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Norwalk council members focus on goals

Senior Norwalk Common Council members line up behind the freshmen Saturday as teams are chosen in a Council goal setting meeting at City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Dot, dot, dot – the thoughts flowed at a Saturday morning conference meant to help Norwalk’s Common Council maximize its efforts over the next 21 months.

First up, council members jotted down what they thought were the most pressing issues for the city, spreading the Post-it notes on the wall. Midway through the four hours of a brainstorming session, they put dots on a list to vote for the ones they thought most important. They then separated into groups and worked in earnest on coming up with a list of things that could be done to reach the top four goals, the ones that had gotten the most dots.

Kum-ba-yah.

“I think you’ve got a great team together,” said facilitator Brian Baxendale to Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) when the meeting ended. “They’re super. I mean, I didn’t see politics, I just saw people wanting to do good things and that makes me feel good as a citizen.”

Norwalk Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) explains processes Saturday in City Hall.

Hempstead asked Baxendale, with whom he served on the Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) board of directors, to lead the seminar. Baxendale used his skills as a business mentor with SCORE, a non-profit association dedicated to entrepreneur education, as he led 14 council members (all except District B Councilman Travis Simms) for more than three hours.

Out of this idea rose: a 311 system for customer service, a year-long planning calendar, a high visibility effort to change the state’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, a commission to address stalled development and an effort to pair youth with elderly.

The rookies were in charge for a while, leading teams, with the eventual result that Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large) announced what might be done to improve City Hall interdepartmental cooperation; Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) announced the ECS ideas; John Kydes (D-District C) spoke about efforts that might encourage economic development; and Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) and Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) announced thoughts on social services and youth programs.

Iannacone talked of a “permit center” and “permit days,” so that people wouldn’t have to drive around to get permits signed.

“We would look for having room made in City Hall so the fire marshal division can be here. It streamlines the permit process,” he said. “… One thing that I see lacking is a common software platform for all departments. The building department has a good piece of software that they use for the permitting process but it’s not tied into the DPW permits and Planning and Zoning permits and fire marshal permits. I think gong to one common software so everybody can look up and see where the project is, what signoffs were done already, what needs to be done, I think that’s pretty important.”

Also, the website isn’t very good, he said.

“It should be legislated: make the website more user friendly,” he said, using the new Milford website as an example to be emulated.

Giandurco said the charge to convince the state to change the ECS formula needs more people behind it. Neighborhood Associations should become involved, as even childless people should see that the cost of education is driving their taxes up, she said.

Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said, “think larger.”

“All the large cities in this state are the ones probably getting affected the most,” he said. “Curiously, even Bridgeport, they were complaining as much as us… if you put all of the cities together and we are all on the same page, we will have more representation in Hartford than just Norwalk alone.”

A legislative director was mentioned.

“Norwalk doesn’t have anyone minding the store,” David Watts (D-District A) said. “We’ve got legislators who might be doing great work but we can’t compete with other towns that actually have a person in the hallway. It’s unfair, because we don’t have anyone, other than Gail Lavielle (R-143).”

Kydes talked about getting a taxing district overlay to subsidize parking.

Petrini elaborated.

“I don’t think many of the merchants would mind putting in a little bit more money in the way of taxes so it could go toward subsidizing parking,” he said.

They also talked of anchor stores for Wall Street.

“We were talking a little bit on Wall Street, forgetting about POKO,” Petrini said. “We’ve got that perfect opportunity. If you get some national brand stores to come in let’s say where the old World Gym was, the old Sears building. Like a Olive Garden is a restaurant destination. The known – believe it, if you build it they will come. Just a point in time – if you give the people something they want and they need, it’s affordable, they will come, they will go anywhere. It does work.”

Stewart talked about working with the Parks and Recreation Department to get gyms open on weekends and school breaks and beginning a program to teach young people better communication skills.

Perhaps funding could be found to send kids enrolled in the summer jobs program to help senior citizens, she said.

“It would help the youth because we have youth that have no respect for authority or the elderly. It would be a role modeling thing and it would be a lifelong lesson for them, too, because they need a push,” Stewart said.

Petrini announced that the session had been a success, thanking Hempstead as it closed.

“When you brought up this idea I don’t think any of us had a clear understanding of what this was. So I want to thank you so much for doing this,” he said. “It’s something that I think we should have been doing every year because now, I have a really great feeling – you know, we can work together. We also are now on the page, as opposed to arguing with each other behind the scenes, just come in front and talk about it. … There are no Republican or Democrats. At this stage, we’re all Norwalkers.”

Minority Leader John Igneri seconded that.

Petrini continued, “I think this meeting should be, when you sign up to run for elected office, this should be a prerequisite.”

