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Council to vote on Milligan option for library, NLT purchase and Lockwood Mathews upgrade

The Lockwood Mathews Mansion in October 2021.

NORWALK, Conn. — Land Use items abound in Tuesday’s Common Council agenda, with a vote expected on the option to buy Jason Milligan’s property next to the Norwalk Public Library and a greenlight expected on $1.25 million to finish upgrades to the Lockwood Mathews Mansion. Also likely to be approved is $200,000 to help the Norwalk Land Trust acquire nearly 7 acres of open space adjacent to the Darien’s Stephen Mather Homestead.

A vote on buying property on the other side of the library, at 3 Belden Ave., was pulled off the agenda Monday.

Library expansion acquisitions?

In 2017, the City paid Milligan $460,000 for a six-year purchase option for his 1.27 acre-property at 11 Belden Ave., where he had planned to build apartments. The deal included a fixed purchase price of $4,885,000 for the entire property, should the City decide to buy it by Aug. 31, 2023. The land would provide room for a possible Norwalk Public Library expansion and parking for patrons.

The Council “needs” to vote on whether to exercise the option because written notice to Milligan is required before June 30, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said in a memo, noting the recent Council executive session on Milligan’s land and also the First Taxing District property at 3 Belden Ave.

Has Milligan heard anything from the City regarding a possible purchase?
“Not so much,” he said in an email. On Monday, he said he’d be surprised if the City exercised the option.

Council members appear to consider the First Taxing District purchase a no-brainer. It was unanimously advanced Wednesday at the Land Use and Building Management Committee meeting.

“This has been being talked about for such a very long time,” Committee Chairwoman Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. “Very excited that we can move forward, provide immediate nearby parking for the library users and then look forward to some, some really much needed addition and renovation to the library in the future.”

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds would be used to buy the property from FTD for $1.4 million, Assistant Corporation Counsel Darin Callahan wrote June 2 to the Common Council Finance Committee. It’s just over half an acre and the price represents fair market value, according to Callahan.

The issue’s presence on the agenda was likely a mistake, as Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Vonashek told the Committee that it needed to be reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 21 and then it would come to the Council for a June 27 vote.

The Library Board would like to update its recent strategic plan and its building plan to consider the 3 Belden parcel and “what the footprint of the library would look like,” she said.

The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency’s lease on the building expires in February but the Agency’s Business Development Center would remain on the property under the City’s ownership, and possibly be incorporated into the library, she said.

Norwalk Land Trust

Three parcels totaling 6.73 acres on Stephen Mather Road would be acquired by the Norwalk Land Trust (NLT) in a “very opportunistic purchase,” NLT Treasurer Rich Baskin told the Committee, explaining that the seller grew up in the neighborhood and is looking to offset his costs in buying a house and four acres on the land.

“He had offers from developers to develop the property, but he preferred that it remained open space. And so we’re essentially getting his price,” Baskin said.

Again, NLT is buying the land. The City would provide $200,000 from its Open Space Fund, which has a $475,000 balance.

Alexis Cherichetti, Assistant Planning and Zoning Director said the Conservation Commission determined there are currently no other viable options for the fund and this one is “very much in line” with the fund’s objectives and goals.

“This never developed land, with considerable headland wetlands, would support a diversity of pollinators, birds, flora and wildlife in Norwalk. In the future, these contiguous parcels would provide citizens with trails for their enjoyment,” NLT said in a letter. “In the densely developed City of Norwalk, it is difficult to find comparable open space. This opportunity should be seized without delay.”

Activist Diane Lauricella, a former NLT Board member, spoke against the acquisition. The parcel is “actually a fractured open space, meaning that the wildlife potential and health is not necessarily going to be the best and highest use of the money,” she said. The $200,000 is nearly half of what’s in the account and might be better spent on a pocket park in the densely populated Districts A or B.

It passed unanimously.

Lockwood Matthews

The Council is set to approve $1.25 million to complete work at the Lockwood Matthews Mansion Museum (LMMM) in an expenditure already approved in the capital budget process.

“This has been a project that’s been planned for some 15 years,” LMMM Board of Trustees Chairwoman Patsy Brescia said. ADA compliant restrooms and an elevator were installed in the City-owned building maybe eight or nine years ago but the heating dates to the 60s and there’s no fire suppression system.

The total project cost is about $14.75 million, out of which the State has paid $8 million and the City allocated $5.5 million, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said in a memo. But, “Due to the current construction environment and the uniqueness of the building being a National Landmark building, the City had bid this project twice,” and it’s $1.25 million short, making the City’s share $6,750,000

“It was not a surprise projection that we needed this amount of money to do this project. We had projected that a couple of years ago, but we hadn’t gotten all the funding necessary,” Brescia said.

Council member Bryan Meek (R-District D) observed that about $25 million has been greenlighted in recent Committee meetings but “We don’t have a pool for the kids,” a reference to the planned community center at 98 South Main St. and the demise of the West Avenue YMCA nearly a decade ago.

He cast the only vote in opposition.

Activist Diane Lauricella, a former LMMM Board member, also spoke against the project, saying as a public speaker that the City has “lots of other needs and have expenses, like “trying to make sure that we have a functional library for all the people.”

“I think it’s a really important project. And has been ongoing for so many years. I think it’s really important that we continue to support it,” Committee Chairwoman Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said.

It incorporates significant building infrastructure improvements, including HVAC, lighting and  IT upgrades, in addition to a fire suppression system, Lo’s memo said.

“There is minimal heat currently in the building, mostly just on the first floor. And that’s pretty much seasonal. When it is very cold, we have to close the building,” Brescia said. “There is virtually no electricity in the basement and the second and third floors. And so, we have to use flashlights.”

Recently, television and film crews have used the “iconic building in the country,” she said. Completing the upgrades will help it “become really the economic engine that it can be.”

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