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Letter: Norwalk on way to becoming a big box mecca

By Peter Berman

To the Editor:

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Attorney Frank Zullo, a former Democratic mayor, will convince Planning and Zoning to site BJ’s big box on Route 7 south of the Merritt Parkway where big boxes haven’t previously been built. Attorney Zullo, the long standing preeminent local attorney on P&Z matters,  will argue that BJ’s offers shopping convenience, good jobs, new taxes and use of vacant land. Opponents will argue the problem is not BJ’s per se but its inappropriate site location citing our 30 year history with western Route 1 – further congestion on already heavily used roads, only low jobs, modest tax increases from warehouse structures, noise, pollution, lowered adjacent valuation on residential properties, interference with existing businesses and forcing some well established local owned small businesses to close. 

Moreover, they’ll claim there’s a real danger that P&Z will follow the Route 1 precedent of letting in a whole slew of additional big boxes on Route 7 to further congest and cause havoc along one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Route 7 will then have both the worst and best of development – big box below the Merritt and high valued corporate parks above.

City officials will argue that Norwalk has large quantities of unused and underutilized land left over from its long ago days as a manufacturing city and that current P&Z allows big boxes to be built along major thorough fares. Something is better than nothing. One more big box or even a major new stream of big box will not alter the city’s industrial structure. Norwalk will still remain a residential town.

Knowledgeable residents could cite the large professional literature on the consequences of big box sitings over the past decades across America. To wit big boxes do bring only low wage jobs, do devalue neighboring residential properties, impose real hardships on existing local businesses, do bring in major traffic congestion, pollution and noise and importantly do discourage high value added corporate development with its high paying jobs. Norwalk’s experience with big box on Route 1 since the early 1980’s confirms the national experience. Residents could site the success of these arguments in other Connecticut communities questioning whether the “externalities” of big box were worth the convenience.

While it’s certainly true that another big box added to the dozens already present in Norwalk will not really affect the city as a whole and add a minor convenience to most city residents, big box enthusiasm by city government over the last three decades does raise some major issues. None of the surrounding towns with an equal population have allowed big box development. Even Stamford with it’s burgeoning skyline and expanding grand list has restricted big box sitings. Only Norwalk has encouraged big box earning the distinction of big box City in southwestern Fairfield County.

The larger question is why Norwalk has failed to replicate it’s early success with the hugely successful and admired Merritt 7 complex in the 1970’s/1980’s bringing in high valued jobs. Reportedly, P&Z placed height restrictions along western Route 1, thereby discouraging such corporate development and opening the gates to big box development. Faced with both stagnant residential property values over the past three years amidst a national housing boom and a stagnant grand list overall, Norwalk obviously has a major problem attracting high-valued corporate development. Indeed, Norwalk illustrates the big box experience nationally – big box sitings discourage nearby corporate park development.

So while it’s a good bet that BJ’s will be built, the real question is whether city officials, candidates and concerned citizens will come to grips with the reality that promoting Norwalk as a “big box city” has a real cost well beyond the obvious traffic congestion, pollution and reduced property valuations. Our city will continue to be the odd man out when it comes to encouraging high value added corporate development with its high paid jobs. Of course, there’s more to the story, e.g. Norwalk’s reputation as a high property tax city with the highest costs of providing municipal services among any of the cities in Connecticut. When it comes to encouraging development Norwalk has a self imposed double whammy — big box enthusiasm and punitive real estate taxes leading to stagnant property values.

At day’s end there are real opportunities for P&Z to thoughtfully consider the city’s future economic development and encouraging business expansion of its grand list. Recent decades experience together with the current issue suggests the P&Z has the expertise or confidence to properly focus on the major issues before it. Indeed, as Common Councilman Doug Hempstead reminded us recently, in Norwalk there are no qualifications to serve on any of the city’s commissions. “Big box city” reflects the wisdom of those comments. P&Z is viewed as many as an extension of the mayor’s office rather than its intended purpose as an independent commission of concerned and interested citizens.

