Creative programming and popular collections are the lifeblood of the Norwalk Public Library’s success, but convenient free parking is the oxygen that enables resident families to access the spectacular offerings available at the library’s Belden Avenue main branch.
Unless City officials act quickly, the parking we’ve been able to offer for the past six years in the lot adjacent to the library accessible from Mott Avenue is likely to be shut down, resulting in the suffocation of the library’s recent rebound, the drastic curtailment of its expansion plans and its probable stagnation in the years ahead.
In 2017 we ended at least temporarily the frustrating quandary in which Norwalk taxpayers pay taxes to operate the Belden library but were constantly stymied in their efforts to enjoy the library because there was insufficient parking on-site.
I urge City officials to turn the temporary parking we’ve enjoyed since 2017 into permanent parking by exercising its option prior to June 30, 2023, to purchase all or part of the 11 Belden Avenue “bank” property — and by rejecting questionable off-site parking solutions that never worked in the past—to preserve forever convenient on-site parking for families and creative opportunities for renovation and expansion of the antiquated library.
I offer the following “Q and A” format to make the case for the City to acquire the current adjacent parking lot behind the library that we opened temporarily in 2017:
What is the “option to purchase” the Belden library parking lot?
In 2016, Jason Milligan, the owner of the 11 Belden Avenue “bank property” that includes the parking lot behind the library was granted approval by the Norwalk Zoning Commission to build 69 residential units. The construction would have foreclosed forever on-site parking for library patrons.
The Library Foundation in 2017 challenged the zoning approval and eventually negotiated in partnership with the City an agreement with Milligan giving the City an option at any time until August 31, 2023, to purchase the property at a fixed price of $4.88 million and a required notice of a decision to Milligan by June 30, 2023.
The City also purchased the right to use the lot behind the library for parking for six years. In June 2017, Mayor Rilling and I “cut” the yellow chain to allow public access to the parking lot. The lot will close and the chain will be reinstalled on September 1, 2023 if there is no exercise of the option to purchase the property.
Has the current parking lot benefited library users?
“Yes” — by a landslide! Dozens and dozens of patrons have expressed their appreciation for the new parking arrangement we put in place with the city’s strong financial support in 2017. Here are some special examples.
Our parking lot is often filled now with events like Independent Author Day, which features nearly 100 local authors presenting their books. The lot was packed when we hosted one of the regional Chinese American Cultural Societies for celebration of the recent Chinese New Year. It is also filled during our regular attractions, such as the pre-COVID “Friday Night movie and soup night,” Jim Clarke’s indoor jazz concerts with the extra-capacity audience sitting in the hallway, and Ralph Bloom’s used book sales.
One of the new activities I’m most excited about was the first-time designation last November of the library as a Voting Poll Station for District A elections. This made the library a true community public square for Norwalk. If there is no free on-site parking, it is not clear whether the library will continue to qualify as a voting site.
On-site parking helped us service our pre-COVID contract with the U.S. Passport Office to accept passport applications on Saturday mornings and earn fees for the city.
Another example is the use of the library was a walk-in vaccination site during the worst COVID outbreaks. We offered this space to the Health Department for several vaccination clinics.
Several years ago, the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce needed the on-site parking when it filled our auditorium with small business owners from the region to receive a briefing from state officials on new federal-state investment tax incentives.
Will the City’s alternative “Eagles and Yankee Doodle” parking scheme work?
“No,” if past performance is any guide.
The City is proposing for library usage a combination of leased spaces at the Eagles lot on Mott Avenue, the use of the Yankee Doodle Garage on Wall Street and spaces from the former 1st Taxing District office.
First, it seems obvious that once the “bank property option” expires, Jason Milligan will pursue his rights as property owner to construct the type of massive residential structure we stopped him from building in 2017 — at least 69 apartments and perhaps many more residential units that will block forever on-site library parking and most sensible plans for the modernization of the library’s aging structure.
This means that walking from the Eagles lot to the library will be blocked by an enormous residential structure that will make library access much more onerous for elderly patrons, moms with strollers, customers with disabilities and many other library users.
Second, the city’s apparent plan to use the Yankee Doodle Garage on Wall Street for designated library parking for patrons never worked in the past and won’t in the future. It is just too far to walk for our most consistent patrons, including senior citizens, parents with kids, groups of users with disabilities and others even if the city were to construct a better pathway.
Is the Eagles lot really “replacement parking” for the library’s current on-site lot?
“No — and maybe could be worse.”
