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Norwalk Council tables ‘POKO’ vote, to consider revisions

The Garden Cinemas.

NORWALK, Conn. – The “Save the Garden Cinema” movement has hit pay dirt: The Common Council on Tuesday voted to delay a decision on Wall Street Place, known to many as “POKO.”

“We feel that there are several issues with this project,” Mayor Harry Rilling explained to NancyOnNorwalk. “The issue that has come up more frequently than anything else is the Garden Cinema, or some sort of arts and cultural center focus on the project. We don’t disagree with that, we would love to see that happen, we would love to see the Garden Cinema saved.… And the other issue is the design, people are saying the design does not fit into this area.”

Proposed redeveloper John McClutchy said that it’s “rather doubtful” that the Cinema could be saved but likely that a space could be provided for similar services.

 

Movement for an arts district

The Democratically dominated Council had been expected by some to “rubber stamp” the plan to restart construction on Wall Street Place, which involves 100% affordable housing and demolishing the Garden Cinemas to create a parking garage.

John and Todd McClutchy of JHM Group and Citibank, which took possession of Wall Street Place through a deed-in-lieu transfer, have negotiated with the City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency to develop the proposal, which includes 101 apartments and retail space. Two public meetings on the topic have drawn push back, much of it focused on a desire for an arts district and some of it on the proposed design of the building – a modern look in an historic area.

The Wall Street Neighborhood Association on Sunday posted a petition, looking for support of the Cinema.

“Instead of tearing down the blighted, decaying mess that is ‘POKO,’ that the Wall Street neighborhood has flourished in spite of, over the past two years, they want to tear down our beloved community theater to create a parking lot!” the petition states.

On Monday, Marc Alan of Factory Underground and Wall Street Theater developer Frank Farricker announced to the City that they had formed the Norwalk Film Center, Inc., a nonprofit, to create the non-profit community theater and film technology education center that has been mentioned. The goal is to raise $1.5 million and “take over the shell of the Garden Cinemas, or other comparably sized space, approximately 7500 square feet,” Alan wrote, asking for the matter to be tabled.

 

 

A Tuesday meeting

Alan and Farricker met with Rilling on Tuesday afternoon, Rilling said, announcing that the matter is being tabled until early September.

“We are looking at working on the design issue, which seems to be a major issue, as well as how we maintain that area as an arts and cultural center,” Rilling said. “Mr. Farricker and Mr. Alan will be the point people working with the city. Other people will be called in to have this discussion. There are right now at least four options.”

Alan’s Monday email lists the options:

  • “To leave the Garden Cinema in its present location, and to develop parking around it, behind it, and above it. A multi-level parking structure that allows for the present Garden Cinema to be operated as a non-profit theater, funded by grants, and private donations.
  • “To create ‘New Garden Cinema’ facilities within the overall design and construction at 26 Isaac Street that can still be operated by a non-profit. Potential future home to the Norwalk Arts Commission, Norwalk Film Festival, etc.
  • “To create the ‘Norwalk Film Center’ facilities within the first-floor construction of Wall Street Place.
  • “To create ‘Norwalk Film Center’ facilities within the basement structure of Wall Street Place, where the automated parking system would originally have gone.”

 

Public comment

“How gratified I am that we have such a representative democracy here in Norwalk,” Farricker said to the Council. “The idea that Marc Alan could start a petition to save a valuable resource and that 3,000 people could respond in 24 hours, and this body could hear them, and decide that it’s important that the community could look at saving this is very gratifying to me. It doesn’t always happen that way.”

Chris Ward, a Stamford resident who teaches at Norwalk Community College, called the Garden Cinemas a “jewel in the state.”

“I know you’re thinking it’s movies, you can see them anywhere,” he said. “But that’s not quite true, most of the arthouses have closed down. There are very, very few that have multiple screens.”

“It’s really great that things have changed since the last time I was here and I couldn’t be happier about that,” Peter Fullam said.

On the other dominant issue motivating the Council to discuss further, the proposed design is “improper” and “derivative,” architect Lee Levey said. “The building that should exist should be a reflection of the influences around it.”

 

 

 

Promises made

John McClutchy, left, talks to the Norwalk Common Council as his son, Todd McClutchy, listens, Tuesday in City Hall.

“The stakeholders in this area have spoken loud and clear,” Rilling said, explaining that the petition “had a lot to do” with tabling the vote.

“We are certainly not tone deaf and we have listened to a lot of what people have had to say,” John McClutchy said. “There’s been a lot of, in my opinion, sincere and good comments about what we need to reflect on as we go through this process. We intend to do that.”

