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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.