NORWALK, Conn. – The sign over Byron Sanchez’s almost fully equipped new bakery on River Street reads “Coming Soon!”
Don’t hold your breath.
A conflict between building owner Jason Milligan and the City of Norwalk over the design review process has put baker Sanchez, the tenant, “in the middle of everything.”
Having invested nearly $100,000 – his life savings, Sanchez says – on equipment custom made for the space in the former My Three Sons building, he can neither open his bakery, nor walk away from it.
The bakery, named Sabor Ambateño, has yet to receive a certificate of occupancy, without which it cannot operate. City officials say the dispute concerns something Sanchez has no power over – the façade, owned by Milligan.
Milligan, a real estate broker, blames the City, maintaining he’s been treated unfairly, his civil rights violated by “a sudden new process” allegedly “invented” by the Redevelopment Agency.
While this latest dispute drags on, he remains embroiled as both defendant and plaintiff in lawsuits with the city. One is over his ownership of neighboring Wall Street Place, the stalled development also known as POKO, another an attempt to invalidate the Wall Street West Avenue Neighborhood Plan, approved in 2019.
The “sudden new process” concerns rules aimed at keeping the historic neighborhood feel of the Central Business District, home to the unfinished bakery and approximately 40 additional properties owned by Milligan. The rules, legislated by the Zoning Commission, were put in place to fulfill guidelines in the Common Council-approved 2019 Wall Street/West Avenue redevelopment plan, a plan Milligan contends is illegal. He has been battling the plan in court, trying to get it overturned on the grounds that the blight designation used to justify it is invalid.
“It burns my ass to give the corrupt Redevelopment Agency any respect whatsoever. I am spending thousands of dollars to uncover their lying and fraud,” Milligan said.
“The Agency has too much power. Their rules are vague and changed on a whim. It is impossible to fully understand and comply…”
‘It would be $2,000’
Since the law was created, eight other developments have gone through the design review process, including five in the Wall Street area. Jessica Vonashek, Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development, said, “We believe that if Jason was to go through the process, it would be $2,000 or less. We committed as a Redevelopment Agency to be able to turn around a third-party review within a three-week period of time. And we committed at the City level to be able to work with Byron as quickly as possible to do inspections, to be able to issue a CO.”
The sticking point is a provision that makes proposed changes to a building’s façade subject to review by an architect. The provision applies to major renovation work, construction costing $50,000 or more. “The truth is that I have not submitted permits for a project at 64 Wall Street that exceed $50,000 in façade improvements,” Milligan wrote in an email to NoN.
Hotel application denied
Milligan bought 64 Wall Street, the property housing the bakery, just over a year ago, intending to build a hotel. At that point, he said, he had already completed four projects under the new CBD zoning regulations.
“The process was straightforward and getting Redevelopment signoff was easy and quick. The projects came out awesome and are fully tenanted.” But this time, he said, things were different. “I was given a different process and when I objected I was sent a 3 page pamphlet that is not part of the 2019 Redevelopment Plan. It was not ever made public and it was not shared with me in the past.”
Milligan jettisoned the hotel idea (at least temporarily) after Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin shot it down, saying Milligan couldn’t provide the requisite parking. Milligan disagreed, adding that he wouldn’t have submitted the plan in the first place had he known about the review requirement.
In a letter to Sanchez dated Sept. 15, Mayor Harry Rilling explained that after Milligan withdrew his hotel application, he submitted a new application, which was approved, “to install a single new storefront window without doors on the River Street side of the 64 Wall Street building.”
In an email to NoN, Milligan wrote: “At this point I was frustrated but wanted to get started renovating 64 Wall St. The plan was to get something more limited approved and see what new tenants I could attract.”
Milligan accused of violating permit
Rather than install a single new window, the Mayor wrote, Milligan “cut three holes into the side of the building, which far exceeded the scope of his approved permit. As Mr. Milligan’s construction work at 64 Wall Street exceeded the building permit description (façade improvements and new storefront), the City informed Mr. Milligan he needed to stop work on the project until the proper procedure was followed. This has been ongoing since January of 2020.”
Emails show Redevelopment Agency Director of Program Development Jonathan Hopkins first made Milligan aware of the third-party design review requirement in December, inspiring expletives from Milligan. Sanchez signed a lease in February, he said. The bakery application was submitted in August.
The building appears to have three units available. “I’m the only one who signed paper” as a tenant, Sanchez said. None of the units can be occupied while the dispute continues, he said.
