NORWALK, Conn. — It would be a big change in a high-profile location. In place of a little bank plopped down like an island in a sea of asphalt, investors seek to fill much of the expanse opposite the East Norwalk cemetery with a large mixed-use building, camouflaged by a façade intended to mimic several smaller constructions. A second, smaller building would be on the curve leading to Gregory Boulevard.
The concepts presented by M.F. DiScala and Spinnaker Real Estate Partners drew a tepid response from Planning and Zoning Commissioners during the June 15 P&Z meeting where Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture, promising “a more expansive and engaging pedestrian realm and some public amenity on the streetscape that will more easily get people around this section of road and through this neighborhood,” laid out plans for the Wells Fargo branch’s longstanding home at 1 Cemetery St.
Spinnaker’s Matt Edvardsen noted that the recently approved East Norwalk Transit Oriented District (TOD) plan “encourages and allows for more productive use” of the 1.66-acre site, where the bank was built in 1968.
It’s been covered in pavement since at least 1965, Grotheer said, showing an aerial photo that predated the bank itself. Even with 77 apartments in a 3.5-story 28,230 square foot building and the 3,160 square foot building on Gregory, the site wouldn’t be as “built out” as the new regulations allow, he explained. An “existing city or state drainage easement that covers a watercourse” is a major challenge, as it “sort of bisects the eastern portion of the site,” essentially creating “two discreet” parcels.
“We’re dealing with approximately 60 years of impervious surface adjacent to Mill Pond, so we believe the new plan here greatly improves upon that by pulling the impervious surfaces back from the edge, providing amenities as prescribed in the East Norwalk Village Transit District that was just created,” Grotheer said.
Rain gardens would include one with an art installation, in a public plaza (or “pocket park”) off East Avenue, Grotheer said. Plantings would encourage pollinators, and there would be public access to what is now a landlocked city-owned parcel on the water’s edge. Sidewalks would expand from the current six feet width to eight feet, and there might be some public parking on the site plus hopefully an additional 14 on-street parking spaces.
“We’re also showing the separated bicycle lane and interior sidewalk that are encircling the cemetery which don’t exist today,” Grotheer said. “That’s the initiatives that the city has indicated that they’re interested in providing in this area so (we are) working with them to accommodate those future plans.”
Edvardsen said, “We envision existing East Norwalk residents, including empty nesters, being afforded an opportunity to remain in and continue to enjoy the neighborhood while simplifying their living arrangements. That said, we recognize that these plans are conceptual. And we not only recognize but hope that this plan will evolve as we proceed through this land use approval process and neighborhood outreach process.”
Grotheer said the façade attempts to mimic coastal New England architecture, emulating “a smaller brick, manufacturing building or civic structure” on the East Avenue end, then transitioning to “some flat parapeted buildings, similar to what you’d find from a downtown hardware store or small lodging house from the turn of the century.” There’s “a take on a Manor House” and “then somewhat of an Italianate house.”
On the eastern side of the site, the 2.5-story building “steps down” in scale, transitioning to the neighboring residential neighborhood, he said, adding that the topography allows for out-of-sight parking in an underground garage at the larger building.
Commissioners forced Grotheer to defend the concepts.
Chairman Lou Schulman felt the preliminary drawings don’t quite measure up. He said, “I’ve spoken to a number of people about the buildings, and there’s a certain amount of excitement that they’ve generated. I feel a little bit different. Although it’s the other side of the railroad tracks, this really is an entry building into East Norwalk. And I think it deserves to be as special as your economics will permit. I’d like to see people enter into East Norwalk, look at the building and say ‘Wow!’”
Grotheer said, “I think it’s got a significant amount more detail on it than most of what is typically proposed on these types of buildings. We’ll be working to further refine that and define it as the application progresses.”
“Many people are feeling this is a relatively massive development, which overshadows a lot of the symmetry and the feeling of East Norwalk,” Commissioner Brian Baxendale said.
“It does look rather huge,” Commissioner Tammy Langalis said. “And maybe it’s by comparison, that there’s a little bank there right now and the rest of the space is open, but visually, it’s rather imposing.”
Grotheer doesn’t think it would look larger than the adjacent Ludlow Commons building, and he added that you’ll find the same look fronting town greens in other coastal Connecticut communities. He noted that single family homes can be 30-35 feet high, and “this is no different.” With the existing zoning, “there’s no hiding that somebody’s going to want to develop a three and a half story building where they’re allowed to,” he said. Given the prominent location facing a historic town green, “You’re going to get a building that reads as important and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to define the space and provide a better overall public realm.”
The conversation eventually turned to traffic, with hints that the Norwalk Transportation, Mobility and Parking Department (TMP) might totally revamp the cemetery-encircling roundabout. TMP has shared a master plan with developers, Grotheer said, mentioning “some stuff with the Walk Bridge and with the bicycle network.” That includes an East/West bicycle route along Route 136, part of the East Coast Greenway, and a conduit to take people off Van Zant Street “and bring them probably down Gregory and under the beach, or over onto old Saugatuck as they head towards Westport, or even up under Winfield and then down 136 as they continue on their way.”
Edvardsen said the Gregory Boulevard curve will be slightly altered because trucks hop the curb but given the preliminary nature of the project plans, as a “worst case scenario,” maybe the entrance/exit could be shifted to the mid-block.
Langalis asked if the intersection might be teed off and a stop sign installed; Edvardsen said it had been discussed but TMP reported that it wouldn’t be approved, given the site’s traffic generation.
Commissioner Mike Mushak speculated that the cemetery area would work better with two-way traffic, with roundabouts at the corners.
“I know TMP is looking at all options, and I’m not ever going to pretend to be a traffic engineer. And I have all the trust in the world with (Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking) Jim Travers for what his abilities and vision is,” Mushak said. “So but I’m just going to say that, I would hope that we would seriously consider restoring two way traffic, getting that traffic calming right there.”
Travers wasn’t available for comment Friday. Assistant Director for Transportation Services Garrett Bolella wrote:
“We see significant opportunity to improve both the transportation network and connectivity on not just Cemetery Street but also around the entirety of the East Norwalk Cemetery Circle. The recently completed East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Study identified several potential opportunities for improvements and most importantly the need to better accommodate all modes of travel in the area. Since January 2015, we’ve had approximately 56 crashes in the immediate vicinity, with an uptick during the COVID pandemic.
“We have a beautiful historic cemetery; however, there are presently a lack of sidewalks and crosswalks which make it very challenging to access. The Circle is immediately adjacent to the East Norwalk Train Station; however, many obstacles exist for pedestrians. We are currently finalizing plans for a State Community Connectivity Grant which will establish a bike route on State Route 136 to the immediate west of the Circle (on Van Zant Street) and to the immediate east of the Circle (on Winfield Street). It would be the City’s ultimate desire to provide better accommodations for cyclists through this important corridor as well and connect to the beach.
“With this development, as with any other development, we look for opportunities to improve mobility and safety for all road users. As this area is ripe for improvements, we will continue to look at opportunities around the Cemetery circle whether through this development, the Walk Bridge Project or requests through our capital budget.”
Schulman led the Commission to vote on peer reviews of the architecture and traffic. Those were unanimously approved.