NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Zoners are considering a proposal for a mixed-use complex called “North Seven” on a 16.9-acre tract along the west side of Glover Avenue.
The plan calls for 1,303 apartments (456 1-bedroom, 782 2-bedroom, and 65 3-bedroom), plus 27,865 square feet of retail across eight buildings ranging from 5- to 15-stories was presented by Attorney David Waters, General Counsel for Stamford-based developer Building Land Technology to the Norwalk Zoning Commission on May 26. Estimated construction time is stated as 10 years.
Waters touted the proposed complex as a well-appointed neighborhood with walkable access both to the massive office buildings lining the parallel stretch of Main Avenue, and to the soon-to-be-relocated Merritt 7 train station. “The idea is a unified community with a sense of identity” he said.
Building Land Technology (BLT) is already a presence in the immediate area, having built “The Curb,” a 760-unit three building apartment complex on the east side of Glover just south of Grist Mill Road.
One of the three buildings there is still under construction.
Work from home, walk to the office or the train
The Main Avenue corridor has “2.5 million square feet of office space that’s the real economic engine for the City of Norwalk,” Waters said. “The tenants are looking for a true live/work/play environment.”
That’s not only a place where their employees can reside and enjoy themselves, but a locale that will attract people to their corporate headquarters as well. “And that is becoming increasingly difficult if you’re not in an area which allows for an entirety of experiences, as opposed to just being an office park,” he said. “(The proposed development) allows people to work from home but still be within walking distance of the office. …Being able to create that support for the office space in the area is very important, not only to attract new corporate offices, but also to retain the ones that are here. We’ve been very successful in doing that.”
The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT)’s planned relocation of the train station to a space several hundred feet north of its present location is expected to start this summer and involve 18 months of construction, Waters said. He emphasized that the DOT plan includes a pedestrian bridge across the tracks, enabling easy walking connectivity between the Merritt 7 office buildings on Main Avenue and the proposed North Seven development. Pedestrians coming across from the offices could walk straight across Glover Avenue to a 10,000 square foot “town square” lodged between two of the new buildings and lined with retail spaces on both sides.
“When we talk about retail, we mean supportive retail,” he said. “Things like a coffee shop, a bank branch, a dry cleaner drop off, a deli, the types of things that people on their way to the train station or coming across from Merritt 7 or from up on the hill will be able to grab,” The town square would be “a place where you could have a farmer’s market, an arts and crafts show, people sitting around enjoying themselves playing chess or doing whatever.”
Commission Chairman Louis Schulman expressed doubt. “The town square is just not that large,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine it being a defining space where you can do the sort of things you’re talking about.”
Detailed study predicts 91 new students
An in-depth feasibility and fiscal impact study prepared for BLT predicts that the North Seven complex would house 181 public school-enrolled children, 91 of whom would be new to the school system. Hartford-based real estate consultants Goman York Property Advisors say these 91 new students would cost the City $1.3 million yearly, a sum based on their education costing $14,264 each.
The study, viewable here, offers these calculations:
- Real property tax revenue per year: $4,159,653
- Motor vehicle property tax revenue per year: $415,125
- Total tax revenue per year: $4,574,778
- Education costs per year: [$1,296,386]
- Positive municipal fiscal impact: $3,278,392
Anticipated one-time development payments are $3,732,753 ($2,428,753 in building and land use permitting fees plus $1,304,000 in water connection fees). Between 345 and 365 new direct and indirect construction jobs are predicted, assuming .3 jobs per new housing unit.
Waters described the buildings’ design as “plug and play,” saying, “It would be very simple to be able to take one or two of these buildings and instead make that into an office building. Or we could very easily put a class A hotel up at one of the locations rather than a residential building.”
Master plan vs. special permits
A small section of the 16.9 acres is presently zoned AAA residential, but lack of access to that parcel negates any likelihood of homes being built there. The rest of the land is divided between Business 2 and Executive Office zones. BLT is asking the Commission to rezone the entire tract as Executive Office, amending the Zoning regulations to facilitate a new use stated as a master plan concept, and then issuing a special permit for the master plan. With a master plan in place, all the buildings would be conceptually approved, but each would require a site plan review before issuance of Zoning and building permits.
