Norwalk council members begin look at proposed SoNo Special Services District

Norwalk SoNo Special Services District  20140218-010
Kim Morque, left, and Tom Rich explain the “simple” steps needed to create a SoNo Special Services District Tuesday at the Ordinance Committee meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. – Two South Norwalk property owners are leading the charge to create a quasi-governmental body that would tax SoNo commercial property owners in exchange for improving the business climate in the “teetering” area.

Kim Morque and Tom Rich made a “fast” presentation to the Common Council Ordinance Committee Tuesday night to give an introductory overview of the proposed SoNo Special Services District, which would follow the model of 1,500 other such districts across the country, in advance of making a formal application next month. They faced questions that ranged from the nature of the tax that would fund the services the district would provide to the effect it would have on people who live in the neighborhood.

“We don’t need more taxes… A majority of people that live in that area cannot afford to do anything that’s in that area. Some have been property owners for a long time. They couldn’t afford where they are living if they came on it now,” said Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large), who said she lives in SoNo Gardens.

Morque, of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners LLC, said the area encompassed would be from Martin Luther King Drive to North Water Street, and would include the Washington Street commercial area. That is 100 properties with a total assessed value of $100 million, he said.

Those property owners would have to vote for the special services district, said Rich, the developer behind 99 Washington St.

“There is no question in my mind – I have a lot of experience with this – that this is the way to go to save that historic district,” he said. “Because right now it’s teetering. It has a lot of vacancies. We need to drive Norwalk forward in all of its neighborhoods. Hopefully it’s all going to flow. We lift everything and it will flow.”

Morque, chairman of the Downtown Special Services District in Bridgeport, said the district would be designed to supplement city services and enhance the commercial district. It would create an independent board of trustees or commissioners elected by property owners, with a budget and a set of priorities that would include safety and marketing.

There are nine such districts in Connecticut, he said.

“In most cases they focus on enhancements, very gritty stuff like making sure that the sidewalks are kept neat, that the streets are plowed, that the banners are up and there’s an attractive environment, then also market special events, those sorts of things,” he said.

A majority of property owners would have to approve the proposal, and that would have to represent 51 percent of the assessed value of the area, he said.

He said they had spent a year designing the district and creating a groundswell of support. Tilly Hatcher, also of Spinnaker, said 44 percent of the property owners are on board. That represents 60 percent of the assessed value and “We haven’t reached 2/3 of them.”

Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) wanted to know how the voting would be done, for purposes of fairness.

Morque said, “One property, one vote.” Hatcher clarified that to say everyone would vote once for the creation of the district, but there would be two counts: one by assessed value, the second by individual property owner.

The tax increase – just for commercial property owners, not owners of residential property – would be small, they said.

“I would consider it a minuscule increase in the amount of the individual tax bill when you take into account what they would be getting in return,” Rich said. “The collective can do so much more for the area than any one taxpayer could ever do on their own, and what happens at the end of the day is that all the properties benefit, including the residential property, really benefit from a safer, cleaner environment. This has been proven and tested.”

Norwalk Councilwoman Shannon Stewart  20140218-003
Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) takes in comments made by Councilman David Watts (D-District A) Tuesday at the Ordinance Committee meeting.

Stewart wasn’t buying it. She has lived in SoNo all of her life, she said, and seen many people leave to go to Danbury or Bridgeport or somewhere else where it is cheaper. If the assessed value of the commercial properties goes up the residential values will go up as well, increasing the taxes for people who are already stressed and don’t benefit from the amenities.

“Is it going to be so the people in the community can afford to live there? Otherwise I don’t see the point,” she said.

Rich took that on.

“I would say that you have to be in any community about economic development,” he said. “How that is meted out fairly amongst everybody in the entire community cannot be the responsibility of the developers in the area. I mean, we’re trying to build the area, stabilize the area, make it functional.”

Councilman David Watts (D-District A) told Stewart that he is from New Haven, where there are three special services districts. He had seen blighted areas be transformed to the benefit of everyone there, he said.

“I think this is another example where Norwalk basically will get caught up to where other cities and towns have been doing. So I can see a benefit,” he said.

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Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), left, and Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola look at a map of the proposed SoNo Special Services. District.