The City’s memo to the Common Council calls the Eagles lot “replacement parking.” But as mentioned above, a multi-story residential building almost certainly will be constructed between the Eagles lot and the library, such as the huge structure the Zoning Commission had approved in 2017 despite opposition from library patrons. The “replacement” description just doesn’t fit.
Also, library parking at the Eagles lot would have to end by 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 5 p.m. on Sundays — even though the library’s popular concerts, film festivals and community cultural events won’t always have concluded.
Why “maybe worse”? On October 25, 2017, “bank lot” owner Milligan filed on the Norwalk Land Records a notice of his intention to dispute the Eagles’ alleged “encroachment” of a portion of the property that connects the Eagles lot with the “bank lot.” This “encroachment” area that Milligan disputes overlaps with the area the City proposes to lease for parking. I have no legal opinion or personal knowledge about the validity of Milligan’s recorded claim but there is at least a possibility that resolution of the dispute could cause delay or added expense.
Finally, leasing spaces is only a temporary solution. Leases end. The property could be sold. Other companies could replace the City by offering a higher lease price to the Eagles after the proposed lease extensions expire. Only ownership by the City guarantees that on-site parking will be permanently available.
Will the cost of exercising a partial or full option to purchase the “bank lot” cause parking to be an excessively costly amenity for the library?
“The answer is a complicated yes and no: it depends.” A simple answer won’t do. So what are the plusses and minuses in the financial picture?
If there is a partial purchase of the current library parking lot — and we don’t yet know the price of the purchase — then if measured by the comparable cost of constructing a commercial parking space, the library spaces probably would exceed the commercial spaces cost. No sense ducking the question, that’s probably the fact of the matter. We would pay a premium because the lot is so valuable to the library and there is no alternative.
But when viewed in context of many other factors on the ground, my answer is: “Not so expensive as to compel us to sacrifice the opportunity to purchase it.”
First, the library unfortunately is land-locked in the middle of a densely constructed downtown. There is no other property adjacent to the library that could be used for parking on the scale we need. And as they say about downtown property — they ain’t making more of it. It’s now or never for our parking.
Second, if the City were to acquire the entire 11 Belden Avenue property for the $4.88 million, there is no reason it could not apply to Zoning Commission for permission to redraw the lot line. The City could then keep the current library parking lot while reselling the bank building with its long-term tenant and marketable drive-thru facility.
As property values rise in the Wall Street area, it is a possibility that the city’s profit from reselling the bank building could finance all or part of the acquisition of the library parking. This was a possibility I proposed when Mayor Rilling and I announced the option parking plan in 2017:
“The Option purchase protects the City’s interests by enabling it to react to changes in market conditions over the next six years. Perhaps the City will want to acquire only part of the property; or renegotiate the purchase price downward based on new real estate values or zoning conditions….I hope the City does not ever pay the full amount to exercise the Option to purchase and instead finds creative ways to leverage its contract rights and redevelopment authority.”
Third, the city has already invested considerable funds in reconfiguring, leveling, paving, striping, and gating the library lot — improvements that would be forfeited to Milligan if the option lease expires.
Finally, how do you put a dollar value on the community benefit of library accessibility? What is the tax value to a Norwalk family to unpack their stroller from their car in the library parking lot to attend a moms and toddlers reading event every Tuesday morning at the library?
What is it worth to an 80-year-old couple to leave their home on a cold winter afternoon and park safely as darkness descends to attend a Saturday or Sunday Jim Clarke concert of Count Basie tunes and greet their friends in our auditorium? Priceless?
These examples may sound “hokey” or contrived but as president of the Library Board for the past six years I have observed and enjoyed these scenes over and over because they are real. And if the parking goes, these scenes will end.
Is there capital budget funding available?
Yes. The City allocated additional funds in its FY 19-20 and FY 20-21 capital budgets for the library expansion project, including parking. These funds are still available and could be supplemented by unspent current year FY 22-23 funds if needed for either the partial or full purchase of 11 Belden.
Should the City negotiate with Mr. Milligan about library parking despite their prior disputes over other Wall Street dealings?
“Yes” — because the guardrails of this option to purchase are significantly more favorable to the City than is the case in other “normal” property transactions. This is a separate agreement involving a separate piece of land and arising from separate policy concerns. Mr. Milligan’s separate dealings with the City on other matters should not interfere with negotiating over the library purchase option.
In most arms-length real property transactions, the biggest dispute between the parties is the value of the property — the seller wants it higher and the buyer wants it lower. If there were no 2017 option agreement between the City and Mr. Milligan, one can imagine years of protracted litigation and volumes of land value testimony from appraisal experts to determine the value of 11 Belden.
