Analysis: Mall developers find dealing with Norwalk is like living ‘The Life of Riley’

NORWALK, Conn. – People of a certain age – you know who you are – might recall an actor with an early TV sitcom spawned by a radio show, “The Life of Riley.” The show ran on TV from 1953 to 1958 (hey, I am BARELY old enough to remember…), and the actor was William Bendix.

Bendix played the perpetually beleaguered title role, and turned his signature line, “What a revoltin’ development THIS is!” into a national catchphrase.

More than 50 years later, you still hear that phrase, albeit paraphrased, throughout Norwalk whenever a new building project is proposed. A new Washington Village, Wall Street Place, BJ’s Wholesale Club, the master plan for Oak Hills Park – they all got the treatment.

Now we have General Growth Properties (GGP) and its shopping mall proposal for the erstwhile 95/7 property. The reaction from NancyOnNorwalk readers would make Bendix proud. The voices of gloom and doom drown out the positives with a collective, “What a revoltin’ development THIS is!”

The negative commenters (not comments) outnumbered the positive 12-7 on our original story, with a couple of fence-sitters. There are four (so far) anti-mall Letters of the Editor, two by the same person.

The 95/7 bombsite has become a part of Norwalk’s landscape – or moonscape – over the years. There was excitement in fall 2011 when then-Mayor Richard Moccia joined in a ground-breaking in the run-up to his re-election. He was joined by Sen. Bob Duff and others as it was breathlessly reported that finally – FINALLY! – the mixed-use development would be built.


So then, last summer, as another election heated up, Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, the developer, announced it had pulled the permit to pour the foundation for the long-awaited mixed-use development. It was breathlessly reported, again, that 95/7 was to become a reality.

Oops! Fooled again.

Enter GGP, the national mall guru. If early press reports were to be believed, Norwalkers would soon be doing their Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale’s.

Not so fast.

There is the issue of the Land Disposition Agreement. GGP must go through the process of convincing the city boards that it can and should build its mall there. If the company followed the mixed-use plan put forth by Spinnaker, that process would be unnecessary.

And then there’s public opinion.

GGP is working the crowd, as it were, going from group to group, media outlet to media outlet, selling its wares. Monday night it will present to the Coalition of Norwlk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA).

So where, some have asked, is the mayor? Where does he stand?

Candidate Harry Rilling came out against the concept last fall, but recent comments have led to some people questioning whether the mayor has flip-flopped on the issue.

For the record, the mayor says he has not.

Rilling said Friday in a phone interview from Dallas, where he is attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “I’m still not in favor of having that location serve as a mall. I don’t believe a mall is the highest and best use. I never have and I still don’t.”

What Rilling believes and what he can do about it may be two different things. The mayor can and should be a leader, making his case to the public, to the developers and to the bodies that will ultimately have the final say in the matter – Planning, Zoning and the Common Council.

Did I say final? If GGP, which owns the property, complies with the rules and regulations, bends to city demands for things like traffic mitigation and transportation to other commercial areas, and still is denied permission to build, the courts could make the final call (see “Al Madany vs. Norwalk…”).

Rilling said it is not clear how public opinion is shaping up, but he said GGP is not likely to be swayed from its plan.

“I think they are pretty committed to a mall. There is no way steering them away from that purpose, their desire to build a mall there,” he said. “They have gone out, they have made many, many contacts and they have swayed some people, they haven’t swayed others. It’s all a matter of where you are on the spectrum. Whether you’re totally for it, you’re totally against it or somewhere in between.

“I don’t think we have our fingers on the pulse of that quite yet,” he said. “I go throughout the city on a daily basis and I hear people in favor of it, people not in favor of it, people who still haven’t made up their mind.”

As for Rilling, he says he still believes the mall is not the best use of the property.

