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How do we keep getting here?

Former Third Taxing District Commissioner Debora Goldstein.

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.

12 comments

David Muccigrosso June 30, 2020 at 3:02 pm

Sounds about right.

The city needs to decide where the heck it wants its growth to be. Sono? The Mall? Wall Street/”POKO” (I absolutely HATE that acronym)? East Norwalk?

And then they need to BUILD. Not just building big “market rate” AKA luxury apartments. Build an actual market. How about we build housing for all the people illegally crammed into the slumlands south of South Norwalk? I’m sure that there are at least SOME young millennials out there who wouldn’t mind living in some cheaper digs either.

But no one in Norwalk seems to want an actually progressive housing policy. They’re more concerned with their property values, or their “village nature”.

Build UP. Built a LOT. Build. Build. Build.

Just quit building these absurd “market rate” condos that no one who already lives here can afford. And quit forcing people to live in substandard housing because you can’t be bothered to build anything short of “market rate”.

TomInEastNorwalk June 30, 2020 at 3:04 pm

I attended and participated in two of the community out reach meeting. We were led to believe our input was desired, valued and would influence the final plan. I invested 2 – 3 hours in each of the meetings.

It was time wasted. The community members were allowed to offer great ideas, thoughtful suggestions and valuable suggestions – which have been ignored for the most part. We were lied to.

I am not against development. I am very concerned that the East Norwalkers who have the most to gain or lose are being disregarded and disrespected. This has been continuing for some time — evidence the East Ave project being shoved down our choking throats.

Could it be that some big money of of town developers (and campaign contributors) needs and desires are being given more weight that the taxpayers and voters….

John O'Neill June 30, 2020 at 3:37 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…No one should vote on the “development” until they drive thru the Cove section of Stamford. Higher density will destroy East Norwalk flavor. Why fix something if it’s not broken??

Steve Mann June 30, 2020 at 6:12 pm

I’ll say it again: By the time your opinion is requested, the decisions have been made. You must see that pattern over the years. Public hearings are just another line item on the agenda to push through the administrations projects. Prove me wrong.

Brad Craighead July 1, 2020 at 6:19 am

Thank you Debora for your thoughtful, succinct and objective recap of how things have unfolded around the East Norwalk TOD Plan since 2017. With a local culture that’s seemingly charged with hostility towards development (of any kind), I respect your ability to deliver a message that’s balanced, and I believe accurate.

Question: How do we take a few steps back, legitimately resurrect some of the issues you detailed, and ensure that this critically important part of Norwalk is developed in a way that’s sustainable with a premium placed on Walkability and Open Space ?

As a pint-sized developer of historic buildings in the Norwalk Green Historic District and co-Founder of the Norwalk Green Association, I care and our Neighborhood cares deeply about the future of this area and its long-term impact upon the City.

Let’s get this right.

Brad Craighead
Norwalk Green Association

Roberta DiBisceglie July 1, 2020 at 7:20 am

Norwalk needs leaders like Deb Goldstein: honest, smart and devoted to the good of our community. The TOD is a travesty and is bound to create more congestion in a neighborhood that is already unable to support existing traffic. The City has yet to address the parking burden on residents and the abominable condition of the sidewalks – the proposed plan creates more problems than it allegedly mitigates. Our officials are handing us candy-coated poop. The charm, open space and lower density that attracted me to Norwalk when I relocated from NYC fifteen years ago continue to dwindle but as Deb says, the taxpayer money that replaces mine will be just as green – perhaps greener.

David Muccigrosso July 1, 2020 at 9:54 am

@Steve is right. Norwalk is ruled by a “blob” that generally agrees on (1) protection of “property values” IE exclusionary zoning above all else, (2) participating in a crony capitalist system where business license approvals, development plans, TIFs, and city contracts are given to those who grease the right palms, and (3) they use identity politics, that only some small minority of them actually care about, to distract the voters and pretend that they don’t all agree on #1 or #2.

David McGoldrick July 1, 2020 at 9:57 am

This whole process has been a complete sham. We HAVE been led through a series of meaningless exercises, theoretically to gauge our opinions through questions that rarely, if ever, included the option “none of the above”. (Oh yes! I’m all for unbridled development if the developer will install a water fountain!) But the fact is, unless East Norwalkers act, developers will build to the absolute maximum without regard for our quality of life, and the city will bend over backwards to accommodate them.

It reminds me of the development plans for West Avenue. It was the year the YMCA was suddenly shut down. We received notice of that one December: “Accumulated financial difficulties, which we cannot overcome, is forcing us to close,” or some such thing, and bang! That was that. (BTW, what city worthy of the name doesn’t have a YMCA?)

A couple of months later I attended a presentation at Stepping Stones outlining the grand plans for West Avenue. We were given a booklet, which was dated almost a year earlier, where various buildings on West Avenue were labeled according to their ongoing or future use. The Y was labeled “Medical Technology” facility. So the Y closing was already a done deal, at least six months before the “emergency” closing!

That’s how things get done in Norwalk – and most places probably – the “show” goes on in public, and the deal the developers want goes on in private.

If the developers get their way here, pretty soon we won’t even be able to get out of East Norwalk in less than fifteen minutes.

Skeptical July 1, 2020 at 10:23 am

There may be valid complaints against the plan, but I’d take this piece more seriously if Goldstein didn’t have a long track record of “sky is falling” opposition to everything.

Is it true that the state won’t pay to move the East Ave. power lines underground because she opposed it?

Sid Welker July 1, 2020 at 11:37 am

East Avenue has looked the same from the day I moved here over 20 years ago. Why not have an updated look with some new stream of residence to populate the struggling businesses who put their heart and soul into the area just to make a few bucks. Places like Norwalk Pizza and Past, Station House, Don Carmellos, Ripka’s, Sweet Ashleys, Mr. Frosty’s, Overtons, Jimmy’s Deli all feed that area but as businesses I’m sure they would love to add some residency and stores. We have these people who have to stand for something even if they don’t know what their standing but just feel they were left out. Always assuming developers are going to built monstrosity apartment buildings on every square inch of the East Avenue corridor instead of taking a moment a seeing the upside of an area that pretty much just been a passage way to the Calf Pasture beach for all too long. Why not have East Avenue grow into a place where people walk to a small grocery store or utilize more of the area instead of just seeing commuters high tailing it out of dodge the second they get off the train. Local residence don’t want density in the area because they don’t want to be inconvenienced with waiting an extra 5 seconds at the traffic light or God forbid they hear a construction truck for a couple of months. What they should be ecstatic about is the opportunity this gives them for the future values of there homes and that these new additions from new developers may ease the burden for their own taxes. Think glass half full East Avenue.

Drew Ablank July 1, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Hey Sid-
Most of the places you rattled off are owned by the same 1 or 2 outfits. Clearly doing well enough to expand into other ventures.

Roberta DiBisceglie July 1, 2020 at 4:44 pm

@Sid Welker: Have you read the plan? Have you been involved in any of the forums? Residents’ hopes and dreams for a grocery store have thus far been dashed. Do you believe that an additional 1200-1500 proposed units within a half mile of the train station will be a comfortable increase for this community of approximately 8,000 souls? Most of us are not anti-development – we just want smart development.

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