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East Norwalk set for housing on former Bank of America site

A rendering of the current plan for 93 Winfield St.

A rendering of the former proposal for 93 Winfield St.

NORWALK, Conn. — East Norwalk residents celebrated recently when the Norwalk Zoning Commission turned down a controversial proposal for housing at the former Bank of America site on Winfield Street. Now the developer is back with a similar plan and Zoners say they have no choice but to approve it.

“We have almost no leeway here. This is a project that they can do, as-of-right. I fear, frankly, that if we were to turn it down that all we would be doing is delaying and costing the City unnecessary expense,” Zoning Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said Thursday.

The certainty around applicant G&T Norwalk’s right to build was so strong that the Commission voted 4-3 not to hold a public hearing on the proposal. G&T will likely be back before the Commission on March 17 to get the stamp of approval for 11 housing units on the triangular parcel where Winfield Street intersects with Howard Avenue and Bridge Street.

In December, Zoners turned down G&T’s proposal for 14 housing units on the .65-acre site, after a storm of objections from neighbors. Attorney Adam Blank, representing G&T, protested that the property is zoned neighborhood business and 11 housing units are allowed as-of-right. He warned that if Zoners turned down the proposal, owner Tom Bellete could also use as-of-right privileges to build a “restaurant, office, retail, taverns, salons, houses of worship, even boutique manufacturing, all of these uses,” with no pesky special permit needed.

The modified proposal features 2.5 story buildings, as was planned before. They’ll be townhouses, Blank said: “These are proposed to be for sale. Not rentals, as was in the previous application.”

“These are going to be a luxury sort of high-end units,” Blank said. “It’d be about 1,600 square feet for each so they’re the larger size, two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath with an attic space that can function as an office workout room or an additional bedroom. Each one of these units will have its own two car garage.”

Attorney Adam Blank, during Thursday’s Zoning Commission meeting on Zoom.

Blank, a former Zoning Commissioner, asserted, “The Commission has no discretion or choice but to approve it. As really there’s no, I don’t think there’s any dispute that this application does confirm conform to the regulations, and therefore we would ask that you approve.”

Neighbors are writing in to object, Blank said, moving to address the concerns.

While it would be nice if the property were a park or open space, “the way to remedy that is through regulation changes,” Blank said. Under the current zoning, 11 apartments are allowed.

It wouldn’t be allowed under the recently approved East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development plan, Zoners and Planning Commissioners have said, but the application came in before the plan was green lighted.

The process to create that plan dragged on while a majority of Committee members in favor of its goals gave consideration to fiery opposition from East Norwalk Neighborhood Association leader Diane Cece. Although the plan’s been approved now, the zoning regulation changes it authorizes have only just begun to be worked upon, allowing the modified proposal in the door.

Blank on Thursday addressed the difference between a special permit and as-of-right development.

“There’s a good reason for there being a difference in standards that apply,” he said. “When people are buying and selling property they need to rely on the city to know what uses they can do with the property.”

A rendering of the current plan for 93 Winfield St., shown from overhead.

They know they’re risking large sums of money and the as-of-right rules make for “a stable buying and selling,” Blank said. “It also prevents, not that you guys would, but it prevents the municipal body from essentially discriminating against certain developers and having favorite developers, because everybody is subject to the same rules for a site plan. You either comply or you don’t. In this case, we believe that we do comply.”

Architect Joe Cugno said the reductions in units provides “a lot more open air to the middle of the site, especially from the Howard side. It’s been pushed back enough where we have a lot of space now between the buildings.”

“The buildings characteristically do look very similar to our original presentation. We liked the look, we have gotten positive feedback and we’ve kept with that,” Cugno said. “…We think it’s a very upscale look and these will be a definitely a premium type of unit now, even though they were before, they’ll even be better.”

There’s also more space for plants and a large landscaped area will help mask the development from neighbors, Cugno said, explaining, “We’re trying to be sensitive to the privacy of the neighbors.”

A birch tree considered a neighborhood focal point will remain, said Matthew Popp, a landscape architect.

A rendering of the current plan for 93 Winfield St.

