NORWALK, Conn. — The intense debate continues over the East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development plan, with the Common Council Planning Committee next to take on the plentiful advocates arguing against its components.
Lifelong residents and newcomers alike have let the Planning Commission have it in nearly five hours of public hearing back-and-forth, as Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin and the Commission, acting as advocates for the City, tried to explain their support for the plan. Despite those abundant attempts to persuade and mollify, the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association promises more pushback.
“ENNA will continue to call upon our elected and appointed officials to postpone advancing the plan to further public hearings until the public can resume in-person meetings at City Hall in public venues,” Diane Cece said to the Commission.
An extra story
The East Norwalk TOD plan seeks to provide a vision for the area within one mile of the East Norwalk train station, which will be incorporated into the city-wide master plan and serve as a guide for development.
While the village districts proposed to preserve the Liberty Square and Cove-First Avenue areas are well-received, the village district planned for the East Avenue corridor, from about I-95 South towards Gregory Boulevard and Cemetery Street, is a hotbed of controversy.
New Zoning would allow an additional story in exchange for amenities, allowing buildings with 3.5 stories instead of 2.5 stories.
That proposed village district encompasses about 5 percent of the 490 acres in the plan, Kleppin said in the Aug. 24 public hearing. “That represents the East Avenue corridor, which I think really needs some TLC.”
“Just to put it in perspective, if you just took the raw land within that area, and divided it by the proposed density that could possibly be realized, you get about 700 units,” Kleppin said. “Now, our consultant has said ‘you’re not going to realize that you’re maybe get half of that just based on all the constraints and the realities of things.’ Because if you think about these parcels, they’re small in area, they’re for the most part under different ownership. So some of these may not get developed or they’re not going to develop over a long period of time.”
Cece, speaking for ENNA, said, “The vast majority of residents we interact with are adamantly opposed to implementing this and have expressed the need for further consideration of the recommended zone canvass. And in a recent internet survey with 300 respondents, 80 percent of them would limit plan wide development to under 500 units. And of them 67 percent wanted no more than an additional 200 units throughout the entire plan area.”
“It looks great on paper for numbers for financial numbers for developers, not for people like me, who’ve been here all my life,” Frank Arcamone said. “It just seems like every single citizen and resident here that’s talking, none of us want this plan or not at the extent that you guys are presenting it. But no one’s listening I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s like, yeah, love that plan.”
Not everyone spoke against the plan. One Myrtle Street resident said it “all looks great to me,” and questioned the depiction of East Norwalk residents hating it.
“I think the people who come to these types of meetings tend to be people that are against these types of developments,” Ana Tabachneck said. “…I think reading your plan, it seems like you’re taking the character of the neighborhood into account and trying to keep things pretty small. So I don’t know if there’s a better way to get feedback from the community.”
Tracy Barclay, a Cove Avenue resident, countered, “We do not want to be portrayed as we are against the plan. Our concerns are the extremes of the plan.”
She spoke of disillusionment and said, “you’ll have to excuse some of our skepticism that the plans as presented would actually come to fruition exactly as they are shown.”
Barclay was among the many opponents citing traffic concerns.
“I have to say I would implore the committee to hold off on big decisions until we see some of the impact that the Yankee Doodle bridge construction, the Strawberry Hill construction is going to do to the cut through traffic to East Norwalk,” Barclay said. “We are going to see a huge amount of increase in traffic…mostly we are horrified at the thought of what these projects for the bridges are going to do to our traffic and so we just ask that before you approve any other larger residential units that you allow us to absorb and witness and react to what we’re going to see here in the very near future.”
“I moved here from New York City,” Jesse McGarty said. “If I wanted that business I would have stayed in New York. The reason why I chose East Norwalk and love it so much is that it is this, you know, more quiet section of town with the beach within walking distance.”
“The plan is introducing that as what we think is a good idea that will benefit the entire city,” Kleppin said. “… Norwalk is a city, East Norwalk is not a, you know, municipality amongst itself. It’s part of a much larger collective.”
The plan is tailored for this particular part of the city, to maintain its feeling and not duplicate South Norwalk, but “we think we’ve put together a reasonable approach to get things done,” Kleppin said.