“When I was campaigning, I talked about the fact that I believe that a mall shouldn’t be put on that piece of property because it’s going to be there for generations to come,” he said Friday. “I felt that was one of the most desirable pieces of property, not only in lower Fairfield County but probably all of Connecticut, perhaps all of New England because of its proximity to the city and I thought there’s a the higher and better use for that.

“But,” said the mayor, “we also have to be realistic and determine what the future of that place is going to be. We have to wonder if they didn’t get the LDA approval, the changes to the LDA, what is going to happen to that piece of property? One of the caveats, I guess, is that property left undeveloped for another 10 years is not going to bring in any revenue stream. So I think we have to be diligent and we have to try to make the best decisions for the city of Norwalk.”

But. There’s always a but. If not a mall, then what? Will GGP be convinced to do something it does not typically do? Will it try for a year or two to convince Norwalk, then sit on the property until it can sell for a profit, and the process begins again?

There is always a “but.”


14 responses to “Analysis: Mall developers find dealing with Norwalk is like living ‘The Life of Riley’”

  1. One and Done.

    So on one side there is a group of people with decades of experience developing 100 million dollar retail outlets who think they know what they are doing.
    In between we have one of the larger portions of undeveloped land adjacent to one of the busier freeways in the country in one of the wealthiest regions of the country, close to the busiest passenger rail line in the country, and next to a river that ports commercial traffic.
    Then the other side, you have a body politic with an inferiority complex and very little experience building or running anything who’s primary objective seems to be being heard in public albeit by a very small audience who think that they know what they are doing. My bet is they will fold to the pressures of a few poorly run businesses in Sono who will fight any and all proposals for the property in perpetuity.
    Then on the outside is the Norwalk taxpayer who works 50 to 60 hours a week to maintain a household who probably hasn’t had a decent raise from his or her employer since the recession. As an added bonus they get to watch this council give above market pay raises year after year after year to our civil servants who will get to retire in their 50s if they chose. They get to watch our police and fire department buy new trucks, new buildings, new this and new that like its going out of style. And after spending a dozen hours driving around all the torn up city streets trying to shop, there just isn’t an ounce of time to do anything about the dysfunction in local government, so they get up and vote with their feet.
    Tell the mayor to stay in Dallas and learn something about how a city should be run.
    One and Done.

  2. stb

    The mosque case involves a first amendment issue and federal law. In the wake of the Christian coalition and other religious groups federal laws were passed providing broad rigghts to religious institutions in reference to zoning laws. The same doesn’t apply with a mall. The Kelo case was proof of the broad latitude a city has on zoning issues, rolling is right that a mall isn’t the best use but having the land sit there for ten years vacant isn’t either. If the developers didn’t think they could get what they want they’d sell it and given its incredible location, somebody will buy it. The fact that it’s in norwalk and not westport or Darien is largely irrelevant , white plains has similar demographics with norwalk and has a Bloomingdales and a Neiman Marcus and a nordstrom. Likewise it has a host of high end residential facilities. There is a demand for convenience and consistent with the real estate adage it’s location location location

  3. John Hamlin

    It appears that no one associated with Norwalk government and certainly no City staff member has the credentials (much less the credibility) to propose some sort of plan for that parcel that ties into a larger vision of that the City should become — and no one has a vision or has articulated it with any specificity. So all we have is the “no mall” crowd whining about less than ideal development. But no professional planners have any proposal that’s a decent alternative. Why doesn’t the City employ anyone trained in City planning? Basically, unless there’s somebody willing to buy the land at market rates and build whatever the mayor or others think would be the best use of the land, perhaps the best approach is to negotiate the best concessions from the developer to make the project as desirable as possible — perhaps some mixed use with offices — a configuration and plan friendly to the city — whatever they can get — and then let the project go forward soon, so we are not left with the “hole” till the next millennium. It’s not like there are two viable plans on the table — there’s only one. Is it wrong to conclude that Norwalk has allowed itself through its zoning and its ordinances and its planning process to end up largely at the mercy of this developer and now has to live with the consequences?

