Updated, 8:52 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Democratic Norwalk Common Council members on Tuesday approved the Wall Street-West Avenue Redevelopment Plan, after impassioned arguments for and against the proposal, and discussion of emails they characterized as misinformed.
“Since I got elected, I have spent a lot of time reading and studying about city planning … and so much of what I see in this plan – I have spent many hours with it – reflects what makes a walkable vibrant city and it seems to me a real vision for the future of the city,” Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said.
The vote was 13-1-0, with the lone Council Republican voting no.
“There is more in this I like than I don’t like,” Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said, explaining that historically speaking, he’s had to deal with people asking him why he voted for things he doesn’t like. “That always has tempered me a little when I vote for something like this,” Hempstead said.
The Redevelopment Agency is expected to vote on the plan Wednesday, the last step of the approval process.
Jason Milligan’s effort to get the opposition out in force to Tuesday’s meeting resulted in a smattering of signs in the Council chambers. Nine people asked the Council to either reject the plan or table it, and seven urged that it be passed. Of the seven, three are developers and a fourth is a Norwalk Hospital executive.
“I wouldn’t say any plan is a great plan, but this plan is good and I think we really need to support it, to get going, to fix this up and make it a flourishing place in Norwalk that we can be proud of, because it’s not like that right now,” said Stuart Lane, who described himself as having “been in this area for a long time.”
Opponents of the plan are ironically the same people who have been urging the City to plan better, Planning Commissioner Mike Mushak said.
“The Redevelopment Agency has pulled off a miracle in SoNo, adding hundreds of residents and infill projects that add to the historic character without destroying it. …. The critical mass that saved SoNo is what is missing on Wall Street and that is what the plan addresses directly,” Mushak said.
There are a “few loud opponents, who I think we can all agree by now have some self-serving reason for opposing this plan, including, plain old-fashioned politics and of course, greed,” he said.
Brian Dietz said he was speaking on behalf of EDG Properties, which has worked with M.F. DiScala on Head of the Harbor South.
“Unfortunately, current debate surrounding the proposed plan does not focus on the merits of the plan itself –which is the result of a lengthy public process – but instead on some sort of suppressed resentment against the concept of redevelopment agencies and policy in general,” Dietz said. “Recently this has turned into a petty argument over the semantics of words like ‘deteriorating, deteriorated’ and ‘blight.’”
“Democracy is the messiest form of government but certainly the best kind of government there is. I think this subject that you are dealing with tonight is a good example of that,” Parking Authority Chairman Dick Brescia said. He noted a “cacophony of different voices and different points of view” and expressed support for the plan.
“The question here is whether or not we think government can fix it or whether the private sector can,” unaffiliated Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton said, asking that the Council delay voting on the plan so they could more fully understand it.
There’s been a “shroud of secrecy” making it difficult for the public to understand what’s going on, Brinton added. “A cynical individual, or naysayer as I have been accused of being, might think it’s part of a deliberate campaign to confuse and wear down the residents and taxpayers … Despite many of the speakers here tonight, it is very much inside baseball: employees or appointed people speaking as private citizens, but not actually private citizens.”
“The community does not trust the Committee or the plan, how can you vote anything but no tonight? You owe it to all of the Norwalk community to respond to unanswered questions and concerns,” Lisa Henderson said.
Milligan said a better plan could be developed, with a broader level of support. “If you are forcing people to do something against their will, it’s not going to work,” he said.
Donna Smirniotopoulos quoted Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) as saying in an email exchange that afternoon that the plan has nothing to do with the Garden Cinema. “I think we all know differently,” Smirniotopoulos said.
Kydes said later that the Council had received numerous emails that had been “solicited,” from people who don’t understand that with no plan in place there’s nothing to protect the neighborhood.
“I think all of us were concerned about the emails,” Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said, explaining that a vote for the plan does not mean “we are voting for or against the Garden Cinema.”
It is widely believed that if a new plan to restart the stalled Wall Street Place development, a.k.a. “POKO,” is approved, JHM Group is going to buy the Garden Cinema and demolish it to provide parking for the adjacent apartment complex.
“I understand the passion people have but they should be very aware of what is in the plan and what is being voted on, it has nothing to do with the Garden Cinema,” Colin Hosten (D-At Large) said.
“I guess the question for us here tonight is what can this plan do to help revitalize the area? … This plan is a vision for the area in the form of a document, is the best way I can describe that, a vision that is based on the collection of massive amounts of data, public input, planning review,” Kydes said, recounting his memories of the area as a lifelong Norwalker. “The plan stresses, which is very important, historical preservation, walkability, streetscapes, site review, recommendations that with proper – proper – outside investment will revitalize the area while keeping the integrity of the neighborhood intact.”
Opponents, including commercial real estate expert Michael McGuire, who on Tuesday gave Council members a real estate analysis for the area, have criticized the determination of blight or “deteriorated or deteriorating conditions” that make a redevelopment plan legally valid.
“I am going to be honest, this is the first time I can recall any kind of passion that anybody has come out and really went the other way for the uptown, because most it was, ‘yeah it’s blighted, it’s got issues,’” Hempstead said. “I don’t think it’s as bad as everybody thinks it is but at the same token, I have never seen a group of people actually fight the designation of blight, because people don’t understand, by designating it as blighted you can pick up federal funding out of that, and there’s other fundings that are available that come with that.”
“Overall, this is a B+ plan in the sense of what you look at what they are trying to do but we are adding another layer of government, again, on this. We didn’t tackle that in this plan,” Hempstead said.
The plan gives the Redevelopment Agency oversight on the design of new developments.
If you agree with the plan’s vision for the aesthetics of the area, that’s a good thing, because the vision will be enforced, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said.
“A plan like this really sets out goals and objectives, that’s shaped by public voice,” Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey said. “In addition to that, it allows us to measure and understand the gaps in programs and the gaps in funding that need to be addressed to be able to make enhancements in a neighborhood like this.”
“I don’t see that this plan has hindrances to small business,” she said. “…It speaks to the commitment to the neighborhood.”
Chris Yerinides (D-District A) asked about eminent domain.
The Redevelopment Agency was asked to put eminent domain in the plan due to complaints about specific properties, Sheehan said, explaining that he doesn’t expect eminent domain to be used much.
The plan will help Wall Street maintain its character, Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said, explaining that the determination of “deterioration” meets the state statutes.
Some have decried the “blight” determination as being bad for business and real estate values, but “we have the same determination for South Norwalk and that certainly has not deterred investment in South Norwalk,” Straus said.
“It is important that we support this plan because it is that framework that so many groups and different people have worked really hard to put together,” Melendez said.
“It was outstanding how much misinformation there was out there regards to the plan,” Kydes said at the end of the meeting, asking anyone watching the video to read the plan.
“There’s a lot of pages, but it’s an easy read,” he said. “… So don’t listen to what someone else is telling you, do it, read it yourself, and know about your neighborhood.”
In spite of losing the vote, McGuire after the meeting called the vocal opposition “a really good exercise.”
“Because all government, effectively they have no competition,” he said. “So they get fat and sloppy, and this was fat and sloppy, right here. So we gave them a real run for their money. They were going to win, that was not the issue. The issue was really, part of the thing was to sharpen them up.”