The Zoning Commission would review each building for compliance, including traffic studies.
Schulman is leery of the master plan scenario. “I prefer special permits (for each building), particularly for this project,” he said. “You’re talking about a project that is 10 years or more. And so, we’d be making decisions, not just as the existing Commission, but for the Commissioners that follow us. By maintaining a special permit requirement, we give a little more control to those people who will be coming after us as Zoning Commissioners.”
Waters said, “We don’t have a problem with the idea of approving a master plan by special permit. But we don’t want to have each of the individual buildings then be subject to special permit review. They should be subject only to site plan review. And that is because you’ve already got the overall plan that is then being implemented. …We want to make sure that that it doesn’t become something where short memories then create greater problems to be able to implement a plan that everybody agreed was the right plan to begin with.”
“You’re asking us to approve a plan that could potentially overwhelm traffic in the area without giving us the tools to stop development, should traffic mitigation not be sufficient,” Schulman said.
Waters disagreed. “Whether it’s special permit or a site plan review, the same traffic standard applies literally word for word,” he said. “Each time we come in with an application for one of these buildings, we have to demonstrate that stable traffic flow will be maintained if that building is built. The approval of the master plan doesn’t mean that you’ve given up any control whatsoever.”
“Our master plan and all of the improvements that we’re talking about here, none of them involve any public funds. We haven’t asked for an Enterprise Zone. We haven’t asked for a TIF. We haven’t asked for tax breaks. And that’s one of the reasons why certainty is important, because without the type of certainty that we actually will be able to bear fruit from doing all of this, it becomes a very high risk and virtually impossible to create.”
BLT’s various proposed Zoning text amendments would:
- Allow 500 square feet of outdoor space per apartment, instead of the 1,650 square feet required in an Executive Office Zone.
- Allow a maximum floor area ratio (FAR) of 2.0.
- Allow an individual parcel’s FAR to exceed 2.0 as long as the entire development’s FAR doesn’t exceed 2.0.
- Allow an individual parcel’s open space to be less than 30 percent as long as the entire development’s open space is at least 30 percent.
- Allow an individual parcel’s maximum residential density to exceed 500 square feet per dwelling unit as long as the entire development’s maximum residential density doesn’t exceed 500 square feet per dwelling unit.
- Allocate 1.3 parking spaces per dwelling unit in accordance with Norwalk’s TOD (Transit Oriented Development) regulations.
- Allow maximum height of 15 stories/150 feet.
- Allow 150 square feet recreation area per residential unit to include balconies, courtyards, indoor recreational facilities, landscaped roofs and outdoor recreational areas.
- Allow the developer to seek approval by site plan review of individual buildings and improvements reflected on the master plan.
Developer: ‘We’re bullish about apartments.’
Schulman asked, “What is your current occupancy rate for all of the apartments that you control? And what do your forecasts look like for apartments?”
“The first building of The Curb, Building A, is at 98 percent occupancy. Building B is getting there,” Waters replied. “It think it’s now at about 50 percent, which is pretty much where we expected it to be and is actually quite good given the fact that we’re now giving virtual tours of apartments rather than having people coming in.”
“We’re actually quite bullish about apartments,” he continued. “A lot depends on the building and the location and the concept. We’ve gotten the experience of creating a community in Stamford. If you can create that type of a community, it’s the type of thing that people will really be interested in. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that, for example at The Curb, not only are we getting people from Factset and from Datto and places like that right in the neighborhood, we are also getting a number of people that are saying ‘I’ve lived in Norwalk all my life, I don’t want to have to deal with my lawn, or maintenance of my house and utilities and things like that. I love the idea that I can just come here, go out to the pool, the fitness center, whatever.’”