He joined others in expressing concerns about the taxes. Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola suggested that Morque and Rich bring examples from other cities when they come back in March to make their formal application.

Bonenfant asked how the taxes would be collected and learned that the plan is to have the tax collector do it.

“You’re just asking for the ability to collect taxes on the side?” he asked.

The answer was an amused yes. The city will collect taxes and send them back to the district.

Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) indicated initial support as did Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large).

“Everybody is talking about marketing the city better,” Iannacone said. “I think this will be a positive thing for that because if we don’t have those buildings occupied and they don’t pay taxes then what’s going to improve the city?”

Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said that, at present, it’s impossible to get the shop owners together to create a unified advertising plan or holiday hours.

“If this increases the tax base in this small area then it helps offset tax increases all across the board in other parts of the community. It’s a game of balance,” he said.

“We can’t stay static,” Rich said.

“A lot of the merchants down there understand that the merchants association model didn’t work. There’s no budget,” Morque said. “So having this money funneled into a budget which would be administered by the board of directors is really a guaranteed way for the district to really do the things they want to do.”

Services would include planting, marketing and a series of special events, in addition to enhanced security, he said.

“We’re trying to enliven the area and protect it because it needs to be protected,” he said. “It’s one of southern Connecticut’s jewels. It’s a historic district, which is a very important thing.”


15 responses to “Norwalk council members begin look at proposed SoNo Special Services District”

  1. anonymous

    It is nice to hear that planning is taking place in SoNo. No doubt about it, it is dying down there without one.

  2. John Hamlin

    We need to support increased services for SoNo center or it is going to become a vacant slum. No one wants to go there anymore: it’s dirty, there’s no place to park, and the only other people there before 10 PM are panhandlers, who are allowed to accost with impunity. Shops and restaurants are closing weekly. Something has to turn the tide — but perhaps the City should do more instead of giving the public employees, who mostly live outside Norwalk, another raise.

  3. the donut hole

    what is the southern border of the proposed district? the shoreline? how large is the board and how would its members be selected. thanks for finishing the story.
    if we learned anything from NEON, hopefully it is that large boards are dysfunctional.

  4. spanner

    Granted this was then

    During the real estate boom in the 80’s, all the adjacent neighborhoods benefited from ambitious projects. Some helped peripheral markets like North Station and Fort Point. But midtown was a bust. One of the larger projects proposed for the area was an office, retail complex on the Millennium site called Commonwealth Center. In 1991, Citicorp Real Estate, a subsidiary of Citibank, foreclosed on its developer, F.D. Rich of Stamford, Conn., and leased the vacant site out for a parking lot

    but what about now plenty of things are happening in F D Riches properties in Stamford not showing us progress is matching the efforts thay are giving there.

    We need to drive Norwalkers from all of its neighborhoods. Hopefully it’s all going to flow. We raze everything and it will flow.”
    is more like it.

    really benefit from a safer, cleaner environment wow with all the police we have at bar closing what are they not telling us at city hall a crime wave is going on now?Cleaner means Norwalk has not been able to deliver a cleaner Sono when all you see is the Parking Auth cleaning sidewalks parking lots etc are we to understnd we are getting rid of LAZ and its pathetic bunch of money sucking private contractors,they plow now and also remove snow with those new white pickups are all private or does the Parking Auth own them as well?

    It has a lot of vacancies,its amazing what crime does parking is still a major concern and merchants association model didn’t work.Who was left to make it work just a handful of bars

    Maybe this guy Rich should run for a state reps job he talks like one with a smile.

    It is nice that we have Mario speaking up for us in a way that ensures the taxpayer will have some answers,figures we get help from someone we didn’t vote for.Wish it was the same for some of the ones we have voted for.

  5. cc-rider

    These guys are not having any luck getting anyone to pay the outsized rents being asked in SONO so they come up with this Special Services idea.

  6. spanner

    Plans for 99 washinton st the Riches Pearl is To leave cars on Washington st in traffic for up to 3 minutes waiting to be parked within the Pearl the way traffic is now is insane.Does anyone remember what Pro Park said about traffic flow?This is going to be good this was passed by Norwalk does anyone remember what the city agreed on?Too late to think this one thru isn’t it?The way it read was live parking in the travel lane on Washington st to park in the Pearl.This extra security is probably going to be a traffic cop at everyones elses expense good move Richy Rich.

