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Blight, desirability of new developments, occupy Wall Street Task Force

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A vision for the Wall Street waterfront, as laid out in the 1986 Norwalk Business District Management Plan, referred to by Wall Street Task Force Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield as a master plan. It’s not on the city’s website; she was given a copy, she said.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Wall Street Task Force has been looking backward and outward in an effort to bring central Norwalk forward.

The task force, under the leadership of Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield, discussed on Monday night elements of a previously difficult-to-find 1986 master plan in reference to development along the riverfront and the height of buildings on Wall Street.

Lightfield also produced a blight ordinance from Fairfield, and said she was going to speak to the Common Council Ordinance Committee next month to suggest that it replace the current blight ordinance.

The new ordinance would include commercial property.

While Michael McGuire connected that dot to the dilapidated 45 Wall Street, a burned-out building owned by Ganga Duleep in which renovation has stopped, Lightfield pushed to focus on processes that would prevent future situations.

The three task force members present left with homework: Come up with a paragraph on a particular section of the 1986 master plan, which is referred to in the 2004 master plan and therefore still has valid sections, Lightfield said. Those will be discussed, and when everyone is happy with the comments there will be a consolidated document to pass along to other governmental bodies, Lightfield said.

She referred to the current effort to develop an economic development action plan. “I think universally, what is happening in different task groups is everybody is identifying that water access and being a waterfront community is one of the assets that defines Norwalk from other cities.”

Waterfront development is part of an economic action plan, she said.

“To be consistent with thee master plan you would want to keep your development back from the water, which also coincides with FEMA’s suggestion that you don’t build right on top of the water, and raise everything 11 feet,” she said.

She in particular said that the Head of the Harbor application, which was filed Oct. 23, does not comply with the master plan. After the meeting, she explained, “The plans actually say you should have more water-activated use, better pedestrian access and everything, which I don’t think the Discala plan, as it has been put together, actually does. … In theory, when an application comes before zoning, it should also comply with your master plan.”

While the Head of the Harbor plan calls for a large pedestrian plaza, it’s not along the main road and there is no sidewalk connecting to it, she said. The 1986 master plan also shows a pedestrian bridge over the river, from new housing on Commerce Street to new housing on Smith Street.

Other master plan facets discussed in the meeting include the height of buildings – the 1986 plan says they can go up to eight stories high, and that’s still in the zoning regulations, Lightfield said. It might be better to have them six stories along main streets and then eight stories further back from main pedestrian areas so as not to give people a closed-in feeling, she said.

Task force members said they wanted to preserve architectural details of the Wall Street Historic District, such as recessed doorways, which architect Bill Andriopoulos said are key to pedestrian safety. While the city’s zoning code calls for 8-foot sidewalks, that includes the “pink strip,” which should be made in addition to the 8 feet and be a utility zone for street lights and things, Lightfield said.

Peter Vitoretto agreed.

“The point is that everything you write in this little document has to say that sidewalks are important and they can’t be whittled down constantly by these little microscopic decisions,” said Vitoretto, a certified landscape architect. “These small decisions are made constantly. They keep forgetting to go back and say the sidewalk is important. … You need as much space as you can because people walking the street spend money. The more time they spend on the street the more money they’re going to spend. It’s just that simple. So if you make the sidewalks uncomfortable and they don’t feel good they are not spending time, they are not spending money.”

There’s also the zoning regulation that calls for retail on the first floor.

From left, Michael McGuire,
From left, Michael McGuire, Bill Andriopoulos and Jackie Lightfield meet Monday in the Norwalk 2.0 office on Wall Street.

“Ground floor retail is the major thing we have been asked to look at because zoning is amenable to making that change, particularly with new developments that are coming online in SoNo being unable to be leased out and on West Avenue being unable to be leased out. Making that zoning change is probably a good idea,” Lightfield said. “But I think the recommendation that we should put forth is the use is fine but it needs to be strengthened in terms of how it looks and there needs to be some specifics about that.”

A district-wide trash management plan was also mentioned.

“There needs to be a district-wide parking plan so we don’t have POKO building onsite parking when it could have been met by a garage that services the library and the retail and the office and everything, so that’s kind of where I am trying to steer us in the direction of where we’re going to go next,” Lightfield said.

That would be implementation through the capital budget, she said.

She said she had done a lot of research on blight ordinances through the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM). Fairfield’s blight ordinance comes closest to what she thought Norwalk should do – it makes no distinction between commercial and residential property, she said.