He said they’ve been talking to people in the arts community, and “intend to sit down with them and find some way to address their concerns.”

“Can we save the Garden Cinema? Rather doubtful,” he said. “We need the parking to make this development work. Can we provide a space that will provide similar services? I believe that we can. Can we provide other parts of our venue that will allow the arts community to participate in what we are doing? We have done this before in other communities.”

17 comments

Texan1 July 24, 2019 at 8:20 am

Delay, delay, delay. Shows how poorly planned this whole
project was from the beginning. Wonder who’s palms have been greased to approve such ideas. At one time Norwalk town was an beautiful, inviting area to shop etc.
Now it’s a mish mash of whatever. Beautiful buildings destroyed and of whatever. NOTHING inviting.

Sue Haynie July 24, 2019 at 8:32 am

Give credit where credit is due, good news that some, even though not all, of the public’s concerns are being considered.

Al Bore July 24, 2019 at 8:48 am

Don’t turn your back on the closed door meetings always taking place in Norwalk. This is bad for Norwalk, we taxpayers should not have to pay a dime to bail out the past or present banks and developers. The Mayor and the CC need to listen to the people of Norwalk for once and stop making these bad deals. It is not to late to start over and do this right.

Jason Milligan July 24, 2019 at 9:38 am

No matter how far you go down the wrong the path

you can always turn around.

I hope our leaders are beginning to turn around, albeit slowly.

Adam Blank July 24, 2019 at 11:13 am

A few observations. First, I’ve always said that building market rate studio and 1 bedroom apartment complexes generate far more tax revenue than cost to the City in new students and I support continuing to grow our urban core. However, This project is not market rate and it has almost entirely 2-3 bedroom units.
It will produce 25-50 students and I think it will turn out much closer to 50. That’s a cost to the City of $400k to $800k for the students with nominal tax revenue produced. I can live with that, but to mitigate those costs the City needs to eliminate the workforce housing requirement on future developments until it evens out (i.e. next 1,000 market rate units don’t need to supply 100 workforce units). Second, when people complain about BOE costs, they need to remember the increase in students. Third, I’m all for supporting the arts but I wouldn’t support the City spending the very significant funds needed to buy the Garden Cinema, bring it up to code and modernize it and then operate it on a going forward basis. I would support Wall Street theater showing movies when they don’t have live acts – seems like a very inexpensive win/win. People are eager to sign petitions and say “Save Garden Cinemas” but they won’t put up the $ necessary to save it. This is White Barn 2.0.

Mike

Rusty Guardrail July 24, 2019 at 12:46 pm

Although the design specifics of the proposed apartment building and the fate of the Garden Cinema are of great concern, these two issues also represent distractions from the core proposition’s lethal defects:

The local property taxes on the new apartment building will be $175,000. 10 additional students in our schools will use up that money. All further expenses generated by the new building will require additional tax money to be paid by Norwalk homeowners…

Market-rate apartments can be expected to generate economic activity. The proposed subsidized housing will instead represent a burden…

A critically-flawed study attesting to non-existent blight is being used to garner taxpayer-funded incentives for a developer who contributes heavily to the political party in power….
The projected $800,000 construction cost per apartment!

Preservation of the movie theater and an improved design for the apartment house won’t fix the inherent failings of the proposal.

Dagny July 24, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Just a quick question: how much tax does the Garden Cinema pay today? If it becomes a parking lot – just a piece of Poko that $ is lost as well- right? Finally figured out why I’ve been humming this: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell, all day. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Lisa Brinton July 24, 2019 at 3:20 pm

@Rusty Guardrail – You hit the nail on the head! Obviously, I support the arts. The Garden Cinema is a gem in an area that should be a marketed as a performing arts district, given the Wall St. Theater, Troupe 429, and sound recording studios, Factory Underground and Sono Studios. The fact that the POKO building is ugly and doesn’t resemble the original concept from a decade ago is upsetting. However, the lack of willingness to acknowledge downstream city costs and BOE liabilities that taxpayers will have to pick up, due to 15-year tax credits is mind boggling. Why an 100% affordable housing project, with 101- units is costing $80 million dollars ($800,000 per unit) and not one of our politicians is asking why is frightening. The lack of financial literacy by this mayor and common council is probably at an all time low, which is why Norwalk is so vulnerable.