  7. Ken Werner

    I, too, have heard that a major reason for the many vacancies on Washington Street is the high rate of rent increases over the years. A special services district makes sense, but it would make more sense if Spinnaker and Mr. Rich shared the pain by reducing commercial rents to the point where a more varied and vibrant mix of businesses can flourish on Washington Street, which was the original concept and was once the case.

  8. Dorothy Mobilia

    Instead of dividing the city further for economic assistance, why not take a step back and look at what a special services district could do for two centers, SONO and the Wall Street Historic District, taken as one whole, to enhance and grow the amenities and commerce of the once-vital centers of the former City of South Norwalk and Norwalk? We’ve been one city for nearly 101 years now, and we have done little to truly unite us. In fact, the remaining merchants in Norwalk Center repeatedly say attempts to revive SONO always push Norwalk Center into the background. Yet the history, accessibility and potential of both, with a little imagination and resources, could help us and our neighbors recognize the value of uniting the two districts into a powerful mile-long corridor. It’s not rocket science, it’s vision.

  9. Suzanne

    Excellent idea, Ms. Mobilia. How would you get the momentum going for Norwalk Center and how would you join them with SONO? I certainly believe this is possible and I do like the historical context in which you place your suggestion. The above feels like another way to “fiddle around” with some sort of paradigm shift for SONO but does not seem like it would solve the problems in the long term. Points above about commercial rental rates are well-taken.

  10. Jlightfield

    Norwalk Center has undertaken a different approach to the idea of a business improvement district. Through Norwalk 2.0, property owners, business owners and neighborhood residents convene to tackle issues and opportunities. Norwalk 2.0 hosts a listserv for news, event and issue sharing in addition to economic development and marketing activities.
    This is not to say Norwalk 2.0 isn’t interested in SONO, we have programmed there as well. But we take a wider view on how to develop economic activity that is more opportunistic and nimble.
    If anyone is interested in joining our efforts up make Norwalk cool, connected and community focused drop by our website to learn all about us.

  11. Norwalk Voter

    Sounds like an important step forward. NYC has had a Business Improvement District in Times Square for many years. The changes there in the last two decades have been extraordinary. Also, closer to home, Stamford has a BID and it has made a huge improvement in their downtown.

  12. David R. McCarthy

    The proposed South Norwalk Special Services District can only help SoNo continue to thrive as a unique retail and residential destination in Fairfield County. I am familiar with Stamford’s Downtown Special Services District, which organizes popular events, keeps the downtown clean, and installs plantings / holiday decorations. It is a successful concept and one that benefits all downtown Stamford retailers. Non-big-box retail like SoNo increasingly has to compete as a district, not as individual stores, and is not competing against individual retail establishments but rather against competing retail districts, such as Stamford, Westport, Darien, etc. This is much like how malls compete against each other by developing an effective “mix” of stores, programming with special events, and always maintaining a clean, positive environment. The SSD would help SoNo continue to evolve into a competitive retail district, which in turn will help build Norwalk’s tax base.

  13. Mike Lyons

    FYI, Norwalk already has a Special Service District for the Waypointe development on the books (Norwalk Code sections 100-8 et. seq.).

  14. Bill

    Whatever the councilwoman with blue nail Polish is against, I can assure you I am for.

  15. spanner

    Thanks Mike we are always led to think postings are full of facts or great advice where as most of us realize 22 percent of the time they don’t change and 78 percent of the time they get worse.Sono isn’t interested most of the time for outside help the landlords have it together i say jokingly.Quick note of another important subject another bridge strike in Sono today and Norwalk fire is having a hard time keeping engine four running maybe its time to look at the issues that concern most of us improving the city by experts doesn’t seem to be happening. Someday a truck full of trouble will hit a bridge in Norwalk and calling the fire dept should of been the first call.The city still hasn’t got a great emergency response team maybe we need to pay more for this one important facet of protection.It sounds like a special service district concern we we have how did that slip by the experts?

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