NORWALK, Conn. — The jackhammers and chainsaws kicked in without warning, making it all but impossible for Glenrock Condominium residents, working at home due to the pandemic, to focus, resident Ryan Burns said.
Burns’ bedroom is about 50 feet from the source of the racket, an access road being built for a planned 21,260 square-foot Innovation Center, most of it perched on columns over ledge, designed as a workplace for just 25 to 30 fulltime employees. Even odder, there are also three apartments for visiting artists, making it a mixed-use development, between Route 7 and the Merritt 7 train station.
Burns, who bought his condo after the project was approved in 2018, has questions. For one thing, the Zoning Commission changed the zoning for a .93-acre portion of the property from Triple A to Business 2, and the entire 1.7-acre site is nestled among at least six residential condominium complexes along Oakwood Ave. and Seir Hill Road, with more than 300 housing units among them. Burns asks if neighbors were notified and if hearings were held.
Burns wrote to the Common Council last week.
“From my discussions with other residents, I have ascertained that many of us feel as though the City did not take into account the impacts of this project on the residents of the surrounding area, not only as it relates to the current and future nuisance and distraction of loud construction, but also as it pertains to the potential negative impact to our property values and the privacy of our residents, not to mention how this building will change the current aesthetic of the neighborhood and our views of the surrounding area,” he wrote. “It seems that, if nothing else, the City could have provided some notice to local residents as to when construction would begin.”
There are also businesses near the project at 15 Oakwood Ave., which will connect to a two-story warehouse and office already on the property, between two of the condominium complexes.
The Zoning Commission held three public meetings on Harlan Stone’s Innovation Center in 2018, one of them a public hearing that drew six neighbors decrying the project.
“This is a monster to put right in our backyard,” Colleen Kenna said, complaining that Norwalk is becoming Stamford. “It’s a shame, it seems as though wherever there’s free land lately in Norwalk, not just our neighborhood, downtown anywhere, South Norwalk, we have to build, build, build, build.”
“In five years, it’s not going to be 25 to 30 people, it’s going to be 50 to 100,” Marjorie Powell said, explaining that she bought her apartment because of the privacy provided by being on the top two floors, but now, “I’ll have to have my blinds closed all the time, because my master bedroom faces this structure.”
Carl McIver asked why the visiting artists couldn’t stay in hotels and called the design “horrendous,” totally different than any of the other buildings around, “like a museum.”
‘Rezone the swamp land’
“I agree with him. This is like a museum. It’s something like you’ve never seen,” Stone’s attorney, Liz Suchy said.
“In addition to it being an innovation center, it’s an innovative building,” she said, on another occasion.
Stone is owner of Metroflor, and, “I’ve known Harlan for at least 15 years and Harlan has a very interesting company,” she said. Metroflor creates luxury vinyl tiles used by retailers like Starbucks, and in assisted living facilities, schools and hotels, she explained.
“The company has been headquartered in Norwalk since 2001 there abouts, and his company runs the gamut from design to manufacturer to distribution,” she said. “He has approximately 25 employees here in Norwalk there another 100 employees at the distribution center warehouse center he has in Georgia, and other another 30 or 40 throughout the country, a lot of manufacturing is done overseas.”
Stone bought the .93 acres from the State in 2011, and its zoning classification dates to the creation of the Route 7 connector, she said.
“The zoning department decided to rezone the swamp land on this side of the Route 7 connector to Triple A residential because prior to that it had been zone ‘QC,’ or unzoned, which would have given unfettered opportunities to anyone who might have acquired excess land from the state,” she said.
Anthony Tomas bought an adjacent parcel at the same time and had it rezoned from Triple A to Business 2, and built a 66-unit apartment building on the Oakwood Avenue cul-de-sac, she said.
Stone “never moved forward to rezone the property until he had a plan of what he wanted to do with the remainder of that land,” she said.
Of the 21,260 square feet, 15,587 will be for office and 3,768 will be research and development, she said. It will be built to the Living Building Challenge design standard, a step up from the more widely known LEED classification.
The International Living Future Institute explains that “living buildings” are:
- “Regenerative buildings that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.
- “Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site.
- “Create a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.”
The columns will suspend the building over the ledge by 12 feet on the south end while the north end will be near the rock, said Tom Nelson, an engineer.
“We want to respect that rock, allow for the existing animal life and the stormwater and everything to be able to move through that portion of the site as it naturally occurs right now,” said Steve Christian, an architect, calling this an open air plaza.
Only two portions of the building touch the ground, the stair towers and elevator vestibules on the north and south, and all of this negates the need for blasting, they explained. The staircases will feature great views as they’re enclosed with glass, an inducement not to use the high-energy-using elevators. But the east side, facing Route 7, will be “primarily a solid opaque wall” to block the noise from the highway, Christian said.
