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Council should reconsider Wall Street plan approval

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I participated in all three meetings leading to approval of the Redevelopment Agency’s Wall Street Plan: the Ordinance Committee, the Planning Committee and the recent Council meetings.
I conclude the current system of approval is flawed, lacks creative thinking, and needs serious revamping. There are multiple key issues.

At no point in the plan approval process is there recognition of local area voices. Three to five minutes of one-way presentations at a “hearing” can hardly be called an exchange of views.

Missing is dialogue, a chance to exchange and debate views.

Who “owns “ the area, taxpaying stakeholders who live in the city, or a small group of political “appointees” and/or semi-autonomous Redevelopment folks and/or salivating developers?

This issue was raised at the last POCD Oversight meeting by a member who asked “Should City planning be top down or bottom up?” (Ignored by the Chair, without discussion.)

My choice is “bottom up,” accounting for and recognizing local sentiment.

Consider that in October 2017, at the first POCD citywide session, and at the multiple meetings that followed, the vast majority of attendees reiterated: “no more multi-story mixed use residential construction in downtown Norwalk.” That sentiment is totally ignored in the current plan.

Also missing is any reference to the Hodge Economic report, which points to “light industrial” as a route to increasing Grand List return, all of which received only a casual mention.

Currently, virtually all industrial-zoned buildings have been or are being up-zoned to residential!

Financial support for the plan from grants is based on fixing area “blight.” (The blight designation is simply to qualify for funds, having little to do with reality.)

After it was pointed out that “blight” didn’t apply, and the locals didn’t agree, Redevelopment chose alternative wording to offset inadequate vetting.

At all three approval sessions local opposition said there was inadequate justification to disrupt their neighborhoods, but was ignored.

Plan opponents also noted the absence of a Return on Investment (ROI) to economically justify a major development’s positive impact on our Grand List.

Very important since all of Redevelopment’s construction contribution since 2013 has been offset by increased city expenses, resulting in Grand List stagnation, a minimal gain of three percent per year from 2013-2017, with unintended consequences, and increased taxes. This required the Mayor to tap the Rainy Day Fund to avoid a taxpayer revolt!

Other concerns include:

  • Inadequate specs for buildings. Why not use the Leeds Gold standard? Norwalk deserves better than the minimum.
  • Building orientation and sidewalks. (Need to provide for building setbacks for sidewalk dining that does not encroach on a 7’ minimum sidewalk width, pedestrian walkability being a major goal.)
  • Lack of bus stop enclosures with adequate illumination along bus routes (to be paid for by the developer)
  • Variance-proof wording for strict adherence to design compatibility with pre-plan local architecture, which would prevent a repeat of POKO
  • Lack of any reference to rooftop solar panels, creative source for city electric vehicles, street lighting.
  • A change from “cookie cutter” developer building designs.

Consider that this would all be overseen by the same administrative culture that approved:

1) An oversized Mosque in a residential neighborhood variance

2) Quintard variance

3) Library parking blockage variance

4) Main St “big store” variance

5) POKO variance

The process needs rethinking and rework before this plan wreaks havoc on Norwalk.

However, all is not yet lost.

Assuming the approval process was subject to Roberts Rules, “Reconsideration” can be applied for a re-vote for cause by any voting Council member who voted “Yes”, allowing for creative, forward looking 2040 changes in an updated plan.

 

Adolph Neaderland

15 comments

Jason Milligan March 26, 2019 at 7:44 am

Adolf,

You raise some very valid points.

Are you aware that 46 people wrote emails to the Council prior to last meeting. 45 of the people were critical of the plan.

When confronted with the Garden Cinema destruction their initial reaction was denial. Then they changed to trashing the theater to justify removing it.

There is absolutely no reason that a redevelopment agency should have such an enormous plan. Plans if any should be targeted to truly blighted sections. This plan is a panacea that is destined to stifle all spontaneous bottom up creativity for the area.

Paul March 26, 2019 at 8:12 am

Thank You Adolph..

It is amazing that the Council would approve an ill conceived plan that failed during construction.I understand that there was a bankruptcy that stopped the project. However, typically major projects require a construction bond to ensure that the project is completed. Was there a bond? This is bizarre especially when the project was partially funded by public money. Why did the city allow the project stay stagnant for years. It seems Mr. Milligan actually forced the city to act. The plan expired there was no oversight various components that required the city to act,but, nothing happened. In addition our insight about the city’s negligence was from Mr. Milligan’s court case! Really! I would like to see a state and federal investigation of the entire matter. Now “to add insult to injury” the city decides to resume the same project. Again I ask are all aspects of this project viable in 2019.