So here’s a welcome to BJ’s. And to those residents subject to the immediate congestion, pollution and noise of  the new BJ’s, here’s an opportunity to speak and make your own “noise” before the P&Z.  Who knows, maybe BJ’s management will have the good corporate sense to locate somewhere else in Norwalk. No matter where BJ’s is located its managers and shareholders will prosper – Norwalk is indeed a “big box mecca” and it’s citizens have no problems with added congestion and pollution. Those objecting to big box development and high property taxes can move. Just about anywhere.

Peter I. Berman

Comments

16 responses to “Letter: Norwalk on way to becoming a big box mecca”

  1. Tim T

    Peter Berman
    I take it that you have never been to Milford.. Big Box stores all over the place..No traffic congestion, no noise, no problem at all.
    You may want to take a ride one day, its off I95 exit 39.. A BIG SUCCESS.

    Also I take it that you have never been to Danbury Big Box stores all over the place.. No traffic congestion, no noise, no problem at all.You may want to take a ride one day, its tight up Route 7. A BIG SUCCESS.

    On the other hand we have Stamford office buildings all over the place.. Horrid traffic congestion, horrid noise, BIG PROBLEMS. These corporations move as soon as the tax credits are gone.

    I think the answer is simple…WELCOME BJ’s and every other big box that wants to come to Norwalk.

  2. nwkprobate

    Tim,
    Do your homework. Look at the property taxes Merritt 7 pays versus Home Depot. You want office buildings — they are much more valuable and pay a lot more in tax. Retail big box is not the answer …

  3. rburnett

    Tim T: Have you ever driven on Connecticut Avenue during the weekend? NO CONGESTION?? Are you blind?? Look at Milford’s route 1 compared to Norwalk. Look at where Danbury allowed big box stores. You cannot compare Norwalk’s big box dilemma with those other cities.

  4. M Allen

    I have made a number of statements regarding the placement of the BJ’s location on Main Avenue. I stand by those statements because it is just a bad location as it relates to traffic and underdevelopment of the roadway infrastructure in that particular section of Main Avenue.
    .
    Aside from my very specific reservations against BJ’s in one very specific location, I do not believe that Norwalkers need to be afraid of national retailers such as BJ’s, Lowes or others coming to our city. This concept that Norwalk is a “residential town” is completely out of date. Norwalk is a city of more than 80,000 people. We have distinctly residential areas that resemble our neighbors of Westport, Wilton, New Canaan and Darien. We have waterfront properties and almost rural properties. But we also have elements of an urban area, replete with various levels of blight, as well as distinct commercial zones.
    .
    Not all commercial areas, whether zoned for it or not, are appropriate for every type of commercial business. And Norwalk’s governmental and political leaders need to be cognizant of going too far. Sometimes, something is indeed better than nothing. But other times it may be more prudent to take a thoughtful approach and wait for a better outcome.
    .
    I am certain we would all like to see better devlopment than just national retailers, or frankly, retailers of any nature. Office buildings are in fact a much better option in terms of what they bring to the community: dramatically higher taxes and higher-paying, local jobs for area residents. But the fact is that office buildings are not being built in Norwalk like we would prefer and this is NOT because BJ’s or Lowes are coming to Norwalk. It is because, for some reason, developers of those properties are unwilling to invest in building them here. Even today we read a story about how the 95/7 development in South Norwalk has shifted from building a 10 story hotel and 12-story office building to building apartments. That is a big shift, but shows that developers are not lining up to build more office space in Norwalk. We need a better understanding of why that is, but apartments are good too.
    .
    In the end, we need to stop pretending Norwalk is something it once was and that there may be some way of getting that back. Slowing the movement forward is one thing, but we are not going back to the 1950’s and we need to come to grips with that. The nature of retailing has changed and Norwalk has changed. We need not be afraid of national retailers and the price and selection they offer our residents. But we do need to ensure we balance our development in ways that best suit this city.

  5. Tim T

    rburnett
    Have you ever driven in Stamford during the week? NO CONGESTION?? Are you blind??
    Also Milford’s Route 1 compared to Norwalk’s is actually very similar except for the area directly in front of the mall. I take it you have never been to Milford. In regards to where Danbury has allowed big box stores, the answer is pretty simple most everywhere except residential areas. Once again I take it that you have never been to Danbury,.
    You state “You cannot compare Norwalk’s big box dilemma with those other cities” I agree you can’t because it is not a dilemma, its progress.
    Just because a few loud mouths are against this does not make it a dilemma.