Trees will remain so that motorists shouldn’t see the Innovation Center except in the winter, Christian said. A green is planned for the northern part of the building and a stormwater runoff will travel to a series of rain gardens, where it will “infiltrate into the underlying soils, providing water quality treatment through filtration and also providing groundwater recharge,” Nelson said.
The R&D area is “for rapid prototyping and exploration of design,” Christian said. “So kind of think of it more like an artist’s studio. It’s not a manufacturing facility, it’s for the most part going to be handling kind of large plotters and stuff, so no hazardous chemicals or anything like that.”
A “large double height library space” is planned for the southern part of the building and the office space in the north, Christian said. “It will be primarily, like a large library of things, of artifacts,” meant to inspire visiting artists. “Then there are digital components to the facility where large readout displays being able to compare different sample materials, different digital patterns and everything before it’s sent to production facilities elsewhere, for further exploration of actual materials.”
“He has a wonderful resource of designers and artists in New York that they come up to Norwalk, and then they go back to New York, he meets them in Boston, or he meets them in the south,” Suchy said. “He’d like to have the opportunity to have all of that in one central location.”
Stone “has decided that he’d like to have this crown jewel for himself, that he would like to control it, maintain it and use it for his companies. He has no interest and no desire and no plan to rent out the space to subdivide the space for other tenants, or anything of that nature,” Suchy said. “That’s why he’s gone to the extent of creating a Living Building Challenge building. He could have just built a building and it wouldn’t matter.”
Stone has two LEED buildings elsewhere, one “pushing it to the top end of” LEED standards, and “another building that has pushed the boundaries of another certification … Green Globes,” Christian said. In this way, “he’s been able to understand the buildings that he wants to market his materials for.”
“He works there,” Suchy said. “He basically lives there, it is it is his family’s business. And he wants to maintain a presence in Norwalk that is unlike any other presidents who have a corporate headquarters. And I think the architects and the engineers have achieved that.”
‘A credit to the city’
The project was approved unanimously.
“I will have to admit that the first time I heard this application, I couldn’t understand it, the building the museum aspect of it, parking requirements,” Zoning Commissioner Richard Roina said. He had asked what would happen if someone else came into the building and learned “they would have to be a whole new tenant fit up for site plan review for a new owner.”
“It’s awfully hard to believe that such a big structure is only going to add 10 employees to this campus. But, you know, I understand the dream and the vision of the property owner to have a wonderful building that he can be proud of in the city of Norwalk,” then- Zoning Commissioner Joseph Passero said.
Christian had said that the building’s design would prevent it from being occupied by many people, given fire regulations. “We wouldn’t ever be able to fit 1000 workers within here, we wouldn’t be able to fit even a fraction of that many,” he said.
“I feel for the condominium owners and nobody wants anything built over at a scale in their neighborhood. And I certainly understand that, but the zoning does allow for it,” Passero said.
“The first time I saw the design, I was very concerned that we’re downgrading from triple A’s. And it was only after I spoke to the staff,” Commissioner Lou Schulman said. “But I think the public ought to know that that (zoning designation) was really just a placeholder.”
The traffic impact will be nominal and the project “is a credit to the city,” Schulman said.
The Commission revisited the issue last summer: Stone acquired more land from the State and sought permission to build the access road now confounding Burns and his wife. Zoners granted that request and approved minor changes to the building plans. Suchy said only one neighbor had responded when notified of the request and hadn’t offered any follow-up, and the Commission voted not to hold a public hearing.
A planned parking deck was eliminated in favor of a parking lot because of the additional land and a circular turnaround changed to a rectilinear entrance courtyard, with vehicles using the Seir Hill Road extension to go in and out. Suchy characterized the new parking as “less intrusive.”
“It’s an improvement. I think we all felt it was presented to us that there was definitely a distinguished piece of architecture. And I think we’d like to see it go forward as soon as possible,” Zoning Commissioner Rod Johnson said.
There go the woods
Burns said he’d gotten two replies to his email to the Council, both of them non-committal.
Thomas Keegan (R-District D), who is in his first term, said he’d look into it. David Heuvelman (D-District A) also promised to investigate. “As these decisions pre-date my tenure on the Council I am not aware directly of them,” Heuvelman wrote.
Council members, by law, are not involved in zoning decisions.
“The noise hasn’t improved much,” Burns said Monday.
“As it happens, when my girlfriend and I bought this unit in 2019, one of the main reasons that we selected this unit over others for sale within the complex was because it faced the woods and had extra windows along the side, which provided us with an additional level of privacy not enjoyed by units on the opposite side of our complex, and allowed us to enjoy the view of the woods behind our home (from our bedroom and back deck) and from the side of our home (from our living room),” he wrote to the Council. “Those views will now be replaced with traffic on the expressway and new access road and a view of a large unsightly office building. On top of the potential reduction in future property value growth, the loss of privacy and the view of the future building may reduce the favorability of our end-unit for re-sale, which we had previously anticipated would serve as an advantage should we decide to sell in the future.”