Devki Desai called it a “really great plan” but had one suggestion: set energy standards to help the area get on “the path to net zero carbon.”
“I think if we set the bar pretty high, we’re going to attract talent, as opposed to not setting the bar at all and attracting kind of your business-as-usual developer and ending up with ending up with kind of business-as-usual results,” she said.
Kleppin and consultant Emily Keyes Innes of The Cecil Group said they welcomed whatever information Desai would send.
Most of the houses off East Avenue are “25-30 feet tall at the very tallest” and the plan would allow for 45-foot buildings that would “tower over them,” Lou Garcia said, characterizing his comments as coming from his experience as an architect.
“We, as the people of Eastern Norwalk, as someone who has been here for 50 years, I think that we believe that we definitely need to have some improvements in East Norwalk, okay, and East Avenue,” he said.
But people will park on the side streets, and he fears that all the spaces will be taken, Garcia said. “We’re going to have a tremendous congestion in East Norwalk because the traffic jam is going to become such that no one’s going to be able to move from the cemetery or from the train station to exit 16 already.”
“There’s no recommendation or suggestion in the plan that you don’t have a minimum parking standard. It’s the same parking standard that applies to uses throughout the city,” Kleppin said.
But he called it a “valid concern” that cars would spill over onto residential streets.
“One of the plan recommendations and the Traffic, Mobility and Parking group has put in budget money to implement and study a residential parking permit program, and this would be a great spot to do that,” Kleppin said. “With the idea being if you don’t live there, you’re not supposed to be parking there certain hours.”
Plus, the parking standards can be updated, he said. “The city put out the RFP for the zoning regulations rewrite which is going to be a comprehensive rewrite of the entire Zoning documents…. I’ve carved out a little money as part of that process, to have somebody take a look at the draft parking and draft amenities schedule that we have within the plan.”
Wells Fargo and the Bank of America
Some opponents spoke as if there were already an application to build apartments on the Wells Fargo site and others blamed the plan for the proposal to build housing at 93 Winfield St., the former Bank of America site.
Garcia called the latter “a perfect example of a greedy developer, trying to maximize what he can do.”
The TOD plan would have prevented that proposal, Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak said, also qualifying that the Planning Commission has no jurisdiction over it.
“I think when you don’t have a good plan, you’ll get those kind of projects. And if they fit in with the current zoning, you’re under, you know, you’re behind the eight ball,” Kleppin said.
The developer submitted the proposal before the new plan was approved, and legally, it can’t be denied if it conforms to current zoning, Kleppin explained.
“This property developer is gaming the system is totally unacceptable, is irresponsible. It’s almost an immoral move, an unethical move on his part,” Planning Commissioner Brian Baxendale said.
As for Wells Fargo, Kleppin said, “Any redevelopment on that site, whether the regulations get changed or not, are going to improve that property. Because right now if you take an overhead look at it, it’s basically a sea of asphalt, which is not a very good use of the property…. if you look at what we proposed for the regulations, there’s going to be vast improvements to the drainage and surface water runoff that go from that site. I think it would be a win-win either way.”
“I’m concerned about how high it’s going to be because of this slope. And if they’re going to somehow, you know, do the three and a half stories at the top of the slope, about 87 units, which is a lot,” said Vicki Roos, a neighbor.
Patricia Prince said she fears the traffic that would come from the development.
“That’s going to require a separate traffic study,” Kleppin said. “And they’re going to have to look at impacts not only on their site, but how that could affect all this, you know, they have to model where traffic will go, how many trips will get generated per day, what’s the existing conditions, and then the city is going to do their own analysis of what’s submitted.”
Again, there’s a plus, he said. “There will probably be significantly less impervious surface there now. Storm water will get handled better, they’ll be, you know, much better than to the environment and Mill Pond specifically.”
Michael DiScala, whose company owns the property, said the TOD plan is well thought out. He’s experienced living in a mixed-use community in Europe and it’s “a very social environment.”
“This is what I envision for East Norwalk,” he said. “We need to revitalize the boarded up and fenced up shops and create activity. This can only be accomplished by bringing people back to the area, otherwise we’re just wasting our time. Without apartments of people, you will not have a mixed-use neighborhood nor a sense of community.”
