Hempstead’s Planning Committee taking Norwalkers advice

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large),
Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).

NORWALK, Conn. – One month after a group of Norwalk citizens pressed Common Council members to widen the scope of the Planning Committee to include all of Norwalk, committee Chairman Doug Hempstead is taking a step in that direction.

Thursday’s Planning Committee meeting will include Planning and Zoning staff going over the process of creating a new master plan, Hempstead said.

“It’s something people have been bringing up at meetings whether or not we have got anything done on the master plan,” Hempstead said.

Last month, Michael McGuire, Jackie Lightfield and Lisa Thomson urged committee members to change the way things are done in light of the recent controversies surrounding an application for a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Main Avenue, the mosque proposed for 127 Fillow St., and the plan to enlarge a house in the middle of Rowayton’s Farm Creek.

“There should be somebody from the planning department that staffs this particular committee,” Lightfield said.

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan is the staff person assigned to the Planning Committee, although the RDA is only responsible for a portion of the city and the committee is theoretically supposed to be planning all of Norwalk.

Hempstead said Thursday’s meeting is a “See how this works out, to, kind of test – it’s not a test, it’s more of ‘OK, I get it, it makes sense.’ It’s funny that there’s nobody that I can ever recall in 30 years (who mentioned it before).”

Sheehan can’t make Thursday’s meeting, he said, so it’s a good time to do an informational workshop for Council members, he said. There also is going to be a joint Planning Committee/Redevelopment Agency meeting late this month to get an informal presentation from General Growth Properties (GGP) regarding its intentions for the 95/7 site, Hempstead said, stressing that no formal application will have been made at that point.

GGP, of course, is looking to build a mall on the property. This would require a change in the Land Disposition Agreement with the city for the property, which is part of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan.

In addition to the introduction to the master planning process Thursday night, Council members are going to be told what has been implemented, approved or in process at P&Z from the current Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), approved by the Council in 2008.

“The picture I have been getting is there are lots of things that have been done, it just happens to get done quietly,” Hempstead said.

Then, over the next three months, he plans to have staff members from other departments come in and inform the committee about accomplishments that are in line with the POCD, he said. That would include Norwalk Senior Environmental Engineer Alexis Cherichetti and Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae.

“Maybe, hopefully, if we accomplish this, it becomes a tradition every time there is a new Council, maybe the Planning Committee at the beginning of the year could be given a snapshot (of the POCD),” he said.

He wasn’t thinking of zoning issues for Thursday’s meeting, but the door would be opened to questions and answers in the agenda with a light agenda, he said.

While no one had ever brought up having the RDA director as the adviser to the Planning Committee, there has been a suggestion of a Norwalk Economic Development Corporation to replace the RDA, Hempstead said. That would open the door to looking at planning for the entire city. “It had some merit and this may lead us there,” Hempstead said.

A Redevelopment Agency is an idea that dates to the 50’s, he said, and many cities and towns have moved on to an Economic Development Corporation.

As for GGP, Hempstead said he didn’t know what kind of presentation would be made later this month.

“It’s a changing moment for Norwalk, depending what they do with it,” Hempstead said. “I have a lot of concerns about a 900,000-square-foot mall being dumped in the middle of South Norwalk.”


11 responses to “Hempstead’s Planning Committee taking Norwalkers advice”

  1. John Hamlin

    Maybe a trained, truly credentialed, and experienced expert city planner (something the city does not employ) should be included in discussions about the future of the city.

  2. EveT

    It is encouraging to see a longtime leader like Hempstead acknowledging that the way things have always been done might actually not be the best way or the way we need things done now.

  3. Suzanne

    I agree with John Hamlin. As qualified as volunteers to these committees may be, an expert needs to be hired and held accountable to oversight and active direction to coordinate the various efforts described.

    These are high stakes developments for the City of Norwalk. In fact, I would venture to say the highest in that Planning, Zoning and Development affect everyone and determine the quality of life for every citizen.

    Norwalk, it’s time to “grow up” and realize that, while these efforts are a valuable start, they cannot possibly be considered truly professional, coordinated and Norwalk’s best effort if an expert in these matters is not hired just as a Police Chief is hired for our protection, a Director of Public Works for sanitation matters, the umpteenth number of entrenched bureaucrats running this city.