  4. eyes wide open

    Been doing a little background on the developer.
    Some interesting background.


    GGP nearly went belly up in 2009 until a famous
    wall street guy by the name of Bill Ackerman swooped
    in, snapping up a majority of shares at 0.38.
    The influx of cash from Ackerman turned things around
    for GGP.


    GGP back 1994 bought The Rouse Group which
    had previously bought the Howard Hughes Corp from
    Hughes aires. In 2011 Ackerman respun off the Howard
    Hughes Corp brand from GGP and is an aggressive well
    capitalized organization with Ackerman at the helm.


    Meanwhile, GGP has hooked up with another local
    high roller. A RIET superstar from Brooklyn by the name
    Joe Sitt and his company, Thor, yes from the comic book
    Thor. Sitt is also very aggressive and has just closed a deal
    last week with GGP on a 26 story building located at
    530 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for $600 million.


    Sitt is without doubt a motivated mover shaker with deep pockets.
    His personal net worth is estimated at around a billion.
    This is a guy with the experience, financial savvy and
    most importantly the capital to make things happen.


    Sitt is apparently the guy at the top influencing the decisions.
    The guy has the resources to do what he wants to do.


    So, he wants to build a mall here, so its coming.
    Reaching out to the community is part of what GGP
    does on these type of projects.


    So there is an opportunity to make suggestions to GGP that
    would be beneficial to all of Norwalk.


    Sitt is not an unreasonable guy and he is savvy enough
    to know how things work and how to get what he wants.

    Question is; Are we savvy enough to get something
    that helps Norwalk, besides future tax streams.


    There is a real opportunity here with this guy.
    He wants something and we want something that
    benefits and fits in Norwalk.


    Someone mention on an earlier post about aiming
    the arrows at the bag men coming.
    Well maybe instead of slinging arrows Monday night
    maybe everyone should step back and listen
    and see what input we all can have.


    Personally I agree with Rilling and still believe some
    other project would be a better fit for that spot and enhance
    local business districts rather than destroy them.


    There are real concerns how this project will
    effect business’es on Wall street and especially SONO
    and there are no easy solutions, like the proposed trolly.
    The movies houses in SoNo and on Westport ave wont
    be able to compete with the new malls theatres.


    Can’t compensate the businesses that will close
    but we can get a fair deal for Norwalk.


    Norwalk is going to loose allot and sacrifice much
    lets make sure we know what we are getting in return
    and that we get treated fairly.


    Those concerns need to be addressed with full confidence
    or Thor may have to use his golden hammer elsewhere.
    But, listen up everyone, these guys got serious dough
    we probably shouldn’t go toe to toe with Thor but we
    can get a really good deal for Norwalk, maybe a new
    park or $chool$ even.


    Dream big Norwalkers. It does look like the guy at the end
    of the rainbow has finally arrived.
    Get what you want/need, whatever it is before the LDA
    And make ensure the project is completely LEED compliant.
    That means solar installations, energy efficient HAVC
    and lighting systems, electric vehicle and communication
    devices charging stations, free wifi and what are they going
    to do with the trash?


    They want an (upscale, ultra modern) retail mall?
    OK, lets hold em to it. Upscale and ultra modern.


    Now what do we get for the loss of our current restaurants
    and movie houses and mom and pop boutiques?

    Norwalk’s very own “lets make a deal” has arrived.
    Rilling is correct to call in professional help.
    It’s tough trying to choose between door
    number one, two or three.


    He is an administrator not a wheeler dealer
    with an urban planning degree. Norwalk needs
    professionals to protect Norwalks interests and
    get the best deal that can be had.


    Treat us fairly, with respect and listen, Mr Sitt
    and you shall be afforded the same.


    Welcome to Norwalk Thor.


    Lets make a deal.
    A deal that works for you and us.
    And perhaps, maybe, somehow
    some Syrian children suffering in hell right now.


