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Norwalk gears up to expedite mall decisions

The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the Common Council
The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the Common Council Planning Committee hold a joint meeting Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – A consensus on the first hurdle faced by General Growth Properties (GGP) in its quest to build a mall at the 95/7 site in Norwalk should be reached within 90 days – hopefully sooner, Common Council and Redevelopment Agency leaders said Monday.

Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano and Council Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), in holding a joint meeting of their respective bodies, announced they have formed a subcommittee to expedite the process of deciding whether GGP’s proposed amendments to the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the site are agreeable. The subcommittee will hold its first meeting next Tuesday; the goal is to expedite the process by having both groups work simultaneously, with updates being sent by the committee to all members of the larger bodies, and questions sent in return.

GGP would like to build its mall on land that the city has some control over, as the LDA currently specifies residential, hotel, office and retail usage in specific percentages. To change that, taking out the residential altogether, GGP must get the RDA and the Common Council to agree to the amendment to the LDA. Then, its plan would go to the Zoning Commission and the Planning Commission for approval of the actual structure.

“Everybody, I think, informally has said pretty much everybody is in favor of expanding the retail on this site, it’s just all the other questions that go along with that statement,” Hempstead said, in reference to the LDA.

“Do we know are we agreeable or amenable to moving to this type of retail or to what square footage?” Serrano said, in explaining to Council members. “Then there’s other things that it triggers with regards to what the city may want, or Redevelopment, with regards to specific things in the LDA that are not there. But that’s not the purpose of what we are doing now. I think to your point is do we want to expedite in regards to where we are, do we know if we want to be there, with regards to the use and the size and what that looks like? And come back in a timely fashion.”

The subcommittee is composed of Hempstead, Serrano, RDA member Lisa Cooper, Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) and Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom, who was invited by Hempstead in a further attempt to expedite the process, given that the proposal will head in Astrom’s direction if it gets LDA approval.

“It’s almost like a negotiating team, but we’re not negotiating with the developer, we’re negotiating with two different bodies,” Hempstead said.

GGP will pay for an outside attorney to assist the city in its decision, a move inspired by Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, Hempstead said.

Norwalk RDA Planning Mall 010514 101
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) questions Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan Monday in City Hall.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) pressed for things to happen even faster. Hempstead and Serrano said the subcommittee will meet four to six times, probably over a period of two months, but Kimmel wanted to know why the meetings couldn’t be held closer together, or even one six or seven hour-long meeting. Council and RDA members are dealing with “essentially with a couple of pages,” just a question of the proportions of the uses, not Zoning issues, he said.

“I think we all agree that the sooner we can do this the better, and the sooner we can get something before the developer where they can sit down and do their due diligence the better,” Kimmel said. “Because you’ve got to remember they’re not going to sit down and say yes or no. it’s going to trigger another process. I hope the intent of the subcommittee is not to get into the – I’ve seen it before on the Council, sometimes it’s kind of funny, but you’re not going to micromanage a huge project.”

Hempstead said this approach had never been done before, that it’s something developers have requested. While the Redevelopment Agency meets once a month and has no committees, he has to schedule around the Council member’s many meetings, he said. February school vacation will be an element of this, as well, he said. GGP’s lawyer had said the company would like approval inside of a year, and this is a step in that direction, doing the work that would take a year on its own within three months, he said.

It’s also likely that it the consensus will be reached inside of 60 days, but he wanted the extra 30 just in case, he said.

“I think we are on the right track. Nobody is trying to extend it out,” Hempstead said. “I think this is a pretty aggressive schedule.”

Serrano said he thought the subcommittee could meet every two weeks.

Hempstead asked for questions. There were none.

“If we don’t have questions that doesn’t mean we’re signing on to the project,” Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said, drawing laughter.

Hempstead said the meeting had just been a formality, to let everyone know the time frame. Questions should be emailed to everyone involved, through Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan, so that there is no redundancy involved.

The subcommittee’s meetings will be open to the public, and agendas will be posted on the city’s website, Serrano said.

Comments

27 responses to “Norwalk gears up to expedite mall decisions”

  1. anon

    @Kimmel, agree

  2. EDR

    Councilman Kimmel is absolutely correct. This should an absolute priority of those involved. Others have micro managed proposals in he past and stopped redevelopment of 95/7 in its tracks. As a taxpayer I would hate to see that happen again. Growing our tax base with a very high end development should be a must.

  3. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Done deal!

    Forget whether or not it’s appropriate or good for Norwalk.

  4. Haley

    Re: “GGP would like to build its mall on land that the city has some control over, as the LDA currently specifies residential, hotel, office and retail usage in specific percentages. To change that, taking out the residential altogether …”
    Gosh, is the mall really a foregone conclusion? And removing residential is another blow to Norwalk, which desperately needs more low and middle-income housing. I still think this would be a good site for rebuilding Washington Village.

