Letter: A mall is not the answer to what ails us

To the Editors:

It was reported in recent articles that the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency is actually suggesting, with best intentions, that bringing yet more big boxes redefined as “malls” to Norwalk is the answer to awakening this town from the doldrums?

The agency has hired — presumably, at taxpayer expense — Robert Gibbs, founder of Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, Mich., to guide the city on development of the 95/7 site bordered by West Avenue, Interstate 95, the North Water Street extension and Metro-North Railroad’s Danbury Line. Mr. Gibbs comes well recommended. Additionally, he has listed on his own site the development of some 60 malls across the country. On the face of it, that is an impressive recommendation, but nowhere do we have an inkling of the success or lack thereof that these many malls have experienced.

Truth be told, we are not Beverly Hills, and SoNo has not become the next Rodeo Drive. Attempting to prop up SoNo at taxpayer expense with a mall will just add to the “for rent” signs.

Would it not bring this city to a more profitable condition if it spent our money to make Norwalk as livable and as attractive to those workers — the secretaries, the second- and third-tier managers, the salesmen, the pencil pushers and the lawn-mower pushers — the drones who provide support for the big corporations based in Fairfield County? Hey! We used to call them the “middle class.” Besides, we already have enough mini-mansions and more than a few real ones throughout Fairfield County.

Genuine, well-built, affordable housing will do it. Better access to intra-city public transportation would help the drones get back and forth to the hives. More Mom and Pop stores would be a blessing, a periodic street market could be a real attraction, a public swimming pool with a bubble cover for winter, a working bowling center, a well-located, well supervised skating rink – whatever it takes to get people out to do something other than look at store windows for stuff they cannot afford. Let’s face it, our attempts at “affordable housing” are a joke. Even Habitat for Humanity’s offers to build such housing has been rejected.

As for covered swimming pools, take a look at the Wilton YMCA. Their outdoor Olympic-size pool is in use 12 months of the year. Actually, we’ve already made a start in that direction with the Norwalk Sports Center, but it’s not located for easy access. All these things have great potential to cost less and add attractiveness than the option of more mortar and faux-bricks containing “luxury” apartments or another Big Box filled cheek to jowl with boutique stores that soon move on to greener pastures, replaced by sports cap outlets.


16 responses to “Letter: A mall is not the answer to what ails us”

  1. anonymous

    @Rob, you’re not running for any office, right?

  2. Lifelong Teacher

    I’m not running for office. And I think Rob makes some very valid points.

  3. Suzanne

    Valid points, yes. Knowledge of the values, principles and developments for which Mr. Gibbs has consulted, no. Context and historical values of a neighborhood are key to this consultant’s intentions. If the Redevelopment Agency wants a big box complex, he was the incorrect consultant to bring into the picture. I would not dismiss his ideas so easily and, in fact, consider what he has to say more seriously. Mr. Gibbs would be good for Norwalk.

    What is Washington Street if not a provision for affordable housing? What about new housing developments being required to include affordable housing in their development?

    There is nothing wrong with including recreational features like a skating rink and pool into a mixed use urban development. In fact, I would venture that such features would make the businesses adjacent to them more successful. And, in fact, make the necessity of a popular “anchor store” less. And, allow mixed demographics to shop and play (that would include your derided “boutique” stores, especially if they were locally owned and operated.) I would also speculate as you have done, Mr. RLF, that the profitability of these mixed use features could help fund housing for the middle class. (Those who think busy sports-related features nearby would never make housing work have not lived in places as diverse as NYC, Santa Monica, Chicago, Portland or other mid-to-large cities/towns where this is common.)

    Transportation and adequate parking would seem a given but not in Norwalk. This is a good suggestion. However, hyperbole (Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, really?) brings very little to idea-making for this space that needs it.

