NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Zoning Commission is considering a master plan for Glover Avenue that would tentatively allow 1,290 apartments in seven buildings on the road’s western side.
If greenlighted, Stamford-based developer BLT would likely construct the first three buildings, with about 500 apartments, “relatively immediately,” according to BLT (Building and Land Technology) General Counsel David Waters. Further construction would hinge upon major traffic improvements under consideration by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT). The tallest of those first three buildings would rise 115 feet, with 11 stories; if the project continued past phase I, two 150-foot tall 15-story buildings could be constructed at the northern end, adjacent to the Route 7 connector.
Waters, speaking to the Commission on Thursday, said the while 15 story-buildings sounds like a change, they would be 150 feet high and in reality, the same height as a 12-story hotel that is already permissible in the zoning regulations. They would compare favorably to the nearby Merritt 7 buildings, according to Waters.
The proposed buildings would not be significantly taller than those at Merritt 7, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said in a memo.
Phase I would be directly across the street from the Glover Avenue train station and would include 83 parking spaces for train commuters, replacing spaces in a ConnDOT lot, Waters said. There would be a public plaza and a pedestrian cut through for Oakwood Avenue residents.
“We’re proposing a town square in this location right across from the train station,” Waters said. “This is viewed as being kind of the center of the development, at least for the southern part of the development. With the retail on either side, as a gathering space, as a place where events can take place, as a place where just a general identity of the community can occur.”
Traffic Engineer Mark Vertucci said there would be 28,000 square feet of retail, not stores that would be a draw but would instead support the residents and Glover Avenue community. Given that “this is a transit-oriented development, so you’re going to have a substantial number of people not getting in their vehicle to commute to work, they’re going to walk to the train station, or work from their homes.”
Norwalk would benefit financially from the development, according to Donald Poland of Goman + York.
“I believe our findings was about $3.2 million more in taxes than local government expenses, and that was taking into account education expenses in school-aged children generated by the development,” Poland said. “We also estimated approximately $3.7 million in one-time development fees, that is the land use permitting process, the building permitting process and WPCA connection fees. In addition, we estimated on the economic impact side between 345 and 365 construction jobs created or maintained during the period of construction, and approximately 5.9 to 6.2 million in consumer spending within the market area, recognizing the market area exists at a regional level, not simply the local Norwalk level.”
Questioned by Commission member Richard Roina, Poland said the original calculation was for 247 schoolchildren. But in reviewing the existing housing stock, the projection was lowered to 181 potential students because half of Norwalk’s stock is three bedrooms or more, and the development features two-bedroom apartments max.
“We know bedrooms are a key factor in ultimately the enrollments,” Poland said.
The projection dropped again when adjustments were made for “new enrollments.”
“Most studies have shown, and I’ve tracked this for a number of years now, most studies show between 20 percent and 30 percent of enrollments are new to district, we use the conservative estimate of 50 percent,” Poland said. “That’s assuming maybe some backfill enrollments that move.”
Ultimately, his firm predicts 91 new enrollments to Norwalk Public Schools, “about $2.3 million in education costs,” he said. Those are factored into the calculation of the City gaining $3.2 million per year, should the entire master plan come to fruition. “It would take like another 227 School enrollments to actually drive the development into a fiscal negative position.”
BLT has already built three apartment buildings on the eastern side of the street, where it meets Grist Mill Road, a complex dubbed “The Curb.”
Of the 700 apartments there, 38 residents are under 18 years old, and “a significant number” of them are less than five years old, Waters said. Nearly 16% work in Norwalk, 13% in Wilton and 13.2% in Stamford; 300 residents are between the ages of 25 and 34, while 141 are over 55.
The master plan would be “plug and play,” Waters said. While phase I would likely be built as sketched out now, future buildings would adjust to market circumstances. If Google wanted a campus, the plans could change for the use. Or, perhaps a hotel could go in the northernmost part.
