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Norwalk ‘cacophony’ given voice, but fails to stop Wall-West plan

From left, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan and Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss answer questions from Common Council member Chris Yerinides (D-District A), right, as Council member Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) (center) listens, Tuesday in City Hall.

From left, Darius Williams, Mike McGuire and Mike Mushak watch Tuesday’s Council meeting in City Hall.

Updated, 8:52 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Democratic Norwalk Common Council members on Tuesday approved the Wall Street-West Avenue Redevelopment Plan, after impassioned arguments for and against the proposal, and discussion of emails they characterized as misinformed.

“Since I got elected, I have spent a lot of time reading and studying about city planning … and so much of what I see in this plan – I have spent many hours with it – reflects what makes a walkable vibrant city and it seems to me a real vision for the future of the city,” Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said.

The vote was 13-1-0, with the lone Council Republican voting no.

“There is more in this I like than I don’t like,” Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said, explaining that historically speaking, he’s had to deal with people asking him why he voted for things he doesn’t like.  “That always has tempered me a little when I vote for something like this,” Hempstead said.

The Redevelopment Agency is expected to vote on the plan Wednesday, the last step of the approval process.

Jason Milligan’s effort to get the opposition out in force to Tuesday’s meeting resulted in a smattering of signs in the Council chambers. Nine people asked the Council to either reject the plan or table it, and seven urged that it be passed.  Of the seven, three are developers and a fourth is a Norwalk Hospital executive.

“I wouldn’t say any plan is a great plan, but this plan is good and I think we really need to support it, to get going, to fix this up and make it a flourishing place in Norwalk that we can be proud of, because it’s not like that right now,” said Stuart Lane, who described himself as having “been in this area for a long time.”

Opponents of the plan are ironically the same people who have been urging the City to plan better, Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak said.

“The Redevelopment Agency has pulled off a miracle in SoNo, adding hundreds of residents and infill projects that add to the historic character without destroying it. …. The critical mass that saved SoNo is what is missing on Wall Street and that is what the plan addresses directly,” Mushak said.

There are a “few loud opponents, who I think we can all agree by now have some self-serving reason for opposing this plan, including, plain old-fashioned politics and of course, greed,” he said.

Brian Dietz said he was speaking on behalf of EDG Properties, which has worked with M.F. DiScala on Head of the Harbor South.

“Unfortunately, current debate surrounding the proposed plan does not focus on the merits of the plan itself –which is the result of a lengthy public process – but instead on some sort of suppressed resentment against the concept of redevelopment agencies and policy in general,” Dietz said. “Recently this has turned into a petty argument over the semantics of words like ‘deteriorating, deteriorated’ and ‘blight.’”

“Democracy is the messiest form of government but certainly the best kind of government there is. I think this subject that you are dealing with tonight is a good example of that,” Parking Authority Chairman Dick Brescia said.  He noted a “cacophony of different voices and different points of view” and expressed support for the plan.

“The question here is whether or not we think government can fix it or whether the private sector can,” unaffiliated Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton said, asking that the Council delay voting on the plan so they could more fully understand it.

There’s been a “shroud of secrecy” making it difficult for the public to understand what’s going on, Brinton added.  “A cynical individual, or naysayer as I have been accused of being, might think it’s part of a deliberate campaign to confuse and wear down the residents and taxpayers … Despite many of the speakers here tonight, it is very much inside baseball: employees or appointed people speaking as private citizens, but not actually private citizens.”

“The community does not trust the Committee or the plan, how can you vote anything but no tonight? You owe it to all of the Norwalk community to respond to unanswered questions and concerns,” Lisa Henderson said.

Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Tuesday’s Common Council meeting in City Hall are Lisa Brinton, left, and Jason Milligan.

Milligan said a better plan could be developed, with a broader level of support.  “If you are forcing people to do something against their will, it’s not going to work,” he said.

Donna Smirniotopoulos quoted Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) as saying in an email exchange that afternoon that the plan has nothing to do with the Garden Cinema.  “I think we all know differently,” Smirniotopoulos said.