  4. Joe Espo

    @RL-P, yep, I can see so many developers that’ll willingly pay tens of millions of dollars to build 12 acres of affordable housing projects and mom & pop bodega-type stores. No Rodeo Drive-type Louis Vuitton stores for us. Not even a BJs. And if the current developer refuses to change it’s plans I can see maybe taking this property by eminent domain and build with state budget surplus funds. SoNo could achieve the laudible distinction of being be the affordable housing capital of Connecticut, more than Bridgeport and Hartford combined! It’s sorely needed for all those worker bees, employed or not. Pasta Nostra will be giddy at being over-run by hoardes who will now be able to afford to eat there more often because of low rents. Of course, we’ll need a few more schools, maybe a new high school, too. Bruce Mellion will be in his glory, what with all that fresh union dues money in his coffers. Let’s call this one Lincoln Village. No!! Let’s call it Lopez-Fabrega Village in honor of Norwalk’s version of New York’s public works king: Robert Moses.

  5. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Thanks for your comments. You speak of mixed features in housing in relation to big cities such as NYC, Santa Monica, Chicago or Portland. Having visited big cities in almost every continent and lived in several of them, I can agree that your point is well taken, but Norwalk is none of those. What is more, isn’t it time to face up to the fact that ours is a small blue-collar/white-collar city in which the workforce that gets the work done in the big corporations can no longer afford to live?
    Just for starters, the “new” Avalon housing over on Belden advertises Studio Apartments (one room) starting at $1,620 per month. It is my understanding that the rent goes up $100/month the second year for a tenant, $200/month the third year and, presumably, the worker bee who has tried to settle there has to move on because of not being able to afford another hike for the following years. As for the Waypointe mixed feature version now nearing construction on West Avenue near the Turnpike, here is “the word” taken right from their own description of mixed features they offer in a huge box that contains everything a tenant needs for luxury living with no need to ever leave the premises:
    “Amenities will boast a 5,000 square foot fitness center, clubroom for entertaining, billiards room, game room, private movie-screening theater and WiFi lounge. Outdoor amenities include a beautifully landscaped courtyard with outdoor heated pool, grilling and fire pits, a fenced dog park and rooftop gardens.” Oh yes, and the news is that the little Loehman’s Plaza (right next door) “…is being redeveloped into a modern retail center including a luxury movie theater, modern fitness facility, and 115,000 SF of big box retail stores.”
    Sounds great! And expensive, though there’s no mention of rental rates in their advertising. Maybe they are not Beverly Hills expensive, but definitely will not be Norwalk affordable for the secretaries, the second- and third-tier managers, the salesmen, the pencil pushers and the lawn-mower pushers.

  6. Joe Espo

    Let’s hear from Mr. Lopez-Fabrega how we can suppress market-driven rents without rent controls or federal/state/city subsidized housing built on market-priced land? Look at what rent-control has done to New York City’s rents. So where’s our democratic fed and state legislative delegations ready to buy-up 95/7 for work-force subsidized housing? Hey: how about Connecticut’s version of Co-Op City (which, BTW, is built on a swamp, now otherwise known as wetlands, and could never be built today.)How about we implement our version of Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village? Please, Mr. RL-P: make yourself useful: give us the benefit of your erudition in these matters and lay out detailed plans for a solution to this problem.

