changes?”
“The vibrant energy that is Wall Street now will come to a halt if we cannot continue to attract retailers because property owners are holding their units vacant to wait for the city tax candy to be doled out by… the Redevelopment Agency,” Wall Street Neighborhood Association Chairwoman Nancy McGuire said.
Former Mayor Bill Collins said that Livingston has “fixed up a great deal of details” in the proposed ordinance. But “there is no need to pay developers to build apartment houses … This is a gigantic subsidy to developers to do what they’re going to do anyway,” Collins said.
“There is a great deal that needs to be done in Norwalk, and or as I call it, NoNo, uptown just as there’s a lot that still needs to be done in SoNo to make Norwalk more hospitable,” Collins said. “…I mean these are the kinds of things the Norwalk really needs to attract the small businessmen.”
Bill Nightingale cited NancyOnNorwalk’s Monday story which quoted Sheehan as arguing that the Innovation District idea was inspired by a sense of unfairness created by an Enterprise Zone south of Interstate 95.
That is “just astonishing because he is the guy that created what I think is a very flawed enterprise zone,” Nightingale said. “…the Redevelopment Agency just keeps coming back and asking for the same thing over and over again.”
“You say no to them, they go back to the drawing board they come up with some other plan, sneaking around you another way,” he said. “Get them to fix POKO, take responsibility for it. Hold them accountable for it. The people that were involved with that should be terminated from their jobs and the Redevelopment Agency should be abolished.”
Sheehan put on spot
Livingston asked Sheehan to respond to all the comments about small businesses.
“The way the ordinance has been written, I think it does allow small businesses to participate,” Sheehan said. “One of the issues was you’re basically taking an underutilized property and you’re improving the value of that property as long as you’re improving it by 100 percent of the existing value, then you’re helped.”
David Harvey Jewelers would have been eligible for tax incentives when it improved its building, if the improvements were equal to 100 percent of the value, Sheehan said.
There’s no size minimum, Livingston pointed out.
Hempstead asked that Norwalk Hospital be removed from the plan area.
“It’s a regional organization now, it’s not the little Norwalk Hospital that most of us grew up with, that was more local,” he said.
“This was labeled originally innovation district. An innovation district, that said ‘we’re doing something totally different, we haven’t come before to the City of Norwalk.’ That’s what innovation says to me. Now you’ve rebranded it and they took away the innovation district,” Hempstead said. “… we put everything that only you can build under the zoning and threw it in the hopper says everybody who are eligible for that. So it’s more of the same old same old, what I am calling SoSo, all right, of what we already got now.”
“This is not a Redevelopment Agency driven initiative,” Sheehan said. “This stems from the Mayor’s Office, it came to the Planning Committee and it’s a Planning Committee initiative. The Redevelopment Agency has nothing to do with tax agreements. That is the sole purview of the Common Council.”
The Wall Street area is expected to be approved as a federal Opportunity Zone.
Hempstead said this is a “fear factor of the big players really coming in and buying up” property.
“The government has really the ability to bring in huge amounts of money into the city of Norwalk,” he said. “Huge developers because there are significant tax benefits for large developers to be able to write off and invest, that’s what’s going to bring big money to town…. There’s no analysis and I’ve had this discussion before. There’s no analysis that we keep yelling misuse. All right, when we still have empty spaces in the new mixed-use places that already been built. And at one point is there a saturation point?”
Hempstead said he’d pushed for the Enterprise Zone to get a mixed-use development with office space but instead the tax incentives went to the mall.
Hosten later asked Sheehan for Enterprise Zone statistics, “a set of metrics that we can look at … how the Enterprise Zone has impacted the city financially, infrastructurally, population wise if that’s if that’s even identifiable, that we can use as a metric to see like, ‘Well, here’s a proof of concept.’”
“Our experience has been that there’s been between three and four Enterprise Zone applications that have come in on an annual basis, the mall actually being the most significant of all of those,” Sheehan said. “Most of them are nowhere near the scale of the mall… they are literally small businesses.”
“We’re hearing tonight about how this plan area has been seeing a lot of organic growth without these kinds of incentives,” Hosten said. “I wonder if we can measure that kind of growth and whether it’s, you know, again, if it’s happening already without incentives, can we quantify what might be different with the incentives?”
He asked about small businesses.
“There’s a sense that the larger development is basically going to erase the smaller buildings that exist,” Sheehan said, but that’s not the intention of either the plan or the Zoning changes that are proposed to go with it. “The proposed Zoning is very, very committed to keeping the scale of what exists on Wall Street. It becomes a little bit different when you get down further south on West Avenue… We are all in agreement, you don’t want to have that level of height coming into the Wall Street area.”