GGP pushes to move forward in SoNo mall approval process
NORWALK, Conn. – Efforts to create a land use document that will withstand the test of time – whether or not General Growth Properties (GGP) is successful in building its upscale mall in SoNo – were marked Saturday by a trio of jazzy commercials and complaints about perceived over-reaching.
The Joint Committee, a combination of Planning Commission, Common Council Planning Committee and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency members, met for the third weekend morning to try to determine what would be considered public realm in a mixed-use development that would include a mall and a hotel on the long vacant 95/7 site. Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) pushed to maintain flexibility in the new Land Disposition Agreement (LDA), so if GGP’s plans fall through, the process won’t be repeated. This resulted in some pushback from GGP’s representatives and a reminder from RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan that a promised deadline was approaching.
“I think the dangers, and I’m not saying it is an issue yet, the thing we want to keep in our sights is GGP is here with a very specific idea of what it wants to build on the site,” GGP Attorney William Hennessey said. “I would hate for us to spend so much time and energy trying to create the alternative of what we want to build on the site that we lose the time that is so critical to us, to getting past where we are now, which is a an LDA approval. We have the time to get a conceptual master plan submitted.”
No decisions were made in the absence of one key member, RDA head Felix Serrano, but information was accrued.
Sheehan began the meeting by explaining to the committee that the market for office space has dropped significantly. But he said he recommended keeping 85,000 square feet of office as an option of the LDA, which Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom said he agreed with wholeheartedly.
Another mixed use for the property would or could be public realm. Sheehan said that public art on the building’s façade could be considered public realm, as could an architectural design feature.
Then it was on to the comparison with other malls. Sheehan showed three videos. The first was The Mall at Short Hills (NJ), which isn’t really in the category of GGP’s mall concept as it has three anchors and is considered a super regional mall. Hempstead asked for a comparison with The Westchester mall, saying it’s upscale, like GGP’s concept.
Sheehan moved on to 900 North Michigan Shops, a video which produced many smiles around the room.
“I like that. That works,” Hempstead said.
Last but not least was The Mall at Miami Worldcenter, which Sheehan said has the same amount of retail square footage that GGP is proposing, as well as a hotel. Hempstead expressed some skepticism, and Sheehan said that mall is actually surrounded by residential development, on a total of 25 acres.
Hempstead asked for documentation to support an assertion made by consultant Robert Gibbs at an earlier meeting, that a mall would actually help the surrounding business area thrive. “Seems like most of the stuff under Waypointe is empty,” Hempstead said, expressing concern about walkability.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s empty. I would say there’s leases signed,” Sheehan said.
“I withdraw that motion,” Hempstead said. “I’ll go back to, in a circle of reasonable walkability, would it benefit the center of Norwalk, what we call uptown?”
Doug Adams of GGP said that Waypointe developer Paxton Kinol has good things to say about a potential mall. “He’s found that even the discussion has been positive to his residential and his retail use,” Adams said.
The conversation moved to 20 minutes of discussion on the ways that the LDA could be written to make it flexible. Hempstead said putting in residential use as a range from “zero to” an definitive number would mean that GGP was not obligated to build housing, but that it could be there for a future developer. Sheehan said he didn’t recommend using “zero” as an option, but said the LDA could be written to offer five land uses, with the option that a developer pick three.
“I’ve seen this too many times where everybody is taking the chess pieces and moving them around,” Hempstead said.
“They can’t do that because also while you’re doing the minimums you’re doing the maximums,” Sheehan said.
He went on to remind Hempstead that the retail on the site had been capped in an artificially low number because it had been expected that Waypointe would have an abundance of retail.
Off of that topic for a while – Astrom asked about pedestrian access and the feasibility of stops for the expected trolley-like circulator. Adams explained that there would be at least three standalone entrances off West Avenue in addition to four entrances into the mall through the stores that would protrude from the façade in what GGP has called “jewel boxes.” The circulator could also stop at Oyster Shell Park, and people could walk back to the mall, he said.
After about half an hour, Attorney Larry Cafero began by apologizing if he was being redundant, but questioned the scope of the committee.
“I want to make sure that is what we all understand is the exercise here,” Cafero said, after summing up the previous conversation – three of five land uses.
“Yes, and you have been involved with sausage making yourself for 25 years,” Hempstead said to the former state rep.
Cafero smiled. “28,” he said.
“Give or take,” Hempstead said. “Part of the intent of this, why there are three chairs and why there is a member of each committee for representation, was to prevent, hopefully, sending back with ‘we recommend this’ and then suddenly it all falls apart.”
Hempstead said he wanted to “Get the big bison out of the way,” in an effort to expedite the approvals, based on his experience with city government.
Adams spoke up. “We are part of the process but there was scope for the committee that was defined. We agreed, we’re here, we’re happy, well not happy but sadly, we’re moving expeditiously and through the time frame.”
He suggested there had been a change in scope, and Sheehan started to agree but Hempstead said the chairmen had decided what the committee would tackle.
