Letter: Build apartments, not a shopping center

To the Editor:

Norwalk has two-thirds the population of Stamford, yet Stamford feels like a city and Norwalk feels like a suburb. People actually ride buses in Stamford, and there are tall buildings downtown.

As I see it, Norwalk really isn’t a coherent city, but an exploded one with its pieces scattered. There are three strips of retail radiating outward toward neighboring towns, several tenuously connected village centers and a self-contained office park in a far corner. Its core is cut into pieces by I-95, the connector and the upper harbor.

There had been a concerted effort by a succession of administrations, the Norwalk Redevelopment Authority and several developers to create our missing downtown. The vision was a chain of mixed-use developments stretching from Wall Street to the railroad station, connected by public transit. To date only a scaled-back Waypointe is under construction.

The key element in all these developments was apartments, to populate the downtown and feed the planned new retail. It was understood that a new downtown needed regional traffic to survive, and the original 95/7 plan was skewed in that direction. But the basic idea was to create a populated center that would serve as the city’s missing downtown.

Why these projects could not be financed is a mystery to me. Billions are being invested in Harbor View in Stamford, where they can’t build apartments fast enough to meet the demand. Young people, tired of high rents and long rides on subways, are moving to Stamford, where they have a 45-minute ride into the city. The trip from South Norwalk is only 10 to 15 minutes longer; why can’t we attract our share of this rich market?

The proposed regional shopping center at 95/7 will answer this question in the negative. If we build it, we will forever have lost the chance to create a populated downtown. After the stores close at 10, there will be a huge population desert stretching between Waypointe and SoNo, a gaping hole in the city’s texture.

As several others have pointed out, retail malls rise and fall, and when they fall, they leave devastation behind. The U.S. has two to three times as much retail space per capita as a typical European city. When you build new retail, you are stealing customers from existing retail somewhere, and sooner or later, some other center or the Internet will steal customers from the one proposed for Norwalk.

What we need at 95/7 is apartments, lots of them, with 24/7 shuttle links to the train station. The “circulator” running on West Avenue, proposed by one of the many studies sitting on the shelves of the Norwalk Redevelopment Authority, would do the job, and link the new population with Waypointe and Wall Street.

One way to look at the mall proposal is as an act of desperation, a sense that if we don’t build something on the vacant lot at 95/7 the sky will fall. Another more cynical way is that some back-room dealing has gone on that will benefit the developer at the expense of the city.

Regardless of its origins, a regional mall at 95/7 will seal Norwalk’s fate as a failed city. It must not happen.

Gordon Tully


3 responses to “Letter: Build apartments, not a shopping center”

  1. John Hamlin

    So this sounds like a great idea, Gordon, but how could this happen? How can the city facilitate this happening at this stage? I would be willing to bet that if a developer were allowed to build very high end housing (apartments, condos, mixture), there might be a chance of such a proposal flying, but that would likely not be allowed given the affordable housing requirements. And who is going to step in and make this happen? And most importantly, why doesn’t the City employ on its staff a credentialed, trained, credible city planner to propose something viable and appropriate for the space? I think for everyone, no matter what your position on the mall proposal, this is an incredibly frustrating train wreck to watch. Residents with some background and expertise can be helpful to the citizens trying to make sense of this.

  2. Don’t Panic

    Mr. Tully has made the point eloquently. ” If we build it, we will forever have lost the chance to create a populated downtown.” This is the answer to the challenge, “if not this, then what?” Sometimes it really is better to take option c and do nothing until something comes along.
    Us “naysayers” keep asking for realistic plans for the “downside” of this plan, ie what is plan B if the mall does not meet projections for occupancy, revenue, or contributions to the economic health for the area. It’s possible it will be everything the developer says it will be, but even some cursory examination of some of the projections suggest that they cannot pan out. The downside here is huge…this is not betting your paycheck…it’s betting the contents of your 401k plan. We need to get this right because there is no second chance. Repurposed mall space never exceeds the original concept.
    So, it is ironic, during the very week this discussion is taking place, the following article appeared on the guardian web site:
    Ask yourself if you are willing to bequeath even a 10% chance of this result to people living here 30 years from now.

  3. Suzanne

    Don’t Panic, I appreciate the link to the article “The Death of the American Shopping Mall” in The Guardian. I read it and noticed several parallels to the City of Norwalk and CT, one of which is declining population. Statistics left on another thread about the success of Malls nationwide did not address what demographics to which they were referring – are we more similar to the Midwest, Detroit (God, I hope not!), Texas, New Mexico? Or the eight malls that have closed in CT due to failure(DeadMalls.com)?
    Anchor stores with accompanying smaller stores that can be easily accessed in nearby towns just doesn’t make any sense. Unless, of course, the developer is planning on putting all of those stores in New Canaan, Westport and Stamford out of business with their new “high end” concept.
    I agree with Mr. Tully in his analysis of what Norwalk is at the moment. Without a city center and without neighborhood centers, we run the risk of having more of “No There, There” per Gertrude Stein.
    This developer may have decades long experience at developing Malls and a vast portfolio. What this article is saying is that, based on population growth and shopping style (as in no Internet), among other things, there is a large number of Malls that prove this to be an outmoded concept.
    It is right to ask what this Old Concept Mall will look like in thirty years. Not speculation, just a question.
    I just thought of Roosevelt Island. This is a place with a narrow, vehicular corridor bordered on both sides by very high residential buildings. Guess what is at ground level? Grocery stores, restaurants, day care centers, doctor’s offices, barber shops/salons, recreation centers and parks, all busy, no boarding up or for sale signs in sight. It is a hub of walk space, bicycling and public transit. Whether you like the density of such a scenario or not, this mixed use idea works (if, again, done correctly to the community’s needs.)
    To all those disgusted with opinions about this project: you have yours and others have theirs. I am not willing to abdicate mine for the profit of one developer who, expert in their field, may not be in the field that is best for the Town. Part of the process is the citizens get to debate that.
    Let the debate, which I hope has a material affect to this ill-founded concept, continue.

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