Letter: Just say ‘no’ to the mall

To the Editor:

The proposal to shoehorn a major 700,000-square-foot shopping mall into SoNo would further congest one of our most heavily trafficked areas, displace hundreds of small business owners, devalue neighboring properties, virtually eliminate any real chance of reinvigorating the SoNo and downtown areas, preclude any future downtown development of high valued corporate offices and solidify Norwalk as a second-class city with a huge White Elephant on its hands.

Even on the surface, this proposal seems ill considered. Neighbors of our surrounding wealthy towns are highly unlikely to trek into crowded, congested Norwalk and give up shopping at their high-class, tony shops in their own towns. And Norwalk, whose per capita income has remained nearly stagnant for two decades with a median family income of just about $70,000, is hardly likely to support a huge shopping mall.

If there’s no shortage of vacant business properties, why expect savvy business owners to risk opening up new shops in a downtown mall? Especially with Big Box Alley nearby.

Several decades ago, hundreds of small business owners rallied forth to protect their livelihoods from a planned Home Depot before a P&Z meeting. We listened intently to the glorious promises of new “good jobs,” revitalization of the community and other similar glorious attributes made by Mr. Zullo’s legal team urging adoption of new zoning. We now know how these “promises” turned out — stultifying traffic congestion, lower valuations for neighboring residential properties, only low wage jobs and low taxes on warehouse buildings. Norwalk lost a golden chance to develop a corridor of professional and corporate headquarters with their high-paying jobs as encouraged by our surrounding communities. Our politicians sealed Norwalk’s future as lower Fairfield County’s Big Box retail center with low-paying jobs and horrendous traffic congestion. A bad bargain indeed.

City officials including our Mayor routinely ask what else can be built in the gaping hole that’s been vacant for decades — Connecticut’s most conspicuous redevelopment failure. We need only look at the surrounding towns in Southern Fairfield County. They chose corporate and professional office development with high-paying jobs, not retail malls with low paying jobs and traffic congestion. With the appropriate tax incentives, Norwalk, too, could encourage professional and corporate offices downtown. Given Norwalk’s nearly stagnant income over the last two decades and high property taxes (funding top public employee salaries all out of proportion to the City’s modest income levels), those incentives will have to be quite substantial. After all, Norwalk doesn’t have a reputation as a prime business center.

Mayor Rilling and city officials might well look into Stamford’s impressive successes at redevelopment.

Stamford has transformed itself well beyond anyone’s expectations into Connecticut’s only major successful city with an international dimension by concentrating its efforts upon attracting corporate offices. Not by becoming the county’s low-wage retail shopping center as has Norwalk. Comparing the sharply divergent Grand Lists makes the point. Stamford embraced well established principles of successful development. Norwalk’s ill-informed politicians went after Big Boxes.

There is still another powerful reason to reject this ill-advised downtown mall boondoggle. Norwalk is experiencing unprecedented demographic change. And, if our new residents are to have any chance of realizing the American dream, they need a c.ity that encourages and supports new business. And manages its outlays so properties can rise in value. Building a downtown mall would deny our new immigrants that very chance and doom Norwalk to a perpetual second class city status. City officials made a huge mistake welcoming Big Box to West Norwalk. Lets make sure they’ve learned from their mistake.

Mayor Rilling and other city officials really need to get up to speed on the basic lesson about the consequences of establishing major malls. There’s a large professional development literature that finds large malls have unfortunate consequences on both existing and future new small business formation. Americans realize their dreams through their entrepreneurial energies building small businesses. Not by packaging groceries in Walmart, cashiering at Home Depot or any other Big Box. And, especially not by clerking in big mall retail establishments.

In closing, the proposed mall may be good business for the developer. And even for some national chains that manage to survive. But not for the city’s tax rolls and certainly not for the citizens of Norwalk. That the Chamber endorses it is not surprising — they mostly live out of town.

Let’s make sure our new citizens have an opportunity to realize the American Dream here in Norwalk. They need a town that supports and encourages new business formation. Not one that provides low-wage clerk positions in a huge mall stifling traffic. Here’s chance for Mayor Rilling to take the lead in making sure that the “New Norwalk” doesn’t destroy our essential city character and opportunities. Over the decades, millions driving along I-95 have seen the “Big Hole.” Filling it with a largely vacant big mall encouraged by generous tax abatements would send even a more negative message.

