NORWALK, Conn. — A celebratory mood marked Monday’s Common Council meeting as members unanimously green-lighted a $14 million purchase of land for a South Norwalk neighborhood school.
“This is a significant milestone in the City’s efforts to bring a much-needed school back to South Norwalk, efforts that have been going on since at least 2016. … The students in South Norwalk will no longer have to spend a good part of their days bused across the city. It makes it easier, and easier for families to be involved in school activities,” said Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E).
The ensuing vote approved not only the purchase of the 11.74 acre parcel at 1 Meadow St. Ext. from Hatch & Bailey Co. but also increased the school’s budget from $72 million to $76 million.
The City has been working towards building a new school in South Norwalk since at least 2015, when a Board of Education facilities study recommended building a magnet school off Ely Street, adjacent to Roodner Court.
That plan hinged on using a sliver of park property and faced opposition from then-State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) and then-Council member Travis Simms, who became more powerful when Morris retired and he won election to the District 140 seat. Last year, City leaders admitted the plan wouldn’t come to fruition, even if they’d spent more than $710,000 on acquiring Tito Court properties through the eminent domain process, and started looking for alternatives.
The winds favored the effort in one way: Norwalk’s demographics have changed and the City is no longer required to maintain State racial balancing standards. The plan has therefore switched from a magnet school to a neighborhood school, long desired by the area’s residents.
Still, the school won’t accommodate all of the neighborhood’s children. Admission will be via a lottery, open only to South Norwalk residents, and it’s expected that some parents will opt to send their children to other schools for special programs.
Hatch & Bailey’s property is appraised at $8.1 million, according to the City’s website. Mayor Harry Rilling, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King and Livingston did not respond to a Monday email asking for an explanation about the gulf between the appraisal and the $14 million purchase price.
A look at the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG) geographic information system (GIS) map makes it obvious that the Hatch & Bailey site stands alone in South Norwalk, in terms of its size.
“By purchasing the parcel, we avoid the need to try to assemble a parcel large enough for school,” Livingston said during Monday’s Zoom meeting. “And because the purchase was negotiated on a friendly basis, we don’t need to use eminent domain and won’t have to disrupt and relocate residents. The purchase price I think we all know reflects negotiations between friendly partners parties and each party’s independent appraisals.”
“It’s a very friendly kind of negotiation that we didn’t put them out of business or anything else. it’s a group effort to work out something that that that satisfy both of our needs,” said Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo.
Rilling did not attend the meeting as he is at a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering, Livingston said.
The $4 million budget increase is “due to the purchase price of the project and anticipated escalation in construction costs,” Livingston said.
Lo explained that the budget factors in 3.5% inflation but currently the construction industry is seeing 6-to-8% cost escalations. “It all depends,” and there are “indications that some of the construction industry is slowing down a little bit because the interest rate going up and all that stuff.” There’s also about $2 million in contingency funds for the school.
Last month, the State legislature approved an increase in Norwalk’s new school construction reimbursement rate, from 22.5% to 60%.
The budget for the school was based on the expected 22.5% reimbursement, Lo said Monday. With 60%, the City is saving $20-25 million.
“We want to count every penny, every dollar that the city put into the project,” but at the same time, “there’s a possibility there can be a look at additional funding from the city side,” Lo said.
The City expected to pay $53 million but with the higher State contribution, “you could look at that as the amount of money we could bear because of inflationary costs, and it would break even,” agreed Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz. Given the high inflation, “I guess what we have to do is to build these schools as quickly as possible once we get approval from the state.”
Lo said it should take three years to build the school, including 18 months for the design process.
The City is investing $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) fund for sidewalks and pedestrian improvements, Livingston said.
Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) called it a “huge relief” that environmental tests done on the property resulted in a positive analysis from Louriero Engineering. Council members felt the report was “substantial” and it “alleviated some of our concerns about the site,” she said.
First, consultants studied the history of the property and then sampled its soil and water, Lo said. All the results came back “below the limit,” except for “some kind of natural occurring minerals that was shown to be a little bit higher than what standards are.”
It’s “extremely, extremely unusual for industrial property and it’s very, very positive results we got back,” Lo said. “And because there’s no hazardous material on site, there’s no remediation required, there’s no removal of any soil on the site.”
“The final draft reports are being reviewed and the final report will be made available to the public in the near future,” Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews said in an email to NancyOnNorwalk.
“I feel like this is such a win for the community to have a property of this size, it’s going to allow for so much playing field space,” Niedzielski-Eichner said during Monday’s meeting. “And it turns out to be so clean. I think that’s something really to be celebrated and very grateful for.”
“I think this is just such a landmark project and development for South Norwalk. And as a South Norwalk resident, I think that this is going to be a massive development for the community,” Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said.
“This is such an important moment for the city of Norwalk, and for the children and families of South Norwalk,” said Council Majority Leader Barbara Smyth (D-At Large).
The vote itself turned into a bit of a contest of words.
- “Enthusiastically yes,” Niedzielski-Eichner said.
- “Wholeheartedly yes,” Smyth said.
- “Definitely yes,” Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said.
Afterwards, Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) said, “There have been a lot of people in the community who have endured not such nice things during this process, that started well before any of us. I think we are at a turning point for our city and particularly our young children, but it’s not going to be easy. I there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s a lot of equity that needs to be included in this whole process and on what the school looks like in the area.”
Niedzielski-Eichner touched on that last week during a discussion with Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin, who said the school site would zoned D residence under changes proposed by the Industrial Zone study. Niedzielski-Eichner suggested a “substantially” rethinking Meadow Street’s zoning, as well as creating protections for today’s renters and homeowners rather than letting rising values push people out.
Young said Monday, “We don’t want a new school to gentrify our area, we want the families that are there to be able to live there comfortably, and have their children grow and learn in a place that they want to be, and they feel safe.”