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Livingston, Bryant seek historic look for resumed ‘POKO’ project

A rendering of the plan for Wall Street Place, referred to by many as “POKO.”

NORWALK, Conn. – Amid the many criticisms of the proposal to restart construction on the stalled Wall Street Place development, commonly known as “POKO”,  two influential voices have objected to the design.

Longtime historic preservation activist Tod Bryant, speaking at a July 1 public meeting where developers John and Todd McClutchy presented their plans to complete the partially-built structure at the corner of Wall and Isaacs Streets, said that the proposed look is not compatible with the surrounding area’s historic character.  The Wall Street area has waited a long time for the infill development that “POKO” was designed to be, and deserves a building it can be proud of, Bryant said.  Bryant co-founded the Norwalk Preservation Trust in 2003, currently serves as its president, and operates Heritage Resources, a historic preservation consultancy.

Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) has similar feelings: a desire for a building that conveys some of the historic sense of its neighborhood.

Bryant at the early July meeting showed a 15-year-old rendering of an earlier neoclassical design for Wall Street Place, that he had dug out of his files.  He obtained that design as a member of then-Mayor Alex Knopp’s Wall Street Advisory Committee, which worked with the Cecil Group and others to craft the June 2003 “Norwalk Wall Street Area Planning Update,” Bryant subsequently explained in an email to NancyOnNorwalk. The committee also reviewed other Wall Street plans that included POKO Partners’ and Mike DiScala’s 2005 plans and renderings for their development areas.

“Most of the older buildings on Wall Street are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Wall Street Historic District,” Bryant wrote. “Attractive as it is, I think the 2005 version goes too far in the direction of a historic building that never existed. At the same time, I don’t think the most recent version is compatible with the Wall Street Historic District.  It will be a dominant presence in the district and will define it for generations.”

He continued, “The current design would be a jarring presence on the street and would split, rather than unify, the district.  The solution is somewhere in the middle.  The design should not mimic historic architecture, but it should be inspired by the materials – brick and stone – and design elements of the surrounding buildings.   New construction in a Historic District should be differentiated from the old, but be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features of the district to protect the historic integrity its environment.”

The SoNo Pearl apartments on Washington Street are a good example of new construction that blends well with historic surroundings, according to Tod Bryant, a longtime historical preservation activist.  Bryant would like plans for Wall Street Place to reflect the area’s historic character. (F.D. Rich)

As an example, The SoNo Pearl is “a good example of sensitive new construction in a historic district. {The Pearl} is clearly not historic, but it fits in,” Bryant wrote.

Livingston agreed in concept.

“Although I did not get a detailed look at what Tod showed and it was, in his words, perhaps a little overdone, I thought the concept was much more fitting to the neighborhood,” Livingston wrote. “The recently adopted Wall Street-West Avenue Neighborhood Plan states (p. 13) that ‘The City of Norwalk, the [RDA], and the community have [a] vested interest in maintaining and preserving the historic atmosphere of the Wall Street-West Avenue neighborhood. Any development that may occur within the district should design sensitively and in accordance with existing structures within the neighborhood.’ I don’t believe the proposed design does that.”

Livingston doesn’t have an official say in the look of the building — that’s a matter for the Zoning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency, then-Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan explained on July 1.  The Common Council’s Planning Committee, in a process that continues at City Hall Thursday at 7 p.m. with a public hearing, is only considering changes to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) and the Loan Recognition Agreement (LRA) to allow John and Todd McClutchy of JHM Group to move forward with the proposal that’s been developed to restart construction on the stalled Wall Street Place mixed-use development, commonly called “POKO” and sometimes referred to as “The Tyvek Temple.”

The Planning Committee at its Thursday meeting will hear Redevelopment Agency lawyers explain the changes needed to the LDA and the LRA to allow the 101-unit 100% affordable housing project to make its way to the Zoning Commission, et al. The July 1 meeting also featured the McClutchys explaining their plan, in a video reposted below.

Sheehan on July 1 said the project will have to go through design review as “It’s not set.”

“There are design guidelines contained within the redevelopment plan that allow for a symbiotic relationship between the new design and the historic nature of the neighborhood,” then-Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said.

The project could go through a design review process done by the Redevelopment Agency or through a third party design review done for both the Zoning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency, Sheehan said, predicting the latter result and a Zoning Commission public hearing.

The development’s proposed design has also drawn criticism in the NancyOnNorwalk comments section.  Steve Mann, who is a Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board Member, described it as a “container ship motif.”

Mayor Harry Rilling is on vacation and did not reply to a request for comment.

“While this property may be in an historic district, this building obviously is not historically significant. It’s a new building,” Attorney William Hennessey, representing JHM, said. “The design guidelines are designed to make sure that in no way does the building denigrate from the district from the important buildings in the district and that there is some design cohesiveness within the district.”

The third party design review “is there to make sure that the building doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the district,” and, “The architects get together and discuss. That’s essentially what happens,” Hennessey said. “But remember, what we are dealing with is a building that was approved, that is the form and shape of the building are there. What we are talking about doing is finishing the building.”

9 comments

Jason Milligan July 17, 2019 at 2:40 am

The POKO deal is dead and buried. It was terrible from the start and it should R.I.P. Any new project should start from scratch not resuscitate and amend the old, flawed plans and agreements.

The POKO deal has several parties and even more successors in interest that are both affected by the land agreements (LDA, LRA & amendments) and that have rights under them. Amending the agreements requires written consent by all parties and successors.

For example all parties/successors have the right for the city to build New Street #1 as part of the phase I improvements.

New Street #1 was an extremely important part of the original POKO. It provides access to and circulation through the various stages of the project.

Isaac’s Street is a 2 way street in all previous plans.