  6. Tim T

    nwkprobate
    I would suggest you do your homework and look at the tax breaks that are given to the companies in Merritt 7 vs Home Depot. Also when the tax breaks expire the companies threaten to leave if not given additional tax breaks to stay. In the long run it is actually more profitable to have a Home Depot ..LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE.
    Also let us not forget the convenience of having retail in town for the residences so they don’t have to ride to Milford or Danbury. I and many others say WELCOME BIG BOX..THE MORE THE BETTER.

  7. Suzanne

    Tim T, what are the tax breaks that are given to Merritt 7 versus Home Depot? Are they more favorable? Why do you think this is? Where do you get this information?
    I personally do not want to see a lot of tip up construction like big box because I think a community offers more than just retail to make it “home.”
    I recently went to Milford’s Lowe’s because they carried an item I could not find anywhere else. It is MASSIVE. The parking lot is HUGE. I know where the site is where Lowe’s is supposed to be developed (catty corner from the very large and new fire station with no traffic plans as to how to handle emergencies between the two competing entities) and I think it is foolish. It is surrounded by residential buildings which will be devalued with a big box in their respective front yards.

    Now, this might not bother you, Tim T, but think about those homeowners. It’s not a fair burden just because you don’t want to drive the 28 minutes it takes to get to Milford’s Lowe’s.

    No one actually NEEDS big box. It is just one shopping type among many. I don’t want a warehouse town. I want a City that is vibrant, lively, rich in culture and neighborhoods. I guess that means I should be living in Stamford or New York City. But, why can’t Norwalk have that, be that?

    Towns are more than the sum of their retail or their big box or their shopping opportunities. Go to Milford, Tim T, or Danbury. You are beginning to sound like those spoiled golfers who MUST have their driving range, to heck with the rest of us. That’s hardly fair. And that hardly makes a community.

  8. Tim T

    Suzanne
    Once again your post is you opinion nothing more or nothing less. The thing you don’t seem to understand is that most of country welcome big box retail as if they didn’t they would not survive. I would rather see 10 big box stores than 100 mom and pop with no selection, poor return policies and poor customer service. That’s right in the real world the large retailer have better customer service than the crabby old timers that own the mom and pop stores. .It’s the 21 century and the day of other than big box retail is gone. Get with the times.

  9. Suzanne

    Tim T, That’s your opinion. Nothing more and nothing less. There are many more models for retail other than big box or “mom and pop.” Get with the times – it’s the 21st Century.

  10. Norwalk Lifer

    Please see this summary of study conducted by MIT:

    http://web.mit.edu/course/4/4.293/!Phoenix/Research/Tenant%20Research/bigboxstudies.pdf

    The net effects of Big Box are negative to the state; the wages paid are not commensurate with the basic life requirements of the typical America worker, therefore Medicaid costs rise in towns where big box are flourishing.

    One benefit of big box is the forced competition it creates according to the Economist; so that means while a BJ’s might offer lower prices, it causes the surrounding retailers to lower their prices to compete.

    One of the fallacies of big box is the forced cost on the consumer to store and harbor the large purchases they make; useable living space can be calculated by square foot, using the cost of construction, plus the cost of financing. If your home is worth 123 per square foot, then you are paying a mortgage on storage space, you created in order to save 10 cents on the dollar spent for goods you buy in bulk from big box. So in business if you paid as much in running costs for your storage or staging facilities as the actual work area where you building goods, or services, you’d have quite a deficit on your hands in no time.

    The other factor that is used in determining where big boxes land is the economic landscape of the areas they target; Walmart uses a calculated process to determine the economic health therefore the spending power of the towns that they decide to build their stores in. What suffers? local business.

    You can take the model of Route 1 in Darien and compare it to this theory; there are no big box stores in Darien, they have a CVS, but it’s outshadowed by the local pharmacies.

    And Darien has a “buy local” policy, I’ve seen the advertisements from city hall to “buy local” but there’s no meat behind the bun there.

    And Main Street Westport, of course, Westport’s consumer profile is much healthier than Norwalk, but the real estate cost on Main Street has skyrocketed since the 1980s as franchises have moved in, and are able to afford the higher rents. BUT, the cost of rental also dictates the cost of goods.

