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Norwalk Joint Committee on mall proposal digs for info

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano
Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano

NORWALK, Conn. – Information is being sought by the Norwalk joint committee considering the ins and outs of changing a long-standing land agreement to accommodate the developers of a hoped for-be mall on the long-vacant 95/7 site, from the implications of building part of the shopping space over a road to the potential for success for the proposed classroom space and the possibility of changing Enterprise Zones.

This after being told that there is indeed a market for luxury malls and that a boutique hotel, as described by General Growth Partners (GGP), would likely be good for SoNo.

The joint committee of Common Council Planning Committee members, Redevelopment Agency members and Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom is focused on what is allowed on the property – Parcels 1, 2 and 4 of the Reed Putnam Urban Redevelopment Plan –  in terms of how much square footage of the development is devoted to what. This is to develop a consensus between RDA and Council members as to how the city’s Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) will be changed to allow GGP to go forward.

The committee on Monday discussed logistics and arranged two meetings for Saturday mornings, on Jan. 24 and 31. RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan said he would contact the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to inquire about Enterprise Zones, which is relevant because GGP would get tax breaks if the mall is constructed on the property.

Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked about that. “I have heard, I won’t say a reliable source, about the state and promises for reimbursement. … Slowly but surely it has been cut back on.”

Hempstead said he has heard municipalities “have not been getting back what they originally signed on for, not the proportion they thought they were going to get.” Hempstead asked for information on how much an Enterprise Zone can be changed.

GGP would pay no real estate taxes for its first two years after construction under the Enterprise Zone rules. The state reimburses eligible towns for up to 50 percent of the revenue lost, according to DECD’s website.

Then there was the question of the construction proposed for over North Water Street, which divides the land owned by GGP.

“I think we’re going to need some direction and understanding of what their air rights entail as part of the approval process with the city,” Hempstead said. “… Find out if they have done any kind of conceptual other than a line drawing.”

Norwalk Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom
Norwalk Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom

It’s possible – not probable, but possible – that Metro North would have an issue with such a construction, he said. Sheehan said that Tighe & Bond had been hired to study that issue, as the company designed the newly built road and is fully aware of the issues surrounding the incline and truck traffic.

Astrom said that school buses come and go from the Maritime Aquarium on that road.

“My assumption would be they are not going any lower than the railroad bridge and that they understand there is an incline change in the grade significantly to accommodate truck traffic to be able to get beneath what is there,” Sheehan said.

Robert Gibbs, a consultant, told the group over a speaker phone that there is merit in GGP’s plan.

“The shopping center industry has been very strong for luxury retail centers, especially malls that are anchored with upscale department stores like Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “The typical luxury center is producing two to three times the sales per square foot of mainstream moderate shopping centers. They are being built at a slower pace than they were before the recession but the centers that are being built tend to be upscale luxury type shopping centers.”

Mid price-point shopping malls, typically anchored by a Sears, J.C.Penney, Target or Macy’s, tend not to be doing as well because middle income families haven’t seen their incomes grow much in the last eight or nine years, he said.

Reports of the death of malls are exaggerated, he said. There are 1,800 malls in the United States, and 1,500 are “still very strong,” he said. Most of the dead malls were in “really rough areas,” he said.

“I don’t think malls are dead. I think malls will be around for a while. Those that have died I think were just because of their location,” Gibbs said.

About half of the open-air “lifestyle centers” that proliferated in the 1980s have closed, he said, and the ones that closed did not have an anchor department store. GGP is leading a trend for in-fill malls, he said.

“On a square foot comparison, the luxury malls are still generating twice the sales per square foot. Malls offer a certain amount of convenience that a lot of shoppers are looking for, and once they get in the mall they do a lot of spending,” Gibbs said.

Hempstead asked if Gibbs’ statement from last spring, that development with mixed uses is more likely to succeed, is still true.

“I still think a mixed use center is less risky than just a retail center all by itself,” Gibbs said.

Research shows that GGP’s plan to put a hotel on the property may be successful, he said.

“General Growth recently did an article on hospitality with luxury centers and estimated that their hotels perform 20 to 30 percent higher when they are combined with luxury shopping centers over when they are standing alone by themselves,” Gibbs said. “… It’s a very, very good use to have in a downtown setting, to have hospitality.”

One of the best examples in the country is the Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, he said.

It should be a win-win for everybody, as the surrounding restaurants help the hotel, he said.

“There are many business travelers right now that will go slightly out of their way if, once they are in a hotel, they can go down the elevator and go shopping and dining with a selection of shops rather than being out on an interstate interchange sort of by themselves. … According to studies we have seen, hotels in such locations perform 20 to 30 percent higher than equivalent hotels in suburban locations,” Gibbs said.

Sheehan gave the committee an encapsulated version of the city’s own studies, a mountain of paperwork for them to ponder.

Sheehan said the rental market study showed that the effect of all the housing that is currently being built would be that vacancies would jump to 10 percent, and then stabilize back in the 5 percent range Norwalk is used to. The retail study said Norwalk continues to be the second largest retail market in Fairfield County, with a low rate of turnover, he said.

The hotel study showed that a boutique hotel, with a marquee bar, would do well, he said. This would compare to Hotel Zero Degrees on Main Avenue, but with a brand name, he said.