Norwalk was once a proud city well recognized for its competent governance and low taxes. Shoehorning a huge downtown mall would really seal Norwalk’s fate as a failed city. We can and should do much better. It’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our city officials avoid being beguiled by misleading and false developer promises. After all we learned our lessons from Big Box Alley.

Peter I. Berman


22 responses to “Letter: Just say ‘no’ to the mall”

  1. John Hamlin

    But will the city bite the bullet and buy the land till an appropriate development comes along? I think not.

  2. I lived here for 23 years and the site has been vacant for all of that time! If office were feasible something would have been built. It’s not and will never be. It is not the highest and best use of the site for a lot of reasons.

    Folks need to look at Norwalk from about 5.000 feet and they will realize the city is a much better developed community than Mr. Berman and others claim. In fact we are one of the few cities that have actually participated in massive new development over the past 20 years. Educate yourself before you make a decision about this important opportunity. If we do not we could lose the opportunity of a generation. THIS is the real deal.

  3. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Right on, Peter Berman.

  4. TLaw

    Mr. Berman points out many obvious reasons to oppose this project but what stops the developer as they already own the property?

    The best line “Here’s chance for Mayor Rilling to take the lead….” yea, we are still waiting for that to happen for the first time in office.

  5. LWitherspoon

    Candidate Rilling was against the mall. Mayor Rilling is for it. Why the flip flop?

  6. peter parker

    This mall should not be built as the developer has proposed and everyone knows it, but it sounds like most are thinking something is better than nothing. I don’t agree. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Mayor Rilling to get anything done, it’s already obvious he will be a do nothing one term Mayor. All you can rely on is Harry showing up anywhere there is a photo opportunity, bull to ride, or throw.

  7. George

    So, isn’t Rilling interviewing for a new position he created for a business/economic liaison, a professional marketer and negotiator? Surrounding yourself with people that are good at what they do and can do it better than anyone else, is not wise?
    Using what leverage is available and obtaining astute consultation to move things forward and make the best deal, is not wise, either?
    In the past, many communities, us also, well, have been taken, as in ripped off in deals with high rollers with high dollar attorneys and pr firms from Madison Ave with loads of staff. Hiring someone with expertise that represents our interests in these kinds of deals is not wise?
    Yes, the plan needs tweaking, and looks like it has to go back to the drawing board and start anew. The concept itself needs rethinking but lets not aim arrows at our guy Harry, who is trying to do our Norwalk a real solid. How about we hold all the arrows, at our guy at least, but keep at the ready, for any bag men carrying cold cash that think they can do what ever they please by buying cooperation.
    What just doesn’t digest is Caferos statement that any public release of anchors that may be interested would kill the deal.

    Any mall that I have ever seen built and been quite a few in my day, all in CT alone, everyone knew the anchors coming in long before the first shovel ever hit terra firma and often when the project is first presented. Can’t get financing without contracts for some tenancy. Just doesn’t go down, keeps regurgitating. Why would the anchors names be top secret?
    Any number of scenarios can be imagined and none good. But all the scenarios can be summed up in one sentence; somebody, somewhere is going to get screwed.
    That lack of transparency, secrecy no less, well just leaves a bad first impression, right off the bat, doesn’t it?
    Least we know where the kill switch is now, thanks Larry.

  8. Suzanne

    The highest and best use should be the goal: not the impatience to fill this deep hole with just anything.
    GPP got the ball rolling with this completely inappropriate design. What happened to the mixed use idea? Now, nobody panic. By that I mean what a lot of people have suggested on these threads: family oriented activities, a grocery store, some small business storefronts for LOCAL business people (not franchises from anywhere USA), useful services like a drycleaner, a few LOCALLY owned restaurants and, yes some office space for small to medium sized businesses.

    Too downscale? Well, we can be like everyone else or we can have something other than the ordinary that identifies Norwalk as something other than the nameless, ordinary Mall being presented.
    I would think the architecture needs changing too: a box with glass is not architecture. It’s a big box with glass on it.
    What is interesting to me is this: just one person so far has expressed any enthusiasm for this design and he was a developer and real estate person. Everyone else who is just settling for this concept are understandably impatient about what has been a longstanding hole in the ground.
    The many apartment complexes rising not far away need practical and the rest of Norwalk needs Norwalk back – not this “Rodeo Drive” of the Northeast concept with “jewel box” franchises at street level.
    GPP needs to think through these concepts based upon Norwalk’s needs: I can’t figure out why they don’t because usability will make them a profit. Why would anyone go to the stores they always build when they exist very closely, elsewhere?
    It does not even show common sense to believe that I-95 traffic is going to make up the difference with their earlier mentioned kooky monthly attendance expectations.
    As for profitability on Malls: I have seen the statistics and was not impressed. They did not mention exactly where this profitability was occurring for one thing: Norwalk is not the place of high end regional Malls. Stamford already has a lock on Malldom as do numerous stores in the surrounding wealthier villages.
    Go back to the drawing board, GPP. Go back to the drawing board.

