Updated, 2:54 p.m.: more information; 9:42 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – The description of the Wall Street area as “blighted” has been changed to “deteriorated or deteriorating,” in a revision to the proposed Wall Street-West Avenue Redevelopment Plan.
Multiple commenters responded to the change with protests at Thursday’s Common Council Planning Committee meeting. Speakers were at a bit of a disadvantage in addressing the revision as it had only been posted to the City’s website the day before. The plan has grown from 171 pages to 189. Another change: rather than claiming that 385 properties fall under the definition of “blight,” it now states that 73 percent of the 372 parcels in the area have 30 percent deterioration, and 36 percent have at least 40 percent deterioration, which makes the area legally eligible for a redevelopment plan.
The term “Innovation District” was publicly dropped more than a month ago, and the Ordinance Committee is considering a “Real Estate Tax Agreement Ordinance for Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan Area,” which will be part of the redevelopment plan.
Members of the Wall Street Neighborhood Association have objected to the “blight” designation and the “extraordinary regulatory control” such a plan would bring. The Association, in a letter to the editor last week, attacked the blight designation which is the Redevelopment Agency’s legal justification for having a redevelopment plan.
In an email Monday,Wall Street Neighborhood Association Chairwoman Nancy McGuire warned WSNA members, “You should know whether your property is listed as ‘blighted’ or ‘of a menacing nature’, or ‘deteriorated or deteriorating’ in which case, your property may be eligible for eminent domain, and combined with other properties to sell to the redevelopment agency’s Developer of Choice, who will be approved for tax abatements and tax breaks.”
The Common Council would have to approve property takings by eminent domain and is also slated to have approval on any tax breaks associated with the plan.
State statute says that a redevelopment area must be area blighted or of a menacing nature, to the point that police intervention cannot resolve the problem, Wall Street businessman Mike McGuire said Thursday, asserting that the description does not applies to Wall Street.
“Did this guy take the time to figure out and look at the fact that this is a historic area, so therefore depreciation of buildings is likely to be a little higher?” McGuire asked.
The Redevelopment Agency, in response to McGuire’s charge last month that the term “blight” was being misused, asked Harriman, formerly The Cecil Group, to review data from the tax assessor’s office, Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said later.
“People thought the RPA analysis was too broad and too overreaching so we asked a different consultant with experience in this area to take a look at the Wall Street area to see if it is deteriorated or deteriorating,” she said.
“The assessor, between 2013 and 2018, has increased the value of every single property in the plan area 44 percent, on average,” McGuire said. “So how can you be a deteriorated or deteriorating area as defined in the state and federal statutes, and rely on the assessor’s information for depreciation information, when in fact it’s the same information, the very same information shows the values have increased significantly in that time period?”
Jason Milligan came next, asking if the 18 pages added to the plan made it a significant change, and therefore eligible for a public hearing.
“This is your opportunity to speak, this is not a Q and A part of a meeting,” Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) replied.
The plan gives Redevelopment the right to take property, Milligan said, although that power rests with the Common Council. He also pointed out that Steve Cecil works for Harriman and implied an issue there.
“Amazingly, in the period of three weeks, he analyzed the entire redevelopment plan area, found that it’s blighted, it does so happen that they have six active consulting projects going on in Norwalk right now,” Milligan said.
Norwalk resident Kevin Dailey also spoke against the plan.
“I have lived here for 19 years and it does seem to me that this is getting railroaded through,” Dailey said. “Some of the decisions are being made on a rushed basis. … It does sound like a lot of this is potentially underhanded.”
Nancy McGuire listed all the positive developments on Wall Street to show that it’s already being redeveloped. The area is now described as “cool, artistic, edgy and bohemian,” she said. “It’s a great mix of businesses. It’s exactly what you guys have wanted all these years and it’s happening right now. You just need to come down and you can see.”
A restaurant week is planned in June, a music festival is slated for July, there will be a film festival in October and then a Christmas market festival, McGuire said. Plus, “Dick Brescia has a great plan for angled parking.”
“What really bothers me is the Redevelopment Agency would have control of that area,” Peter Fullam said. “… I have no faith in the Redevelopment Agency. What they promised and what they thought they were going to do 30 years ago never happened.”
“The plan appears to aggregate power in the hands of a few entities like the Redevelopment Agency, the redeveloper and whoever that chosen winner might be, and the Council obviously has some power,” Donna Smirniotopoulos said. “The term ‘designated redeveloper’ is worrisome, especially in the context of Wall Street Place, which stands in grim testimony to the dangers of government overreach and lax oversight,” she said.
Strauss went on to explain to the Council that they will receive printed copies of the new plan Monday. The Committee has been scheduled to vote on it in early March; Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan pointed out that it’s up to the Committee if they want to hold an additional public hearing. The Agency could hold one if it wanted to, and after the Council votes on it, it needs Redevelopment approval to be enacted, he said.
Straus explained to NancyOnNorwalk that Redevelopment and Harriman used a spreadsheet to go over the assessor’s data and it took about a week to determine the percentage of properties that are “deteriorated or deteriorating.”
“People didn’t like RPA’s analysis. We asked a consultant who we have on call to take a look at it,” she said. “You had to meet one of about 15 conditions, and we took one of the data points and we did it. If we had looked at the other data points there would have been a high probability that there would have been other properties.”