Lets not forget Connecticut is dying. We have serious problems. The advantages Connecticut had in the past are gone. This debacle hurts Norwalk and the state.

EnoPride March 26, 2019 at 10:01 am

Thank you, Mr. Neaderland! Such a thoroughly composed opinion piece which speaks the truth. I have always admired you and I do not take for granted the time and passion you have committed to Norwalk. I appreciate your advocating for so many of us out here who have gone to many meetings and who have observed firsthand that the process is broken. Engaged, well voiced stakeholders, a formidable, well rounded group usually, many with pertinent professional expertise (real estate expertise, small business owners, money management, design background, historic preservation expertise, etc.), with excellent creative vision and input which would significantly enhance plans if implemented, are consistently finding themselves in situations where they have to “kiss the ring” before this very small, handpicked, quite frankly, “stacked” committee who calls the shots. They are consistently marginalized and underutilized for their offerings, ironically so by their public servants. They have to rush to get all of their concerns/suggestions crammed into their three minute only time allotment at public hearings, well aware the whole time they are speaking that they will be faced with a certain dismissive smugness which has pretty much become the norm. Really, I encourage more residents to take a field trip and go see it to believe it. This is your Norwalk city government! To Mr. Neaderland’s point, pretty much no stakeholder feedback has been implemented into this Wall Street/West Avenue Redevelopment Plan. This stakeholder unfriendly culture which City Hall has created is why so many residents do not show up to the meetings after a few tastes. In order for Norwalk to succeed to its fullest potential, the era of Norwalk cronyism needs to end. Norwalk deserves a City Hall which prioritizes stakeholders first and provides them a voice, as public servants should do.

LadyDrivr March 26, 2019 at 10:08 am

Great response. I’m so very concerned with what is going on around town and feel bamboozled and unable to see where this will all end up. I love my town (and I’ve lived in many places), but it is so dismaying to see what’s happening. Norwalk needs change. Vote Lisa.

Patrick Cooper March 26, 2019 at 10:45 am

@Adolph Neaderland – excellent summary and a truly lucid argument for a specific remedy /action that can be utilized by the CC. If only anyone cared to listen, or think independently.

The questions you raise could be/ should be distilled down to the motives and objectives of the governing parties. Considering your egregious list of land use blunders attributed to this administration & the NRA (going back generations) the idea that this hodge-podge group has the stakeholders best interest in mind is a far reach indeed. The question you pose – “is it the process or the representatives” isn’t even debatable. Witness the very meetings you attended (as did I and others) to see full blown contempt for the taxpayers. The individual, no matter – gets exactly 180 seconds. Further, the process is hardly democratic – much less Socratic – and is overseen, ironically – by a 1-party town.

Root causes. To solve a problem, you must find them. I’ve personally come to see this as Hartford has controlling political tentacles attached to this city. There are 23 municipalities in FF county – Hartford “works” but three of them (all urban, Stamford is debatable). Hartford desires “population” – as that alone drive’s the revenue production so desperately needed (income & sales taxes). They can’t cut costs – they can’t even mention them without blowback. Therefore, despite all input to the contrary – the uncanny bias towards apartments. Bigger is best. No matter how long the epistle written by the devout Harry worshipper, the argument that population (especially that coveted group the “millennials”) leads to job creation is specious. Businesses (employers) are not coming here, period. That is a fact.

So, what’s a right-minded taxpayer in Norwalk to do? Well – there are three-four clear choices. Vote. By my math – we need a minimum of 12 new council members. Or, vote with your feet (if you can – this is the smartest. An honest broker always advocates cutting your losses). You can try and get involved (but you must be selected – and “naysayers” are not welcome). Or do nothing, and suffer. Norwalk – not too long ago – had an enviable mix of diversity and quality of life. After 5+ years of this administration – not so much. No matter what the florist writes.

Jason Milligan March 26, 2019 at 12:34 pm

Adolf & other area stakeholders please contact me if you would like to see this plan blocked or repealed.

I am aware of a lawsuit that is 95% prepared that would seek an injunction against the City Council & Redevelopment Agency from implementing this plan.

Additional stakeholder input would be appreciated. There are already roughly 6 plaintiffs.

To railroad this New Plan to approval the public parties cut corners and ignored the CT Statute’s strict rules about public notice and public input for adopting a Redevelopment Plan Area.

Perhaps more troubling is the circumstances & methods used to designate the plan area as “Blight” & “Slum”. The original plan consultant’s methods were questioned and debunked. Mysteriously a 2nd crony consultant suddenly appeared with brand new methodology & statistics to label the area as a deteriorated slum.