  5. Piberman

    So far no indication either the Council or Redevelopment will secure well qualified outside consultants to provide expertise to the City. Looks like “business as usual” rather than securing a development that would have broad based City support through proper vetting with outside expertise.

  6. Bill Nightingale, Jr

    3 LDAs since 2001 and a tax abatement passed on the property a few years ago which achieved nothing. That is the work of our Redevelopment Agency and their advice.

    The Redevelop Agency should have zero say in anything to do with this project going forward. They have utterly failed this city re 95/7.

    The only way the RDA should be involved in a new LDA should be in their removal as a party to the agreement.

  7. independent Voice

    Piberman is spot on here. Why is this being expedited? Why isn’t the mayor leading? What makes the common council think they know best without sanctioning independent studies that will analyze the cost/benefits of this. More retail should not be a foregone conclusion without presenting whether or not this makes sense given the dramatic decline in retail and added traffic congestion and strain this could add to the city.

  8. Bruce Kimmel

    Me. Berman, excellent point. The story did not mention that the Redevelopment Agency has hired an outside expert, the Gibbs Planning Group, from Birmingham, Michigan, to work with the city on this issue. We are also considering hiring an outside attorney to review revisions in the existing LDA.

  9. Independent Voice

    @Bruce Kimmel. Please elaborate as to what work/studies this planning group will perform? Is this group simply providing a “rubber stamp” to figure out and rationalize how much more retail can be crammed in the city. Will this group analyze the what resources from the tax base will be required to support this?

  10. LaTanya

    Bill Nightingale, can you elaborate on how RDA has failed with 95/7 project? I am new to the commission and am very interested in your thoughts and POV to ensure your concern is addressed going forward.

  11. Wineshine

    If you’re just now realizing that this is a done deal, then you should understand that this has been a done deal for years. The former Mayor wanted this, we’re left to think the current Mayor wants this, and the Common Council is well past the discovery phase.

  12. Haley

    The relevant phrase, Wineshine, is “for years.” A lot has happened in those “years.” It is reasonable to question a decision that was made years ago, when malls were viewed as more feasible than they are now.

  13. Wineshine

    Haley makes an excellent point.

  14. The Harsh Reality

    The government knows best is starting to take hold. Despite serious apprehension by most city residents, the build now and worry about the consequences later appears to be the message the common council and mayor appear to be dispatching. It is curious as to what this rush is all about and why a common council member who has been on the wrong side of prior zoning decisions is cheer leading this? What happened to the mayor’s town halls to gauge interest in what has the potential to be the largest development in the city’s history? Didn’t the mayor campaign against this in his election bid?

  15. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    @ Harsh reality:

    Your comments above are right on!

    Additionally, Mr. Kimmel has just dropped the word that we do indeed have an expert to help us out. With all due respect to the Gibbs Planning Group, from Birmingham, Michigan, I do recall a discussion some months back about this consultant who specializes in developing small malls throughout the country–mostly in the mid section of the country–with varying degrees of success. After that brief discussion, the Gibbs Planning Group dropped out of public view, so far as I can tell, and that was the end of that. Now, with no more public notice, the Redevelopment Agency has hired Mr. Gibbs and is considering bringing in an “independent lawyer” (paid by whom?) “to help us” with this thing.

    Perhaps Mr. Gibbs is the perfect answer to our redevelopment constipation, but all of the committees and the committees to advise committees mentioned in this report and the sub rosa hiring of relatively unknown experts and the unseemly haste to get it done now are not causes for optimism when we still have nothing but blue skies prognostications that ‘SONO MALL’ is suitable or advisable for Norwalk.

    And the wheels of government turn on and on…

  16. Bill Nightingale, Jr

    LaTanya :

    I am very happy to discuss:

    send me your contact info: [email protected]

  17. srb

    To harp on the LDA about the lack of building at the 95/7 site is silly. Had the real estate boom of the early 2000s lasted 2 years longer Spinnaker would’ve built it’s project but in light of the Great Recession no project was going to get built. It’s tough to see this project as a winner and this is a “government” project since the land was in part taken by eminent domain. Blaming the LDA for the vacant land is like blaming an oncologist because the patient died of cancer.

  18. Suzanne

    It’s remarkable that GGP is being so helpful by hiring an attorney to help expedite the process. I keep thinking that they see Norwalk leadership as a bunch of rubes for which their tactics will be successful.

    I am sure they are correct in this assumption in that they know their business: it should not be expected that subcommittees or council members would.

    However, GGP’s experience in real estate should not preclude the requirement for elected officials to listen to the well-reasoned public nor the evidence that exists everywhere (please see the Washington Post article below that recently chimed into the discussion), that this architectural style is a failure everywhere, that the menu of retail stores are redundant and quickly losing their cache to the Internet, that traffic concerns have not been addressed given the unbelievable numbers GGP expects to shop at this Mall and that GGP is very good at walking away from investments that do not maintain their very high occupancy and profitability standards (as evidenced by their quarterly report and reorganization statement to their investors.)

