Another City Development Plan. Another Neighborhood Concerned
How does Norwalk do it? How is it that large-scale development plans for the City keep generating opposition from residents, even after initial support for planning and months of participation meetings?
As the East Norwalk Neighborhood Transit Oriented Development (not “Design”) nears its final approval, it is instructive to look at the origins of the project, and reflect on the three factors that contributed to the latest disconnect between the neighborhood and the planners.
- Poor alignment of goals
- Mission creep and slippage
- Development dogma
Way back in the annals of history (2017), the application began as an attempt to augment the underfunded city master plan with additional study money. The master plan called for two mini-studies of transit-anchored areas — one for the dormant Wall Street train station and one for the East Norwalk station. As it happened, the bi-annual cycle for Transit Oriented Development (“TOD”) Grants was open, and both areas were potentially eligible for study money. It is forgotten now that the original application for this grant money was for both areas, and that if we failed to obtain a grant, one or both areas would have been targeted for additional attention in the master plan. The state awarded the grant only for the East Norwalk area.
Also early on, buy-in from stakeholders was obtained with the goal of STUDYING the area, not necessarily developing a plan. The grant money is meant to foster development strategies that encourage and enhance TRANSIT use, including walkability within the TOD area. Though the timing was close, stakeholders understood the timeline would yield study results in time to be incorporated into the master plan.
Once the grant was in hand, the study timeline changed, and the mission creep began. The introduction in the draft plan to be reviewed with the public on Wednesday and Thursday (July 1 and 2) contains three secondary questions that do not appear in the original bid package provided to the consultant, including one about “maximizing” the existing assets of the area. Residents may be forgiven for believing that the objective of the study was to “optimize” the area for residents with appropriate transit-based strategies.
TOD can introduce density of employment, or density of housing, or anchor the area as a destination. The community had no pre-set conclusion about what the study would recommend; but it did not take long for development dogma to set in.
After the initial economic analysis of the area, objectives narrowed in on buildings, land parcels, Zoning density and parking. While the community was led through a series of “wish list” exercises, which focused upon open space, walkability, traffic mitigation strategies, and the difference between “nodes” and “main street” development strategies; the responsibilities for transforming the area were being distributed in the usual fashion. The economic studies concluded, consistent with typical development dogma, that additional residential density was required in order for the community to get any amenities or additional economic activity.
Expensive infrastructure improvements would remain with the city, where historical failures to invest over the years will magically convert into expensive-to-maintain projects, funded mostly with state money. Long term maintenance of these assets will not be properly funded, as new revenue from rental apartments, and incremental taxes will likely underperform expectations and disappear into newly proposed TIFs in any case.
The cost of public realm amenities and improvements designed to discourage car use (like shared parking and parking reduction strategies) would sit with property owners through complicated land use regulations that give a lot of discretion to the Zoning Commission for compliance.
Residents who wanted things like community gardens, government offices, job-producing workplaces, reduced pass-through traffic and a neighborhood grocery market were told that the height and density restrictions that keep our neighborhood a “village” would have to make way to incentivize builders to pay for those things within their projects. In three early reports to the Oversight Committee, every single patch of “open space” that appeared on the maps either already existed, or proposed on private property.
Traffic control strategies proposed tools that would not address the root causes of traffic in the area. The study bypassed solutions like convenient means for people to access the train station without being dropped off in a car, or providing an incentive for a neighborhood market so people do not have to drive out of the area for groceries, or anchoring government services or tourist attractions with complementary economic activity to bring in dollars via the train. Instead roads and parking are to be redesigned as unpleasant and difficult, to make car travel less competitive with public transit, and forces residents to compete for scarce parking resources with faddish trends like scooters that have little documented safe usage in Norwalk.
As the plan continued to develop, new “easter eggs” appeared, that were neither conceived by, nor presented to the public, but found their way into iterations of the plan seemingly out of thin air (like adding another neighborhood zone, apparently for the purpose of gentrifying the area near the public works facilities.) Later on, the idea of moving the public works garage out of East Norwalk and developing that site was dropped in, even though it was not identified early on as susceptible to change.
At the end of the day, after concluding that Zoning restrictions are discouraging property owners from improving and investing in the area; the proposal includes 15 pages of loosening the Zoning restrictions, and 25 pages of new village design restrictions, including the need to hire a consultant to ensure compliance, which will only add to the expense and complexity any property owner might experience in attempting to develop here.
Of the Top Ten Action Items called for in the plan, nine of them have to do with land use, the tenth is a bullet-point list of “area-wide actions” that are supposed to be at the heart of TOD, and zero of them relate to an actual strategy for the train station itself. We will get dense development, with the façade of “village” through design restrictions.
People who love East Norwalk will move on, and new residents will not have an area appreciably different from Port Chester. The powers-that-be in Norwalk really don’t care, because the money from the next taxpayer that moves in is just as green as the money of the taxpayer that just moved out.
Debora Goldstein is a former Third Taxing District Commissioner. She served on the East Norwalk TOD Oversight Committee as TTD representative, before failing to win reelection last fall.