NORWALK, Conn. – Instead of 14 zones in Norwalk that allow industrial usage, there would be four under the recommendations made by Utile, a Boston-based firm hired to do an industrial zone study of the city.
This aligns with the zoning rewrite that’s underway, which should result in considerably fewer zoning districts, Utile said in the study, released Oct. 1.
The four major recommendations are:
- Simplify zoning to reflect 21st century industrial trends (establish four simplified use classifications)
- Require a Special Development Plan for Norden Place
- Distinguish contractor yards from other industrial uses and disallow self-storage in select zones
- Develop a separate waterfront plan that balances the diversity of uses
Utile began work here more than a year ago as the winner of a $100,000 contract. Rather than folks with a long history of working with Norwalk, Utile was new to the city, “bringing fresh eyes,” Common Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) said.
The work began with a survey that invited citizens to agree or disagree with concepts. It was meant to be “an interactive discussion where the response changes based on responses,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.
According to Utile:
- 434 people voted (based on logins or individual devices)
- 366 people grouped
- 23,356 votes were cast
- 197 statements were submitted
- 53.82 votes were cast per voter on average
Utile explains, in the resultant analysis, that Norwalk has more industrial businesses that “peer cities” but fewer industrial jobs, therefore getting less economic benefit for a similar level of industrial development. “This suggests that a more deliberate approach to cultivating mutually beneficial industrial development could yield great results,” Utile states.
While many people hear “industrial” and conjure images of large factories and all their unpleasant side effects, “the nature of urban industry has shifted,” and is much more nuanced, Utile states.
“They include emerging niche markets (like brewing and distilling, food businesses, specialty building products, and artisanal fabrication), research and development, showroom and distribution space for wholesalers, e-commerce and last-mile fulfillment, and service-focused heavy commercial (like auto repair, industrial service businesses such as contractors, commercial laundry, property management, etc.) that are vital for the economic wellbeing of a region,” Utile states.
Utile continues, “Heavier industries in Norwalk, such as concrete plants and metal scrap yards are unlikely to grow given land values and the space demands for such industries. Conversely, light manufacturing, light industry, or research and development can be a significant engine for economic development in cities. At a smaller scale, encouraging artisanal and boutique manufacturing, such as bakeries, textile production, and ceramics; can support local makers, enrich mixed-use neighborhoods, and activate the ground floor where retail is not viable.”
Statistics show Fairfield County is aligned with broader trends, as manufacturing firms tend to be smaller and require less space than they have historically, Utile states. Recent sales show a demand for smaller spaces.
- “Firms with over 500 employees have declined by 25 %”
- “Small and mid-size firms have shown growth.”
- “Based on data about new employment in the manufacturing sector, there was a range of 160 new employees in 2012 and up to 481 new employees in 2019”
- “Using standard multiplier of area required for each new employee (892 square feet/employee), the industrial space demand in Fairfield County can be estimated between 142,000 square feet and 429,000 square feet”
- “Of the 15 recent industrial recent real estate transactions that occurred between July and September of 2020, all 15 transactions were for spaces less than 50,000 square feet”
- “Ten of the transactions (66%) were for spaces with areas between 9,000 to 20,000 square feet”
Specifically in Norwalk:
- There are smaller spaces between 5,000-10,000 square feet which are suitable for boutique manufacturers. While spaces of this size exist, particularly in Norwalk’s CBD, many of these buildings have low ceiling heights, making them not viable for industrial use.
- Medium scale-spaces between 10,000-25,000 square feet are low in stock in the city; there is a need to develop more spaces of this scale
- Spaces greater than 25,000 square feet tend to employ more people and are also in low stock as there are few sites in the city that allow for this scale of development.
Utile has formulated these industrial zone changes:
“Industrial spaces generally require higher floor-to-floor heights to allow for increased mechanical, electrical and air handling on each floor and to make it possible to use specialized equipment inside these spaces,” Utile explains. “Additionally, it is critical that the height limits allow for multiple stories of market-rate upper floor uses such as office, lab or residential that can help to cross-subsidize the ground floor manufacturing uses in mixed-use buildings. Manufacturing uses contribute to a vibrant economy and character but typically don’t produce high enough rents to support new construction in urban areas with higher land values.”
A Mixed-Use Artisan zone in the downtown core and business zones would allow boutique manufacturing uses, such as sewing/textile production, bakeries, beverage and spirits production, ceramics, and artist live-work spaces.
“The Mixed-Use Artisan areas are located in areas of the city which already allow boutique manufacturing either by right or by special permit. These areas are inherently mixed-use neighborhoods with retail, office, and residential uses,” Utile states.
The Mixed-Use Industrial/Commercial zone would limit business “to predominantly light industrial and light manufacturing uses, as well as research and development, limited warehousing, and other industrial services,” Utile states. “Non-earth storing and processing yards” would be permissible, “as well as limited supportive and compatible residential. These uses are located in areas of the city that are already well connected to transportation corridors that provide easy truck access with minimal residential traffic conflicts.”
Mixed-Use Heavy Industrial/Commercial zone would be primarily areas currently zoned Industrial 1 or Restricted Industrial, and might include some areas of business and residential zones that contain nonconforming uses, Utile states. Norden Place should be put in this category.
Heavy Industrial would be mostly areas already zoned Industrial 1, except the Rockland Road area, now zoned Restricted Industrial.
Maps provided in the study show that some South Norwalk neighborhoods now zoned as Industrial 1 would be shifted to residential zones, under the recommendations. Mixed use districts would become mixed use artisan.
The shift from mixed use to mixed use artisan would also happen off East Avenue. Much of the central business district between Main Avenue and Route 7 would shift to mixed use heavy industrial, while the area along Main Avenue itself would become mixed use light industrial.
While four stories are allowed now along East Avenue and the Central Business District, the artisan designation would “allow some flexibility in the maximum overall height, which allows ground floors to be the appropriate height for both boutique manufacturing and ground floor retail while accommodating three floors of either residential or commercial use.”
The waterfront hasn’t been included in the recommendations, as Utile plans to study it further.
The reaction to a proposed distribution center in Norden Place reflects the inherent challenges in developing the parcel, Utile states.
“While there is currently an active data center at the Norden Place site, it is possible more data centers will pop up in the area, and other industrial zones in Norwalk in the future, if we allow them to,” Utile states. “In March 2021, Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation offering tax incentives to certain data center developments. Under this legislation, the state will waive sales and property tax obligations for 20 years for data centers that invest at least $200 million in Connecticut, or $50 million if the facility is located within a state-designated enterprise zone. It will be important for Norwalk to decide if we want to capitalize on this incentive.”
The development plan recommends:
- “Encourage mixed commercial/industrial users that can add to the commercial tax base of the city and create jobs; discourage residential uses. Potential uses might include research and development, life science and biotech companies, or a data center.
- “Study and propose a plan for access to I-95 considering abutting residential uses and existing roadways; this might include restricting vehicular traffic to passenger vehicles and small trucks only.
- “Conduct larger study of additional ramps or direct access points to I-95.
- “Propose buffering strategies along edges that abut residential uses including landscape buffers and noise reduction strategies.
- “Restrict development of additional residential based on set criteria for circulation, land use conflict mitigation and quality of life.”
Utile recommends changing the definitions of contractor yards and limiting self-storage locations. Contractor yards should be allowed on major traffic corridors and close to I-95 access, with appropriate buffering from residential areas.
A final draft will then go to the Common Council and the Planning Commission. A public hearing will be part of the approval process.