    We need new – insight, experience, qualifications for this town’s own 21st Century. And we need to take it seriously.

  4. Mike Mushak

    Bravo to all of the comments above! A step in the right direction. Finally.

  5. Michael McGuire

    I applaud Mr. Hempstead’s willingness to have some planning guidance on the Council. But I agree with John Hamlin and Suzanne – we can’t just put an existing P&Z staff member on the commission since we don’t know if they have the training or credentials to do this work (I would be surprised if they did). And, RDA is technically not part of the City – they are an independent organization with their own mission/agenda. We need a politically-neutral professional planner on staff as head of P&Z.

    Furthermore, our message should be that Norwalk is open for business and looking to enact changes in our process that stimulates opportunities in business and education, revitalizes our downtowns, and attracts young families through good governance. I get concerned when our leaders refer to the biggest commercial investment in Norwalk in 40 years as being “dumped” in the “middle” of SoNo. This sends a very loud message to the business community that Norwalk is not business friendly.

    Why? Because this site abuts the highway juncture of Interstate 95 and Route 7, which itself has seen millions of tax payer dollars invested to configure with our surface streets to accommodate a larger scale development; creates 2,100 jobs; does not add a single student to the school roles; will be a boon to the Grand List for at least half a century if not longer; and will create a draw to Norwalk that will boost our existing businesses and attract new ones.

    The “dumped” thinking is what gets Norwalk known as the “hole in the donut”. Good city planning would maximize the benefits of a GGP investment by giving the CC the info and support they need to negotiate the best deal on our behalf.

  6. piberman

    The real test will be whether the City hires outside professional planning expertise to advise on major projects. And whether its planning officials are ever subject to comprehensive annual performance reviews before being given their “customary” salary boosts. Despite Council President Hempstead’s upbeat remarks the “smart money” sees no real change. After all if Mr. Hempstead has no problem with a Council Finance Committee not having financial expertise why would we expect a Planning Committee to fare any better without its requisite expertise ? At day’s end the real question is why the Council and Mayor are traditionally so dead set against hiring outside expertise. Is it because Norwalk “already has the expertise” ? By definition ?

  7. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Well, at last some recognition to the fact that Norwalk needs the advice recognized professional city planners! We have architects who can be specific about recommending such specialists and the Planning Commission can always contact other cities of our size that have had successful efforts along those lines.

    I agree and have said before that it is not a job for amateurs, well-intentioned though they may be. There’s a lot of undoing to be done here in Norwalk, and it is never too late to do some re-directing.

  8. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    When hiring a City Planner, it will have to be for a long-term contract. It would be madness to hire one on the same political term cycle we are stuck with. If a new Planning Committee is brought in with every change in city government, it does not take imagination to see that new opinions and new points of view with every new administration would bring chaos to the efforts of long range planning for the growth of Norwalk.

  9. jlightfield

    Thank you Doug Hempstead, Mayor Rilling, Tim Sheehan, Mike Greene and the many who worked to re-evaluate how we think of city-wide planning. This is an important first step. The City’s governing bodies cannot make city-wide investments and policy without being able to assess conditions and goals in all of our neighborhoods. Aligning information and resources with the policy-makers helps align everyone with the same goals.

  10. Lisa Thomson

    Thank you Doug, Harry, Tim and Mike. This is a good first step, but the city STILL needs to hire a neutral city-wide planner that interfaces with the Common Council (the most powerful governing body in Norwalk) P&Z and the Community. Future strategies regarding development and land use need to be reconciled against our current zoning practices. This City Planner needs to take into account P&Z staff and commissions but ALSO proactively developing a process for incorporating the needs and characteristics of the individual ‘neighborhoods’ who fund 90% of the city. Homeowners need to believe that the city is engaged in smart development based upon 2014 realities and not necessarily practices that date back to Norwalk’s horse and buggy AND trolley line days 🙂

  11. John Hamlin

    So much consensus on NON on what needs to be done. So little action on the part of the city.

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