Norwalk Zoning Commission approves Head of the Harbor

NORWALK, Conn. – A long-stalled Wall Street development – so stalled that it appeared to be forgotten before Mayor Harry Rilling got elected – was given a go Wednesday by the Zoning Commission.

M.F. DiScala & Company’s Head of the Harbor development, which Head of the Harbor Attorney Albert Vasco said would be a “huge benefit to the city,” was approved unanimously by the Commission after a conversation that centered on pedestrian access and its connectivity to the Harbor Loop Trail.

“Although the plan is rather small in scope compared to the other projects in the area, it is nevertheless large in the importance of being the beginning of the rebirth of Wall Street,” Discala Chief Financial Officer Alan Webber said. “You cannot create a new revitalized neighborhood without an adequate amount of housing to support the new businesses that will locate in the area. The long overdue project will anchor not only the northeast avenue for redevelopment projects, it will also be the catalyst to support Wall Street and the historic Mill Hill complex. … We appreciate the cooperation of all the departments within the city of Norwalk, the good offices of the mayor and the Common Council. We look forward to breaking ground in 2015, with completion in 2016.”

The project calls for 60 apartments in two buildings at the bottom of Mill Hill, along the Norwalk River waterfront, where the long abandoned Smith Street meets Wall Street. Also planned are 5,000 square feet of office space, landscaping, pedestrian sidewalks, a waterfront boardwalk, a public plaza, a gazebo and pedestrian connections.

The Norwalk Historic Commission is getting 15 parking spaces for its Mill Hill complex in the deal, which includes turning over part of Smith Street to Head of the Harbor. DiScala will build a staircase on Mill Hill.

This deal was announced in August.

“I would like to thank the mayor and all the various department heads, working very closely together – in harmony, I might add – for the last several months in order to bring this project to where we are today,” Michael Discala said.

An artists rendering of
An artists rendering of the planned Smith Street, as seen by drivers heading down the one way portion of the street.

Smith Street will be one way from Wall Street into the development, but two way from the other direction. A “hammer head” U-turn will provided for drivers coming in from the south (see video).

Zoners focused on the waterfront access for the public, as Nora King pushed to make sure the planned walkway could connect, at some point in the future, with a possible waterfront walkway at the property next door at what is now O&G Industries.

Adam Blank agreed with her, but Chairman Joe Santo called this discussion “a waste of time.”

“If O&G were to redevelop that, then we would have a shot at it,” he said. “Now we don’t.”

“Our responsibility as a Zoning Commissioner is to look forward 5, 10, 15 years down the road,” King said.

Landscape designer Ray Sullivan said the walkway, which loops around the building from the pedestrian plaza between the buildings and back to Smith Street beside the southern building, could easily be connected to a future walkway by removing landscaping. Zoners put a condition on the approval for the property that the public access easement will extend to the southern property line, and, in the event of a public access there, DiScala will connect it.

Civil Engineer Albert DiVesta said the seawall planned for the project is not really a seawall as it is not a structural wall, but really a demarcation of the public space.

Commissioner Michael O’Reilly questioned the construction of the project’s foundation, saying that a condominium complex built about 10 years ago on the riverfront resulted in buckling floors. He was told that an aggregate would be driven down through the soft upper layer of soil, and the southern building would be a “podium building,” so the underground garage would be concrete with wood framing above it.

Webber said the project is designed for the family needs of Norwalk.

“Head of the Harbor was originally a densely populated area along the water’s edge, prior to the flood of 1955. The new project will be substantially less in building bulk and total amount of square footage. The Norwalk River Head of the Harbor was always a working harbor. We are transforming this harbor into a historic walking harbor for the enjoyment of our citizens using a variety of walking paths, bike paths and plazas. We are creating a family-style neighborhood. Our plan reestablishes the original historic city center as a vital community and business district. We are recreating a neighborhood.”

Diane Lauricella, Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland and Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak spoke in favor of the development.

Mushak requested sharrows, or shared bike lanes, for Smith Street, which he said would cost $1,400 to $1,500. He also suggested signs asking cyclists to dismount as they head down the pedestrian plaza.

Vasco said DiScala would be willing to consider sharrows. That was described by commissioners as a “maybe,” which Mushak said was OK with him.

“Bike safety is certainly part of our concern as well,” Vasco said.

No one spoke against the project, but Wall Street Task Force Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield, a former Zoning Commission chairwoman, sent an email to the Commission on Wednesday with many comments that criticized the Redevelopment Agency’s part in overseeing the Head of the Harbor design:

“Once again we find ourselves perplexed that another project with months of review by the Redevelopment Agency seemingly fails to provide:

  1. connectivity to the neighborhood in which it is located
  2. plans for district and immediate neighborhood parking
  3. sidewalks that are in the 12-15 foot range to promote outdoor pedestrian unobstructed amenities
  4. meaningful economic development that incorporates waterfront dining/retail and public uses that are relevant to millennials and active adults.

The sidewalks along the waterfront are planned to be 8 feet wide, with the rest of the 15-foot easement going toward landscaping, Sullivan said. Webber said DiScala is moving its headquarters from the old trolley barn on Wall Street into the Head of the Harbor project.


7 responses to “Norwalk Zoning Commission approves Head of the Harbor”

  1. John Hamlin

    This is wonderful progress!!

    (It would be interesting to have a post-mortem on what took so long.)

  2. Dorothy Mobilia

    The DiScala project is a great start to restoring Norwalk Center as a viable and vibrant community. Through cooperation with the Historical Commission it also provides a link to the center’s unique historical past. My hope is that other proposals in the talking stages will create a cultural and economic destination that Norwalk deserves.

  3. Tony P

    Interesting viewpoint from Ms. King – and something I’ve always wondered about. The Norwalk River has been, and should be, a working river. However, the industries that are there (OG Cement factory on one side, Devine on the other) are literally smack in the middle of developing areas. I’ve often imagined how different the river front would look without that industry right there, and how unique a river walk from head of harbor down either side of the river could be. More so on the side where this development is. One day maybe, but I want to keep a tax paying business there as long as possible, and keep the river a working one.

  4. LWitherspoon

    The beginning of this story implies some connection between Mayor Rilling’s election and progress on Head of the Harbor, but provides no explanation. If in fact there’s some connection, what did Mayor Rilling do?

    When the original proposal was made in June 2009, the developer himself anticipated a delay due to economic conditions:

    “Our intention is to get everything ready to go, and when the capital markets are open again, we’ll try to obtain financing and precede [sic],” DiScala told The Hour last week.

    Source: http://www.thehour.com/news/norwalk/discala-unveils-development-plans-for-head-of-the-harbor/article_4a6686de-a78d-591c-820a-a05485a1486a.html

  5. Gordon Tully

    Overall, it is an excellent design, certainly far better than the original.

    I agree with MB and Jackie that the sidewalk on Smith Street needs to be wider – an 11′ street is ample and it looks to be wider than that.

    Also the walkway at the south end is too narrow. The people who will use the waterfront path typically are on a longer walk, so that south walkway will be used almost as much as the one along the river. A foot or two makes a big difference, especially when two dog-walkers are passing.

    Finally, do we really need more of these cutesy false front gables and pyramids at the roof? The building is a big block and you can’t make it look like a little building by sticking fru-fru on it. Put stepped offsets in the cornice if you need to but please no gables. The “house of a thousand gables” condo down the river shows how not to do it!

    But the developer has listened to those of us, especially David Westmoreland, who helped make the final design far preferable to the original proposal.

  6. Maritime Yards Condo Owner

    Great progress and design – we need more of this in Norwalk – wish 95/7 (although bigger) had a residential component…

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