NORWALK, Conn. – The new look proposed for Wall Street Place was panned Thursday by Norwalk zoning commissioners, who, in the spirit of moving the long-delayed project along, agreed to sign off on the plan in two weeks if the Redevelopment Agency has no objection.
“You’re going from a residential design to something that looks very industrial, with a lot less detail. That looks like a factory to me. … You’re getting totally away from the broken-up residential look that was originally presented,” Commissioner James White said to representatives of POKO Partners, developer of the project.
POKO was at the Plan Review Committee meeting seeking a determination of whether the proposed changes, which include a reduction of height along Wall and Isaac Streets, are minor. If not, the process for getting the changes approved would be longer, and POKO is under the gun with a timeline of requirements that were written into its Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) with the city as part of an extension granted last summer after a lot of hand wringing. Chairman Joe Santo said commissioners have no say in the actual look of the mixed-use development, which was approved in 2007. That is in Redevelopment’s hands, he said
Commissioner Nora King and others expressed disappointment that the buildings will be shorter. “This is a primary area for Norwalk. We want this area to be developed. As zoning commissioners we are looking for higher buildings,” she said.
“This is a little amusing to me because way back when we got this approved the height was a big issue,” Ken Olson of POKO Partners said. “So now we made the building smaller, you want it bigger.”
King wanted to know why the building had been redesigned.
“We are trying to be more efficient. Because of the shape of this lot, to make it work, there was lots and lots of hallway space. We looked at the ratio of units to corridors it just wasn’t functioning well from a numbers perspective,” architect Keith Peacock of Kitchen Associates said.
The stairway towers needed to be moved to comply with the current codes, and the constructability of the building was a factor in the “repuzzling,” he said.
Olson said the height reductions allowed him to add amenities, which he needs in order to compete with the new Waypointe development on West Avenue.
“We are trying to move fast because we did need to do some redesign, or complete the design, in a more efficient way. The building is not as efficient as we needed it to be; that makes it more expensive. This makes it more cost effective and we are trying to keep the ball rolling. So slowing me down by coming back in another month means we have to stand still,” he said.
Deadlines under the LDA include finalized, stamped construction drawings within 250 days of the extension granted on Sept. 1. Olson also needs a signed contract with a general contractor at that time.
King and White initially said they didn’t think the changes were minor.
“You’re look like your trying to emulate Waypointe more than the integrity of what we wanted on Wall Street,” King said.
Linda Kruk agreed.
“It’s a little bit too much of a throwback,” she said. “If you are mirroring old buildings down there, that design, presumably someday those buildings will get redone, refacaded and changed and evolve, and we don’t want to pull Norwalk backwards. We certainly want to make it more inviting. That to me looks a little offputting, it’s a little daunting. That’s not a pretty building.”
“Just keep in mind: You are building a newer building, a newer structure.” Nate Sumpter said. “The older buildings may want to conform with what something new is being shown like, not you conform with them necessarily, since they have probably been there for a lot longer. … Oftentimes older buildings have a way of conforming with some subtle changes.”
The commissioners had a problem with the artist’s rendering, which shows a large gray block behind the development. Senior Planner Dori Wilson told them she had requested that, because it’s in the renderings from 2007. Peacock said he would provide a rendering that shows the building the gray block is intended to represent.
Wilson told the committee that Redevelopment has indicated approval of the look but has not sent a formal statement to Zoning.
“They reviewed it briefly and implied in a personal email to the applicant, not to us, that they didn’t think the changes were major,” she said.
Instead of waiting until their February meeting, the committee agreed to consider it at the full Commission meeting in two weeks. If Redevelopment indicates assent, they’ll declare it a minor change, they said.
“I don’t want to slow you down. … Honestly, if I get an email tomorrow I’m OK,” King said.
POKO still has a hurdle to clear at the LDA’s 150-day mark, which is Jan. 31. That would be the closing on the construction loan with Citibank.
Olson said after leaving the committee meeting that he has the financing. “We’re still working on the final approval but we’re not far away,” he said.