“The discussion was the committee would be coming forward with recommendation relative to the land uses and the volumes by end of this month,” Sheehan said. “Then at the beginning of next month there would be a public hearing, to hear feedback to the public with regard to the recommendation relative to the committee, then to respective agencies.”
If more than just the LDA was discussed at the public hearing that would save time, as opposed to having multiple public hearings, Hempstead said. Once it goes back to the independent governmental bodies it becomes more challenging, especially with the Council and its many committee meetings, Hempstead said. But, “It’s up to you,” he said.
Hempstead asked if GGP had better presentation materials.
Hennessey said considerable work had gone into the presentation materials provided, and GGP was not looking to create new ones without a clear indication from the city that the uses it desires are wanted by the city.
Much work has been done, he said. GGP has been working to define its tenant mix and has an understanding of the “complicated” parking issues, the types of anchor stores that will work and the organization of the other stores.
“They have developed what I think is incredible plan for the West Avenue street line. I was counting up the number of pedestrian penetrations there. … I don’t think there is anything like that from what I can see, particularly in an urban setting,” Hennessey said.
GGP is dealing with tenant issues, which don’t concern the city, Hennessey said.
“Before GGP is going to get to the next step here we need to know that the city is supportive of the use and the size,” Hennessey said. “That is sort of where we are. We need some strong indication from the city before we get into issues of design because quite frankly what we are afraid of a little here is not only the expense, over our skis here on the project that we don’t really understand what the community wants, but we’re going to ultimate delay ourselves because we’re going to get stuck in issues like design.
“We understand that there’s a building going to be built here and people are going to be very concerned about what the building looks like,” he said. “There is plenty of opportunities left for us to have those discussions with the community about what the building looks like. We know, GGP knows, from its tenants that the building will be a forward-looking building, but what actually materials used on the outside is still far from decided.”
John Hamlin February 23, 2015 at 6:44 am
It seems obvious that the mall is a done deal. And that Norwalk doesn’t have the expertise in its city government even to shed light as to whether or not it’s a good idea — much less what would be an appropriate alternative use or what adjustments should be made in the proposal. Can we get some expertise in city planning in Norwalk? Does anyone think this should be an issue for the next municipal election?
Suzanne February 23, 2015 at 8:24 am
The median income for Short Hills, one of the wealthiest towns in the country, is $234,932. Norwalk? $70,980. The average amount spent at the Chicago shops is $216 with the median income $144,541. The Miami example shows a completely different facade surrounded by sunshine and Palm trees. The only thing making these malls similar is that they are large, inward facing structures.
The retail, the income required to shop there, the way they fit into existing urban environments, the architecture, all different.
GGP is trying to lure, romance, wow Norwalk into building a completely irrelevant development for Norwalk and its citizens. This is not a catalyst for community or commerce (the latter has yet to be proved between Wall Street and SoNo.) Where is the connector? Exactly where does $216 go for the average person in Norwalk? I would guess it would not be at the Lancome counter or other unpronounceable highly expensive stores especially featured in the Chicago presentation.
Is pretty supposed to beguile us into catatonic acceptance of GGP? Hard hitting rock music? Irrelevant retail to citizens?
That deadline, or deal-line is coming, folks, with the fast tracking of development ready to bull doze the last viable piece of land that could serve Norwalk. Watch the videos that are supposed to support the 95/7 concept. And then let’s all go out and spend $216 on the completely frivolous since that is just chump change for the average person in Norwalk.
Big Tex February 23, 2015 at 9:35 am
This has all the ingredients of a train wreck in the making. No qualified studies, no impact analysis, no traffic studies, no stress tests on the city’s infrastructure and emergency services, a local pitchman likely heavily incentivized/compensated to rifle this project through, nothing to support that an upscale mall would thrive in a redundant saturated retail environment let alone cannibalize existing business/retail districts.
A moratorium is necessary here until competent city planners are installed in city hall. And for the umpteenth time, what is the apprehension of demanding an impact study at GGP’s expense by a “major league” firm? This is customary in developments of this size and scope. . . welcome to modern times.
Ann February 23, 2015 at 9:49 am
“considerable work had gone into the presentation materials provided, and GGP was not looking to (create) new ones.” Create what? What work? A 10 min youtube search? This is the best GGP can do? Really? The more I hear about this proposed project, which is lacking in details, the more concerned I become that this proposed project is being pushed too hard and for all the wrong reasons.
Gordon Tully February 23, 2015 at 10:46 am
This process is flawed at its core, just as is zoning, but the flaw is buried deep in our national car-centered development philosophy.
It is exactly backward. What is needed first is a set of guidelines on what kind of streetscapes, materials, transportation, densities, open spaces, landscaping and connections we need, then deciding on what kind of land uses should occur.
If you concentrate on what the end result looks and feels like, and how people connect with other parts of the city, you free up the specifics of land use, allowing the project to be realized in a rapidly changing economy.
What we get instead is either holes in the ground or terrible architecture and placemaking, like the Avalon project or the new Waypointe. We are awash is ridiculous false dormers, witches hats, German helmets on towers, and false facades propped up with struts like a Hollywood set, all trying to make big buildings look like cottages. What we don’t get is places people like to be in, such as Washington Street, or the Corset Factory or the new building at Water and Washington.