Kydes said later that the Council had received numerous emails that had been “solicited,” from people who don’t understand that with no plan in place there’s nothing to protect the neighborhood.

“I think all of us were concerned about the emails,” Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said, explaining that a vote for the plan does not mean “we are voting for or against the Garden Cinema.”

It is widely believed that if a new plan to restart the stalled Wall Street Place development, a.k.a. “POKO,” is approved, JHM Group is going to buy the Garden Cinema and demolish it to provide parking for the adjacent apartment complex.

“I understand the passion people have but they should be very aware of what is in the plan and what is being voted on, it has nothing to do with the Garden Cinema,” Colin Hosten (D-At Large) said.

“I guess the question for us here tonight is what can this plan do to help revitalize the area? … This plan is a vision for the area in the form of a document, is the best way I can describe that, a vision that is based on the collection of massive amounts of data, public input, planning review,” Kydes said, recounting his memories of the area as a lifelong Norwalker. “The plan stresses, which is very important, historical preservation, walkability, streetscapes, site review, recommendations that with proper – proper – outside investment will revitalize the area while keeping the integrity of the neighborhood intact.”

Opponents, including commercial real estate expert Michael McGuire, who on Tuesday gave Council members a real estate analysis for the area, have criticized the determination of blight or “deteriorated or deteriorating conditions” that make a redevelopment plan legally valid.

“I am going to be honest, this is the first time I can recall any kind of passion that anybody has come out and really went the other way for the uptown, because most it was, ‘yeah it’s blighted, it’s got issues,’” Hempstead said. “I don’t think it’s as bad as everybody thinks it is but at the same token, I have never seen a group of people actually fight the designation of blight, because people don’t understand, by designating it as blighted you can pick up federal funding out of that, and there’s other fundings that are available that come with that.”

“Overall, this is a B+ plan in the sense of what you look at what they are trying to do but we are adding another layer of government, again, on this. We didn’t tackle that in this plan,” Hempstead said.

The plan gives the Redevelopment Agency oversight on the design of new developments.

If you agree with the plan’s vision for the aesthetics of the area, that’s a good thing, because the vision will be enforced, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.

“A plan like this really sets out goals and objectives, that’s shaped by public voice,” Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey said. “In addition to that, it allows us to measure and understand the gaps in programs and the gaps in funding that need to be addressed to be able to make enhancements in a neighborhood like this.”

“I don’t see that this plan has hindrances to small business,” she said. “…It speaks to the commitment to the neighborhood.”

Chris Yerinides (D-District A) asked about eminent domain.

The Redevelopment Agency was asked to put eminent domain in the plan due to complaints about specific properties, Sheehan said, explaining that he doesn’t expect eminent domain to be used much.

The plan will help Wall Street maintain its character, Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said, explaining that the determination of “deterioration” meets the state statutes.

Some have decried the “blight” determination as being bad for business and real estate values, but “we have the same determination for South Norwalk and that certainly has not deterred investment in South Norwalk,” Straus said.

“It is important that we support this plan because it is that framework that so many groups and different people have worked really hard to put together,” Melendez said.

“It was outstanding how much misinformation there was out there regards to the plan,” Kydes said at the end of the meeting, asking anyone watching the video to read the plan.

“There’s a lot of pages, but it’s an easy read,” he said. “… So don’t listen to what someone else is telling you, do it, read it yourself, and know about your neighborhood.”

In spite of losing the vote, McGuire after the meeting called the vocal opposition “a really good exercise.”

“Because all government, effectively they have no competition,” he said. “So they get fat and sloppy, and this was fat and sloppy, right here. So we gave them a real run for their money. They were going to win, that was not the issue. The issue was really, part of the thing was to sharpen them up.”

20 comments

Jason Milligan March 13, 2019 at 7:32 am

Duh,
With no plan in place their ain’t nuthin to protect the neighborhood.

