NORWALK, Conn. —It’s been almost a year and the revised plan for Wall Street Place, commonly called “POKO,” is ready for public consumption.
The plan includes an additional 50 apartments and an arts and cultural component, as well as a revamped architectural look. Those additional apartments would be rented at market rate prices, so the project is no longer 100 percent affordable housing.
Common Council members are set to consider JHM Group’s proposal to restart the controversial project next week, at Thursday’s Planning Committee meeting.
You might know it as “the Tyvek temple:” Wall Street Place is the partially completed building at the corner of Wall and Isaac Streets, a project that has its roots in a 2004 redevelopment plan. Construction halted in June 2016 and there have been many legal hurdles since then. POKO Partners developed the original plans for a mixed-use development designed to restart the Wall Street area, but Citibank owns the property now, after taking it from POKO via a deed-in-lieu transfer.
JHM, Citibank’s preferred redeveloper, brought forward a new plan a year ago. It featured 101 apartments, as had the original plan, but also hinged on demolishing the Garden Cinemas to create a parking garage. That drew pushback and the Common Council tabled the proposal in July, to consider that issue and others. Mayor Harry Rilling predicted that it would come back in September.
The Cinemas have since closed; owner Richard Freedman said in an email to JHM that he would be selling the Cinemas “regardless” of JHM’s interest. In email to NancyOnNorwalk, Freedman blamed empty seats – economics, pure and simple – for the venerable theater’s demise.
JHM needs additional parking to make the project legally viable; the Zoning Commission allowed POKO Partners to move some of its required parking off of Wall Street Place phase I onto an adjacent property that it owned, but that property is now owned by real estate broker Jason Milligan. JHM tried to buy it from Milligan but those talks fell through.
The plan presented by JHM on June 27, 2019, included a two-story parking garage where the Cinemas are. The plan JHM plans to present on Thursday includes a four-story building on that lot, with the bottom two stories providing 152 parking spaces and the upper two featuring 50 market-rate apartments, according to the narrative project proposal. Six of the new apartments would be studios, four would be two-bedroom and 40 would have one bedroom.
This makes it 151 apartments in a project that has been planned for 101 apartments, dating back to at least 2007.
Community criticism a year ago also centered on the 100 percent “affordable” component of the plan. It’s now 66 percent “affordable.”
One year ago, Citibank expected $25-30 million in 4 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits to help fund the project through an equity investment by a limited partner. The new documents cite $7,950,000 in LIHTC equity.
The details about “affordable” matter here:
- One-third of the 101 affordable apartments would be rented to households making 80 percent of area median income
- One-third would be rented to households with 60 percent of area median income
- One-third would be rented to households making 40 percent median income.
Federal law regarding LIHTC changed in 2018, providing different requirements per apartment size, meaning that four adults could rent an 80 percent AMI three-bedroom apartment in the development, with a maximum combined income of $114,720. Or it could be a couple with two children, the parents making a combined $114,720.
Citibank has been said to be losing $14 million of the $22 million it has spent so far on the project. “The proposal comes at great cost, and notably, little, if any, monetary recovery” for Citibank, the narrative states.
Arts component, historical design
“We feel that there are several issues with this project,” Rilling said to NancyOnNorwalk in July, explaining why it had been tabled. “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.… And the other issue is the design, people are saying the design does not fit into this area.”
Marc Alan of Factory Underground and Wall Street Theater developer Frank Farricker had formed the Norwalk Film Center, Inc., a nonprofit, to create the non-profit community theater and film technology education center with hopes of raising $1.5 million and taking over the Cinemas or perhaps 7500 square feet in the development. It would be a potential future home to the Norwalk Arts Commission, Norwalk Film Festival, etc.
The new proposal states that the Norwalk Arts Commission will rent a 900 square foot first floor retail space at 61 Wall St. for $1 a year, in a five-year lease, because JHM is “committed to assisting the City with its goal to make the Wall Street redevelopment area an art and cultural ‘hub’ of the City.”
JHM is also continuing its plan for art-inspired street activation for its buildings.
Longtime historic preservation activist Tod Bryant was among those criticizing the project last year, saying that the proposed look was not compatible with the surrounding area’s historic character.
The new proposal updates the exterior façade of portions of the 61 Wall Street building to prominently feature brick, to increase the visual appeal and character of the development, the narrative states.
Bryant, who co-founded the Norwalk Preservation Trust in 2003, said Tuesday that he and architect Bruce Beinfield have worked with the Redevelopment Agency over the past year to create that updated façade proposal, and, “What we’ve seen so far fits into Wall Street’s Historic District better than their original design.”