Hempstead asked him to get some information on how classroom space works in similar situations. He also wanted a comparison between GGP’s proposal and the Easton Town Center.

“The goal is when we leave at the end of the day, that we have vetted some stuff, have this proposal but at the same time have a wealth of information to distribute to everybody,” Hempstead said.


8 responses to “Norwalk Joint Committee on mall proposal digs for info”

  1. John Hamlin

    Sounds like another 5 to 10 years before any construction on 95/7. It would be interesting to go back 15-20 years to see why all the delays and who’s responsible for them.

  2. SA

    I agree mixed use is less risky. That interchange is such a valuable property – close to 95, 7 and the train, overlooks a park, SoNo and the sound.
    I don’t want Norwalk to get a bum deal. And we don’t need to look anymore like white plains than we already do.

    I’m concerned about a mall: 1.) already have an ugly box in Stamford, a mall in Danbury and Trumbull. 2) Also the pace of retail turnover.

    Mixed use is better with a hotel, office, retail, restaurants and housing overlooking the sound. We need someone with vision. A good example is the Iron Works. It was built to suit. And 95 7 is more spacious.

  3. Piberman

    Two pieces of “information” are conspicuously absent. First, an objective survey of who might use the mall from the surrounding population. Second, an objective survey of additional traffic congestion from building a mall adjacent to one of the most heavily trafficked corridors in America.

  4. Tony P

    I agree with Piberman – more so on his second point concerning traffic. Where is all of this traffic going to go? And are they (developers/state/city)going to adjust the existing infrastructure any more?

  5. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    From this report, one can infer that by consensus between RDA and Council members the city’s Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) will be changed to allow GGP to go forward with construction of the disputed mall. Is that a “will be” or is it a “may be”? If it’s the former, what impact will it have on land disposition issues that arise in the future?

    Another question arises from the public comments made when, “Robert Gibbs, a consultant, told the group over a speaker phone that there is merit in GGP’s plan,” basically supporting the GGP proposal. With all respect due to Mr. Gibbs, in my observance, it is rare for professionals to disagree publicly with other professionals in the same field. Does Dr. “A” ever say anything negative about decisions made by Dr.”B”? Mr. Gibbs, as is the case with GGP, is a mall consultant from the Midwest. What is more, the hint was dropped by a member of the commission in another discussion that Mr. Gibbs has been hired by the city to “help us make a decision” about the birth of a major mall in the City of Norwalk. Is there a conflict here about any advice Mr. Gibbs will give the City of Norwalk about this issue?

    Additionally, no one has given a public explanation as to the hiring of Mr. Gibbs as an official consultant to Norwalk on this issue. Has he been hired? If so, how was he selected? Were any other mall planning experts interviewed prior to the selection?

    Other than that, one can only agree fully with Mr. Gibbs that success depends on the choice of an anchor store for such a mall as the one being considered for us. Is there a branch of Bloomingdale’s coming to Norwalk? GGP has been delaying any such announcements. We can only pray that we won’t see another Sears, J.C.Penney, Target or Macy’s in this town so soon after they’ve flopped as anchors elsewhere.

    There are many unanswered questions still dangling about the resolution of this contested proposal, and we can only hope (and should insist) that, as Doug Hempstead concluded at the end of the public session, ““The goal is when we leave at the end of the day, that we have vetted some stuff, have this proposal but at the same time have a wealth of information to distribute to everybody. The key words are: “vetted” and “everybody”.

  6. piberman

    Rod Lopez-Fabrega
    Good comment. One wonders why the Council did not hire a major league real estate location expert firm for assistance – one that could well stand up as an “expert witness” in a court. According to my web search the “expertise” hired by Mr. Hempstead is a firm with less than 4 employees with revenues less than one-half million. That might not be complete or accurate information but the absence of a major league consultant does suggest that full objectivity is not in play here. A major league consultant would have no difficulty making public early in the game their analyses of traffic and likely consumers heading for the mall. Silence here doesn’t benefit public inquiry.

    Our leading GOP former officials, Mayor Moccia and Rep. Cafero, have given their blessing based on unknown information and analysis. What’s needed is full disclosure with expert advise so that the City can make a suitable determination of the merits of the proposal. Given Norwalk’s long tradition of “back door” politics that’s almost asking for the tooth fairy.

    Maybe NON could ask for a reader’s poll on the outcome of the mall proposal and whether the outcome will be based on open expert disclosure or back door business.

  7. Amanda

    Easton Town Center isn’t even one of GGP’s properties. It’s certainly much more of a “lifestyle center”. How about Mr. Gibbs uses an example of one of GGP’s own properties for a real apples to apples comparison. You’ll also note that ETC is adding a Whole Foods market, which we so badly need in the grocery store wasteland of this town.

  8. Maritime Yards Condo Owner

    Yes – SoNo desperately needs a food store, high-end, not a bodega and not the Stop&Shop that is a drive away. Even if it is a smaller store, not full-service…this is missing from the plans and SoNo. Also, retail is fine, it is what GGP does, but no matter what, we need more housing for the long-term…I know a lot is coming on, but some more mixed-use (sans the office space understandably) seems to make sense…

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