What we also get is projects like this one, mired in pre-2008 assumptions about the future state of the economy, which as Nissan Taleb has so convincingly showed in “The Black Swan” is truly unpredictable. We need flexibility, the ability to pivot mid-project in response to the unexpected. It is like trying to drive on the Interstate in an ox-cart.
We are not about to change how we develop, but don’t blame the results on the LDA or the developer or the Redevelopment Authority, or the worthy people trying to make sense out of a senseless process.
Maritime Yards Condo Owner February 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm
Where are the independent studies? How are those malls similar in concept? Just as stated, they incorporate residences, spas, other items. I am becoming more disillusioned with this concept as it goes farther along. I do think upscale can work in Norwalk and draw in surrounding community spend away from the city, Greenwich Ave, New Canaan downtown, etc. Still, competing restaurants, bad idea. Straight up mall, bad idea. I do not feel the confidence in the due diligence…
Maritime Yards Condo Owner February 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm
Also, I could not agree with Gordon Tully more…we are lacking authenticity – the authenticity that makes the only part of SoNo that works, actually work…
LWitherspoon February 23, 2015 at 2:21 pm
Excellent points. What is the long-term benefit to Norwalk of an upscale mall? To what extent will the mall be used by Norwalk residents as opposed to residents of the wealthy towns which surround us? If the majority of shoppers are from out of town, where is the benefit to Norwalk? There could well be one, but I haven’t seen the studies that conclusively show what it is. Has the Joint Committee? As Andy Glazer noted, we seem to have an abundance of low-paying retail jobs already.
I find it disappointing that Mayor Rilling campaigned as an opponent to a mall at 95/7, and big box in general, and now he doesn’t appear to be doing anything to oppose the mall. In fact he said he was pleased when he saw the design, and that if we don’t build the mall there, the site will sit idle for many years. Does the Mayor intend to honor the position he took in the campaign?
Gordon Tully February 23, 2015 at 4:55 pm
The mall is going to happen, so it seems to me a waste of time to talk about alternative uses or the Mayor’s campaign promises. This isn’t a big box surrounded with parking. Much as I dislike the design, it is far better than what we have on CT Avenue.
We need to get the best financial deal we can for the city while pushing for some decent contemporary architecture that helps knit the city together, rather than being a sculptural object. Not an easy design problem.
Michael McGuire February 23, 2015 at 5:41 pm
I wish our elected officials would have taken notice of Uptown Norwalk (Wall Street) years earlier. True we had some large planning done here but then we dropped the ball at the handoff.
Simple changes like addressing the anti-business parking policy, Duleep’s blight, creating economic incentives for small business to locate here (Enterprise Zone), creating parking for our main library, and the willingness to revisit POKO to make it a feasible project were, and are, all worthy endeavors in moving Norwalk’s most anemic neighborhood forward.
Why are we addressing the 95/7 LDA now? That should have been done when Spinnaker pulled out four years ago. We should embrace GGP’s investment now and not miss this cycle. Then focus on where your efforts would truly bear fruit (see above suggestions as a start).
Not sure how to do this? Hire a qualified professional planner to head up P&Z as Step One.
Odd that out Director of Planning is not part of this 95/7 process.
Suzanne February 23, 2015 at 5:48 pm
Mr. Tully, The financial deal to Norwalk is not going to be profitable for years as I understand it because of the Enterprise Zone status of the land. Thus:
“…the mall would be a $2.7 million “cost burden” to the city in its first two years because no tax revenue would be generated. In the third year, paying half the taxes due on the property, Norwalk would still be $120,000 in the hole, the analysis estimates.
Any new development comes at a cost.” Tim Sheehan, NON
So, while we get to support a wealthy developer, Norwalk is left in the lurch.
Really, folks, given the constraints of this project, how good is it for Norwalk? Really?
Rod Lopez-Fabrega February 23, 2015 at 5:50 pm
Architect Tully is 100% correct in his first post of 10:46 A.M.
WHY, I wonder, has no one in the administration (excepting the three reps. who have come out with unqualified support of the project) or anyone on the GGP side of the issue answered the legitimate questions asked for months on this site by those of us who think this Jewel Box Mall is a real misfit for Norwalk?
For something this important, the silence is mystifying and disappointing and leaves a bad odor.
Rod Lopez-Fabrega February 23, 2015 at 5:58 pm
Just watched the videos.
So, Bloomingdale’s, Lancôme, Gucci, etc. will drag little Norwalk up by the Mall-straps???
Can’t wait. Soon we’ll be just like the neighbors.
John Hamlin February 24, 2015 at 6:01 am
Is anyone pursuing serious benefits for Norwalk from the state?
John Levin February 24, 2015 at 7:02 am
Top photo needs a caption contest.
Suzanne February 24, 2015 at 1:13 pm
Mr. Levin, I can think of at least three that I think are pretty funny but they would not pass the NON editorial test.