Still, he did have a criticism.
“As many of our friends, we feel there has not been much thought about the needs for empty nesters to downsize yet stay in Norwalk,” DiScala said. “Our plan for East Norwalk on our project would be to provide such a community support, to support those who wish to continue to live in Norwalk and enjoy socializing with others in a community environment.”
Kleppin spoke of about 30 meetings and three outreach sessions on the plan, but Megan Mcneill, a six-year resident, decried the process.
“The first session was actually really cool and really hopeful and exciting… The exercises were interesting, and the residents provided incredibly granular feedback on the things that they liked and that they didn’t like and the things they wish the city could have,” she said. In the second and third sessions, “Things started getting kind of disappointing… we were really surprised to see that all it seemed to recommend was changing Zoning to allow bigger apartment buildings and higher density if we wanted to have even a hope of getting better sidewalks or bike lanes or attracting a grocery store.”
“I don’t think anyone is disagreeing that East Avenue can definitely look better than the way it does now. But can we find a middle ground? Can we find a way to make it better without going so far as what we’re talking about here in these plans?” McGarty said.
East Avenue looks the way it does “because the regulations don’t provide any incentive for anybody to improve those properties,” Kleppin said.
This ties into the plan to allow an extra story, “a little more FAR (floor to area ratio) to let them improve their properties,” he said. The current situation “just doesn’t work.”
“You know, we the city can go ahead and improve sidewalks and add lighting, but we can’t compel somebody to put a grocery store in, you know, that’s not how the market works. The market’s dictated by, you know, demand and a desire for typical business to be there.”
“In my opinion, this is the compromise plan. This is the measured tactical plan that is the balance between a full TOD plan and a balance between the neighborhood,” Kleppin said.
He said, “I would disagree with that comment that nobody listened to their comments at all. I mean, I think the reason we have the density number and the height number proposed is because we did listen. I think it’s a little naive to think that we would do TOD plan, by nearly its definition in nature, that didn’t propose maximizing use of property in and around a major transit station.”
The additional story is only 10 feet, “it’s not a lot,” he said. “These are, you know, there’s not a big difference between a residential standard and what we’re proposing here. Now, obviously, the density is more, I’m not trying to sugarcoat that. And I do understand that when you add more density, you’re adding more cars. And I know that East Norwalk, excuse me, East Avenue, in particular, is not always fun in the morning to drive. There’s a lot of reasons for that.”
There are roadway upgrades planned, “that should happen over the next couple years, that’ll move that traffic along,” he said. “And I’m not naive enough to think that everybody’s going to hop on the train that moves here. That’s not what I’m saying. But I’m saying that to get the benefits that people want and get the vision people want, this is how we recommend that this area changes.”
Common Council members subsequently indicated sympathy for the requests to delay approval, in light of COVID-19.
“Personally, I’ve heard a lot of people who are asking that our decisions be delayed,” Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D) said on Aug. 20. “…I think this is a very, very big project for East Norwalk. I think it’s going to have a lot of impact on a lot of people. I think that we should listen to what not only the DNA says, but everyone says, because there’s a lot of passion about this.”
Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) asked Kleppin if he’d consider getting an extension on the deadline associated with the State grant that funded the TOD study.
“We’ve already received an extension from the state and we’re at, according to them, we’re at the limit now, because when we were first awarded the grant, it took us a little while longer to get started,” Kleppin said.
He understands the objections but, “that’s why I think we’ve kept it at modest recommendations of additional one story, which is, I think, you know, considering you’re on a main line of a Metro North train station, I don’t think it’s very, you know, very grand, especially when you compare it to other areas of the city where we’ve done rezoning,” he said.
As for virtual hearings, he said, “the Zoom platform works better for the public comment process, because everybody gets to say there’s no interruptions, there’s no people yelling out from the back of the room, which we had a lot, and everybody gets their hand raised.”
Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) had already announced that the Committee would hold its hearing Sept. 10.
“I’m keeping my mind open to everything, personally,” Kydes said. “So I mean… my intention is to invite the entire Council to participate in the public hearing to see the presentation, not to have this, either be in September or October, to be as up to date on everything as possible.”