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Norwalk zoners kick POKO can two weeks down the road

Ken Olson

Ken Olson of POKO Partners explains the change in design for Wall Street Place at Thursday’s Plan Review Committee meeting in City Hall.

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.

13 comments

EveT January 9, 2015 at 6:37 am

This is the same Wall Street Place development that was in the news a few days ago, isn’t it?
“… State Bond Commission is set to approve critical funding for the Wall Street Place mixed-use development when it meets this Friday [Jan 9] in Hartford…. the site…will soon be home to more than 100 new apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail business space.”
How does the $3.5 million state money figure into the problems POKO continues to have in pulling this thing together?

Michael McGuire January 9, 2015 at 8:12 am

How about a compromise allowing the more efficient layout coupled with a modified façade that is more in keeping with the initial plan?

Nora King January 9, 2015 at 8:31 am

@Mike McGuire – I think everyone is set once Redevelopment agrees with the changes. We want to see a better rendering of another angle and then get Redevelopments blessing and I think it is good to go. In my viewpoint the design changes were not minor but I understand that the efficient layout is important. The façade is very different then what was originally presented. I think we all want this project to move forward. It has been way to long and it is holding this entire area back from being successfully redeveloped.

Mike Mushak January 9, 2015 at 10:48 am

The changes were a shock to the commission since they were so different, hence the initial negative reaction, but I applaud POKO and the architect for keeping the same number of units but dropping the height by a story and reducing hallway lengths, adding a rooftop deck, and redesigning the facades with more glass and less phony historical elements than the original design had.

The new look is “more industrial” just as commissioner White said, but that’s a good thing from my perspective, as they look more like repurposed loft buildings with a cleaner and more honest contemporary look instead of the more “Disneyesque” or “Hollywood backlot” look of cheap faux historicism. I think they actually enhance historic Wall Street better than the previous design which tried too hard to pretend they were always there which is rarely successful (pretentious architecture gets old fast!).

I just toured a bunch of southern towns and cities on a long 2,500 mile car trip from TX to CT, and saw much new development in booming historic downtowns in Little Rock, Memphis, Huntsville, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Durham, and Raleigh, and dozens of smaller towns along the way.

All these historic downtowns had world-class improvements going on, including contemporary “loft-style” buildings with a lot of window space that looked just like the updated POKO buildings, as well as many “Complete Streets” improvements including bike lanes, waterfront trails, reverse angle parking, bike-share programs, and increased transit options including light rail, streetcars, and frequently-timed electric “circulator” buses.

It is a revelation for us Norwalk CT residents (I travel with my partner David Westmoreland who is also a licensed landscape architect like I am) to see such smart urban planning and booming downtown economies in cities full of new residents and businesses in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as dozens of cities we visited last summer in the Rust Belt including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Pittsburgh.

The return of dense walkable and bikeable cities as desirable places to live is the biggest demographic shift in America over the past 60 years, since the suburban sprawl and interstate highways emptied the cities beginning in the early 1950’s. It is great to see Norwalk’s 2-mile long linear downtown corridor return finally after decades of stalled efforts, with new housing and businesses, including new street improvements including bike lanes and traffic calming which many of us are working hard on getting installed, and which is happening all over the country as our visits to dozens of cities and 3,000 photos from the last year alone attest to.

Dorothy Mobilia January 9, 2015 at 11:19 am

Travel is a great educator for showing how other municipalities and developers solve challenges we all face. Also, is it too late to ask POKO to provide a mockup of the buildings to give the zoners and redevelopment a better sense of this project? The proposed changes sound practical (less hall space) and more resident-friendly (through amenities). I get the feeling the ZC really wants to approve this development but are hard-pressed to envision what Ken Olson wants to do, given their discomfort with the drawings.

dianelauricella January 9, 2015 at 2:19 pm

Instead of expensive models, why not ask the developer to place designs on computer as virtual tour, where size comparisons can be programmed in? That way, changes can be programmed in, size comparisons can be evident, the design can be brought around to different Boards, Commissions, and all you need is a laptop, projector or tablet, etc..

At the site, demonstrating height using helium balloons are also an inexpensive but impactful method of showing laymen height, width and length.

Gordon Tully January 9, 2015 at 9:42 pm

The materials and colors will make or break the design in my opinion. If they persist with the chocolate grids I predict the building will look dated before it’s completed. In other respects, the design seems to me an improvement, as far you can tell from the renderings.

Don’t forget that the truly awful collection of buildings put up after the flood were the latest thing in the 1950’s and 60’s. I admire restrained designs not because I hate modernism, but because it takes real talent to use modernism in a way that relates to human beings, and few have such talent, myself included.

Bill January 9, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Too many cooks in the kitchen. Who cares what Nora King thinks really, build the development because the current low-end look of Wall Street needs to end. Let the free market decide what building look is best, you aren’t putting up the money so who cares about your opinion.

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