Blank mentioned a transformer that neighbors are concerned about; “We’re working with the power company, that transformer is going to be moved closer to the parking area,” he said.

“There was also a question about how long period of construction would last, and if we were to get that sort of timely approvals, we would expect that from when we got a building permit six or seven months to from start to finish on the construction,” Blank said. “I know my client is ready to go once he has the approvals in hand.”

“This development proposal not only offers aesthetically pleasing townhomes for Norwalk residents, but also will transform a commercial lot into a residential use more compatible with the neighborhood,” Blank said in the application to the Commission.

Schulman asked Commissioners if, given that they have no leeway on the proposal, they wanted to hold a public hearing.

It would only exacerbate the neighbors’ frustration, Galen Wells said. They’d spend time preparing testimony and it would intensify opposition “that we can do nothing to satisfy.”

Joshua Goldstein said Wells was “mostly right” but “the only reason I think there should be a public hearing is because I think people’s voices are important.”

Wells originally abstained but changed her vote to no when a 3-3 tie developed.

The vote was:

Against a public hearing:

  • Commissioner Galen Wells
  • Commissioner Richard Roina
  • Commissioner Nick Kantor
  • Commissioner Lou Schulman

In favor of a public hearing:

  • Commissioner Joshua Goldstein
  • Commissioner Michael Witherspoon
  • Commissioner Frank Mancini

 

93 Winfield Street Traffic Report (2.11.2021)

Site Plan Review Application Narrative

93 Winfield Street Arch Set (2.19.2021)

 

7 comments

David Osler March 8, 2021 at 8:44 am

For this location I’m completely against residential I would very much like to see commercial space used for it preferably something like a Bodega or office space or even a mechanic shop those three things are desperately needed in that area

Scott Vetare March 8, 2021 at 9:16 am

A restaurant or small business would be better for the neighborhood. Prior to the bank there was a restaurant. Traffic on the side roads in that area is bad and the people speed around. More housing is not needed in that area!

Norwalk Lost March 8, 2021 at 12:47 pm

The surrender from city officials aka “we can’t do anything” in the video is a prime example of what is exactly wrong with city government. What a cop out and dereliction of duty not to solicit public input and incorporate residential concerns into future land use reforms. Sad! Applications such as this and many other land use applications which have been a net negative for the city continue to be rubber stamped to the detriment of residents. I suggest these officials resign and be replaced by a competent group who can actually follow through on residential concerns and advoate for change to land use and ensure this does not repeat.

Steve Mann March 8, 2021 at 2:05 pm

Once again, the assault on the neighborhood. Luxury units, on that site? What an insult that four committee members voted AGAINST a public hearing. Time for big change in City Hall when the opinions of those who pay the bills don’t matter.

Can Zoning define “luxury” please? Indoor plumbing and two car garages? That these are not intended to be rentals in no way eliminates that inevitability. Quack, quack.

Rosemary March 9, 2021 at 9:46 am

We don’t need luxury apts or condos. We need AFFORDABLE housing. Most 1 bed apt are going for $2000 a month while most social security checks are for way less than that. Seniors don’t need a gym or social hall only a place they feel secure and not worry to be thrown out for lack of payment which is happening now.

Mimi Chang March 10, 2021 at 1:52 pm

Wow… Norwalk Zoning Commissioners just voted to deny East Norwalk residents a public hearing on a project they disapprove of, under the guise of doing them a favor? How bizarre. Congrats to Galen Wells for being the tiebreaker vote to cancel the voices of the public. She even giggled… Nice touch. These are the same Zoning Commissioners who in December rejected this barracks style housing project which they deemed out-scaled and incompatible with the surrounding homes. What happened? Norwalk is also down two Zoning Commissioners, and, as was pointed out during the 10 Norden Place fiasco repeatedly by residents, not one single commissioner lives in the impacted 06855 zip code. We in East Norwalk have no vote on a project which we reject, yet the commissioners who rejected the project in December voted YES to it in March? What a sad fail!