    Indeed, Lets make a deal…
    And lets make it a win, win, win, win all around.

  5. Oldtimer

    Both the city and the developer benefit from development that will locate well paying professional jobs and well planned retail on that site. They are not mutually exclusive. If the city and the developer can agree on a high rise building with class a space on the upper floors and retail space for an anchor tenant on the ground floor or floors, both sides get what they need. It will take a collaborative attitude on both sides rather than combat over little details. It can be done, it has been done in other cities and the money behind the developer sounds like an expert. For once, we need to focus on results over process.

  6. piberman

    Lets give Norwalk citizens more credit. Big Box was a learning experience. Opposition to BJs gave former Mayor Zullo’s legal team a rare defeat. Norwalkers are paying more attention to P&Z issues. The “big hole” is an extremely important property that has the potential to transform downtown Norwalk. All of us understand downtown is “forever”, not so malls that come and go. So far the developers who have had some difficulties have not presented a detailed written argument why a mall is the best use of that property. When they do we can respond. Some have professional experience in these matters. Whether citizens will take note remains to be seen.

    What remains puzzling is why City officials over several decades haven’t taken any “clues” from our neighbors in developing corporate office parks. That’s long been recognized as thee best means of encouraging high paid jobs and a pleasant environment. City officials haven’t taken much of an interest in these development issues. Nor have they called in outside consultants or asked for opinions of residents professionally knowledgeable about these issues. Maybe they enjoy their own opinions too much to be concerned with the facts.

    Should one be hopeful ? Boosting City spending 55% over the past two decades while resident’s income rose just 10% may suggest that both finance and redevelopment are simply too complicated for City officials. Norwalk does not have a reputation for effective governance either among knowledgeable municipal officials elsewhere nor among its residents, eg stagnant property values.

    So expecting the “best civic use” will be made of the long vacant downtown area is really swimming against the tide. But it could happen. It just takes a knowledgeable citizenry and. new Mayor determined to make the best judgement baded in sound accredited redevelopment expertise.

    The “smart money” is betting Norwalk’s traditional shabby politics will over rule every other consideration. And waste the opportunity. That’s a shame because there’s mo shortage of fine people in our City. Many, if not most, have no faith their local officials will pursue either hood government or make sensible decisions.

    So here’s a chance for Mayor Rilling to have a real conversation with Norwalk citizens. He could become one of our infrequent Mayors who really does make positive difference. A tour of Merrit 7 is essential. Reportedly City officials had no real input on that development. Everyone saw it was a win win for the City. Long past time to encourage another such “victory”. Let’s beware of snake oil salesmen.

  7. srb

    There was a plan that was approved btw the then owner and the City. It’s not as if the City was simply sitting on its hands. Since that project was approved we’ve had the Great Recession.. Spinnaker sold this property less than a year ago to a mall developer and now that’s what they want to do. The property received massive subsidies and the City has a major interest in what goes in there. The mall developer knew that a different plan was approved and did not base their purchase on getting pre-approval from the City. Caveat emptor, it’s not the City’s fault that the developer chose to take a chance and buy as is. Feeling pressured by a large business with deep pockets to bend over backwards and simply cave to their wishes because the City doesn’t have its own plan is exactly what so many both conservative and liberal complain about. The City did have a plan, their partner sold their stake in it, that doesn’t mean the City has to accept the new partner with a new plan. It’s the developer that needs to figure out a way to make the plan dovetail with the City’s needs not the other way around

  8. John Hamlin

    We should consider that the same people who favor the mall as proposed are probably the same people who were in favor of making Route 1 in Norwalk a big box heaven and a Mecca for shoppers from other towns to clog the streets and avoid having these stores in their own towns. And the same people who see no problem with Norwalk serving as the place where slumlords from New Canaan and Wilton can invest in rental property without having to maintain it. If you are okay with big box alley, you probably won’t mind a mall. I don’t know whether the city has the will or the option to reject the plan as is and insist on something better, but it would be great if we could get something out of this instead of a shopping destination for people living in Southport, a handful of jobs for people commuting on 95 from Stamford and Bridgeport, and a deserted white elephant in the middle of what’s supposed to be a revitalized downtown corridor. Having waited this long, it would be a shame to keep paving the way for Norwalk to become another Detroit, where no one wants to live and no one but public employees can make a living. The real question is whether the City has any real say. If so, then our politicians need to be held accountable for what happens. Perhaps there’s another option than rolling over and playing dead?