  7. Suzanne

    Dear RLF, I did not say that affordable housing was not a good idea although I do believe it should be a part of a mixed use complex to make the destination desirable and profitable to all demographics. That is not to say Norwalk needs to appeal to the wealthy or upper middle class. Rather, with the mixed use space, it, to me anyway but perhaps not to everyone, implies a potential use by every citizen of Norwalk. The complex you describe strikes me as an inward facing, self-sufficient place, an island providing no connection to the community. It’s “mixed feature”, to me implying “mixed use”, is a misnomer. This is a pity. And, I think, a bit wrong-headed too, as you point out. I do differ, though, in my assessment of what Norwalk is compared to the the places I described: there is an element in all of these places that allows for housing, shops, parks, libraries, pools, etc. for every profession/demographic. It is a preconceived notion that what I am describing is somehow differentiated by Norwalk as somehow special. It is not – working class, middle class and upper class people inhabit a variety of spaces and places together everywhere. That would include the professions you describe. It would be a missed opportunity not to look at the examples of other like populations in urban environments developing to meet the needs of its population. Norwalk needs the input because Avalon and the Waypointe developments are not it. I was just reviewing the Washington Village proposals. What do you think? These seem to provide at least 200 plus of affordable housing units. I believe that exceeds the number of units that the Washington Village proposals are seeking to replace. To think, and I am not saying you are saying this, that appealing to the professions you describe somehow must translate into down scale environments should not be the case. Each of those people deserve the best Norwalk has to offer: the swimming pool you described or the skating rink does not have to be for a certain demographic as opposed to all. I do encourage you to review the principles behind Mr. Gibbs’ work: the context and history are essential to the developments for which he consulted/planned (he is not a developer but a landscape architect.) I think the term “mall” is unfortunate: it implies the big enclosed, air-conditioned complexes with tons of parking from the sixties and seventies. This is not what he is talking about AND I think we are really talking about the same things. We both want appropriate to the population housing and mixed-use development, yes?

  8. anonymous

    Affordable housing, forget the new buildings, what about making it more affordable for those already living here?

    The idea of a community pool, street market, mom & pop places, ice rink, nice; on prime real estate like 95/7, naive.

  9. Suzanne

    What is “prime” and what serves the community is not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say that if the features of a given development truly served the community’s needs, then people are likely to use it and spend there. It is a short sighted end goal to have more of the same when one wonders how occupancy rates really fair in high end rentals. I agree with RLF on this one: who or what is finally going to see the diversity of the population and address its needs? That is the profitable model. Not more of the same with dubious value.

  10. Joeespo

    Someone.. oh someone…please…like…maybe… redevelopment…the Mayor…zoning…common council….please propose a Lopez-Fabrega Village at the SoNo 95/7 so that we can have super affordable -workforce- subsidized- fair rent- housing. It should be a crime for a landlord to charge more than $500 per month for rent.

  11. Suzanne

    Mr. Espo: who sets the “market” price for dwellings if not the developers? How is the prevailing market rate reflect the demand? Is this inclusive of Norwalk residents? Would you like it to be? Are capital costs so high in developing these complexes that they warrant high rent rates for developer profit? When is it o.k. to say developers can run away with excessive profits vs. the affordability of residents of Norwalk? Exactly how much should be charged in rent for, say, a studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, family apartment? Did you or do you pay additional sums each year on your mortgage or rent? That is, say, $2500 the first year rising to $3,000 by the third? I am not saying to subsidize all rental housing but is it a good question: how are Avalon and Waypointe, for example, meeting the need for housing by existing Norwalk residents who work service jobs, mid-management jobs, administrative jobs? My experience has been a split of the rental costs between several room mates, beyond the university years. Is this the kind of life that would make current developments affordable? Is this desirable, reality, deserved? How would this scenario work for Norwalk residents who need housing that they can pay for from their working incomes? Are the new developments trying to attract a wealthier, nonresident and is this seen as a way to change Norwalk to a wealthier demographic? The last question is what I believe RLF is deriding and I am not sure I disagree. Norwalk government gets to make choices about the community in which WE live: change is inevitable but, even historically, do we want to sever the connection between the working class and the City through noninclusive planning?

  12. Dorothy Mobilia

    Wow. Rod Lopez-Fabrega, Suzanne, you are making comments that have been absent from public discussion, it seems, forever. “Make Norwalk livable and attractive to those workers—the secretaries, the second- and third-tier managers, the salesmen, the pencil pushers and the law-mower pushers” was a dream the joint city-Chamber of Commerce report made a couple of decades ago and led to the concept of workforce housing within the Zoning Commission. The attempts at affordable housing may be a “joke” as RL-F says, but it is in the execution not in the intent of the framers of that regulation.

