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‘POKO’ pushback includes alternative plan

A February rendering of the plan for Wall Street Place, referred to by many as “POKO.” The plan is a “train wreck,” real estate broker Jason Milligan said.

Updated, 1:40 p.m.: additional information; 11:25 a.m.: additional information

NORWALK, Conn. —Changing the “POKO” project to make it 100% affordable housing would not be good for the neighborhood, two Wall Street stakeholders say.

One of them, Wall Street Theater developer Frank Farricker, said he recently presented an alternative plan to the City: a POKO-centered not-for-profit arts district, with 40% affordable housing and a parking garage around a still-open Garden Cinemas.

“We gave them the proposal,” Farricker said. “They never said no. They all said they really liked it but … I think they’re too far down the track” with another developer.

The other developer is John McClutchy of JHM Group, Citibank’s choice to resume construction on the stalled Wall Street Place development, sometimes called The Tyvek Temple and often referred to simply as “POKO.”

Mayor Harry Rilling did not reply to an email asking for a response to Farricker’s comments.

The Wall Street Theatre is adjacent to Wall Street Place. Farricker said he went to City officials about three weeks ago with a “really good” plan to combine Wall Street Place with the Wall Street Theatre and the Garden Cinemas in a not-for-profit development, with the support of four property owners. Artists would be in the mix, and some of the 40% affordable apartments would be live-work artist space.

The key is “not-for-profit,” as it attracts financial support and makes the numbers work out, he said.  Under that proposal, the automated underground parking garage planned by original developer Ken Olson of POKO Partners would be reinstated and a parking garage would be built around the Garden Cinemas. The Wall Street Theatre would expand into Wall Street Place, creating storage space and a black box theater.

Farricker was not optimistic about the alternative plan’s prospects. “They listened respectfully,” he said. “We don’t have the energy to fight all the time.”

Real estate broker Jason Milligan, who has bought multiple properties around the stalled development and is trying to stop the City from restarting it under its current plan, in late March told NoN of a not-for-profit that wanted to purchase Garden Cinemas, add parking, and continue operating it as a nonprofit.  NoN asked to speak with the buyer and Milligan declined; Rilling charged it was because the buyer didn’t exist.  “Of course he would not allow you to talk to the individual. How can you talk to a person that does not exist?” Rilling said in an email at the time.

Farricker said in the discussion last week that his group was not that nonprofit buyer.

Milligan recently obtained preliminary Wall Street Place plans developed by JHM, Citibank, the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the City.

Wall Street Place plans have been reviewed by the Common Council and the Redevelopment Agency in executive session. Nothing has been approved as of yet, and any proposal would go through a public hearing process via the Zoning Commission.

The stalled development is deficient on parking; as has been widely noted, JHM is seeking to buy the Garden Cinemas to provide parking for the development. The documents, which date to February, confirm that the Cinemas would be demolished and describe a two-story garage built in their place.

Wall Street Place, commonly called “POKO,” at right. Construction halted in mid-2016 and Citibank, holder of the construction loan, subsequently took ownership of the property. The City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency declared Citibank to be in default of its legal obligations last year and have been in negotiations to restart construction.

The documents call for 100% affordable housing: 90 apartments available for people who earn 60% of the area median income and 11 apartments available for people who make 80% of the state median income. The 2008 plan was approved for 34.6% affordable housing.

The U.S. Census reports that the state median income in 2017 dollars was $73,781 and the Fairfield County median income was $89,773. Under those figures, the February plan calls for 90 apartments for single people making a maximum $53,383 a year and 11 apartments for people making $59,024 a year.

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said on May 3 that the documents are “just a draft.”

“Many of the units that have such restrictions will still be at market rate levels,” Coppola said.

Norwalk already has 12% affordable housing and is one of 28 Connecticut communities exempt from state requirements to build more, according to Nancy McGuire.

Affordable housing-Summary-2018

McGuire is president of the Wall Street Neighborhood Association but stressed that she was expressing personal opinions as WSNA “represents people from all backgrounds” and is not a political action committee.

“We should not have to build any apartment projects with more than the state-required 10% reduced rent.  Take Ridgefield for example, they have only 2.96%.   The original 40% requirement for POKO was more than adequate,” she wrote.

She wrote:

“Wall Street retailers and restaurants need customers to survive.  If the city limits the people who can live there based on their income, Norwalk’s city center will continue to struggle.

“There are so many other options that are not being explored, that would be so great for Norwalkers.  This plan only benefits the developer, the bank, and the RDA.

“The business owners of Wall Street and the tax payers of Norwalk will once again, pay for the profit of an outside developer through higher taxes.  As said before, the only Norwalk entity that benefits here is the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency who can perpetuate their employment.

“The losers – Wall Street business owners, Wall Street building owners, Norwalk taxpayers, and Norwalk government’s reputation.”