  9. srb

    I like people from out of town coming here. They bring in dollars and don’t require resources; they also confirm that Norwalk is a destination spot. We are a city and that has advantages like diversity and a wide variety of activities. The city has complete control on what goes into 95/7 under the current zoning laws and they should think beyond the next grand list. A lot if positive developments are accruing to small cities, crime is down and people want convenience and excitement. Comparing Norwalk to Detroit as if it’s one simple continuum is grandstanding and fear mongering.

  10. Bloomingdales

    I’m constantly amazed that people don’t understand how our city government is structured and who is actually responsible for decisions. The Redevelopment Commission, led by the head of the Redevelopment Agency, Tim Sheehan, voted to allow the transfer of the LDA from Spinnaker to GGP, a company that they clearly understood is in the business of building malls back in November of 2013. Then Mayor elect Rilling, begged the Redevelopment Commission not to approve the transfer of the LDA, which allowed GGP to buy the land for the purposes of building the mall. The Redevelopment Commission, all Moccia appointees and dominated by the Republicans, approved this deal. It will now go to the Zoning Commission, again, all Moccia appointees and dominated by the Republicans, led by Joe Santo and Emily Wilson, who, with no doubt whatsoever, will approve the mall. Then it goes to the Republican majority Council for approval, which, will likely approve it and then it will get built. No doubt some will just blame the mayor or the BET, but that isn’t the way it happens in Norwalk.

    If you don’t want the mall, then you need to let the Redevelopment Commission, the Zoning Commission and the Common Council know that you don’t want it in Norwalk. All of this could have been avoided if the Redevelopment Commission and the Redevelopment Agency had just said no to the mall back on November 13, 2013.

    See the minutes from the meeting, including the public comments in support of the mall by the head of our Chamber of Commerce, Ed Musante at: http://www.norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/7318

  11. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Thank you for attempting to clarify Mayor Rilling’s position regarding a mall. The Mayor says he’s still against the mall, but makes no comment as to whether he’ll use his considerable influence to try and prevent the mall’s construction. As you said previously, he’s squarely on the fence. Which is not where he was during his campaign:
    At 2:30 Rilling unambiguously declares himself opposed to a mall at 95/7.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ LWitherspoon

      I believe he is still opposed, but he is not sure how far he can go with his advocacy against it. I also think he may be finding it is easier to take a stand when you are campaigning, but when you are in a position where you can actually affect an outcome with all of its consequences, it is a bit more daunting. As I wrote a while back, the mayor has the bully pulpit, and needs to use it to push his agenda. I think this mayor is more about consensus than soapboxing, though. For better or worse.

  12. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Mayor Rilling’s recent statements sound far from those of someone who is opposed. Rilling said that if we don’t give the developer the needed changes to the LDA, the property will likely sit idle for another 10-15 years. Rilling said he was pleased when he saw the design. How can those statements be anything other than support for the mall? If Mayor Rilling is truly opposed, why does he keep saying the same thing that mall proponents are saying?
    My impression is that Rilling has made a 180 degree turn. During the campaign he was squarely against a mall. It seems dishonest to me to run a political campaign in which one declares his opposition to a mall, only to turn around after the election and state that this mall is the best we can hope for, even though he personally still opposes it. At the very least his actions gave voters the false hope that as Mayor, Rilling would take a position against a mall at 95/7. He has failed to live up to that implied promise.

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