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Farricker cites ‘optimism’ as ‘POKO’ talks focus on Garden Cinemas

Isaac Street on Sept. 5.

Updated, 3:45 p.m.: Comment from Tom Livingston.

NORWALK, Conn. – Efforts to save the Garden Cinemas are ongoing, with one protagonist expressing cautious optimism.

“Everyone’s talking, nobody has really got a plan,” Wall Street Theater developer Frank Farricker said last week. “But I will say honestly that everybody is talking constructively. They are really trying to save the theater. Which pleased me… I didn’t think going in that was going to be the case. There’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to but there’s even been discussion of recreating it, maybe in the new building.”

When last we left this saga, the Common Council had tabled a vote on the plan presented by John and Todd McClutchy to restart construction on Wall Street Place, known to many simply as “POKO.” While the plan’s inclusion of 100% affordable housing has sparked controversy, it was the fate of the Cinemas that created the loudest outcry; the plan includes demolishing them to provide space for parking.

Farricker and Marc Alan of Factory Underground have formed the Norwalk Film Center, Inc. to create the non-profit community theater and film technology education center, they said. 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.

That was in July. Mayor Harry Rilling, in announcing that the vote was being tabled, promised the matter would resume in early September.

“We are still waiting for JHM and other stakeholders to present the results of their discussions on design and incorporation of cultural center in the project,” Rilling wrote Thursday to NancyOnNorwalk.

“To echo the Mayor’s comments, all of the parties are talking and looking for possible solutions to the issues raised. As these are continuing conversations, I can’t say at this point when it will come back to the Council,” Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) wrote in a Monday email. Council Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) did not respond to the inquiry.

“Really what’s going to happen with the cinema depends on whether they can find some alternate parking circumstances,” Farricker said. “I understand they’re talking to (real estate broker) Jason (Milligan). I think the McClutchys are honestly looking for alternate parking.”

The McClutchys did not reply to a Saturday email from NancyOnNorwalk.

Milligan reported recently that he has proposed a parking garage at 23 Isaac St., the former municipal lot directly adjacent to the partially constructed Wall Street Place. Talks are going “very slowly,” he said Friday.

Milligan is embroiled in several lawsuits with the City and the Redevelopment Agency; most notably, he’s the target of an action looking to overturn his purchase of the Isaac Street lot and other properties that were slated to be part of “POKO” phases II and III.

The battle “takes all my brain power” and “puts me in a bad mood,” and he would “love if the administration would say they want to work it out,” he said recently.

The theater company would “love” a parking garage in that spot, and it would open up other possibilities, Farricker said, asserting that the McClutchys could build another Wall Street Place phase without overburdening the neighborhood, with the aforementioned garage for parking.

“I think it would be a good urban planning if they could do it,” Farricker opined. “I know, it’s a lot of steps to get there.”

“There are a million possibilities,” Milligan said Saturday.

Farricker said he and Alan have met with City officials three times since the July Council meeting, and with the McClutchys twice, “just had a couple of sessions where we spit-balled ideas and stuff like that.” Alan did not respond to request for comment.

The McClutchys are playing things “very close to the vest” but appear to be dealing in good faith, according to Farricker.

“I don’t sense that we’re getting played or they’re just saying the right things so they’ll get approved. I think that they have internalize the idea that having a robust arts component around it is almost a good branding opportunity,” Farricker said.

So, he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

“Nobody has thrown down any red lines yet. Nobody has said you can’t do this or we’re not going to do that,” Farricker said. “… We’re still hopeful.”

11 comments

Jason Milligan September 23, 2019 at 6:23 am

The McClutchy’s do not own POKO and I am pretty sure they don’t own any property in Norwalk. Citibank is the owner of POKO l.

The McClutchy’s have yet to furnish physical proof that they represent Citibank and strangely at the big summer Council meeting the McClutchy attorney stated that they do not represent Citibank or speak for them.

When anyone other than the legal property owner makes an application to the city of Norwalk an authorization letter is required.

Citibank and McClutchy have not presented an authorization letter, and recently they strangely sort of claimed the opposite.

Citibank may be “Too Big to Fail”, but they shouldn’t be too big to follow the rules!

