NORWALK, Conn. – The “Save the Garden Cinema” movement has hit pay dirt: The Common Council on Tuesday voted to delay a decision on Wall Street Place, known to many as “POKO.”
“We feel that there are several issues with this project,” Mayor Harry Rilling explained to NancyOnNorwalk. “The issue that has come up more frequently than anything else is the Garden Cinema, or some sort of arts and cultural center focus on the project. We don’t disagree with that, we would love to see that happen, we would love to see the Garden Cinema saved.… And the other issue is the design, people are saying the design does not fit into this area.”
Proposed redeveloper John McClutchy said that it’s “rather doubtful” that the Cinema could be saved but likely that a space could be provided for similar services.
Movement for an arts district
The Democratically dominated Council had been expected by some to “rubber stamp” the plan to restart construction on Wall Street Place, which involves 100% affordable housing and demolishing the Garden Cinemas to create a parking garage.
John and Todd McClutchy of JHM Group and Citibank, which took possession of Wall Street Place through a deed-in-lieu transfer, have negotiated with the City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency to develop the proposal, which includes 101 apartments and retail space. Two public meetings on the topic have drawn push back, much of it focused on a desire for an arts district and some of it on the proposed design of the building – a modern look in an historic area.
The Wall Street Neighborhood Association on Sunday posted a petition, looking for support of the Cinema.
“Instead of tearing down the blighted, decaying mess that is ‘POKO,’ that the Wall Street neighborhood has flourished in spite of, over the past two years, they want to tear down our beloved community theater to create a parking lot!” the petition states.
On Monday, Marc Alan of Factory Underground and Wall Street Theater developer Frank Farricker announced to the City that they had formed the Norwalk Film Center, Inc., a nonprofit, to create the non-profit community theater and film technology education center that has been mentioned. The goal is to raise $1.5 million and “take over the shell of the Garden Cinemas, or other comparably sized space, approximately 7500 square feet,” Alan wrote, asking for the matter to be tabled.
A Tuesday meeting
Alan and Farricker met with Rilling on Tuesday afternoon, Rilling said, announcing that the matter is being tabled until early September.
“We are looking at working on the design issue, which seems to be a major issue, as well as how we maintain that area as an arts and cultural center,” Rilling said. “Mr. Farricker and Mr. Alan will be the point people working with the city. Other people will be called in to have this discussion. There are right now at least four options.”
Alan’s Monday email lists the options:
- “To leave the Garden Cinema in its present location, and to develop parking around it, behind it, and above it. A multi-level parking structure that allows for the present Garden Cinema to be operated as a non-profit theater, funded by grants, and private donations.
- “To create ‘New Garden Cinema’ facilities within the overall design and construction at 26 Isaac Street that can still be operated by a non-profit. Potential future home to the Norwalk Arts Commission, Norwalk Film Festival, etc.
- “To create the ‘Norwalk Film Center’ facilities within the first-floor construction of Wall Street Place.
- “To create ‘Norwalk Film Center’ facilities within the basement structure of Wall Street Place, where the automated parking system would originally have gone.”
“How gratified I am that we have such a representative democracy here in Norwalk,” Farricker said to the Council. “The idea that Marc Alan could start a petition to save a valuable resource and that 3,000 people could respond in 24 hours, and this body could hear them, and decide that it’s important that the community could look at saving this is very gratifying to me. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
Chris Ward, a Stamford resident who teaches at Norwalk Community College, called the Garden Cinemas a “jewel in the state.”
“I know you’re thinking it’s movies, you can see them anywhere,” he said. “But that’s not quite true, most of the arthouses have closed down. There are very, very few that have multiple screens.”
“It’s really great that things have changed since the last time I was here and I couldn’t be happier about that,” Peter Fullam said.
On the other dominant issue motivating the Council to discuss further, the proposed design is “improper” and “derivative,” architect Lee Levey said. “The building that should exist should be a reflection of the influences around it.”
“The stakeholders in this area have spoken loud and clear,” Rilling said, explaining that the petition “had a lot to do” with tabling the vote.
“We are certainly not tone deaf and we have listened to a lot of what people have had to say,” John McClutchy said. “There’s been a lot of, in my opinion, sincere and good comments about what we need to reflect on as we go through this process. We intend to do that.”
He said they’ve been talking to people in the arts community, and “intend to sit down with them and find some way to address their concerns.”
“Can we save the Garden Cinema? Rather doubtful,” he said. “We need the parking to make this development work. Can we provide a space that will provide similar services? I believe that we can. Can we provide other parts of our venue that will allow the arts community to participate in what we are doing? We have done this before in other communities.”