There are five central Norwalk properties that would be defined as blight under Fairfield’s ordinance, she said. That includes the Discala-owned property slated to become Head of the Harbor, Riverview Plaza, two properties owned by Duleep and a Hoyt Street property, she said.

Multiple officials can report a property for blight under the Fairfield ordinance, which would work better than Norwalk’s current system, established in 2013, of a blight enforcement officer, because it’s not left up to the neighbors to report, she said. It calls for a fine of $100 a day, she said.

The city can repair the building and put a tax lien on it, she said. If the lien is not paid, the property goes into the tax sale.

She specifically did not use the Stamford blight ordinance that refers to eminent domain, she said.

McGuire seized on the need to do something about Duleep’s burned-out building at 45 Wall Street, where plastic is blowing in open windows. It probably has no value at the moment, McGuire said. If the city were to take it and repair it, it would spend more money than it could get by selling it, he said.

Norwalk has the right to use eminent domain, but there hasn’t been the political will to do so, Lightfield said.

“The end goal in mind is that property owners should not be allowed to create slums by neglect,” Lightfield said. “Therefore, they will lose their properties first before it gets to that point. This is the mechanism to get to that point. … You have now met these criteria, we are going to take your property at fair market value, which you have allowed your fair market value to become zero so we will take it for nothing.”

McGuire said the process would take five years, which would be too late in the case of Duleep’s building. “I think this building needs to be grabbed and grabbed very quickly or it’s going to be so structurally compromised that it needs to come down,” he said.

“I am big on fixing the process and not concentrating on the individual examples because if the process is broken, we will never be able to fix the individual examples,” Lightfield said. “… I know that Todd Bryant is very eager to pursue it from the preservation standpoint and we will kick into higher gear on that; we just needed to get this moving forward.”

After the meeting, she explained, “I’m basically saying that the city should use eminent domain as part of its toolbox but I’m not making a recommendation that it be in the blight ordinance because I think if I say something like that, you know, the world will immediately come out with pitchforks and torches.”

Norwalk Business District Management Plan

Correction, 9:21 a.m., location of hoped-for pedestrian bridge was from Commerce to Smith Streets. 

Comments

10 responses to “Blight, desirability of new developments, occupy Wall Street Task Force”

  1. John Hamlin

    The ordinance committee had the blight ordinances from Fairfield and other towns to consider when they considered and the Council passed the current ineffective blight ordinance several years back. But CNNA representatives and others — including the Council– opposed to any imposition on individual property rights insisted that it be watered down and tied to zoning violations, which sometimes have nothing to do with blight. Stamford’s blight ordinance has been around for 15 years and works (and hasn’t resulted in takings of properties). Without the threat of eminent domain a blight ordinance cannot be effective. How will you collect the fines? How will you convince the absentee landlords to take care of their properties? Norwalk just refuses to move into the 20th century (much less the 21st) on land use. Now the community wants to pass another ineffective blight ordinance — do we learn nothing from our past mistakes? Get serious, folks!

  2. MGeake

    A city ordinance has to have a state statute to enable it. For blight, there are two: one for residential properties, the other for commercial. When we were doing the blight ordinance last session, legal council advised doing one for each. The residential ordinance took so long we didn’t get to commercial. I had hoped that would be dealt with this session.

  3. Non Partisan Voter

    Looks like the 1986 plan eliminated all the industrial uses along the river – Devine Bros., etc., based on the rendering shown.

  4. Mike Mushak

    In 2003, P and Z Director Mike Greene told the Golden Hill Association that Norwalk did not need a blight ordinance, as existing codes covered all the issues. Mr. Greene did all he could for years to fight a blight ordinance, telling neighborhood groups and common council members on the record that we didn’t need one. Once it passed, I mentioned to Mr. Greene in a meeting his long opposition to a blight ordinance, and he said with a straight face he was NEVER against a blight ordinance! Another lie on top of so many. I don’t even think he is aware of it any longer, and has become delusional that he is actually has been competent and effective as our once-beautiful city has become a traffic-clogged and blight-riddled mess all round him, with mobs of angry residents showing up to fight the results of his poor planning decisions, ignorance of state and federal laws, and the broken zoning code he has protected with tenacity all this years.

    Here’s the real clincher, and why I am convinced Mr. Greene is bad news for Norwalk and has been for years: all those years he told the public and other officials Norwalk did NOT need a blight ordinance and that existing enforcement was enough, Norwalk had NO zoning enforcement ordinance that allowed the city to actually enforce zoning! And we still don’t. That’s right, Norwalk is the ONLY city in CT that can’t enforce its own zoning code, instead relying on the overburdened court system to force compliance, angering judges who have complained about Norwalk for years.