The McClutchy’s recently made application to make major changes to the POKO LDA which would have major legal ramifications in multiple lawsuits.

Who is JHM?

Who is John Galt?

Lisa Brinton September 23, 2019 at 6:29 am

“The McClutchys are playing things “very close to the vest” but appear to be dealing in good faith, according to Farricker.”

Seems the mayor and common council are also playing things close to the vest. If only they were dealing in good faith for taxpayers. We were due an update from the mayor this month. No comment from council members. Postponing until after the election?

They really need to explain how an original $46m Poko deal soured and turned into an $80M one with a $6m fee for JHM and 15 years of tax credits? Not to mention, in a building that demographer experts now claim is slotted to add ~ 50 more students to our already overstretched school system.

The Garden Cinema is important, but Norwalk taxpayers should not allow themselves to get snookered again on this less than transparent land deal that has cost us a fortune.

Bill Kutik September 23, 2019 at 6:51 am

Jason Milligan: “Who is John Gault?” Please don’t tell me you’re an adherent of Ayn Rand, meant to be loved at 14 and dismissed by 18.

Delighted to see you are hanging in despite being annoyed, since you are the solution to the problem. Will call you soon.

Patrick Murphy September 23, 2019 at 10:30 am

Way to call it Lisa.

I would have written the exact same thing except in CAPITAL LETTERS:

TURNED INTO AN $80 MILL WITH A $6 MILL TO MCCLUTCHY and the 15 year tax credit smoke and mirror trick.

$6mill developer fee!!!!!! ?????

Ursula Caterbone September 23, 2019 at 2:05 pm

“Save the Garden Cinema” should never be interpreted as meaning transfer the theater. It means Save the Garden Cinema, period.
The thousands of signatories didn’t sign the Save the Garden Cinema petition to support relocating theater space. We want the theater to be saved intact.

The developer’s offer to house the Norwalk Film Center in the Tyvek building should never be construed as a magnanimous offer. It’s a negotiating ploy to get rid of that thorn in his side and build his parking garage where the Cinema now stands.
Those of you who are representing the Cinema’s interests in discussions between the developer and the city, do not be tempted to sacrifice our beloved theater.

Mimi September 23, 2019 at 3:52 pm

I’m amazed at how many Norwalk voters I speak with are unaware of POKO. If they were better informed, residents would not vote in a mayor and Common Council who brought this mismanagement and this blight of such magnitude upon us. They have no idea that the city hall crew is fleecing us on a land deal that has gone from bad to worse, at even greater expense to taxpayers. If the majority was aware, POKO alone would be the absolute tipping point for voters, and it would be the demise of the Rilling Administration, who is literally throwing away, rather than protecting, taxpayer dollars.

Some Yes or No questions worth answering:

1. Do you think that a taxpayer sunk costs, negative ROI, city hall botched project, which Senator Duff has thrown several million at, is an example of government best practices, and has been/is advantageous to the economic health and quality of life of your city’s center and its business owners?

2. Petitions aimed at local government are often indicators that that Democracy is broken, that the villagers are restless, and that their voices have not been heard by their elected officials. Do you think our government is working for us if it took almost 14,000 signatures on a “Save Garden Cinemas” petition for our mayor and Common Council to finally embrace Democracy and halfway acknowledge public opinion on the POKO state of affairs?

3. Do you agree that a wealthy Darien developer should be made wealthier by being rewarded 15 years of tax credits off our backs for hitting us with a cheap looking, ugly building (like we really need one more of these in Norwalk…) w/units costing 800,000 per unit to build – and a 80 mill total (Why 80 mill – Cost of Goods breakdown please? The foundation and skeleton are already there!) price tag project? Should the McClutchys hold so much power in forever redefining Wall Street Place for decades to come? They would never allow that eyesore in their own backyard. Why does Rilling allow it in his? Does Norwalk deserve less than?

4. Do you believe that the RDA’s, mayor’s and Common Council’s false declaration of blight on the Wall Street area, cooked up to tap more taxpayer dollars, offset POKO sunk costs and cover the mayor and his administration’s hide on a land use deal gone bad, is an example of government best practices?