  9. LWitherspoon

    Interesting point Suzanne. Sure is ironic that our Mayor, who made opposition to big boxes a cornerstone of his campaign, is now advocating the biggest box of all for 95/7.

  10. Suzanne

    L. Witherspoon, Is he advocating it or just equivocating? I haven’t read anything where he says it is a great idea. I haven’t read anything where he says, “No, absolutely not.” What I have seen is a sort of “wait and see” approach.
    I, like you, feel burdened by a lack of clear leadership on many levels, from the Presidency on down. I don’t understand why an underlying moral principal doesn’t lead the day rather than a testing of the wind or waters for opinion.
    Does our mayor have an opinion on this mall? Is he hoping it will be zoned out of existence, a la BJ’s?
    In spite of the enthusiasm of one individual, I see a very mixed reaction. Limbo for our town is not good.
    While writing this, I see your point. We need leadership, as in yay/nay then at least the constituency will know where we stand. If it is a zoning issue because the developer owns the land, is there any wiggle room? Do we have to accept what is presented simply because they say so? What are our options as taxpayers? None at all? Some? Does the Grand List trump taxpayers every time? Is it possible to have a change in the design approach or is it a put up and shut up choice?
    I would love it if our mayor came out and said, “I don’t think (or do think) this Mall really addresses the needs of our town. I would love to work with the taxpayers and the developer to come up with something more appropriate.” I will not be holding my breath – developers really do rule this town.

  11. LWitherspoon

    Candidate Rilling: “Putting a mall there in my estimation is the wrong direction. We don’t need to take that direction. That is the most desirable development site not only in Norwalk, not only in southern Fairfield County, but probably Connecticut and all of New England.”
    Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvyhDj400aQ#t=149 (quoted sentences are at 2:30)
    Mayor Rilling: “The bottom line is this: They own the property,” Rilling said. “If they don’t get the changes that they need to the LDA (Land Disposition Agreement) or don’t get an approval to change the LDA, that property could sit another 10 or 15 years and be like it is now. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the fact, and I think what we have to do is try to work with them and try to get the best fit we can for Norwalk, so what goes there is the best fit for Norwalk and it doesn’t kill South Norwalk and Norwalk but it fits in and we kind of all can live together.
    “I will say that when I saw the design I was somewhat pleased,” he said.
    Source: https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/06/ggp-plans-right-sized-mall-to-enhance-sono/

    1. Mark Chapman


      Ah, you have learned well the lessons of Fox News, MNBC and the political advertising industry. You excerpt comments that fit your narrative, knowing that most people will not go back for complete quotes and context.

      I suggest to anyone interested in seeing what the mayor is thinking, or was thinking that day, that they go to the link you provide and read ALL his words. He is not taking a stand against it, nor is he endorsing the concept of a mall at that site.

  12. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    I heartily endorse your suggestion that people read the full articles. I included links, rather than text citations, because I *WANT* people to go back and look at all of Rilling’s words.
    If you want to disagree with how I have characterized Rilling’s positions before and after the election, by all means do so. Prove me wrong with evidence. But let’s not engage in wanton, unsupported speculation about each other’s motives.
    Back to the issue at hand, there are certainly some nuances to Rilling’s comments that weren’t included in my summary, but I stand by my statement that Rilling’s attitude towards the mall changed dramatically. If readers do as we suggest, and read/watch both of the links provided, they will see that during the campaign, Candidate Rilling unequivocally stated that he was against the mall. He said it was the “wrong direction” for Norwalk. Perhaps he did so to appeal to the anti-big box crowd, since that was a constituency that Rilling actively courted during the campaign.
    Now Mayor Rilling is saying that the best we can do is work with the developer and give them the changes they need to the LDA. That is vastly different from the tone and content of what Rilling said during the linked video, in which he led us to believe that he was squarely against a mall. I encourage readers to decide for themselves and weigh-in.

  13. Kevin Di Mauro

    I still think the “jewel box” concept will rock Norwalk CT way beyond compare.
    The only tweak – add an upscale, on site hotel.