The circumstances surrounding the hiring of this consultant are the subject of an presently unfulfilled FOIA request…

Here is the exact FOIA request sent on March 13th:

[Dear Mr. Sheehan and Redevelopment Agency Commissioners,

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act to review all electronic communication, contracts and invoices with Harriman Group, Steve Cecil, Steven G. Cecil, The Cecil Group from December 1, 2018 through today.

Also any and all emails from Tim Sheehan or Tami Strauss to or from anyone at Harriman Group or Regional Plan Association including Melissa Kaplan-Macey or others from December 1, 2018 through today.

A review of the minutes of the last regularly scheduled Redevelopment Agency meeting there was a vote to approve a contract extension and an appropriation of $25,000 for Regional Plan Association (RPA). RPA’s contract was never extended. Instead shortly afterwards a new report was produced allegedly prepared by Steve Cecil. I would like to understand the circumstances under which this new report was prepared. Who hired or authorized Steve Cecil? How much was he paid if anything?]

The public deserves this information, especially since Steve Cecil was the consultant that prepared the entire 2004 Redevelopment Plan and he was the consultant for the POKO project…

This whole thing stinks to high heaven!

Michael McGuire March 26, 2019 at 1:18 pm

@Adolph Neaderland

Very good points. And I’m always impressed by your determination and commitment to make Norwalk a better place. The following is my opinion alone and in no way, shape, or form should it be misconstrued as the position taken by the Wall Street Neighborhood Association.

To CC members that might be reading this. Mr. Neaderland makes an excellent point about “reconsidering” particularly in light of the hard market evidence summarized below that shows the Harriman Report to be grossly inaccurate.

Harriman based their analysis on the basis that any property with greater than 30 percent depreciation as established by the assessor is considered “undesirable” and therefore considered deteriorating. They then stated that 59 percent of the buildings in the plan area meet this criteria, therefore the area is “deteriorating” and qualifies for a Redevelopment Plan Area.

However, a review of the Corelogic, Marshall and Swift Valuation Service (“MVS”) Cost Approach manual Section 97, Page 4 shows that 30 percent depreciation would render a building unequivocally in Average condition and not in the deteriorated condition as stated by Harriman.

For a property to fall into the Poor category which reflects MVS’s equivalent of “undesirable” a property must have physical depreciation approaching 60 percent or greater. This is corroborated by the independent study done by the International Association of Assessing Officers (“IAAO”) white paper on this exact issue – use of assessment data to determine blighted/deteriorating areas.

MVS is a complete, authoritative appraisal guide for developing replacement costs, depreciated values and insurable values of building and other improvements. It is one of the nation’s most qualified source of this data and regularly cited in court cases. I have been using their data for my entire 35-year career – I believe the Norwalk Assessor uses this data as well.

A review of all the properties in the Plan area show that the Norwalk Assessor’s only identify two (2) of properties has having depreciation of 60 percent or more. That is less than ONE PERCENT!

What does all this mean? It means the entire analysis done by Harriman is inaccurate…by a huge margin. It means that no qualified analyst could possible come to the same conclusion. One might ask – was it deliberately misleading? It would appear Harriman knowingly disregarded an abundance of available market information which was completely opposite to the position they were taking. Perhaps Harriman is unqualified.

Does that mean the Redevelopment Agency staff steered this analysis? Why else would Harriman make such a claim?

That leads to an even more troubling question – did Redevelopment knowingly used false data to mislead the various Commissioners, Common Council Members, and the public in their quest to gain authority and regulatory control over the Plan area? Or did they not understand that Harriman was unqualified?

Either way, I think someone on the CC might what to take Adolph’s advice and reconsider this.

Michael McGuire March 26, 2019 at 2:02 pm

Point of clarification

A Redevelopment Plan Area can only be created, by State or Federal Statutes, if and only if 20 percent or more (State), or 25 percent or more (Federal) of the properties in a plan area are identified as Blighted or Deteriorating.

If either of those thresholds cannot be meet than a Redevelopment Plan Area cannot be established and consequently, the Wall Street – West Avenue Plan cannot be put into effect. The Blight/Deterioration claim is the foundation of the whole thing.

Since the above assessors analysis (1 percent blighted/deteriorated) demonstrates this plan is DOA – terminate this plan, and have RDA work as an advisor to the City on the 5 specific redevelopment sites they note in the plan area.

Between Steve Kleppin at P&Z and our new Economic Development Director Jessica Casey, we should be able to meet an and all future challenges.

A personal opinion – The father away RDA is kept the faster this area will revitalize. And that is what we all are working toward – a vital, vibrant, and inclusive downtown.