He continued, “So we’re getting a broad spectrum of people, and that’s the kind of thing that we’re trying to build upon here. We’re pretty comfortable with the idea. The other piece that we’re pretty happy about is that looking at some of the early indications, Fairfield County, and Norwalk and Wilton in particular, are probably going to benefit a lot from people that are no longer happy about living in New York City and living on top of each other.”
Commissioner Stephanie Thomas questioned the numbers. “At this time, you don’t know how the buildings will be used,” she said. “Hotel, residential and commercial can all have different parking needs. Have you thought about that in terms of your 1.3 allocation? If you put up a hotel for example, do you have the flexibility to accommodate a maximum and a minimum?”
Waters said BLT considers flexibility in its designs. “It’s easy between residential at 1.3 and hotel, because for hotel you need one space per guest room and then some for other types of uses, so the .3 comes into play there, and we would probably be able to create some additional if we needed to, based upon either going down further into the ground or what have you. But we always make sure that we keep that flexibility.”
Thomas said, “On the whole, it seems like a very well-conceived plan. I am looking at it from the economic cost to the city in terms of schools, and the need for perhaps additional schools based on the number of units being built. I did not agree with the formulation in the economic impact study. I think there’s a potential for more school aged children.”
“Glover Avenue is not that wide,” she added, “and when I think about the number of units, not to mention if a hotel was there or even a large office, it would change that area a lot.”
“I think we definitely need more information on the schools and the traffic,” Commissioner Michael Witherspoon agreed.
“Given the scope of this, we don’t want to rush it through, Norwalk Director of Zoning Steve Kleppin said. “I think a 3D model of the area would be helpful, especially in looking at whether the heights should be shifted south. Building 3.1 and 3.2 being essentially taller buildings, how do those sit versus The Curb versus the neighborhood to the north and east? Will people see it? If the applicants are agreeable, I think the Commission should make that as a request.”
“We’re happy to do that,” Waters replied.
“The devil’s going to be in the details.”
Commissioner Nate Sumpter seconded the 3D model idea.
“I’ve seen some of your work in Stamford, and I’ve seen a lot of progress as you continue to build up what used to be called the south end, which I was quite familiar with.”
The master plan sounds good but moving traffic during construction is a concern, and it will probably take longer than 10 years, Sumpter said.
Commissioner Galen Wells also approved of the overall concept but cautioned that Zoning needs to work with the Board of Education on the estimates for the schools. “Is it just a per pupil cost, or are you going to have to build a new school? The school buildings only fit so many kids,” she said.
Schulman summed up. “David, I think what you’re hearing is, in a broad sense, support for this project, and I agree with that as well. The devil’s going to be in the details….It’s exciting and frightening, but I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with my understanding of what you’re planning and why you’re planning it,” he said. “I think you’re on the right track and we ought to start the process of moving this forward.”
Kleppin has already contacted the Commission’s consultants, and when the review is complete a public hearing is needed, Schulman said. “That may not happen until late June or July but I think we would like to see this moving forward.”
Waters did not reply to NancyOnNorwalk’s email request for comment.
Peer review comes next
That peer review has been assigned to West Haven-based architectural consultants DeCarlo & Doll (D & D). The consultants work for and are paid by the city, but the applicant (BLT) is required to pay the city 150 percent of the review’s estimated cost.
Kleppin and the Commission undertook a preliminary discussion of the review last week with D & D representative Robert Grzywacz and planner Alan Plattus.
D&D is looking at how the proposal fits in with the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development) and comparing it to a similar project in Newton, Mass., Kleppin said. Grzywacz and Plattus noted significant differences between that project and BLT’s proposal.
Schulman criticized a lack of a traffic plan. “They’re proposing to do traffic plans as each building is proposed, and they are relying extraordinarily heavily on State projects which have been stalled for over 20 years,” he said. “So I’m concerned that there’s no real assurance that those projects will move forward, and if they don’t, in terms of your review of the Master Plan, what happens?”
He also turned a skeptical eye to the talk of public space between two of the buildings “as being the public space for this community.”