Lisa Brinton July 24, 2019 at 3:20 pm

@Rusty Guardrail – You hit the nail on the head! Obviously, I support the arts. The Garden Cinema is a gem in an area that should be a marketed as a performing arts district, given the Wall St. Theater, Troupe 429, and sound recording studios, Factory Underground and Sono Studios. The fact that the POKO building is ugly and doesn’t resemble the original concept from a decade ago is upsetting. However, the lack of willingness to acknowledge downstream city costs and BOE liabilities that taxpayers will have to pick up, due to 15-year tax credits is mind boggling. Why an 100% affordable housing project, with 101- units is costing $80 million dollars ($800,000 per unit) and not one of our politicians is asking why is frightening. The lack of financial literacy by this mayor and common council is probably at an all time low, which is why Norwalk is so vulnerable.

Patrick Cooper July 24, 2019 at 4:52 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever complimented @Rusty Guardrail – it’s a Nome de plume for one and the name Rusty conjures up the stenciled berets from the movie European Vacation. But here – he get’s it. Were you there?

It’s amazing what a shock it had to be to Harry & the minions that 3000 signatures could be secured via change.org in about a day – about the difference in the last election. You want to know why the pause? They need to try and get the gist of how many of those signatures came from Norwalk voters. I’m unmoved that they care one iota about the Garden Cinema – and I don’t believe that all of a sudden – there is a interest in listening to the public.

Rusty is right – what is missing is the math. Like a certain propaganda poster here on NoN – the argument is all right-brain thinking: emotions and feeling, flowers and unicorns, beautiful rainbows and dancing in the rain. Left-brain (analytical and methodical) was left out.

The math doesn’t work. The ledger is off. Citibank wins, McClutchy’s get back their campaign contributions 80 times over, but it’s still a loss. Who makes up the difference? We do. The taxpayers. Again. Always. Harry’s “vision”.

Norwalk’s new Chief Financial Officer – Henry Dachowitz – sat directly in front of me last night. Nice man – I said hello. Over the course of the evening – he was utterly stoic – as I would imagine he has learned to perfection. There were – however – two speakers that generated a visceral reaction – Lisa Britton and Mike Barbis. Lisa laid out the financial blue print including the context – her command of the big picture impressive. The CFO reacted as if Lisa is to be respected, or feared.

Then, Mike Barbis spoke of qualified demographers who could provide a formula for looking at the apartments and determining the likely range for the number of school age children. Mr. Dachowitz started April 29th of this year – so 86 days into his job he may or may not have a fully grasp of the metrics. But I’m confident he got a few Norwalk numbers last night: $800,000 per unit for an “affordable” apartment, the annual cost to educate a Norwalk child, the expected number of new children in this building, and the current negotiated tax receipts expected (ranges from $190-150,000 annually – depends on gross/net. etc.) from this project.

Now Rusty – I’m going to say your math is close – but let’s sharpen the pencil. We know the average cost is $17-18,000 per child, but we also know for SPED and ELL (& free lunch) students – it’s closer to $22,500. As our school demographic population has dramatically changed – reported by the BOE this spring as predominantly Hispanic (+50%) – and a huge percentage ELL – we have a good reason to believe that ½ the children from this project would be as well. Split the difference – it’s closer to $20,000 average and it’s closer to paying for 7-8 kids.

Mr. Barbis predicted over 30 – likely many more. How about 60?

That is why I came to wonder – why is Mario up on the dais? Why isn’t this highly qualified financial professional – Mr. Dachowitz – not required to explain to the public why this is a financially sound decision?

Because he can’t – and if he has a conscience – he wouldn’t.

Welcome to Norwalk, Henry.

Nancy McGuire July 24, 2019 at 6:16 pm

@Dagney, the Garden Cinema currently pays about $23,000 in property taxes or about $3.00 per sf. They will wipe that out with a parking garage, so the net to the city is about $150,000 or about $.76 per square foot of building area. A typical Rowayton home pays $6-$7 per square foot, a modest house pays about $4-5/sf.

Alan July 24, 2019 at 10:01 pm

The POKO project was approved with an automated parking garage for it’s tenants. Apparently the automated garage is no longer part of the project. Who allowed this to go forward minus the parking? Seems like whomever was responsible for eliminating the in-project automated parking should pony up with a solution.

Bryan Meek July 25, 2019 at 8:22 am

Build it in Westport, since hate has no home there. There’s a ton of unused land on Sylvan road that would be perfect.

EnoPride July 29, 2019 at 2:01 pm

“On the other dominant issue motivating the Council to discuss further, the proposed design
is’ improper’ and ‘derivative’, architect Lee Levey said. ‘The building that should exist should be a reflection of the influences around it.’”

That about says it all…

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