5. Do you believe that the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency’s purpose is to bail out a local government mismanaged, botched land use project behind closed doors in executive session, with your taxpayer dollars, by rewriting the rules as they go along?

If you answered NO to all of these questions, then can you justify voting this mayor in with good faith that he is protecting your quality of life and taxpayer dollars? Our city is at a critical crossroads and simply cannot afford two more years of this manner of conducting business. Norwalk deserves better, and voters hold the power. Ms. Brinton would have her work cut out for her for sure, but her stepping in to finally get to the bottom of POKO (hopefully with a third party forensic audit of Norwalk Redevelopment Agency from 2014 on) and hold the appropriate people accountable would be a big WIN for Norwalk taxpayers. The choice seems crystal clear. It is the taxpayers’ right, not privilege, to know in an honest and transparent way, where and how much of their hard earned money is being spent.

Michael McGuire September 23, 2019 at 5:27 pm

True to form discussions are being held on the POKO project, but only with selected members of the community. The horse trading has begun but the real issue ‘why are we putting a 100% affordable housing project smack dab in the middle of our downtown’, remains unanswered. The taxpayers have a right to know why.

Common Council members here are questions that need to be asked and answered, on the public’s behalf, prior to your ceding control of this project to McClutchey. If you can’t get a solid, fully supported answer based on reputable 3rd party analysis than assume the City Administration and Advisors have not done the required due diligence. Send them back to do it right, otherwise, how can you be expected to make a fully informed decision. Questions include, but are not limited to:

1. Has Connecticut Housing Finance Authority “CHFA” underwriting department been fully briefed on the $800,000 per unit price tag? If so, what is/was their initial thoughts on this? My understanding is that CHFA has never authorized a development with a price tag higher than $600,000 per unit which I believe was for single family housing development. $800,000 per unit for high-rise housing is astronomical and likely to fall afoul of CHFA’s stewardship criteria.

Remember – without CHFA approval the LIHTC cannot be issued, which means Citibank can not finance this project. If the City attempts to bypass CHFA and run the credits through RDA (Redevelopment Authority) as an example, then be extremely vigilant.

2. Has CHAF’s underwriting department been fully briefed on the four lawsuits that encumber this property to date? My understanding is that CHAF will not authorize any tax credits for a project that is not ready to move forward. Lawsuits like these need to be cleaned up prior to moving forward, but that can take 3-5 years! In the meantime, this project sits, blighting the downtown with no action until the lawsuits are settled.

3. Has a full comparative analysis been done on the economic impact of a market rate project here vs. the McClutchey deal? If not, it should be done so that you can make a fully informed decision, particularly considering no. 1 – 2 above.

4. What are the legal reasons this Administration cites for not tear up the LDA and forcing Citibank to sell for a market rate deal? Are there any? What is the price tag to tear up the LDA and has it been quantified and verified?

5. Finally, and maybe most importantly, why is there not one, or more, qualified commercial real estate professionals advising City staff on this highly complex real estate deal? What are the qualifications of the individuals serving the public interest in this case? Is anyone qualified on the City’s side?

I’m happy to meet with any councilperson and provide them with a better understanding of the risks associated with this current deal, and explore viable options that put Norwalk first.

Bill Nightingale September 24, 2019 at 12:07 pm

Mike

the bigger question (and answer to your #5) is why is the city trying to be in the real estate development business?

It has failed in every such endeavor in an epic way. Or I should say the Redevelopment Agency has failed in every endeavor in an epic way.

So once again I will say: ABOLISH THE REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY!

Debora Goldstein September 24, 2019 at 6:26 pm

I’m still waiting to find out what happened to the $150k pre-construction loan made to POKO in 2007, which defaulted in 2012 and was converted to a $187K loan with a 36 month term in 2013. In case of default, the contingency on the new loan was to apply the debt on repurchase of the Isaacs St parking lot, which is clearly not an option.

The Redevelopment Agency hasn’t even been able to produce a copy of the loan documents in response to an FOI request that is now almost 60 days old.

I bet the there are a lot of uses to which we could put $187k…

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