But the decisive difference in this case is that the value of the land under option for the City to purchase was already fixed in 2017 and set at $4.88 million with no provision for growth from inflation during the past six years! This means that the risk to the City of paying above the value it assigned in 2017 for the whole parcel is much lower than in a normal arms-length transaction. In fact, the risk is zero! The same logic applies in a slightly less determinative way for purchasing just the library parking part of the option, which Mr. Milligan is not obligated to sell.
Is this the right time to lease the Eagles parking spaces for $12,600 per year?
“No”—unless the city has money to spare.
The city is proposing to lease the Eagles spaces, according to the Law Department’s March 29, 2023, memo to the Common Council, as “replacement parking”:
“The leased auxiliary parking available for the Norwalk Public Library on 11 Belden Avenue is set to expire in August of this year. The City has reached a deal in principal [sic] for replacement parking at an alternative location, 6 Mott Avenue….” (emphasis added).
Yet in an April 6 email to NPL Board President Moina Noir that she shared, the City’s Economic Development Director Jessica Vonashek wrote: “The option on 11 Belden is in place until August 31, 2023. The city will need to determine if it will exercise that option or not. Once a decision has been made, we will provide you with an update.”
Which is it? Is it full speed ahead to abandon the parking option and try to replace the spaces? Or yes to negotiate and exercise the option with no replacement needed? Or, “We haven’t decided, we’ll let you know”?
If the City has already decided (as I fear it has) not to exercise any part of the option agreement, there ought to be a full disclosure to the public (and the Library Board!) and an opportunity for a community-wide discussion and debate with our elected officials similar to what we have experienced to present a new school construction budget or a major downtown redevelopment project or significant zoning approval.
If the City has not decided to abandon the option agreement, then is this really the best time to purchase the supplemental spaces at the Eagles lot and how much are they worth if the option were to be exercised?
A decision of this magnitude ought to be taken only after substantial public hearings and public participation — not “once a decision is made, we will provide you with an update.” This is a big deal!
Now is the moment to make the modernization of the Norwalk Public Library and the convenience of free on-site parking a real and lasting priority!
When Mayor Rilling and I announced the new library parking lot option plan in 2017 and we removed the yellow chain from the Mott Avenue parking lot, it launched a new era of activity and enrichment for library patrons and the community. The support of Mayor Rilling and the Common Council were crucial because, unlike the situation for most of our suburban neighbors, the Norwalk library is a City agency.
As I prepare to exit my service on the Library Board, including six years as Board President, I am proud of all the accomplishments and services that have been provided by both the SoNo and Belden Avenue library branches, primarily as a result of the creativity and dedication of our extraordinary staff. Acting as a unified Library Board, we established free on-site parking, launched our bookmobile, instituted a “no fines” policy, opened the Blue Teapot, provided a library card to every Norwalk student, made Belden Avenue a municipal voting site, designed the updating of the SoNo interior, denied a request to censor a religious book, sustained remote services during COVID, and made many other positive changes.
And just two weeks ago we unveiled in the Children’s Department the most spectacular salt-water aquarium in any library in our region thanks to the generosity of a private donor!
Now is not the time to slip backward — in fact, it is the right time to take a giant step forward to ensure accessibility to modern library facilities for years to come. We’ve all learned during the past period of social isolation to value the library as a place to gather in a community center. As our City now funds the expansion of our schools, the repaving of the beach parking lot, the replacement of the skate park and the realignment of Wall Street pedestrian walkways, please don’t forget that the NPL has waited in line patiently during the past six years and now deserves our attention and support.
My plea to the elected officials of Norwalk today repeats the hope I expressed at the “chain-cutting” ceremony at the library parking lot with Mayor Rilling in 2017.
Each and every municipality surrounding Norwalk has expanded and modernized its library during the past decade. These towns recognized that libraries have become the new community centers of the 21st Century, serving as the hubs of learning, the laboratories of entrepreneurship and safe spaces for community dialogue.
Now is the right time for Norwalk to make the same commitment. Exercise the option! We don’t want to have Norwalk families and businesses look back in 10, 20 or 30 years and say that our generation failed to support Norwalk’s future learners by neglecting to make essential long-term investments. Our families, our children, and our community deserve a first-class library and the on-site free parking that will serve it.
Alex Knopp served as Mayor of Norwalk from 2001-2005 and recently completed six years as President of the Norwalk Public Library Board of Directors.
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