    So in comparing real estate values from Darien, through Norwalk, to Westport, we can all agree that we are buttressed by two powerhouses on either side when it comes to real estate costs. As you creep up the Route 1 corridor to the West Fair area, housing prices become more aligned to Norwalk, but what’s there? a bustling corridor of big box, national retailers, franchises and the like.

    And then there’s Milford, between Orange and Milford, on the Route 1 corridor, there is a virtual “Las Vegas” of franchises and big box.

    While I am all for the grand old tradition of independent competition, you must understand that the playing field is not equal when it comes to the local growth stores versus big box.

    Darien’s Sport Shop is very active in it’s community, and quite successful; Darien’s sport shop gives back to the area it grew in.

    Locals like it, and they pardonize it, but tell me, does anyone who pays a mortgage of 2500 or more per month really believe they are saving money, but turning part of their useable living space into storage space for the “great wall of Charmin”? Guess again.

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  11. M Allen

    Tim T, please enlighten us on the tax breaks given to any business residing in the Merritt 7 complex or to the owners of the complex.

  12. dianelauricella

    Please do not assume that this application is a done deal…far from it…
    Please support those that want Norwalk to be more than recent leadership has allowed and remember the mess on Connecticut Avenue…
    We were all told over the years that there would be “No Problem” as each CT Ave. big box was approved…by many of the same Zoning Commissioners who again sit on this Zoning Commission!
    This current application violates many areas required under the standards of a Zoning Special Permit…

  13. Osgood Schlater

    I would hazard a guess that New Canaan, with a smaller population than Norwalk, actually has more retail stores than Norwalk. But no big box stores. I have traveled all over the United States for sixty years, and I have seen what terrible damage outlying shopping malls have done to city and town centers. It is part of suburban sprawl and heyday of the automobile. Now we have congestion on our highways as well as in our streets, and big box stores only add to the problem. Wake up, America, we’re sliding downhill! Wake up, Norwalk, before it’s too late.

  14. Piberman

    Thank you Norwalk Lifer for the MIT reference. Norwalk is indeed handicapped because 3 towns within easy commuting have “town malls” – Stamford, Danburry and Trumbull. Shifting the City’s retail hub to Big Box along Rt 1 made our two downtown areas non-competitive in their current configurations. But Norwalk still has ample under and unused commercially zoned land left over from its manufacturing days. The only game left is encouraging high value added corporate park development. That requires zoning attention and improved and most likely improved capabilities within the City’s planning staff. As long as Norwalk remains the high cost provider of municipal services among CT lack of high valued development will remain a contentious issue. Developers are pretty savvy about finding good opportunities. Having made mistakes in he past the question is whether Norwalk’s leadership will do better. So far from the campaign discussions the answer is not positive. A stagnant Grand List ought to be a real warning sign to re-evaluate. Sadly it looks like business as usual. When candidates say they are going to grow jobs and new development we know we’re going backwards. Criticizing the current administration by itself isn’t a viable development program. None of the candidates have demonstrated any familiarity with the professional literature or have first hand business experience in creating new projects. But they all have promises. Lets see some meat on the bones please.

  15. Norwalk Lifer

    Dear Piberman:

    You are welcome, but I would argue that Norwalk can take advantage of the state WIRED program and utilize those funds to invite small businesses (manufacturing) in to our under-ulitized space. Look, there was a transmorgification in this town from it’s days of Oystering, thru the industrial era of the fifties, and sixties, we lend leased our highlands to the Brooklyn Navy yards to build PT boats. Anything is possible, you just have to imagine it and strive to make it happen. But setting the bar low by inviting in Big Box, tell me, what happens when the balance of consumerism tilts in this area?

    What is the profile of other towns where investment bankers lost their jobs, and their big bonuses (of course, I am not sympathetic here) such as Fairfield, and Westport? Sure those towns survive, but does anyone deny that the current economic mess we are in, is something we can snap our fingers on and it will go away?