If the development continued, it could feature a two-acre park around a brook as another project focal point. The Norwalk River Valley Trail is factored in, although plans “somewhat in flux,” Waters said. It might go on the west side of Route 7 or it might go down Glover as originally planned and tunnel under the Merritt Parkway.
Traffic wouldn’t be an issue with phase I due to its proximity to the train station, according to Waters and his team, but phase II is dependent on ConnDOT completing its planned revision to the Merritt Parkway/Route 7 interchange. Kleppin said that construction is expected in 2025.
Phase III requires improvements to the Glover Avenue/Grist Mill Road intersection. Kleppin said there’s no ETA on that.
Route 7, Grist Mill Road and Glover Avenue could come together in a four-way intersection, Waters said.
“It would encourage the free flow of traffic predominantly to Main Avenue, which is what it’s always intended to do,” Waters said. “And then there would be additional improvements that would be made on Main Avenue from that Grist Mill intersection, up through to about gateway in Wilton. These are all on the books as being under contemplated plans of DOT… not yet a carved in stone.” But, “The state of Connecticut has actually analyzed that we could achieve stable traffic flow for the entire development if certain traffic improvements are made.”
The master plan wouldn’t guarantee BLT approval for any of its buildings. Each must go through site plan review.
Eight citizens spoke to the Commission at its virtual public hearing on the proposal.
“I’ve been to numerous meetings of this type over the years and the frustration and dismay I have for our community leaders in this matter is at its peak, particularly when we’re considering density and growth in an area already dense in the city,” April Wennerstrom said.
She also pointed out that ConnDOT has been unwilling to address traffic problems on Main Avenue and asked what tax abatements BLT might get.
“There is absolutely no tax benefits that have been given, this is purely market rate,” Waters said. “The only thing that we have done is to seek the impetus to get the DOT and the state of Connecticut to use infrastructure funding to improve the roadways which should have been improved 30 years ago when Route 7 was originally created.”
Glover Avenue is well outside the Enterprise Zone that awards tax abatements to developers.
An Oakwood Avenue resident pointed out that BLT’s traffic study was done during COVID-19 and before The Curb was completed, “so not representative necessarily of traffic flows.”
She said, “As the city grows and becomes bigger, we may be pricing out locals and gentrifying Norwalk to a point where people who have grown up here can’t afford to live here.”
Ben Hanpeter, who lives on the other side of town, said he supports the development.
“I’d like to see some socioeconomic analysis on this proposal to see if there’ll be any elements of gentrification if, you know, longtime residents will be priced out. I would like to think that would actually be the opposite way around,” Hanpeter said. “Providing more market rate apartments reduces the demand for less expensive units elsewhere in the city.”
Criticisms about traffic are “a pretty weak argument against building housing,” he said. “I think that means that we have to find ways to alleviate traffic. It’s not necessarily true that more housing has to lead to more traffic. You just have to be thoughtful about how you how you implement.”
Elizabeth Lazarou, an Oakwood Avenue resident, asked if anyone had walked on Glover Avenue. “It twists, it winds, it’s uphill,” she said. “…People are going to use cars. This is the suburbs. It’s not New York City.”
A man who didn’t identify himself said, “It’s just building a haven of unaffordable apartments for mostly renters, which I think is seriously going to create a transient populace. And that’s not going to benefit the city of Norwalk in terms of the infrastructure, the load on the infrastructure.”
Leigh Grant said, “We seem to be building a third center for Norwalk. And we already have two centers. And I don’t think we need a third center.”
Waters took exception to that.
“This area of Norwalk is the economic engine of Norwalk, it has the class A offices, it has the high-quality office tenants. And if we don’t support it and make it into the neighborhood that it needs to be in order to attract those types of tenants and their employees, then you are not going to get what you’re looking for at all,” Waters said.
The Commission closed its public hearing, except that it will accept written comments until June 15, when it will hold its next meeting and perhaps vote on aspects of the application. Email [email protected] if you’d like to weigh in.