How about zoning, building, fire dept. Wall Street Neighborhood Association, Historical Preservation Trust…

Lisa Brinton March 13, 2019 at 7:39 am

The question is why does this administration so strongly favor eminent domain and tax credits when Danbury is able to get developers to contribute to their schools? Isn’t our location better? Do we really have to panhandle to get developers to come to Norwalk or do we need better management, streamlined processes, more expertise in commercial real estate and less insider baseball?

Jason Milligan March 13, 2019 at 7:51 am

If only “A Plan” could rebuild a neighborhood. Norwalk would be the nicest city in the world. A plan is all talk no action.

A plan is ideas and rules. Norwalk churns out ideas and rules in its sleep. This plan is very similar to the last 5.

Risk takers with capital and or cronies with government connections actually rebuild a neighborhood. POKO is a good example of the latter.

Cool people, artists and trend setters rebuild a neighborhood. Not a 200 pg plan.

A plan is rigid. It is enforced by another vague entity with some oversight, but not a lot of teeth.

A similar plan to the last 5 enforced by the same players should get us?
A. New and exciting results
B. More of the same

Jason Milligan March 13, 2019 at 8:09 am

Next up for approval is the great tax giveaway.

We should start a pool to see who will get the 1st pile of money.

1. POKO (JHM)
2. Hospital
3. Discala
4. Paxton

Jason Milligan March 13, 2019 at 8:15 am

I do find it amazing that these commissions go out of their way to block or limit the public comments. 3 people eventually were allowed to speak after Rilling tried to close the comments. 1 person did not get a chance to speak.

Al Bore March 13, 2019 at 8:44 am

Was this vote a surprise to anyone? It doesn’t matter what you think Norwalk taxpayers, our one party CC (with 1 lone republican) most of them think they know best. Most who spoke in favor had a vested interest in the project moving forward from developers to one of our Planning commissioners that passed it through the planning board. Now the only way to stop it, vote these people out one at a time starting at the top in November. You have a guy like Michael McGuire and you dismiss the value he brings to the table, who on the council has his skill set? Answer no one even close.

Piberman March 13, 2019 at 10:03 am

Imagine a major league Business Development Corporate Office reading this description of how Norwalk makes its “planning decisions” and asks to speak to the City’s Chief Business Development Officer.

Who would they speak to ?

And therein lies the explanation why Norwalk, unique among CT’s major cities, maintains a depressed shabby Downtown for decades and decades. A City where the only source of good jobs is working for the City.

Council members and citizens reading and studying about “City Planning”. That’s the “Noirwalk approach”. After decades of repeated failure no desire to call in the Professionals to learn how to “do the deed”. No desire to travel over to Stamford and learn how it was done. An ongoing trajedy. So many or our lower income long time residents seeking good jobs. And a City Hall unable to call inthe Professionals to learn how to attract major new business investment to provide those needed jobs.

We pay a heavy heavy price in Norwalk for electing officials lacking business experience and knowledge of modern business management techniques. Downtown illustrates the consequence. Reading about planning doesn’t do the deed.

Adolph Neaderland March 13, 2019 at 12:40 pm

What surprised me, there wasn’t any discussion relating to economics – how this Plan (or any Plan) would impact our Grand List and land tax.

These issues was on my list for presentation, but I ran out of time – 3 minutes is an inappropriate limit for such an important meeting.

My point (which I never got to make), thus far, in aggregate, the sum of Redevelopment activity has not moved our Grand List!
For all of their activity, the Mayor had to dip into the “Rainy Day” fund to prevent a taxpayers revolt.

Any plan using city funds (including tax incentives and/or infrastructure costs) should require a 5 – 10 year ROI for justification.

Al Bore March 13, 2019 at 1:12 pm

They over build Norwalk with big apartment buildings everywhere, and a giant mall. The residents have to deal with traffic everywhere, a deteriorated infrastructure, diminished open space, overcrowding, and the Norwalk skyline gone forever. Does anyone care to listen to the taxpayers of Norwalk?