“We’re talking about a space that’s less than 10,000 square feet. For 1,300 units and 27,000 square feet of retail, I’m wondering whether that space is adequate to turn it into a real community,” he said. “I made a number of visits to their two buildings on the other side of Glover and a third building which is now starting to come out of the ground. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t see any sense of community among or between those three buildings. They seem more like separate islands.”
“I don’t recall any attempt to form a community there,” Wells replied. “… With this one, I think that if there is an attempted community it could draw those and other existing buildings in. But the challenge would be to require a large enough space to accomplish that purpose.”
While there are preliminary drawings, “we don’t really know what the project will look like,” Schulman said. “And then there’s the question of whether each individual project should be treated as a special permit or simply a typical review as we did for all of the Merritt 7 buildings. … I think developing design standards for this project makes a lot of sense, particularly if we’re not going to do each project by special permit.”
Commissioner Richard Roina warned of “a bifurcated application on traffic studies,” where “the first one would say ‘It’s not going to add appreciably to Route 7 Connector or Route 7,’ and then the second one would say ‘Well it’s already crowded so it’s not going to make much difference.’”
“There’s almost no point in doing traffic counts,” Kleppin said. “I don’t think that’s something we even need to think about, because it’s going to show that everything’s hunky dory.”
Traffic input should concern the overall master plan, he continued. “Should we expect something more, we can only rely on the older data which will show that at certain points of the day there’s absolute gridlock on the Merritt Parkway. So how is this going to affect that? We don’t have any mitigation measures in place right now that would alleviate that.”
“The tax base of the City would go way up with these buildings,” Wells said. “It would be great for our Grand List, but we have to be sure that it wouldn’t be offset by additional school costs and offset by additional attempts to mitigate traffic.”
Consultants: ‘It probably could be better’
“The challenge for you is that this is a big project,” Grzywacz said. “There’s great opportunity with a big project. I think that the general organizing principle is not terribly creative. It’s a series of semi-towers sitting on parking garages, and the streetscape may not be that much improved over the three buildings on the other side of the street. It probably could be better.”
“A few of these things would be outside our scope,” he said. “The traffic would not be something that we’d talk about. School children we would not talk about.”
P&Z’s traffic consultant has a conflict of interest, as, “He’s either done or is doing work for this developer,” Schulman said.
“DeCarlo and Doll does have in house traffic analysis capability… It just wasn’t the services that we were first talking about,” Grzywacz replied.
“We have a group of people in town who just don’t want to see any more apartments. That’s their point of view and that’s fine,” Schulman said. “But I believe what the community is going to be concerned about here and what they’re going to hang their hat on if they oppose the project will be traffic… go back to your folks and see whether you have the expertise in house to answer the technical traffic issues.”
“Another issue that needs to be looked at is that this is being called a TOD project,” he said. “And that’s OK, there’s a rail station there, there’s bus service there. But the problem is that this is just branch line rail service, and many people who live in that area actually drive to the South Norwalk station so they can get thru trains to New York City. There are a few thru trains on the branch line, but most of them end at South Norwalk which is 10 minutes away, where you need to transfer to another train to get into Manhattan.”
D&D can probably do a standard traffic consultant’s analysis, Grzywacz replied.
“I’m trying to be fair to them (BLT),” he said, “and it’s not very far along. But it certainly doesn’t give you the feeling that, if the vocabulary of a little tiny walkable city center is what you’re looking for, that you will get anything close to that.”
“This is a proposal that could be a lot better,” Plattus agreed. It’s very schematic. It doesn’t really meet its own stated goals. It’s not unreasonable of you to compare it to the Newton project, which is both more complete and a lot more sophisticated. Not having talked to the developer, there may be constraints that we don’t know about that are constraining their ability to do a more elaborate kind of project and we would need to know that.”
“They (BLT) have done a lot of work that I’ve seen in Stamford, and I know that the company is capable of making it special and making it real nice,” Sumpter said. “So I think that’s probably where you would come in with some of what you feel would make it a nice project… sometimes folks feel that if you don’t push them, then they’ll just give you a run of the mill kind of project. But if you really press them, they’re capable of doing nice work.”