EnoPride March 26, 2019 at 6:38 pm

“Between Steve Kleppin at P&Z and our new Economic Development Director Jessica Casey, we should be able to meet any and all future challenges.”

Agree, @Michael McGuire. I don’t understand why Mr. Kleppin and Ms. Casey have not been steering this Wall Street/West Avenue Plan. Weren’t they hired for exactly this type of work? Confusing. Mr. Sheehan consistently makes for far too many question marks. We need a fresh set of eyes and more transparency on this plan. I believe Mr. Livingston was quoted as mentioning that he is seeking more of Ms. Casey’s input during the tabling, which is hopeful progress, but I would be curious to hear more of what Mr. Kleppin has to say. Both individuals have the appropriate expertise obviously. If you have the two of them then I am not understanding why you need Mr. Sheehan to be spearheading this plan? Redundancy.

RayJ March 26, 2019 at 6:46 pm

@ANeaderland, a very well written and thoughtful opinion. I hope your work will shape West/Wall. I have never had any concerns for my safety in this area which is a hallmark of a slum. The POKO structure is not in keeping with the downtown area and should be reversed immediately. There are enough apartments now, please keep Norwalks downtown character.
Thank you.

Paul Lanning March 26, 2019 at 8:13 pm

“… And that is what we all are working toward – a vital, vibrant, and inclusive downtown.”

That’s optimistic and gracious. I, however, think that if all of the players involved did in fact share that goal, this plan that benefits a select few at taxpayer expense would never have made it to the table, much less have gotten a rousing thumbs-up from the CC.

Mike Mushak March 26, 2019 at 11:43 pm

All planning experts agree on the following point, based on a century of observation and detailed studies: you need a critical mass of residents to sustain a vibrant downtown including thriving businesses. Without customers, businesses don’t survive and you have empty storefronts. Planning 101.

The critical mass of residents is what the Wall/ West Plan helps deliver. And that’s what Poko was designed to do, and will do once the self-serving schemers and conspiracy theorists step aside and let it happen.

I’m always astounded that in a city of 90,000, there’s less than 10 commenters on this site, half of whom choose to remain anonymous, who claim they represent “the community”. I say baloney.

Some may in fact represent someone else besides themselves, like maybe their cat or dog, but in most cases it’s self-representation only.

Oh, by the way, only one of the 5 projects listed as having “variances” by the letter writer actually had a real variance, if my memory serves me correctly. .

The rest, including the mosque, followed our zoning code. No variance needed. That’s why we lost a federal court case!

The letter writer would be well-advised to understand that religious institutions are allowed in residential neighborhoods, including often at very large scale, which is why St George’s and St Mathews were both allowed to expand with very large structures either starting or recently completed. They are all protected by the US Constitution, regardless of religion. Some conditions apply, but the bar is very high.

Also, I attended the POCD public meetings and I did not see or hear a majority of residents opposing new apartment construction. A few did, but not many.

News flash: Many of the people attending the POCD meetings live in apartments!

News flash: Renters pay property taxes, and often at a higher rate per square foot than single family homes! Yes indeed, it seems like the renters are subsidizing the single family homeowners! Oh say it ain’t so!

It always astounds me what alternate universe the echo chamber of negative comments by the same 10 or so people can produce.

Michael McGuire March 27, 2019 at 12:04 pm

@ Mushake – I agree that we do need more residents living down here. I also agree that this area should continue with its on-going revitalization. See we can agree on things.

But I don’t think that RDA needs to be part of it. But we can’t seem to have that conversation at the City leadership level.

And there is that small problem of RDA taking over based on a grossly inaccurate Harriman report. How do you square that – it’s not going away and leaves Norwalk wide open to yet more litigation. Which, ironically, seems to largely be based on RDA’s enormous ego and mismanagement.

Jason Milligan March 27, 2019 at 3:04 pm

Mike,

Plans don’t build or produce anything! If they did our city would be world renowned.

Entrepreneurs & risk takers build a city.

Our arrogant & incompetent government which you are a very out spoken part of discourages private enterprise in favor of enormous government subsidized projects that costs triple what they should.

The only time you and this government praise the free market is when you want to tear down a neighborhood icon theater.

Mike-You should do one of 2 things:

Resign from the planning commission and become a full time activist that rants about the latest global issues of the day.

or

Stop the online vitriol-and focus on the small incremental things that can improve this city-Like designing good rules and regulations that encourage private enterprise to come to this city.

Your attempt to do both is nauseating.

How can someone with differing views than you expect a fair hearing if they come to the planning commission.

It is amazing that Mayor Rilling and the City Council stand behind your routine outrageous and offensive remarks?

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