Mike Mushak March 13, 2019 at 3:43 pm

@Adolph Neaderland, where are you getting your idea that the grand list is stagnant? We all know the ‘09 recession set it back for many years as happened everywhere, but it increased 16% in the latest reval. That’s over one billion dollars, allowing a majority of residents to see no tax increase this year as city spending increased, mostly on the school renovations.

How is that translated into “stagnant”? Please answer if you don’t mind, as I’m curious where you are getting your information from.

EnoPride March 13, 2019 at 4:21 pm

Is it true that Greek business owners in the vicinity of POKO were discouraged from attending last night’s meeting by Mr. Kydes? A comment after The Hour article covering this meeting suggests this. Can we find evidence of this? If this is true, it is highly disappointing and unjust behavior coming from a council member. It is viewed as silencing individuals and rigging the process. Democracy, huh? Yeah right…

Is it also true that signs were discouraged at the meeting? Mayor Rilling allowed the NAACP to wave signs all over the place at the BoE meeting where the BoE was called, “A stain on the fabric of humanity”, and where the mayor smiled when a NAACP member let board members have it. Nothing funny there, Mayor Rilling. Your hardworking and very successful (volunteer) BoE’s reputations being dragged through the mud is not funny at all. Interesting too that folks at that BoE meeting were allowed to speak over their limits and continue to debase BoE members on Mayor Rilling’s watch, while at this Wall Street meeting, Mayor Rilling did not allow every civilized, well-behaved constituent to speak. He shut it down after a while. Why different protocol for different meetings? Answer: Different constituents receive different and/or preferential treatment depending on the politician’s personal agenda and goals. This is not Democracy.

Norwalk, please consider voting in a new style of leadership this next election. We deserve to be heard and respected by our city officials, not played by them. We should not feel invisible. Let’s vote in individuals who realize the value of and enjoy engaging with their very intelligent and capable stakeholders rather than be subjected to this lack of transparency, “cake is already baked”, form of leadership. Let’s make the change together. Out with the old and in with the new…

Paul Lanning March 13, 2019 at 7:27 pm

Mike Mushak—Would you please identify the source of your claim of 16% Grand List growth? As I understand it, the new List won’t be finalized until May. Last year’s growth netted out at 0.5% after all the appeals.

Norwalk Lost March 13, 2019 at 9:06 pm

Like so many others, the fix was already in. Clandestine development and crony capitalism are par for the course as the city hall continues to give the Heisman to its residents. One day residents may have a say – in the meantime, residents can fantasize the Grand List really appreciated 16% . . . at least until the tax bills highlighting the artificially inflated revals arrive.

Paul Lanning March 13, 2019 at 10:39 pm

“Jake” whoever you are, it’s too bad that you can’t answer a question without being pointlessly insulting. It’s also public information that the appeals will be heard through most of April, which means that the final results aren’t in.

Jason Milligan March 13, 2019 at 11:52 pm

Mike Mushak,

I love your Fix POKO First hat in the picture.

Spot on.

POKO shoukd be fixed 1st. Instead the council ignores the enormous white elephant and grants the RDA another decade to lord over our downtown.

Jake March 14, 2019 at 11:46 am

Paul-
The grand list was closed and finalized after the Tyler appeals process. The extreme majority of any change to the grand list was made during that process. Change to the grand list from the BAA and court appeals are historically de minimus and will be again. And btw, the real estate portion of the 2018 grand list was actually up 18.5%. Motor vehicle and personal property were down.

But, for the purposes of assuaging your claim that the the grand is not done until BAA is done, let’s make some crazy assumptions. Let’s say that through BAA and courr appeals that residential goes down $50 million and commercial goes down $150 million. That is $200 million and would bring the real estate portion of the grand list down to $12.65 billion. The real estate portion of the grand list would still up 15%. But of course there is no way there is a $200 million dollar change to the real estate base but I think you get the point. The grand list is for all purposes statitstically done right now.

And you must be extremely thin skinned if you thought my previous post was insulting. It was merely responding to your posed question in a factual manner. If facts are insulting to you then you should not request them.

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