 

Milligan alleged that a building with 100% affordable housing would fall into disrepair, as the numbers don’t add up to fund maintenance.

Farricker agreed.

“If and when it is built it will have very little retail to make money,” Farricker said. “It will have apartments for about $1,000, give or take. If you take out taxes, and property taxes are set in the land development agreement as 7.5% of gross income, so if you take out property taxes, operating costs…. once it’s up they’re never going to have any money to maintain the place.”

Farricker also expressed doubt regarding Coppola’s description of the plans as “potential” and “a draft.”

Crosskey Architects, which drew up the plans, is the the state’s premier low-income housing architect, doing 65-70% of the Connecticut projects receiving Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), Farricker said.  Therefore, “to say this was ‘just a thought’ was nonsense. … Crosskey is hard to get. It’s not easy, he’s swamped. If he’s doing this work somebody is paying him a lot of money to do the work.”

Farricker, as president of Exit Realty, helped turn Wolfpit Avenue’s Dreamy Hollow from a troubled co-op into moderate-income apartment rentals.

“I don’t understand why they think a 100% affordable project in Wall Street is the right answer. I don’t know who is advising Harry Rilling that that is the right answer,” Farricker said, adding that he supports affordable housing and was in favor of having Wall Street Place at 40% affordable.

 

“City and RDA officials are not going to comment any further on the potential plans that Citibank will be submitting for the Phase I project,” Coppola said on May 3. “We will wait until the plans are actually submitted and Citibank has an opportunity to publicly present its plan to the Common Council, RDA and Zoning Commission.”

JHM has the Garden Cinemas under contract.

Farricker did not reply to a follow-up email asking for more details about the plan.

“It’s all about profit, that’s the problem here,” Farricker said last week. “To make that profit, you have to generate more income. The only way you can generate more income is through tax credits, and stuff like that. The more affordable units, the more tax credits. The more assistance you get. That plan makes perfect sense I just don’t think it’s very good for the neighborhood.”

The writer lives in affordable housing. 

13 comments

Jason Milligan May 13, 2019 at 8:01 am

Great to analyze alternatives.

Any solution should stand on its own two feet. No more handouts or giveaways.

Wall St stake holders have suffered and given enough. The city and tax payers have suffered and given enough.

The solution should be quick, small, and as pain free as possible. Any and all pain should be borne by Citibank?

When all discussions have to happen in secret it doesn’t feel like anyone is looking out for the People or the area.

We have Part-time Mario looking out for us. The same guy that was protecting us during the double parking lot giveaway.

Ugh.

Nancy thank you for continuing to shine light on this.

Patrick Cooper May 13, 2019 at 9:21 am

Four lines stick out:

“Mayor Harry Rilling did not reply to an email asking for a response to Farricker’s comments”

“Wall Street Place plans have been reviewed by the Common Council and the Redevelopment Agency in executive session”

“Norwalk already has 12% affordable housing and is one of 28 Connecticut communities exempt from state requirements to build more”

“The only way you can generate more income is through tax credits, and stuff like that. The more affordable units, the more tax credits. The more assistance you get”

Silence. Secrecy. Unnecessary & unwanted. Taxpayer funded.

Vote for Lisa Brinton for mayor.

Tom Keegan May 13, 2019 at 9:34 am

Meeting in “Executive Session”, no comment from Norwalk City Officials. plans reviewed by The Redevelopment Agency and The Common Council again in “Executive Session”. Why not just say, “Norwalk Taxpayers….This is none of your business!”

EnoPride May 13, 2019 at 12:41 pm

@Tom Keegan, I feel as if they did say this is none of our business, reading Coppola’s words:

“City and RDA officials are not going to comment any further on the potential plans that Citibank will be submitting for the Phase I project…”

Also, Farricker’s comments below imply that this all appears to be an executive session done deal:

“Cross-Key Architects, which drew up the plans, is the “premier low-income housing architects,” doing 65-70% of the Connecticut projects receiving Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), so “to say this was ‘just a thought’ was nonsense,” Farricker said. “Crosskey is hard to get. It’s not easy, he’s swamped. If he’s doing this work somebody is paying him a lot of money to do the work.”

Just a thought? Right. Behind closed doors planning to get in demand Cross-Key queued up and onboard could not be “just a thought.” Disingenuous is more like it. Shame on RDA, Mario Coppola and City Hall. And to think that RDA is going nowhere if Mayor Rilling is re-elected. Didn’t Mayor Rilling allocate $200,000+ for a new facade for an RDA building in the budget not too long ago? We have an unfinished, negative ROI, rotten building at our city center for years, compliments of RDA, and we have City Hall scrambling in executive session to fix the wreckage, but Tim Sheehan is gifted a shiny new $$$$ building facade by Mayor Rilling? Another very good reason to vote for change this November.

