Updated, 5:30 p.m. meeting dates.
NORWALK, Conn. – Proponents of a mall for South Norwalk faced a tough audience Monday when they made their sales pitch to the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations (CNNA).
“We have heard this. The same words — connectivity, from South Norwalk to Norwalk — we’ve heard it, it hasn’t happened,” said Bob Wagman of the West Norwalk Association, midway through more than two hours of discussion with General Growth Properties (GGP) Senior Development Director Charles Tapia and GGP attorney Larry Cafero. “… We have been hearing this for now well over 10 years, starting with Waypointe back in the early ’90’s, POKO, Head of the Harbor. the words are the same; they kind of lose their impact.”
Tapia and Cafero did the same PowerPoint presentation they have done for others, hitting the highlights of the proposed trolley-like bus to transport customers on a loop from the South Norwalk train station to the nearby attractions, the estimated million visitors a month, the desire to help SoNo, not hurt it. They got questions on similar themes: the look of the place, the traffic.
Diane Cece, who led the meeting, said she could bring a laugh to the room, and then delivered with a guess about what will happen when GGP presents an application to the Zoning Commission, with testimony from a traffic engineer.
“They are going to say one sentence: ‘This will have no impact,’” she said, getting the promised chuckle. “And there we go. We all sit through it and we all chuckle in the audience because there has never been a project in the city of Norwalk that hasn’t had a negative impact on traffic. I am sure you hear this in other places. Of course they have an impact on traffic. it’s crazy to say it doesn’t.”
Tapia said traffic is important to GGP as well. “If there is lots of traffic, people are not going to come back,” he said.
One man said he didn’t think the look of the mall fit in with Norwalk. People driving on I-95 see trees, he said. They see smaller buildings. If the mall is built they will see glass and glitz.
“A dump is what defined Norwalk,” Cafero said, before lauding Oyster Shell Park, which was built on the notorious riverfront landfill and is on the other side of the railroad tracks from the would-be mall. Oyster Shell Park is beautiful, he said, and the mall would not hide it, it would augment it, he said.
Duplicating Washington Street would not be a good idea, he said.
“If you were to try to duplicate it, I don’t know, according to our architects and designers, you’re trying to force the beautiful, naturally historic South Norwalk,” Cafero said. “Now you’re sort of manufacturing the thing in a shopping center. So what they tried to do is use some of the brick to tie it in, make the scale to some of that size but also make it different.”
“Don’t be confused by the rendering and the choice of materials,” Tapia said. “That’s why we haven’t submitted yet, we want to hear what everyone’s comments are and then we can fix them and modify and change materials possibly to something that is appropriate.”
Someone asked why the mall would not just blow SoNo merchants out of the water.
“The stores in here are more fashion oriented,” Cafero said. “They are not competing with the boutique stores, they are not competing with the restaurants.”
Tapia said that, ordinarily, GGP would put a movie theater in its mall. That isn’t planned because it would compete with the neighborhood, he said. That is an example of the approach to the area, he said.
Another concern raised: South Norwalk churches need parking. Cafero volunteered that a deal might be made to allow church-goers free parking on Sundays. “That is part of this listening tour, if you will.”
Skepticism was expressed about the trolley-bus – who would go to the mall and then visit SoNo? Tapia said it would be unrealistic to think that everyone would leave the mall to visit SoNo, but imagine if one percent did.
Julie Burton had a positive reaction.
“I like to go to dinner in SoNo but the parking is a hassle,” she said. “So – I don’t really like to shop but hey, I can kill two birds with one stone: Go to the Gap and then go to dinner. I park at the mall, take the little circulator thing, and have a really nice outing rather than making two trips. I can see it.”
“I hope so,” Tapia said, drawing a laugh.
The next steps in the “listening tour” include two meetings for SoNo merchants in early July at the South Norwalk Library, Cafero said, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, to allow everyone to get there. Those are on July 8 at 6:30 p.m. and July 14 at 3 p.m., Doug Adams of GGP said in a Wednesday email to NoN.
There is an effort to set up meetings with individual neighborhood associations, Cafero said. Because the previous owner of thee site, Spinnaker Realty, had gotten a Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) to build a mixed-use development, GGP will have to convince city officials to permit major changes to allow the mall project to move ahead.
The goal is to submit an application in November or December, Cafero said. The proposal will have to go through the Common Council, the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and Planning and Zoning, he said.
Cece said another thing that gets a laugh from CNNA members is a public hearing in August.
“It won’t be in August, I can guarantee that,” Cafero said.
Afterward, Al Raymond said he hadn’t been swayed.
“Basically what I am concerned with is how it looks,” Raymond said. “I definitely want something there. We have been looking at a hole in the ground for 15 years now. I definitely want to see something go there but it’s got to fit in with Norwalk. I mean, in my opinion, that, what you are looking at is all glass and glitzy and it doesn’t fit into Norwalk.”
Something replicating Westport’s downtown would be better, he said. Plus, people from Darien and New Canaan will figure out routes to the mall that would not include the Route 7 connector – it would include his neighborhood, he said.
“They always say no,” he said, referring to traffic engineers and their predictions of a lack of impact outside the immediate area of whatever they are paid to support.
Corine Weston of the SoNo Alliance was similarly unimpressed.
“I just don’t want a mall. I didn’t want one there before, I don’t want one now,” she said. “That’s the only problem. I would like the mixed use, but that’s not their job.”