If the Zoning Commissioners hadn’t voted to deny the application “without prejudice” back in December, then the applicants couldn’t have come back so quickly with the next version of more of the same: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.thehour.com/news/amp/Zoning-commission-rejects-new-apartment-project-15808842.php
P&Z Director Steve Kleppin is quoted as saying, “If the commission had elected for a flat-out denial of the application, then it wouldn’t have been bound to listen to the application for at least another year.” That being said, it’s upsetting and disingenuous when Louis Schulman states that the commissioners had no choice but to approve it. They could’ve won a better outcome for East Norwalk residents if they’d flat-out rejected the application in December to buy a year’s time, and if they’d challenged the applicant to generate a more suitable proposal. Instead, they rolled over for Adam Blank. Their lack of advocacy for East Norwalkers helped this horrible development over the finish line. Are you tired of it yet, Norwalk?

That pesky “As-of-right” zoning allowed eleven housing units on a business zoned, .65 acre parcel smack in front of single family homes. Those homeowners must be thrilled. We’ll likely see more “As of right” development, which literally cancels residents’ voices on zoning matters, when Hartford pushes through its legislation to take local planning and zoning decision making away from CT cities and towns to increase apartment density within a .5 mile radius of train stations everywhere. I’m convinced Norwalk is the guinea pig for this overreaching move by Hartford. Pay close attention to how State Reps you elected vote on these bills. Stephanie Thomas, who represents part of East Norwalk, and who up until recently was a Rilling appointed Zoning Commissioner who made some poor choices for East Norwalk, is recorded as answering that she wouldn’t vote for such overreaching legislation which takes away local control when questioned in one of her candidate debates. Let’s see. The legislation would fulfill a partisan agenda of tying state controlled planning and zoning to school regionalization and education funding, and from what I’m reading, “As-of-right” development looks to be part of the plan.

If Harry Rilling had revamped zoning regulations in the timely way he promised while campaigning way back in 2013, and in the way ENNA and East Norwalk residents had suggested for almost as many years, then zoning reform would’ve been a done deal years ago, and instead of 22 cars coming out of a tiny triangle of land the size of a single family home’s yard, residents could’ve ended up with a coffee shop or small business of some kind, which is what the community needs, wants, and which would be appropriately scaled to that parcel. Perhaps Mayor Rilling’s lack of urgency on zoning reform and the consequences his inaction has wrought upon our communities could’ve been mentioned in this article.

Adam Blank seems to be the go to attorney for applicants of developments which residents have pushed back against due to concern over buildings being out-scaled for their parcels, and/or valid concerns about traffic congestion and questionable traffic analysis, like the 10 Willard Road Apartments off Westport Avenue, which passed under the cover of COVID-19 last April (Most residents are only now learning about this project as it’s going up…), with the applicant being allowed a change to Business No. 2 zoning the summer before to facilitate a self-storage facility. When former Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank is teamed with traffic consultant Michael Galante, known for his miraculously consistent traffic findings of “no significant impact,” it’s a windfall for the preferred attorney and his developers:

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalk-zoners-consider-apartments-for-frontier-site/

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/willard-road-apartments-approved-solar-power-a-definite-maybe/

Adam Blank donated $500 to Harry Rilling’s campaign coffers, along with eight other attorneys, none of the eight residents of Norwalk, from his firm Wofsey Rosen. Collectively, the nine attorneys contributed $2,025. Are residents exhausted yet by this vicious cycle of Norwalk being sold out by City Hall, developers and attorneys? Are they saddened to look at Norwalk’s ever growing apartment compounds which overpower the landscape, generate that much more traffic and consume what little open space they have? Are they even aware that our Senator and our State Reps are up in Hartford working on legislation to take local control away from Planning & Zoning in CT cities and towns, which will only further exploit “As-of-right” development to achieve the goal of increased density, and will perpetuate pay to play selling out of our land to campaign donor developers by campaign donor attorneys? Should development deals even be politicized this way? Norwalk is so overcrowded and oversaturated with apartments that its amenities are now watered down. If residents don’t pay closer attention to what’s going on with land development both locally and up in Hartford in the form of legislation, and if they keep voting in the same uninformed way, then they’re essentially giving our current local administration and state legislators their blessing to exacerbate the vicious cycle of overdensifying and irreversibly damaging Norwalk. Elections have consequences.

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