Score business mentor Brian Baxendale leads a Common Council conference Saturday in City Hall.
Score business mentor Brian Baxendale leads a Common Council conference Saturday in City Hall.

 

Comments

16 responses to “Norwalk council members focus on goals”

  1. Mike Mushak

    Good stuff! I was there for half of it and it was great to see everyone cooperating on shared goals. Here’s an idea that would fulfill many of the “economic development” goals immediately:
    .
    The Common Council needs to immediately pressure the P and Z Director Mike Greene and the Commission leadership, Joe Santo and Emily Wilson, to follow through on crucial zone changes to spur SMART economic development, that have been delayed for years for no reason except an apparent entrenched inability to move anything forward, and petty personality conflicts between P and Z staff and other agencies in City Hall.
    .
    These changes include the 2011 TOD Plan zoning overlay for SoNo that has been waiting 3 years to be enacted, the adoption of the traffic study requirements for large projects over 20,000 square feet that were recommended in the 2012 $500k Transportation Management Plan, and the contractor yard text revisions to help small contractors with a couple of trucks find affordable space in the hundreds of empty sites all over the city that are currently out of code and dragging down our tax base and neighborhood quality (the empty sites become blighted or locations of illicit behavior).
    .
    That last item was promised by Emily Wilson who was chair at the time that it would be addressed by June of 2013, yet we still have no action on it, 9 months later, while hundreds of local contractors are still forced to face fines or locate out of town. This is a business-friendly initiative that should be a priority of the city to enact, along withe other initiatives I listed.

  2. Suzanne

    Ditto, Mike. I noticed planning, zoning and development were not mentioned as a priority other than putting in an “Olive Garden” on Wall Street. I wish, I wish, I wish Norwalk could think beyond the chain store, the franchise and see the value of wholly owned and operated independent stores with a lot more character, interest and goods appealing to a wide demographic. (I shop in Darien for this very reason. With judicious choices, it is not hugely expensive.) An example of a complete success in this regard: the Venezuelan restaurant on Main near the Lime, another small venture, well attended, that has been there for years. These types of businesses are what make a neighborhood unique, textured, interesting and, yes, affordable. The generic business makes Norwalk Anytown USA.

  3. anon

    Get the educators and all their organized might to fight for more ECS funding too.

    The small independent store that makes it by itself is the exception and not the rule. If that’s the master plan, Wall Street will still be a mess long after we’re all dead and gone. The candy store that used to be in SoNo that did so well moved to Fairfield to be by big name stores. Odz clothing store was in SoNo moved to Westport to be by big name stores. The ornament store in SoNo went out of business, no draw down in Washington St. There has to be a big draw for the small guys as they can’t do it by themselves.

  4. Jlightfield

    Norwalk does not have a transportation planner. Hard to believe isn’t it when Norwalk has a transportation district and operates a bus company.
    .
    The TOD plan (if which I was a participant) does not have an implementation plan. What it essentially calls for is recasting the 17 different zones around the train station and relax (further) the on site parking requirements. This may or may not spur economic development as certain parcels of industrial lands are being land banked currently.
    .
    Contractor yards have been an issue in residential and residential abutting zones for years. Norwalk has historically allowed residential development in historically industrial areas at the cost of those residents then wanting a more residential neighborhood. This history, the topography if Norwalk make this a contentious change. One mans small business is another mans rick crushing business that fills the air with dust and noise.
    .
    When the Norwalk Economic Development Corporation was created, the Common Council and the previous mayor killed its launch. There is no City agency tasked with economic development or planning.
    .

  5. The candy store and all the rest of the stores in sono left/closed because of the high rent and lackluster sales.

  6. Mike Mushak

    Jackie, the TOD study conducted by the Redevelopment Agency had follow up memos with specific implementation recommendations that you may have not been aware of after you left the Commission.

    Also, you are not aware of the comprehensive contractor yard debate that we had last year with a public hearing. We are not making any changes to the large “rock crushing yard” type operations
    which will always be by special permit and highly regulated. The contractor community and various lawyers and real estate professionals testified in a public hearing that they wanted a sensible relaxing of draconian rules, that do not exist in Stamford or Bridgeport or any other city we could find, that define every small garage or warehouse with a small parking lot and no intention of outdoor storage of any materials at all as not available to contractor use because they are all assumed to be “contractor yards” with that negative association despite their need by contractors for small to medium truck storage (excluding “heavy-duty” trucks like dump trucks etc) and they are under a completely random and unique minimum size limit of 12,500 square feet that exists nowhere else in CT (it was a random number just guessed at by a former zoning commissioner in the 90’s, we discovered). Also, we wanted to look at stimulating stagnant economic activity on empty properties on MLK. Our obsolete rules assume that every contractor is potentially going to store giant piles of rock, which is absurd as most contractors since the collapse of the industrial economy over the last 30 years have become small blue collar companies with 2 or 3 vans or trucks, such as HVAC, carpenters, electricians, plumbers,etc. This is the backbone of Norwalk’s economy now and we can’t continue to pretend that they aren’t there or do not need accommodating, while at the same time fining them for trying to store their vehicles on the street or in currently non-conforming locations which are all over the city by the hundreds. It makes no sense to continue with our irrational rules that do mot reflect new realities of the small contractor business prototype.