  14. David

    What do we say “yes” to? People in this city have a habit of saying “no”. No to funding schools. No to fixing bridges. No to property development. Heck, there were even people who said “no” Merritt 7. They *still* think it was a bad idea – yes, the facility that brought in hundreds of high paying white collar jobs, if they had their way, wouldn’t exist!
    So, what so we say “yes” to? Is the problem a Mall? Is it any development? Do we say yes to keeping it as is? Do we say yes to the taxpayers of this city purchasing the land at a market rate and developing a park? What do we say “yes” to?
    In the absence of a clear vision for what should happen at this site, the void will be filled by an existing vision. Any vision.
    “Just say no” isn’t a vision, it isn’t a strategy. So paint a picture, tell us what CAN work there.

  15. piberman

    One alternative is for the City to buy back the property. Then give sufficient tax incentives to encourage development of a suitable corporate/professional park that attracts established firms with high paying jobs. That type of development would reinvigorate SoNo and adjacent downtown areas by attracting new businesses serving the corporate employees. And also making SoNo more attractive to the new renters in SoNo. This is a commonly proposed model of downtown rejuvination. But it may be difficult for City officials to embrace. Once an area brings in well paid employees and established firms development takes off. Downtown Stamford is a splendid example but there are countless other examples across the country.

  16. Wow, the Chapman’s have definitely defined where they stand – by their old buddy Rilling.
    To chastise Rilling is one thing but to actually support accusations against him is another. The Chapman’s will see to it that the public starts thinking that Witherspoon is “sneaky”, maneuvering and positioning verbatim statements that actually show how the mayor needs to pay back those whom he promised to get into office their tidings or as a weak mayor , he has flipped on his soapbox – oops – “campaign box” – declarations.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Lilly Deacon

      Have it your way. But we prefer that our stories not be taken out of context to manipulate readers. The mayor has not said he supports the mall, and to excerpt our words to say otherwise is unacceptable, as it would be with any story (and we have corrected others in the past on other issues). The mayor seems to be sitting squarely on the fence on this.

  17. MTP

    @David…you are correct. Seems Norwalk says NO to everything. Add to that list NO to the US Lacrosse Association when they wanted to turf vets park and make a nice sports venue there as long as they could hold tournaments. Why? most likely so the dreaded Oyster festival can hold it 3 day losing deal there that does nothing for the youth of this city. Instead we have a disgusting goose feces infested field complete with ruts and holes for the kids to sprain their ankles on, hypodermic needles on the field (yes, I removed one myself) and old men drinking and carrying on in public in the parking lot, while the children try to play soccer, baseball and lacrosse. So a Mall? NO. Lets leave it empty for another 15 years, while every proposal gets shot down.

  18. Suzanne

    David and MTP, not to worry about “vision.” There have been plenty of suggestions on this and other similar threads. I believe people definitely want development at 95/7, just the right kind of development. It is not an all or nothing proposition. To be against a high end shopping center is not to be against everything proposed for that spot. A more recent “conversation” in response to a letter by RLF suggests a number of ideas, none of them being “NO.”

  19. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Perhaps it is technically correct that Rilling hasn’t used the word “support” regarding his feelings for the mall. However, he went from saying it was the “wrong direction” for Norwalk to saying that he’s pleased with the design, and that the developer owns the land and if we don’t give the developer the desired changes to the LDA, the property will sit empty for a long time. By any objective measure, Rilling has changed his tune drastically between the campaign and now with respect to a mall on 95/7.

  20. Don’t Panic

    This may be a first, but I agree with Witherspoon on this one. If you remove all the “on the one hand, on the other hand” buffering language, the general direction of Mayor Rilling’s comments has moved from firm opposition to the concept of a mall to suggesting that the project has merit. Now this probably doesn’t rise to the level of a “flip-flop”, but probably more of a politically acceptable “evolution” based upon new facts.
    However,I haven’t evolved on this. The concept here just stinks on ice. It doesn’t seem to matter how many of our own master plans for the city call for mixed used development to revitalize activity, nor how many traffic studies suggest some projects are badly suited, nor how badly our reputation for overpriced parking is. We just can’t seem to say no to any scheme that a developer proposes if they attach a fig leaf of revenue for the city.
    I will add one last point. I don’t think it is appropriate to be asking the Mayor to take a position on this project at all. Ultimately, if this lands in court, it won’t help our case if there is a record of bias on the part of city officials.

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