Correction, 5:51 p.m.: Alex Knopp promised before this article came out to write an op ed. (Correction updated, May 3)
NORWALK, Conn. – You might think Wall Street is cursed.
Ponder recent events:
- POKO Partners finally began construction on Wall Street Place, only to have the project stall after developer Ken Olson contracted a fatal disease.
- The city sought to buy the lot next to the Norwalk Public Library but missed the opportunity, and eventually paid developer Jason Milligan $460,000 for a 6-year purchase option, locking in a $4.9 million price for land he paid $2.65 million for.
- The Wall Street Theater has been renovated, with the assistance of taxpayer dollars, but a lawsuit filed by its contractor has led the theater to file for bankruptcy protection.
Wall Street businessman Michael McGuire prompted this inquiry with comments at the March 1 Common Council Planning Committee. It’s been 16 years since the 2004 Wall Street Redevelopment Plan was created but the area has not improved, he said, as the rents he charges for his office building at 64 Wall St. are approximately the same but his expenses are going up,
“Look around and you say, is the area better? Maybe it’s a wash, because we have a bunch of development … new housing, which is good. You know, the theater is still there but then we’ve got other issues like POKO,” he said, prompting a rebuttal from Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.
The 2004 plan was primarily for multifamily housing focused on three developments, two Head of the Harbor sites and POKO Partners’ Wall Street Place, Sheehan said, announcing that he’s still confident that construction will resume on Wall Street Place,
Will it? What’s happened to Wall Street?
NancyOnNorwalk queried several Norwalk officials and stakeholders, seeking an explanation for the seemingly long-term quagmire that is Wall Street.
Michael McGuire, property owner since 2000
Wall Street is not cursed, it’s just burdened with “leadership by committees … No one is in charge but everyone has a say,” McGuire wrote in an email. He provided his take on the history of Wall Street, continuing:
“History post WW2 – Norwalk’s main downtown was Wall/Main until roughly the 1960’s. People blame the  flood for the demise but that was really not the main cause. It was economics as the new shopping center format (retail strip centers) took shape on Westport Ave and that took 2+ decades to run its course but it was done efficiently as the market clearly showed the way and was well ahead of the ‘committees’. It syphoned off good retailers from downtown.
“Next the focus was on SoNo which started in the 1970’s and continues its revitalization today. It’s been a slow, drawn out process with many bumps along the way but all in all successful…but could be doing better if the ongoing parking issue is resolved (more on that below). The long-term nature of the SoNo redevelopment is due to the market playing catch up with the ‘committees’ – just the opposite from Westport Ave. Hence more room/time for unintended consequences.
“Throughout this time period (up through mid-1980’s) the Wall/Main/West area was declining – no worries as all neighborhoods go through cycles and most would agree (at the time) that Wall/Main would bounce back. After all it was the City Center, right?
“Coming into the late 1980’s early 1990’s we have the focus shift to the Connecticut Avenue corridor and the Big Box era held sway until recently. The redevelopment process was fast and efficient as again the market was well ahead of the ‘committees’. Today’s focus is on 95/7 and Waypointe/the apartment boom, another ‘committee’ centric process but with bigger players with much deeper pockets.
“Looking back Norwalk has seen constant major changes that have reshaped our City, mostly in a good way. But the key takeaway here is that everything noted above is very, very real estate intensive. Each time period reflects a significant change to a neighborhood. Seemingly small policies decisions imposed on major neighborhood changing plans can have a dramatic follow on effect – both positive or negative. The following are examples of seemingly small policy decisions specific to Wall/Main that had big impacts.
“One: Deciding to lever the parking assets to kick start Wall Street was and is a great decision. However, choosing POKO Partners to manage and build Wall Street Place, largely based on the social do good aspect of the POKO plan (vs. more feasible plans put forward by better qualified builders), was the undoing of what should have been a grand slam. Seemingly small decision (choosing POKO) – huge negative impact.
“Two: Deciding to install parking meters on Wall, River and Main Streets in the early 2000’s was a much-needed change for the good. This created an undeniable retail resurgence that was gaining strength throughout the mid 2000’s. However, the follow-on decision to cut off the meter heads, but leave parking fees in parking lots and the YD garage, resulted in the long, slow death of the retail resurgence on Wall and Main. This was due to the highly valuable street parking spaces (the lifeline of a downtown retailer) being clogged up by none customers. The resulting weak retail market made this prominent small business area look shabby. Small decision – big impact.
“Three: Creating a Parking Authority was arguably a good policy. However, creating a mandate for the NPA to be self-sufficient, without a corresponding mandate to ‘do no harm to business’ resulted in the biggest anti-business policy in my Norwalk experience. Small decision (leaving out the do no harm clause) – big impact.
“Four: Not having a blight ordinance – Duleep’s burnt out Wall Street building, seven years and counting. Small decision – big impact.
Bill Collins (Mayor, 1977-81 and 1983-87)
Former Mayor Bill Collins said he feels sorry for former Mayor Alex Knopp, who “worked hard but it was the wrong time.”