    You have to work hard to attract business to this area; there are no efforts in my view to do that, but I see a lot of ribbon cutting on restuarants and the like. How about attracting tech again? there’s enough starts up to do this. Why are the tax incentives to build facilities in Arizona, like Schott solar did, going to other states? while we in Connecticut get a return of .86 on every federal dollar we pay?

    And states like Kentucky, notorious in the seventies for selling land to hazardous waste firms, so they could dump their barrels and walk away (yes it was cheaper to do that, that to pay for the recovery), now get the incentives to attract contract manufacturing? Kentucky sees 1.08 for every dollar they pay to the government, Lousiana sees 1.86 for every dollar.

    We are paying for the unsustainable state of failed states, yes failed states, and being a highly educated, high cost, economically diverse state, we should know better.

    We should roll up our sleeves, look for tech industry that needs space to grow their businesses, those small mice that will eventually roar,,, like Perkin Elmer did when they moved their polishing expertise from Springdale to Norwalk and Wilton, and start that cycle of economic vibrancy once again.

    In other words, “We can do this”

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  16. Piberman

    Norwalk Lifer
    What could we do using local resources to attract high valued businesses ? A first step would be to appoint knowledgeable professionals to P&Z so we would be spared the comic opera of BJs application to locate on a densely traffic street. Second, we ought to give preferential consideration to corporate park development. Norwalk has ample available land and under attractive zoning and tax abatement policies could become a highly desired and affordable location for high valued corporate activities. How to put in place a local government sympathetic to such an endeavor is well beyond my understanding.
    Recently a global software firm located in a corporate park setting in Westport and owned by a Westport resident was sold for a billion dollars. Norwalk, too, has major software firms also situated in corporate park settings. So it can be done.
    The great tragedy of Norwalk was that by encouraging Big Box development on Rt 1 it lost any real chance of developing its convoluted downtown areas into viable commercial areas with an array of retail stores, office buildings, etc. when Home Depot was first proposed small business owners by the hundreds came out in protest. Our politicians effectively destroyed our downtown retail businesses who were no match for Home Depot. Left are restaurants and the area is ghostly during the day. Pelegrino jewelers is one of the last survivors. But that’s history. Norwalk is one of the very few cities of its size to not have a chain department store.
    The second great tragedy of Norwalk in development terms was to clear away a major tract of land adjacent to I95 including a long established Chevie dealer without having a viable replacement. Some two decades have passed since creation of the Big Hole. It’s the major example of failed downtown development in CT.
    A third tragedy is now underway with locating BJs on heavily congested lower Rt 1 within sight of Rolling abridge condos. Reportedly a dutiful P&Z will follow the wishes of Mayor Moccia, BET Chair Wilms and Common Council President Hempstead in siting BJs. Unlike Home Depot there is no effective local opposition either from small business owners or nearby residents. Not from Democrats nor the candidates. And not from other residents living distant. Not from the Hour. No doubt BJ shareholders will prosper. And residents from miles around will converge upon our already busy streets to shop on Route 7. And other Big Boxes will be encouraged to join BJs. It’s how “business” is done in Norwalk.
    What are the odds of correcting or learning from past development errors ? Not very good. Home Depot some 30 years ago was the real battleground when large numbers of long time Norwalk citizens with businesses rose up and protested. Most are gone now. By and large they formed the hard core of our active political life. Now their replacements are too busy to get involved. So we get BJs in a ridiculous place.
    Most knowledgeable residents know Norwalk has serious development issues that can only be resolved successfully with far more capable experienced professionals engaged in planning and zoning activities.
    And residents willing to turn out and fight for their best interests to prevent inappropriate development.
    Listening to comments by the “candidates” about development needs its quite apparent that they individually are neither well informed or knowledgeable about our City’s long standing development issues and problems.
    The candidates are following the Great Norwalk Tradition of the past 30 plus years. BUILD ANYTHING ANYWHERE YOU WANT UNLESS THERE’S MAJOR LEAGUE PROTEST. That’s why the City hires top notch legal talent to prevent a Mosque siting with a hundred additional cars in West Norwalk while welcoming BJs attracting thousands of autos on a heavily congested Rt 7.At day’s end we get the local government we deserve and are prepared to fight for. So drive around Stamford. Once upon a time Norwalk and Stamford were nearly indistinguishable. Now that’s where the good jobs are.

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