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East Norwalk apartment plan presented to P&Z; area traffic needs highlighted

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents the “Lofts at Mill Pond” concept to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission on June 15.

The Wells Fargo bank on Cemetery Street in 2020. The bank has closed.

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.

A 1965 aerial view of 1 Cemetery St., as shown by Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission on June 15.

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.”

A 2019 aerial view of 1 Cemetery St., as shown by Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission on June 15.

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.

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents the “Lofts at Mill Pond” concept to the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission on June 15.

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.”

Screengrab of the property card for 1 Cemetery St. Mill Pond Holdings LLC is a partnership of M.F. DiSCala and Spinnaker Real Estate Partners.

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.

The East Norwalk cemetery. (File photo)

“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.

19 comments

David Muccigrosso June 27, 2022 at 11:44 am

Wells Fargo are the irresponsible cusses who predatorially handed myself and thousands of my classmates student loans they knew we couldn’t pay back.

If anywhere in Norwalk deserves to have one of those abominable high-rises erected on it, I could think of no more fitting place.

Piberman June 27, 2022 at 12:35 pm

Anyone remember when our P&Z expressed public concerns about new traffic and not changing the character of existing neighborhoods ? Norwalk’s shabby Downtown is testimony to our P&Z efforts to “improve Norwalk” over the decades. Why change now ? Full steam ahead. Why should we restrict Developers ?

David Muccigrosso June 27, 2022 at 1:58 pm

@James: You know that’s what they do for a living, right? They don’t feed their families if they don’t build stuff.

You can quibble with the amount, but let’s please respect that there are other human beings with entire livelihoods on the other sides of these arguments.

Except Wells Fargo. That company is mostly just robots. 😉

Ben G June 27, 2022 at 4:42 pm

Really sad stuff. I couldnt think of any worse location for 77 apartments. The area is already so congested.

Unfortunately, Harry and P&Z could absolutely care less. This will pass without issue unless the East Norwalk community really stands up for itself.

Mike O'Reilly June 27, 2022 at 5:45 pm

What is the acreage of The Bank of America property on Winfield where 11 town homes are being completed? I believe the applicant originally applied for 17 unit’s on that site? Vs. the 1.6 acreage site at Well’s Fargo? This should be a measuring stick. Alway’s saw this as an ideal sight for homes but 77? Come on. Nancy did a great job covering the hearing but if you actually watch the hearing compliments of ENNA you might get the impression the applicant’s are testing the waters for how stupid or apathetic we are. I thought Lou Shulman’s question is the Pond polluted question insightful. Never would have thought of that.

James June 27, 2022 at 9:25 pm

@ David if you read anything about spinnaker and their founding partner, a NY resident you may realize that food security is not an issue. There may be a huge pay gap but everyone gets paid well. They have projects throughout the country and have flipped excessive profits. It’s all about quick approval to build, not community.

https://www.thehour.com/business/article/Chamber-urges-steamlining-of-approval-process-8307339.php

“Clay Fowler, principal of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, said the process in Norwalk is fragmented and suggested Portland, Ore., as a model of how the approval process is efficient and quick.”

“Part of the problem in Norwalk is we still have a village or town mentality,” he said. “If we want to be competitive, we have to be more progressive.”

Matt June 27, 2022 at 11:27 pm

Insane, the traffic is already absolutely chaotic at the east ave bridge, especially at the summer time. Far worse on first street over by Mr frostys. Poor idea unless traffic congestion is improved.

Hannia June 28, 2022 at 6:39 am

All the apartments being built are outrageously priced. Need to have more real affordable housing.

David Muccigrosso June 28, 2022 at 9:07 am

@James who do you think BUILDS the apartments for Spinnaker? It’s not just one real-estate guy out there in a suit running the concrete machines and hammering nails, ya know. Get real. This is CAPITALISM. People make profits on things. You don’t complain every time a gas station is built that it’s just lining some Exxon exec’s pockets.

The only reason why Spinnaker is building so much now is that they’re playing catch-up ball for all the construction that NIMBYs like you have been obstructing for DECADES. You HAD a choice, years ago, to allow your neighbors to do what they wanted with their own property, and to allow densification to happen slowly and gently, as it has NATURALLY done throughout ALL of human history.

But because you cared more about “community” and “neighborhood character” – ironically, things that YOUR choices undermined for DECADES as the very “community” decayed for lack of the growth YOU obstructed(!) – now we have to deal with this violent (metaphorically) upheaval.

YOU chose the hard way. Spinnaker and Harry may be doing it the wrong way, but they’re just cleaning up YOUR mess.

So, from the bottom of my heart, THANKS for the insanely inflated rent I have to pay, and the fact that I won’t be able to afford a down payment on a real house until I’m 45.

Steve Mann June 28, 2022 at 11:05 am

All thanks for this and other EN projects should go to Commissioner Mushak, who happened to find East Norwalk around five years ago and proclaimed the blight of the “crumbling facades”. Don’t forget to send Mike a Thank You note.

Joe June 28, 2022 at 4:01 pm

For one, a new beautiful housing development to anchor East Norwalk would be a huge improvement to a blighted bank site. The traffic study will prove out if traffic is an issue. Whatever those findings are shouldn’t be debated.

@David – don’t forget that YOU are the one that signed at the dotted line for the student loan! No one forced you, nor did anyone other than yourself choose your path in life that would result in the inability to pay it back. Be accountable for your own actions and choices – stop being a victim of “the man”.