    Key here is probably what voters will endorse and fight for, once they understand all the aspects of the issue. Maybe it is an understanding that affordable housing for middle income workers is not a charity. These days many NoN commenters hit the city employees for living elsewhere, without looking at the roots of that issue. Do you really think that workers enjoy having to commute long distances for work? Not so long ago most people who worked in Norwalk lived here. The balance tipped as the cost of housing rose dramatically.

    The argument for the need for large sports-related complexes is a bit more subtle. Wilton indeed has a fine Y fitness complex. Our Y, outdated and aging, was shut down, and personally I wish the option had been to update it. But we also have something Wilton doesn’t, and that’s our shorefront. Just go down to Calf Pasture on any night or weekend and be impressed by the activity on the ball fields, the volleyball courts, the skateboard area and the walkers on the walks and the beach, to say nothing of the bathers during the day. Ballfields, tennis courts, parks, boating facilities everywhere in our city are busy because they meet a need. Having recently visited cities of various sizes, I think we should encourage community-wide events that bring people together, such as biking and walking.

    Why should we care? Even grumblers see something special in this city, from its history and the people who live here, to our geographical advantages. Don’t give way to easy ideas and ignorance of how other places have tested ideas and found solutions. I hope posters like Rod and Suzanne encourage real progress among Nancy’s readers and city officials.

  13. Peter Parker

    In brief; If developed correctly an upscale mall is not a problem and would be an asset to this declining city provided it is done correctly. I am very dubious that this council and zoning commission have the ability to get this done well. As for additional affordable housing, I say nay nay!!

  14. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Suzanne: thanks again for your thoughtful responses. I believe we are in agreement on at least one point, and you summarized it better than I did when you asked, “…how are Avalon and Waypointe…meeting the need for housing by existing Norwalk residents who work service jobs, mid-management jobs, and administrative jobs?” You spoke about young people entering the work force and having to room-mate in order to find an affordable place to live. I would add the situation of many older folk we all know who may be nearing the age of retirement and find themselves housing an adult, well-educated son or daughter with a promising job but simply unable to afford independent accommodations. The kicker is when you ask, “Are the new developments trying to attract a wealthier, nonresident and is this seen as a way to change Norwalk to a wealthier demographic?”

    That is exactly the point. While the per capita income in Norwalk may exceed that of other small cities in the mid and southern parts of this country, in the context of the East Coast and New England, we must face up to the fact that our region must also bear the highest cost of living in the nation. We must also admit that Norwalk is not New Canaan or Greenwich. Those towns know it full well when they dip down into Norwalk to buy cheap and then scurry back to their uncluttered enclaves. We don’t seem to get the picture. Building elegant, high income ghettos (Waypointe?) will not lift up Norwalk when many of those who can afford them will prefer to live the segregated life elsewhere.

    The only option to providing decent, well-designed affordable housing for those with “service jobs, mid-management jobs, administrative jobs” need not be that Norwalk become “another Bridgeport and Hartford” nor that all housing be ‘subsidized’ (the horror of landlords and real-estate people). It would seem to me, if it isn’t already too late, that spending some of our taxpayer money for the advice of city planners with established records of achievement could guide us toward the goal of becoming the livable, well-balanced, middle-layer community we once were and aim to be again. It may be that landscape architect Robert Gibbs is the man. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to not being present at his (poorly advertised) presentation, so what I know about him is what I have read as distilled by reporters here and in The Hour and on Mr. Gibb’s own site. However, I am convinced that what we do not need is the band aid of yet another ‘mall’.

  15. Suzanne

    Mr. Espo?

  16. Lives In Norwalk

    I live in Norwalk and its not always so safe so the affordable housing you talk about there is plenty of it. Norwalk is a great place to live but I think the real issue is the crime and the houses that are here that look like they are about to fall apart. I really don’t think that a mall is the problem I think a mall would be great for the community to bring people to Norwalk so that business can thrive. I am the owner of a small business in Norwalk. I would love to see Norwalk thrive and not cater to the people that cant afford to live here. There are other places that are much cheaper. Not trying to be rude but there are other options we don’t have to be the ghetto!

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