    The mosque and BJ’s both followed our broken zoning code, believe it or not. The failed examples of Mr. Green’s incompetence are practically showing up every month now. Next week, it will be the approval of an expansion of a private transfer station on Crescent Street that did traffic studies based on that street remaining a dead end despite a million dollars of studies calling for it to be a main car/bike/pedestrian corridor, which Mr. Green ignored, and that includes an existing parking lot that Mr. Greene approved that violates city and state codes by potentially polluting the Norwalk Harbor every time it rains with toxic effluent (Mr. Green said he and he alone can interpret the coder any way he wants when asked about that illegal parking lot he approved.) Next month, it will be oversize docks or houses in the middle of salt marshes in Rowayton. We move from crisis to crisis now, and yet Mr. Greene got a raise from Norwalk taxpayers for doing such a bang-up job!

    Instead of planning the city which is what his taxpayers are paying him $165,000 and 2 full months paid vacation to do, Mr. Greene has instead wasted most of his time and ours making sure he didn’t have to work very hard actually doing the things his department should be doing. He used the treble damages law as an excuse not to seek a code enforcement ordinance over the last 30 years, but in our research after he told us this we found Norwalk was the ONLY city using that as an excuse not to enforce their codes!

    We worked hard through Senator Duff and others to get the treble damages law removed from the books at the state level, two years ago, but once that was done, Mr. Greene remained silent, as he had had no excuse any longer but was hoping no one would notice. When I brought it up in a meeting. Mr. Greene became sarcastic and nasty, as he always does when confronted with the truth of his actions that have harmed the city over decades.

    Finally, to his credit, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola has demanded a zoning code enforcement ordinance be passed in Norwalk, as he was a shocked as all of us were to find out Norwalk was alone among cities in not having one, thanks to Mike Greene.

    So, now we find ourselves needing countless task force meetings with overworked and frustrated volunteers about blight and fixing our downtowns and so many other issues related to a failed planning process, wasting everyone’s time and taxpayer dollars making up for Mr. Greene’s many failures over decades as head of the P and Z Department. It is madness that the city allows him to continue thumbing his nose at Norwalk taxpayers, while he is lucky and gets to leave Norwalk every night, huge paycheck in hand, to a city that actually has blight and zoning code enforcement ordinances. No fool, he. It is Norwalk taxpayers, businesses, and angry residents who are being taken for fools here.

    The emperor has no clothes, and we have to sit here and witness this nonsense continue with Republican apologists like Ernie Des Rochers telling us Mr. Green is the “hardest working” employee in City Hall! No blight ordinance until last year, and not even a good one at that, no zoning code enforcement ordinance even now, no professional planners in his department, no real planning, no vision, zoning crisis after crisis filling the concert hall with angry residents. Oh, but he works so hard! With 2 months paid vacation every year, how hard is that again, Mr. DesRochers?

    I’ll admit Greene did work hard once, when he threatened the one entity in City Hall that has the power to replace him,, the Zoning Commission, with a lawsuit if they dared to discuss a performance review of him. Green has successfully removed any accountability from anyone in City Hall through threats and retaliation, allowing him to do anything he wants no matter how harmful to the city, including breaking laws and lying to the public and other officials, and get automatic raises from taxpayers while doing it. It is pure municipal corruption, and he is getting away with it.

    Brilliant job of management, Norwalk.

  5. Tim D

    Imagine it’s 1986 and you are a Sophomore at NHS and this master plan is compiled and put forth. And now it’s 2014 and your son is a sophomore at NHS and…nothing. has. changed. Laughable.

  6. Tim D

    @Mike Mushak – I just read your entire essay(surprisingly). Good stuff, but Mike let us not be fooled. They ARE ALL MORONS!! Not just the so called Republican apologists. No one from either side has made any significant changes to speak of regarding zoning and accountability.

  7. Dorothy Mobilia

    Chairman Jackie Lightfield highlights in her presentation before the Wall Street Task Force many problems that we could not have foreseen in 1986 or 2004. The suggested solutions for some of them defy older Master Plans because today’s needs do not fit in the same round holes. Some positive examples we should address, as she suggests, are adopting a tough blight ordinance and perhaps a more flexible look on first-floor retail use. Other recommendations would trash present projects.

    Jackie refers to the current economic development plan for the city, being looked at by the mayor’s task force of city officials, developers, businessmen and interested citizens. Like Jackie, I am a member of the Wall Street to Washington Street corridor economic development sub-committee headed by Mike McGuire. Our charge is to look at recommendations that can be accomplished within the next five years, and not create tired discussions decades down the road. Some proposals thus far are promising.