The public has been shut out. What a shame. This whole deal is visionless and just really cruddy. It is a big LOSE for Norwalkers. It really is a shady, behind closed doors deal which benefits only RDA, JHM, low income housing architects Cross-Key, and Mayor Rilling’s campaign funds. Farricker’s land use proposal makes so much sense for that locale and is in line with what stakeholders envision there. His proposal comes too late, but something tells me if the proposal was put forth sooner, it still would not have made a difference. Wouldn’t it be revitalizing to have an arts/culture district to be excited about and patronize instead of staring at a ZERO VALUE, colossal cement block and a parking lot? An enclave with a coffee/pastry shop, a courtyard where the public could convene before taking in a movie at Garden Cinema or a show at the Wall Street Theater? A no brainer, right? Well, too bad Norwalk. Don’t get excited. Your city government has sold you out, AGAIN! Many thanks to Mr. Farricker for standing up for Norwalk residents and patrons of the arts!

Jason Milligan May 13, 2019 at 1:34 pm

I like and respect Frank.

He is a very smart guy. He shoukd be consulted often for improvements to the area.

I am not ready to give him the keys and drivers seat for POKO just yet.

The Wall Street theater is beautiful. It is an economic driver for the area, and it continues to improve.

However the ink has barely dried on the bankruptcy, and the theater still has plenty of work to do before it is stable and thriving.

Frank thanks for the ideas. Some are quite good. Also, please stay focused on the Theater before you bite off too much more.

Matthew S May 13, 2019 at 2:11 pm

I agree with Jason’s statement that “Wall St stake holders have suffered and given enough.” and to add that the city of Norwalk and its tax payers have suffered and given enough! No more affordable housing is required in the city. Taxpayers support progressive transformation, but the city officials are not thinking in a transformative mindset by agreeing with Citibank to develop 100% affordable house project in an area they’re hoping to attract new businesses… so much for the master plan proposed and funding for the study!

No more discussions in secrecy! Ask citizens for their opinions!

Frank Farricker May 13, 2019 at 2:15 pm

I would like to see an exciting, energized Wall Street, and the arts makes the most interesting sense. If anyone wants to hear more, please send me an email at [email protected]. I’ll tell Nancy the rest of my idea as well

Frank

Michael McGuire May 13, 2019 at 5:58 pm

What is stopping City Hall from simply tearing up the LDA and walking away?

Answer – nothing….except maybe a few ego’s located at City Hall.

That is the secret being kept from the taxpayers, the CC and the other commissioners. The City of Norwalk can simply tear up the LDA and walk away.

That would force Citibank to sell this property at a market clearing price immediately. The only thing holding them back from doing this now is being party to this broken LDA.

With the LDA in place there is literally no other developer interested in doing this deal simply because of the layers of bureaucratic garbage written into LDA.

If the City does purse the development per the LDA the City is on the hook for an additional $4.3 million investment. And for what – a 100% affordable project in the middle of our burgeoning downtown. Who does dumb deals like that?

Folks we haven’t lost anything – the same crew that is keeping in this insane LDA agreement are the same one’s who gave away the parking lots on Isaacs in 2014/15 when POKO was approved. The tax credits are gone as well and can’t be restarted for 2 years.

Pursuing this McClutchy deal only makes things worse. We went from a bad deal at 40% affordable to a horrendous deal at 100% affordable.

Tearing up the LDA allows the free market (not Tim Sheehan) to make the decisions on the best development going forward.

Have your CC representative ask Tim Sheehan why the City can’t just walk away.

carol May 13, 2019 at 6:17 pm

way past time to get rid of tom sheehan and the rda. what are they getting out of this except larger egos.
people wake up before norwalk is empty as affordable housing will not support the theater,library or a train station.

Al Bore2 May 13, 2019 at 7:07 pm

Affordable housing is not affordable to the taxpayers of Norwalk, let some of the other surrounding towns and cities do their share. Norwalk is above the state 10% where others fall way behind.

Sue Haynie May 13, 2019 at 8:09 pm

Mr Farricker makes excellent points. His idea of a POKO centered non-profit arts district is exciting and a fitting use for what could/should be a vibrant, edgy, and unique urban downtown.

Norwalk’s Wall Street is a diamond in the rough That Norwalk RDA, Common Council, and Mayor Rilling are even considering making the POKO project 100% affordable is very disheartening, short-sighted, a sell-out.

Norwalk does more than our fair share. Norwalk taxpayers already pay more than our fair share. Norwalk deserve better than this lousy plan with its whopping tax-payer subsidized units, cheap building design and God-awful looking parking garage

Mitch Adis May 14, 2019 at 4:50 pm

November can’t come fast enough! Can the new Mayor tear up the LDA and eliminate the RDA?

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