Knopp, who initiated the Wall Street Place development, put his back into it but then Moccia unseated him after four years, bringing “no vision, no excitement and “no enthusiasm,” Collins said, opining that even if Knopp had succeeded in winning another term there wouldn’t have been much he could do as the economy collapsed.
“If that’s a curse that’s what happened,” Collins said. “The economy was not good. The leadership was not good. Nobody really put their back into getting the ball rolling….That was bad fate.”
Collins was mayor during over SoNo’s initial resurgence, including the construction of the Maritime Aquarium and renovation of Washington Street.
“It would have been better if incorporated uptown ‘NoNo’ into the planning more,” Collins said. “SoNo worked but we did not pay much attention to Wall Street area, which even then was depressed and would have taken more vision than maybe I had. But… uptown got left behind. There was unfortunately no new vision that came along to bring it up to speed. Even today, it’s status quo.”
Richard Moccia (Mayor 2005-2013)
“While I have over the past few years refrained from criticizing any political figures, I am forced to respond to Bill Collins,” Moccia wrote in an email. “Bill Collins talking about excitement is amusing. Because he was about as exciting as watching a baked potato cook.”
Moccia answered Collin’s comments by writing, “Alex did work hard, and I continued working with POKO on the same basic plan that Alex developed. Unless Bill was at all the meetings I had with Redevelopment, POKO, and the lawyers, then I would suggest that he is talking from ignorance.”
“One member of my party, Nick Kydes, was opposed to any affordable housing being included,” Moccia wrote. “Then the recession hit. It became a domino effect, delays, political objections and then the recession and then eventually to the point we are at now. I guess that could be considered a collective failure.”
“Some of the of the obstacles that arose were beyond anyone’s control,” Moccia wrote. “Firstly, the owner of the Globe Theater asking for a exorbitantly high amount for POKO to buy it. I know the amount of 2 million was mentioned. This delayed many of POKO’s plans.”
Former owner Mary Kyriakides sold the theater to the Wall Street Theater Company for $1.5 million in January 2014, after Moccia left office. She is listed as having bought the theater in 2008, for $555,000.
“As Mayor at the time I would have to accept some responsibility as some of it happened on my watch. I am sure that Mayor Rilling probably is getting some of the heat right now, although there are situations beyond his control affecting the project. I hope that my efforts although at the beginning stages will ultimately lead to a vibrant Wall Street.
“As far as obstacles, there was the Duleep building fiasco. From my side of the aisle, some Councilmen who felt strongly about overdevelopment and too much housing. I got the impression that they thought they could keep Norwalk the way it was in the 50’s and 60’s with mom and pop stores, and did not buy into the idea of affordable housing and outside developers.
“With regards to the Head of Harbor project, I am happy it is progressing, Mike DiScala is a respected developer and businessman in town. There were some obstacles with Zoning and constant criticisms from a person who claims to be an environmental expert and, again, politicians opposed to developers. But in retrospect, I probably concentrated too much on the POKO project and should have been more aggressive on helping the Head of the Harbor project. That being said I am glad that Mayor Rilling has helped advance Mike’s project.”
Douglas Hempstead, Common Council 2003-present
“I was old enough to see the flood, but I was only 4 at the time,” Hempstead said, explaining that he was told that major retailers such as Macy’s were interested in building in the Wall Street area but downtown merchants “didn’t want a large department store being there because they thought it would put them all out of business. That’s how they wound up with a Pathmark, with an office building.”
Norwalkers didn’t want office buildings on Connecticut Avenue because there was a boom down on Route 7, “and all the neighbors were complaining, ‘We’ve got historic buildings and these tall buildings, 15 stories, 12 stories, we don’t want them up and down Connecticut Avenue,” Hempstead said.
Therefore, the retail left the town center and went to Connecticut Avenue, he said.
In the 1980s, “You drove down Connecticut Avenue, you had a trucking depot where Stop and Shop was, a lumber Ring’s End-type place where the CVS is on the corner up there. Old McDonald’s farms where the office building is. Drive-in movie theater where Best Buy is now. You had a trailer park where Sports Authority was,” Hempstead said.
There were old cabins and, “It was pretty under developed, even going into the 80s up there on Connecticut Avenue,” Hempstead said.
Therefore, the retail went there, because the Wall Street property owners were not a cohesive group and it’s hard with individually owned buildings, he said.
“The urban renewal style is ‘just take it all,” Hempstead said. “That’s what happened to Washington Street. The city did eminent domain and took it all and turned it over to one developer. (Norwalk Center) just never evolved. There’s not many apartments up there, either. As crazy as it sounds there were a lot of people living uptown (before the flood), because over the river there were a lot of apartments.
The issues predated Redevelopment, he said, asserting that back in the 80s and 90s an effort should have been made to plan the area along a theme and concluding, “I think it’s been a victim of its time.”
Editor’s Notes: Knopp was responsible for choosing POKO; Moccia had the parking meters removed. Mayor Harry Rilling has not responded to emails on this topic; Knopp initially did not respond but promised on April 19 to write an opinion piece on the topic.
This is Part I of a series. Portions of Mike McGuire’s emailed response were bolded by the editor.