  7. Jlightfield

    Actually Mike I’m well warren of the final TOD study since I was on the stakeholder committee. I disagree with many things on that study, and do not think there’s an implementation plan.
    .
    While I cited the rock crushing example, the issue of trucks parking is just as contentious. Especially in neighborhoods where residential uses have been replaced with commercial in older neighborhoods where driveways and setbacks are constricted. I don’t really have an opinion, one way or the other, just want to make clear that the issue is complex and highly localized to neighborhoods. Without context, a blanket statement such as “we should allow more contractor yards” doesn’t represent a nuanced application of normalizing zones and uses that makes sense from a long term perspective.
    .
    If you recall, the entire Norden property started as Industrial 1. Numerous people opposed further multi-family housing in the area under the impression that industrial uses were better fits for the area. Given numerous options I think the mixed use approach preserved open space with a permant conservation easement, concentrated development in a smart way, encouraged environmental clean up of a contaminated site and in the end spurred economic development in an area that was respectful of residents adjacent. Not all see it that way. And with that you have the heart of all land use policy issues, a balance between long term plans, current conditions and public sentiment. Only time tends to reveal when we get things right. And sometimes what was right for one generation is wrong for successive ones.
    .
    Norwalk is used as an example of poor planning because of successive generations who adopted a suburban mindset when it came to encouraging development. NCC, Merritt 7, and post road development are that legacy. Norwalk has also been used as an example of good planning as we have preserved older neighborhoods and housing stock as well. I would not be surprised if, a few generations from now, people have plenty to pick apart with the new urbanism practices we embrace now.
    .
    But let’s not forget that the smaller southern cities have prospered at the expense of the big coastal cities.
    .
    There’s a map circulating the Internet showing that half of the USA’s GDP comes from the economic activity of a handful cities. Our federal tax dollars subsidize much of the rest of the country. Which is why it is so frustrating to watch congress cut funding to rail in the northeast. We live with a failing infrastructure while our tax dollars subsidize trolleys and rail in other cities.
    .
    There are ways to leverage private investment with public policy, but I think Norwalk has to start taking a hard look at how all encourage collaboration instead of the default insular approach. Norwalk is filled with talented professionals and surrounded by towns that need a flourishing city to provide regional services. It’s going to take a great effort by all.

  8. Mike Mushak

    I’ll send you the memo under separate cover and we can talk about the TOD plan. We have gone way off topic but in the vacuum of visionary leadership in our P and Z Department it is essential that others keep the fires burning or nothing would happen at all, to the detriment of all. The Council’s seminar yesterday was excellent and highlighted the strong connection between issues like this and the future of the city. We ignore them at our own peril.

  9. Mr Norwalk Ct

    I always have a good laugh reading the posts on this site. We have a very very very small group that posts here that all walk in lock step. The funny thing is that this group actually believes that thier far out views represent Norwalk.

  10. Piberman

    Not surprisingly none of these distinguished elected officials talked about property taxes, excessive city salaries relative to our income, stagnant property values, stagnant income growth over past two decades or improving the capabilities of city managers and administrators. Or the influx of transient rental housing and demise of long term residents. Or staffing BET with financial professionals. So they do the “soft stuff” and congradulate themselves for being “relevant”. And wonder why they are not respected.