    Is it costing Norwalk so much to hold onto 95/7 as it exists with its current ownership that the process of expected approval (what a shame!) must be expedited as quickly as possible (inside a year?)

    It feels like the Council/subcommittees are blowing with the wind of the developer especially since the benefits of this Mall have not been proven.

    How long ago was Stamford Mall the place to shop? Look at it now. It didn’t take that long for that Mall to face its demise and now Norwalk is joining the Mall club of the bright and shiny expecting success. It seems so foolish and, yet, our elected council members are simply not listening nor reading the profusion of articles that show these types of Malls are either being re-purposed or destroyed. Data provided by any number of news outlets say so.

    Yet, the perception is that Norwalk is somehow different than countless communities from EVERY demographic that are seeing their box Malls fail.

    There will be no heroes with this development: there will be GGP making its money, people from Stratford and other outlying communities employed there, sales tax going to the State and Norwalk seeing very little of the property tax for a piece of land so big and so advantageously located.

    The decision lies on the Council’s shoulders and the approval seems to be coming fast. Can’t they just take a breath and examine the national trends? The local existing Mall phenomena? The Main Streets of the bordering communities that already have this type of commerce? Apparently, the entirety of the constituency is not their concern.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/01/06/why-no-one-likes-indoor-malls-any-more/

    Please note the Mall style that is seeing success. GGP has a number of these in their portfolio. If we are going to have to have a Mall, why is this successful model not being considered?

  19. Piberman

    Councilman Kimmel
    Thank you for identifying the consultant. According to “Manta” the firm was founded in 1988 and has 1to 4 employees with revenues less than $500,000. Perhaps you can identify how this small firm was selected among the large number of major league real estate site location specialists. This comment is not criticize but to elicit more information. Given the broad range of opinions and surprising absence of a detailed public plan for the proposed mall some caution is urged here. The best case for Norwalk is a well studied proposal that has substantial community support. We already know the plan has the support of former Mayor Moccia. Hopefully the plan will have broad based community support based on the merits, not the politics. So full speed ahead !

  20. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    @ Piberman:

    One also has to wonder if anyone else with planning expertise besides Mr. Gibbs and his firm were interviewed before being hired by Norwalk to straighten us out. Or, was it a single source selection? If so, why?

  21. Bill Nightingale, Jr

    Piberman:

    because that is how the Redevelopment Agency works

  22. RK

    This will suck the life out of SoNo’s retail and dining, which struggles as is. Mark my words.

  23. The Harsh Reality

    Let’s be honest here, this has all the marking of a shotgun approach and taxpayers should be offended by the bush league approach currently underway by the common council. Think taxpayers won’t be on the hook if things go bad? See link below which outlines a failed GGP mall during their bankruptcy. Here is an excerpt from the Percy Report, “On April 16 the nation’s second largest mall owner, General Growth Properties Inc. of Chicago, filed for bankruptcy . . . Even Urban Renewal with its eminent domain power and tax increment financing “partnering” with local taxpayers could not save Englewood’s charming Cinderella City Mall, which opened in 1968 to compete with the nearby Villa Italia Mall, built in 1965. Despite the investment of millions of TIF tax dollars to renovate it mid-term, Cinderella City, an elaborate, covered complex, was demolished in 1999.”
    http://percyreport.blogspot.com/2009/05/twin-peaks-mall-tax-subsidies-could-be.html

    Norwalk deserves better than an “expedited approach to a disaster in the making.

  24. Lindsay

    All I want is a TARGET!!

  25. Suzanne

    There is a Target less than 10 miles away and 16 minutes from Norwalk to Stamford. Think of how many trips you take that are far greater in time and distance. We have a Kohl’s and Walmart. I think that’s enough and hardly justifies an entire Mall with 750,000 square feet of retail space.

  26. MaxPower

    Suzanne you’re spot on. If this is gonna happen it should be an innovative new infrastructure. Outdoor promenades and “shopping villages” (think woodbury commons) are doing quite well. Box malls are both antiquated, failing and more importantly aesthetically unappealing to a “historic” art center like SoNo.

    Further I’m concerned about the anchors. No one needs another Sears, Target, Dillards…we are surrounded by 4 of the top 25 wealthiest municipalities in the nation (Greenwich, New Canaan, Westport, Darien) and the nearest “lux” shopping center is in Westchester. We need a Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus as anchors as they continue to flourish—and would enhance the local economy and demographic.

    Case in point:

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/sapna/what-jc-penneys-store-closings-say-about-americas-malls#.rfPKyw0V

  27. Wineshine

    Outlet Malls do well, and probably couldn’t find a better spot than 95/7 for such an endeavor. Both retail and consumers would embrace the concept on a local level. How many of you have traveled 45 minutes to Clinton? Bet more than a few.

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