The changes being proposed by Citibank/McClutchy eliminate New Street #1 and make Isaac’s Street one way.

A One Way Dead End!

This “significant” change creates an untenable traffic situation which has huge affect on parties/successors, area businesses (Pontos) and residents.

The LDA and the Chapter 130 statute it was derived from both clearly require written consent from all parties and successors for any changes.

I am a successor and there are changes being considered. My consent has not been sought or given!

Frank Farriker’s Wall Street Theater is also a successor. The “Globe Theater” was always part of POKO phase I, and remains that way. The proposed changes remove it. Frank’s permission was not sought.

There are currently 3 active open lawsuits involving me and this project. John Dias El Dorado Club has a 4th lengthy lawsuit ongoing, and there are several other lawsuits likely if this recent plan moves forward. The proposed changes and method seeking changes will have adverse affect to the city’s standing in all active lawsuits.

The only was to solve POKO is to collaborate and negotiate with all area stakeholders, including ME!!

Never has our leadership been willing to chat. Of course we could find common ground.

Wall Street would wind with much better solutions through collaboration.

John Levin July 17, 2019 at 8:49 am

“Livingston doesn’t have a say in the look of the building, though. That’s a matter for the Zoning Commission and the Redevelopment Agency, then-Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan explained on July 1.”

Let there be no doubt: the city of Norwalk, under its current leadership, holds all the cards, as this, or any, project can not proceed without city approvals, LDA amendments, and cooperation. No one should be deceived into thinking that the current proposal from JHM is a take-it-or-leave-it deal. The current owner, Citicorp is stuck owning a project from which it now seeks a salvage recovery. JHM will put in little or no cash equity but will own 100% of the project yet seeks $4.4 million from the city for infrastructure improvements. This will be a great opportunity to discover which of Norwalk’s leaders serve the interests of current and future residents (and voters) and which ones serve developers (who seem to be generous contributors to campaign funds and PACs as NancyOnNorwalk has reported).

POKO is the acid test for our dity’s leadership. I hope there will NOT be a backroom deal shoved through while the city’s residents and property tax payers get the shaft. Leadership?

Jason Milligan July 17, 2019 at 9:27 am

Why this plan?

Why now?

Bob Duff has tried to distance himself from POKO but the ribbon cutting photo opps, past supportive statements and the money trail lead straight to him.

Where does he stand?

What is his involvement?

It is disheartening that no serious consideration has ever been given to ideas not promoted in secret by Citibank.

The council has NOT been the least bit curious. Other than Tom Livingston. But even Tom, an attorney has not read the land agreements.

Mario and Tim have controls POKO for a decade and they continue to control it now.

Sadly this plan will fail. Area businesses and residents will continue to suffer.

Rilling can throw up his hands and say he tried, but he didn’t.

Drew Ablank July 17, 2019 at 11:53 am

Dear Mayor Rilling,
I will support you and this project if you can give me the same Tax deal for my little house? It’s just a fraction of the value.

Reply if it’s a No

Rusty Guardrail July 17, 2019 at 12:20 pm

I’ve read and heard so many detailed reasons to abandon the plan. Legalities. Aesthetics. Undue taxpayer burden. A ridiculous one-way dead end street…

I’ve seen NO detailed reasons supporting the plan.

Can the Mayor and his (not our) Common Council run roughshod over the legalities stated above by Mr. Milligan?

EnoPride July 17, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Perfectly put, John Levin. You wrote what I was thinking.

Can we see some leadership displayed amongst our elected officials at tomorrow night’s meeting? We see stronger leadership coming from the public speakers at the podium! We are supposed to be a strong council. Which council members will stand up with Tom Livingston to challenge RDA on having their say as to the building’s appearance? John Kydes will not be one of them as clearly he is complicit. Why is Tim Sheehan shutting out the opinion of Tod Bryant? He is the president of the Norwalk Preservation Trust for crying out loud! Shouldn’t Mr. Sheehan be consulting him all these years and asking him his opinion from a historic standpoint on the aesthetic design of the building?

How can any council member sit at these meetings without feeling squirmy and taken advantage of, and not contest that essentially Tim Sheehan, Mario Coppola, etc., have dictated to all of them that they have no say as to this train wreck? The CC has sat back in executive session meetings this past several months and watched Tim Sheehan/RDA continue to be allowed to play God and make up the rules/retweek the LDA as they go along to ensure that their hides are saved and that this terrible deal is jammed through at even greater expense to their tax paying residents. Was there no challenging of the architects of this cover up disaster in executive session by our council members? Evidently not, as we would have had a far different outcome by now if there was. Please grow a pair by tomorrow night, Common Council!!

Debora Goldstein July 17, 2019 at 3:15 pm

As important as the design, is the question of how much time the council is giving to making sure that the new agreement is written with better safeguards for missing deadlines that the last one was.

The last developer got extension after extension from 2010 onward, and there apppears to have been a good-deal of “venue-shopping” as some went through redevelopment, some through zoning and some through the council. Council-members complained that the agreement was so poorly written that there was no distinction between demolition and start of construction. Filing a single permit for demolition counted as the start of construction to meet a deadline, even though the permit procedures forbid demolition until 120 days after the permit filing.

One other question. Since the original 2010 pre-construction loan from Redevelopment to POKO eventually provided that the loan amount be applied to re-acquiring the Isaacs Street lot in the event that Wall Street Place wasn’t built, who exactly is on the hook for the $187k owed to the Redevlopment Agency by POKO, who didn’t build Wall Street Place, especially since the Isaacs Street lot is now “owned” by Jason Milligan?

Debora Goldstein July 17, 2019 at 6:06 pm

PUBLIC HEARING
July 18, 2019
7pm
Council Chambers (3rd Floor)
City Hall, 125 East Ave

@ Carol, it remains to be seen.

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