  11. AxeMan

    I wonder how many back door deals were reached at this meeting? It’s a shame when certain people or groups have a personal vendetta against people. The person that certain individuals are gunning for is Fire Chief McCarthy. He may not be liked by some or most but for the council to shoot down a project that will improve fire and EMS protection in the Westport Ave./ Cranbury area just because he is the department head is just plain stupid. This plan was conceived by a professorial organization that specializes in fire protection (paid for by the City) the plan was not conceived by this chief trying to put another “feather in his cap”. The best thing to do would be to open a new station in the Cranbury area but that would just be too costly. The solution that was recommended was to redeploy one of the vehicles that the city already has staffed, this would add a second response vehicle to the area without lower any of the services to the rest of the city (look at the facts). For example if Engine 4 is up at Cranbury school and someone happens to be having a heart attack in the George Ave area, a first responder could be on scene in two minutes or less instead of having to wait eight to ten minutes for another responder. Many times in this city the Police department is busy and could be delayed and as an article you had a few weeks ago the ambulance isn’t always available in a timely fashion.
    Another example would be that if there was a fire in the Cranbury District the fire department could have eight personnel on scene in five minutes instead of only four and having to wait an additional four to five minutes to get that extra help there. In those four or five extra minutes a lot of things are more likely to go right with the extra help instead of wrong. One of the lines from some retirees that are against this, say the fires always went out the way the trucks were deployed why change them now. Well things have changed a lot since the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s the fire department now does EMS, fires have changed due to the materials that things are made of now, standards have changed that fire departments have to meet.
    It would just be a shame if this projects gets voted down do to peoples dislikes of one person. If Tom Hamilton recommends this and the money is allocated already it must not be a bad idea. Mr Hamilton knows the city finances he knows what can be done and which plan will save the city money in the long run. Why should it come down to this elementary school stuff. So I ask the common council members especially the six of you that live in this district that could be, will be affected by this change or lack of change. Ask to see the studies, listen to the facts, look at the responce times and realize that times have changed so should the fire service in Norwalk! This isn’t about who likes who, who may need a favor from another member of the council down the line this should be about the CITIZENS OF NORWALK THAT ELECTED YOU TO SERVE THE PEOPLE OF THIS CITY!

  12. Jim Nichols

    I’ll second Piberman’s comments. Without a growing yet sustainable tax base nothing can be achieved. So why was this not at the top of the list. I would like to see a graph of the tax burden when compounded with the yearly increases. Those seemingly small percentage increases year after year start to add up very quickly and will put the city at an extreme disadvantage relative to other living locations as citizens vote with their feet and move out of Norwalk.

    I do applaud the conference for its team building and hope that the big macro issues are addressed to make Norwalk a financially viable city for all.

  13. Don’t Panic

    It’s interesting to see that there is enforcement regarding contractor yards in commercial areas in SONO to the point where it is contentious. There are residential properties in residential areas of this city that are being used as contractor yards, up to the large dump trucks Mr. Mushak has mentioned, and including those nasty “rock piles”.

  14. Piberman

    AxeMan

    Right on target. Cranbury residents face a double whammy – no nearby station and very few hydrants. We depend on Wilton and pumpers loading up ponds often dried up summer times when needed the most. For many years Councilmen have rejected stationing equipment at Cranburry school. But had no trouble funding a mansion like new firehouse.

    Councilmen have also been obtuse in rejecting a combined fire and police faculty to house our substantial fleet of fire and police boats

    Let’s invite Mayor Rilling to Cranbury and see how long it takes fire and police responders to arrive to an emergency near the Park. Better bring lunch.

  15. Mike Mushak

    AxeMan and Piberman, I agree with both of you. Why does the Norwalk Common Council have such a hard time with common sense solutions, in these two cases (Cranbury and the regional shared maintenance building) that would both improve public safety and save taxpayer money?

    Don’t Panic, I agree. The P and Z staff ignore enforcement of housing codes all over the city, looking the other way when illegal apartments in overcrowded dangerous buildings ruin our neighborhoods,but they go after select contractors in SoNo with a nasty vengeance, while ignoring others (well-connected maybe?), while at the same time ignoring the need to revise the codes to allow more conforming uses that would encourage small business and fill hundreds of vacant properties in our business and industrial zones that are too small to fit our reg’s for small truck storage and small contractors which are the majority of contractors now.
    .
    We also have a strip of underutilized or empty properties along MLK that could be adapted for both smaller and larger contractors. The city continues to make running a contractor business in Norwalk more and more difficult, ignoring the reality that this is the backbone of our service economy with thousands of local jobs that reflects our blue-collar background. Every single new small contractor business would multiply the economic rewards of being in Norwalk with increased business for delis, supply warehouses, mechanics, paint stores, increased property values and tax income, etc., in a cascade of economic benefits. One would think this would be a GOP-supported issue as the party of business growth, but on Norwalk’s Zoning Commission, it is the GOP leadership that could care less. This city never ceases to amaze me in its stupidity.

  16. Piberman

    Mr Mushak

    Let’s not put the cart before the horse here. Without clear cut evidence City spending is constrained to the incomes of its residents no amount of improved P&Z zoning regulations will encourage business interests to invest in new building activities here other than providing rental properties for a City increasingly attractive to transients. Commercial interests see the vacant spaces, underutilized properties, lack of redevelopment and fully understand why renters, rather than homeowners, are finding Norwalk attractive. A City attractive for business development puts pressure in P&Z for improvement. And top salaries of any city in the state send the message. Our politicians enthusiasm for Big Box largely destroyed our vibrant small business class. And they’ve stayed away. Imagine what could happen if our Council members actually read City budgets line by line, engaged in detailed discussions and asked about consolidations, innovations and budget economies ? That would be the “New Norwalk” !

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