@James and all the Nimby’s – We should be grateful to have a developer like Spinnaker in our community. Remember, Spinnaker is taking all the risk – nothing guarantees the project’s success. They do great work, improve our urban environment, add to our tax base, making Norwalk more attractive, and almost single-handedly dragging SoNo from the ghetto over 25 years of projects.

@Hannia – Apartments rent for what the market will bear – period. That is capitalism and supply & demand (it’s just how things work….). Affordable housing doesn’t just happen….Development carries huge risk, and – because of high land values in our area – a huge cost. If you want more affordable housing – you should be speaking with Harry Riling. Have him sell just one of the many fallow city owned properties to a good developer for $1, and require that the development be 75% affordable. With lower land cost, the developer could then offer lower rents and achieve the same return.

ENO Inevitable June 28, 2022 at 6:07 pm

While I’m glad P&Z is now putting on a show sharing concerns about design, traffic, parking, natural space, pollution, infrastructure, etc., this is EXACTLY what the Council approved last December against the consistent concerns of the community. At the meeting where they voted to approve the ENO TOD plan despite concerns, they demonstrated a shocking disdain for residents who raised concerns— in effect, saying and concurring with one another that “the only people who raise concerns at these hearings are typically complainers,” “there’s traffic everywhere so that’s not a reason to not approve this plan,” and even “it is not the role of this committee to make the community happy about this plan” since they were given money to create the plan, and that was who needed to be served. Just shocking disdain and disregard for those of us who live here and care. Anyone could see this coming from a million miles away. Prediction: they’ll wrong their hands and say they have concerns, they’ll “throw a bone” to the community and make some minor/insignificant tweaks to make it seem like they listened/care; and the developers will get 90% of what they want. Sorry for the cynicism — was just so completely disgusted with how they sold the ENO community out for the TOD plan. Sadly, P&Z credibility is lost.

James June 28, 2022 at 11:28 pm

@ David I hope you get a house soon. My family purchased our first home at 47 with partial inheritance. I would guess that Wells Fargo didn’t force you to take a loan just as nobody is forcing you to pay insanely inflated rent. It’s capitalism, developers can squeeze you just like bankers except when squandering rent there’s not much you get in return, like education per se. You prove the point that renters don’t care much about community or neighborhood character. It’s too bad that the premium you pay for rent is going to developers profits instead of your savings. Everyone says rent is high and apartments are occupied, yet spinnaker still took PPP loans as if they were harmed by Covid. So greedy!

David Muccigrosso June 29, 2022 at 8:13 am

@James: “You prove the point that renters don’t care much about community or neighborhood character. It’s too bad that the premium you pay for rent is going to developers profits instead of your savings.”

That’s facially absurd, and borderline ad-hominem. I chose to stay in SoNo and pay inflated rents precisely because I’ve come to love this place. And my rent ISN’T going to a developer, it’s going to a landlord, because I DON’T live in the high-rises. But you didn’t bother to ask that before casting aspersions at my character, did you?

Whether I’m a renter or not has nothing to do with my attachment to the “community” or “neighborhood character”. These arguments you’re making sound like the people who used to say that only property owners should be able to vote, because they were the only ones who had a stake in the wellbeing of the country. And that’s absolute nonsense, it’s something we as a society have long since rejected.

And do you even know what “community” and “neighborhood character” mean? To you or to anyone else? As Inigo Montoya famously said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”. I don’t even think you KNOW what you think it means, because nothing you’ve actually said has anything to do with either of those terms.

For the record, the neighborhood I live in has plenty of character. Washington Street has stood the test of time; those buildings were built in a way that kept the place alive through rough times, and makes it vibrant now. It’s flexible, adaptable. Classic. And yet, the suburbs where I’m assuming you live… DON’T LOOK ANYTHING LIKE THAT. A bunch of houses with the same siding, same driveways, same lawns, and the same 4-5 floorplans? Where’s the “character” in that?

And the neighborhood I live in has plenty of community too. There’s the “football coach” who gently panhandles tourists. There’s the annoying shithead skateboarder. There’s the neighborhood lawyer with a heart of gold. The exotic snack shop owner. The tailor, the jeweler, the “eco dude”. The various regulars and neighbors I see around.

I’VE got community. What do YOU have? A lawn you tend to while you avoid your neighbors? A backyard you keep people out of except for the occasional barbeque? A wide-open street where any foot traffic besides your own kids is a nuisance and cause for suspicion?

Before you attack me for not holding up to your values, tell me how YOU hold them up yourself.

Because the place where I live is fun, happy, and vibrant, DESPITE the landlords and speculators and bureaucrats trying to destroy it and sap every last cent out of us. And I’m not about to let your bluster falsely paint me and the community that I DO CARE ABOUT as the problem.

Joe June 29, 2022 at 11:11 am

@James – Why are you and everyone else going after “the man”, when “the man” is just a successful developer doing business in, and adding value to, our community while offering rents at what the market will bear???

You want to gripe about PPP loans – you should be griping about Harvard, Yale, and every single other private higher education institution who have endowments larger than the GDP of some countries without paying any taxes AND shamelessly took PPP!!!

PPP loans helped buffer real estate owners from draconian eviction moratoriums that allowed tenants to refrain from paying rent. Owners needed those loans to cover losses.

You might also want to be thankful to Spinnaker for providing housing to the all the renters in Norwalk who patronize and support local businesses. I think renters do care about the community and character, or they would have otherwise rented elsewhere. You are being highly presumptuous in saying otherwise.

Having worked in real estate and knowing many local developers, I can tell you that developers in our area are typically targeting a benchmark yield comparable to the historical S&P. Nothing is a slam dunk around here due to barriers to entry, burdensome regulatory environments, and high land costs.

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