    Some need tweaking.

    Access to the waterfront, and waterfront development should not mean elimination of industrial use of the Norwalk River; Eliminating barge traffic, for instance, not only creates an environmental burden of adding hundreds of trucks hauling supplies currently handled by a single barge, but eliminates federal dredging that would be too costly for local businesses and the city to take over, and besides would eliminate a visually interesting waterscape capitalized on in many waterfront areas with shipping histories along our nation’s coastlines.

    Zoning regulations require pedestrian access to the water. There should be better sidewalk access. In general, poor sidewalk planning is a citywide concern that only grows as the city spine, especially, grows into a proper urban corridor, and must be addressed.

    Parking is a major and sensitive issue that needs more than a one-size-fits-all solution. As an example, Redevelopment policy of 50-plus years ago eliminated all housing in Norwalk Center and ultimately built the Yankee Doodle garage to address most parking needs. We saw a major downturn in Center activity, not all due to the trauma of the devastating 1955 Flood but also to the planning aftermath.

    The Redevelopment Agency today is working to remedy the housing issue. As for parking, garages work in concentrated areas, but small businesses along Wall Street, and the Library, arguably a cultural center now, need different approaches.

    Survey these businesses and they’ll tell you their customers complain about fines and long-distance parking.Talk with library officials and they’ll tell you a garage three blocks away does not serve users like the mother with small children, especially in bad weather, or students and businesspeople wanting to use the special services the library provides. They’ll also point to the successful libraries in surrounding towns, all of which have made adjacent parking a priority.

    Parking suitable to the needs of the businesses and users, appropriate sidewalks, and recognizing on the assets we do have can be addressed and will go a long way to showing the promise of a future Norwalk.

  8. Oldtimer

    No residential ? Whatever happened to the apartments over the retail where SEARS used to be ?

  9. Mike Mushak

    Oops. In my rant above about how Greene is responsible for our coming late to the party as the VERY LAST city in CT to have effective blight enforcement (all true, and doesn’t that make you feel good about our P and Z Department?), I forgot to comment about the future of the upper Norwalk River discussed in the article.

    I personally would not want to live across from Devine Brothers in the proposed Head of the Harbor project, as I work at home all winter and would not want to hear that racket all day long, but they are a crucial business and a vital part of our blue collar economy that is the backbone of Norwalk and will continue to be for probably a very long time. Any master plans that assume the industrial uses along that stretch will miraculously disappear are not worth the paper they are printed on. Dorothy Mobilia touches on that above. And there are plenty of people with 9 to 5 jobs who could care less about daytime noise as they are not home then. That’s the joy of having choices about where to live, a goal of good planning.

    The famous architect Frank Gehry has expounded on the virtues of celebrating the inherent beauty of our urban industrial infrastructure, and I agree with him. As I said on a Harbor Loop Trail tour a few years ago, as we walked along Smith Street along the Norwalk River near Wall Street, “Where else in Fairfield County can you get this close to an asphalt plant?”. It wasn’t a joke. We should celebrate our industrial past and the counting vitality of this ruses to our city’s economy.

    For those who think the presence of this industry prohibits future residential development nearby, such as at Head of the Harbor, I direct you to the exciting things happening along the heavily industrialized Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn NY. The NYC Planning Department rezoned the area for new residential development while preserving the gritty industrial past and current uses. The point is to celebrate the contrasts of industrial and new uses, including exploiting its presence as a source of artistic inspiration and even environmental education.
    http://www.gowanuscanalconservancy.org/ee/index.php/gcc_projects/ .

    The quaint idea that the Head of the Harbor area will be a vibrant Providence or San Antonio-style Riverwalk is a pipe dream, at least in our lifetime, and I think we can all benefit from looking at the lessons being learned just 40 miles to the south along the Gowanus Canal, to see how the rebirth of a gritty industrial area can balance existing and new uses to the benefit of all, including Norwalk’s budding art scene.

  10. Non Partisan Voter

    Thanks for posting the 1986 plan, NoN. While I haven’t seen the Head of the Harbor plan in over a year, I’m struck by the similarity of the last HOH plan I saw and what is proposed in the 1986 master plan, which calls for two residential buildings, with a plaza between them and public waterfront access all along the river. It sounds like HOH needs to do more work to make Smith Street more pedestrian friendly, but their overall plan seems consistent with the 1986 master plan.

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