Updated, 4 a.m., full story
NORWALK, Conn. – POKO Partners ran the approval gantlet Tuesday and came out with its project intact: both the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the Common Council granted it an extension on the 10-year-old Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the Wall Street Place development.
The extension carries with it many benchmarks (or thresholds) that were negotiated by the Norwalk Corporation Counsel office, the RDA and Ken Olson of POKO Partners. The first of these is a 150 day benchmark in which Olson must show that he has attained the $13 million in private financing needed in addition to the state financing it has garnered, $5 million in tax credits to fund a complex underground parking garage. He also must get the permits needed for Phase 1 and a completed Phase 2 environmental assessment of the site and an environmental mitigation plan.
The RDA approved it in a 3-1 vote, and the Common Council gave its nod in a 9-5 vote.
First came the RDA meeting, where Commissioner Lori Torrano voted against the extension, and Chairman Felix Serrano, Commissioner LaTayna Langley and Commissioner Thomas Devine voted for it.
There was little comment. Torrano asked Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan about the meeting he and Mayor Harry Rilling had with Citibank officials, confirming that the bank was in step one of a four-step process when that meeting occurred.
Sheehan went on to tell her that the bank was conducting pre-screening when the meeting occurred, although Olson had told the RDA and the Common Council that he would have preliminary approval by July 31.
Torrano asked Sheehan if Citibank would have an ongoing dialogue with Norwalk. The answer was yes.
That was it.
The Council discussion was more involved. Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) began it by referring to “loose language” in the LDA. The city would be backed into a corner if it declared POKO in default and might well lose the ensuing court battle, he said.
Kimmel began the first of three trips down Memory Lane, reciting the challenges that POKO has faced, including 15 months to get zoning approval “because of some appeals and the lengthy nature of our zoning process in general,” the economic crash in 2008 and the ensuing difficulty in getting financing.
“The financing for this project would always be more difficult than usual because it has what I consider an excellent affordable housing component,” Kimmel said.
Those things are real, he said.
“After the recession, after the zoning mess, after everything that happened, I think we finally got our act together. Both sides, we are on the same page, we have agreed to these thresholds so let’s go forward and we’ll see what happens, if thresholds are met or if thresholds are not met. I am not going to be amenable to an extension if in five months these thresholds have not been met,” Kimmel said.
Majority Leader Jerry Petrini (R-District D), a lifelong Norwalker, took the council on another trip down Memory Lane with a list of businesses that once thrived on Wall Street, including Kiddy Town, Steinbeck’s, Sears, Jeffery’s Men Shop, Greenburg’s, Green’s, Norwalk Saving Society, Merchant’s Bank, Bargain World and Pathmark.
“Wall Street is the heart of Norwalk and in any living body you need to have a healthy heart,” Petrini said. “… The heart of our city, Wall Street, is on life support and has been for a very, very long time.”
He said he shook hands with Olson, which meant more than paperwork written by lawyers.
“I have been waiting and waiting for a rebirth, for a change, some life,” he said. “Now it looks like it could and it might happen again.”
But Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) cited his long history with the project as reason to say no.
“It’s like anything, you kind of kick the dog enough, the dog is not going to come when you call it,” Hempstead said.
Olson should have asked for the extension much sooner, he said. “I have lost my confidence in this developer to finish this project and that has been tainted by decision making because I think we are still doing nothing but delaying the inevitable,” Hempstead said. “…I am the dog that has been kicked too many times along the route with this thing and really I do not have confidence in this developer at all for a variety of reasons, even beyond what I said tonight.”
Olson addressed the oft-made comments about the lateness of the extension request before the council began discussing the matter. He assumed that he should have the financing for the project in place before requesting the extension, he said, because he thought he would automatically be denied if he requested an extension without funding.
Olson also said the project was originally designed as condominiums, but once the recession hit financing for that was impossible as the market bottomed out. It’s all rentals now, he said. That’s something Hempstead expressed disappointment in.
Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) was also against the extension. “I didn’t know when I sat down in this chair tonight that the rock was here and the hard place was behind me,” McCarthy said.
He agreed with Kimmel that the LDA should have been written better but said the list of problems seemed to him to be excuses. If affordable housing makes it more difficult to get funding, that suggests that the market doesn’t support affordable housing, he said. McCarthy said he had heard the underground garage described as being silly and that he agreed with that assessment.
“I want to support it but I can’t,” McCarthy said.
Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) said he agreed with a lot of what Hempstead and McCarthy said, but “I feel we have to move forward, we have to do this, and I am going to be voting yes.”
Mayor Harry Rilling seconded Petrini’s trip down Memory Lane, listing Wall Street businesses that he remembered, including Atlantic Meat Market, Charlie’s Army and Navy, ABC Television and Windsor Drug.
That drew the closest thing to a shot the civility-minded Petrini has uttered: “You guys are a lot older than I am.”
Rilling continued, “We have watched as Wall Street has foundered and has become pretty much a ghost town that is no longer what the vibrant inner core of the inner city that it used to be, with people walking on the street. I think this project is something that will see that turn around. I’ve always been one that said, look, we have invested so much time and energy right now, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s keep it going and give that 150-day extension based on the agreement so that we can now make sure that we have done everything that we can possibly do to support the project.”
Voting for the extension were Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large), Sharon Stewart (D-At Large), Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B), Travis Simms (D-District B), John Kydes (D-District C), Petrini, Igneri and Kimmel. Voting no were Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), Michelle Maggio (R-District C), Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Hempstead and McCarthy. Councilman David Watts (D-District A) was absent.
NORWALK, Conn. – POKO Partners ran the approval gantlet Tuesday and came out with its project intact: the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency has granted it an extension on the Wall Street Place development in a 3-1 vote, and the Common Council gave its nod, 9-5.
Commissioner Lori Torrano voted against the extension, and Chairman Felix Serrano, Commissioner LaTayna Langley and Commissioner Thomas Devine voted for it. The Common Council will vote Tuesday evening on giving the project the extension.
The extension includes benchmarks; if POKO does not have its financing in order within 150 days it will be in default of the agreement. It would then go to arbitration.