Milligan said he paid for the bakery’s $30,000 hood, an exhaust system for the oven. “I expected to easily get the bakery approved and opened. I still optimistically expect the bakery to open,” he said Monday. “Public and political pressure will build if you present the facts.”
“I also have strong opinions and genuine questions about what is considered façade,” Milligan wrote. “Lots of people say that structural components to build walls are not façade. Façade only includes that exterior shell that is presented to the public. Wiring, plumbing, HVAC ductwork in the façade walls would not be included in the $50,000.”
“Those items were not included. The larger issue is what was submitted does not reflect what has been illegally constructed,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli said.
“We have not refused or received any application as suggested,” Bidolli wrote. “The only application the Agency has received to date was for a $21,600 facade improvement project at 5 River Street (62 Wall Street), to create one new storefront window opening in an existing masonry wall, install a single black steel beam lintel, and an aluminum storefront window system (see attached).”
Bidolli said, “Instead of building what was applied for and approved, the applicant illegally constructed three storefronts. We have requested, but not received, any other applications matching what was built outside the permit scope. We are unable to advance a project when we do not have a complete submission. The applicant has been made aware of exactly what is required to reconcile this matter on multiple occasions.”
Asked if he had any idea when the dispute would be settled, Sanchez said no. “Maybe a year, maybe two. I don’t know.”
Meantime, he cannot have the electricity turned on. Costly display cases are positioned in the front of the store, still wrapped in protective plastic.
“I measured everything,” Sanchez said about how he planned the layout of the store for his customers. Referring to his fellow Ecuadorians, Sanchez put his hand on the top of a display case and said, “We’re not too tall.”
Sabor Ambateño is Spanish for Ambateño Flavor. Sanchez said the bakery would offer the usual fare plus traditional Ecuadorian bread.
Sanchez, who came to America from Ecuador in 1994, set his sights on Norwalk after considering Bridgeport, Stamford, and New Canaan. “There are a lot of Hispanics here (in Norwalk). They’ll see the name,” he said.
He owns a bakery in Ossining that he and his family run. His partner there was his brother-in-law, who died at age 44 several months ago of Covid. He left a wife and three daughters, Sanchez said.
The Ossining location is just a narrow strip, Sanchez said. The Norwalk store has a large outer room with display cases and an area for tables for customers to sit at. There’s a larger interior room where the cooking appliances and a large, walk-in freezer are located. He said he also anticipates setting up tables in front of the store.
The rents were too expensive in Stamford and he was concerned that there were too few Hispanics in New Canaan.
“This is for me,” Sanchez said of the Norwalk store.
He signed a lease with Milligan, who submitted a permit he “fully expected” to be approved without issue. Work began on the space seven months ago, Sanchez said, and “I’m still waiting.”
In his letter to the baker, Rilling wrote: “I want you to know that you, your family, and your bakery are welcome in the City of Norwalk. We believe that the addition of your bakery to the Wall Street neighborhood would be a benefit for everyone. As my team has told you many times, we are eager to have you open in the new space, as soon as possible.”
That said, Rilling continued, “you will not be able to open until Mr. Milligan resolves the issue with the outside of the bakery.”
Milligan’s contractor applied for series of permits for the interior work, and at every step of the way was reminded that the CO would not be issued until the zoning issues were resolved, Rilling said.
Milligan calls it ‘sad’
Diagonally across the street from the bakery sits 31-39 Wall Street, another Milligan property. In July 2019, workers carrying out an unauthorized demolition at that address severed a sprinkler line, flooding the stores below. Norwalk Chief Building Official Bill Ireland said he subsequently found cut electrical wires throughout the second floor, some of which were live, and conditions that were unsafe for workers. Milligan has since renovated the flooded spaces and the stores have reopened.
In July of this year, a Milligan crew opened up a large space next to POKO when they demolished what Milligan called a “small” part of 20-26 Isaacs Street, a purchase he made in 2020. Asked about the incident, Ireland wrote: “No permits nor Intent to Demolish Application filed.”
Milligan said he had an interior demolition permit and “very recently we discovered a section was structurally unsound and quickly took it away before someone got hurt or something bad happened.”
That space is now a parking lot.
Meanwhile, at 64 Wall Street, Sanchez’s bakery, like his bank account, stands empty.
Said Milligan: “The saddest thing about all of this is that a family bakery is collateral damage.”
On that, at least, the landlord and the City can agree.
NancyOnNorwalk reporter Harold F. Cobin contributed to this story.
Correction, 1:09 p.m.: Brian Bidolli, not Bryan Baker. Photo added, Oct. 10.