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