Jason Milligan is a developer poised to purchase five Wall Street area properties from POKO Partners and the Fairfield County Bank on Wall Street. This is the third in a series of stories and opinions related to the status of Norwalk Center, asking the question, “Is Wall Street cursed?”
The Wall Street area has tremendous potential that can be realized only if local government cuts back its cumbersome regulations that stifle creativity and flexibility for investors and that leave residents and business owners staring at the same wilting Tyvek wrappers year after year. The proper role of government Zoning regulations is to define the character of neighborhoods with the input of the people who live and work there—citizens, business owners, taxpayers. The proper role of Zoning isn’t to crush creativity by tying a gym or café or storefront to every attempt to build affordable apartments.
My plan for the Wall Street area is to build small apartments in buildings with very limited recreation space. The City of Norwalk itself is the recreation space. Tenants can use the gym and café already on Wall Street, or go read a book at the library. All of these apartments would be affordable by Norwalk market standards. If my ideas are wrong, I will have lots of empty apartments. The failure will be my problem, not the taxpayer’s problem. I will have to respond by either lowering the rent until we (i.e. my business), attract tenants willing to live under the circumstances we offer, or we will have to convert some apartments into recreation space, or we may have to change some apartments into office space or something else.
The process of iterations until we settle on what the market wants should be fast, easy and independent of government involvement, provided the buildings are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood as determined by its residents during the development of the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development). On Wall Street this should be a cinch. Many uses are in keeping with the character of the neighborhood—residential, retail, office, even light industrial. The government has created and is perpetuating this manmade, Wall Street curse.
Luckily, manmade curses are easily lifted. All it takes is the collective will to tweak the Zoning regulations to make it easier for people like me to risk our own money —not yours — to succeed or fail as the market dictates.
Projects that adhere to the character of a neighborhood should be fast tracked. Projects that deviate from the well-defined character of a neighborhood — say a prison in a residential neighborhood — should go through a very careful and very public process. Right now there is no distinction between projects that are in character and those that are out. Every project must endure the same cumbersome process. There are too many regulations and those regulations are too specific. They encourage or even demand uniformity. Big projects. Big units. All projects to provide all the bells & whistles — fitness centers, pools, community rooms, common kitchen, cafe, bowling alley, puppet theatre, what-have-you.
BUT small tweaks to the Zoning regulations for the Wall Street area could bring Norwalk some amazing results and lift the curse.
Five zoning changes to lift the curse:
- Keep Neighborhood Character. Norwalk has completed several thorough studies and plans that define the character of the Wall Street Neighborhood. Put a clear definition of the character of the neighborhood at the front of the Zoning regulations to be used as a compass. The current neighborhood is a continuous historic streetscape with buildings that are 2-4 stories tall. This historic streetscape defines the character of Wall Street. Deviating from the character of the neighborhood should be extremely difficult. Right now it is very easy to deviate from the character of the neighborhood. Six stories or more are allowed if a developer offers extra “affordable” housing or some public amenities like benches, statues, fountains, or walkways. While extra amenities may sound nice, it may not be worth sacrificing the character of the neighborhood to get them. Besides, there are other ways to get them.
- End the on-site recreation space requirement. Investors should be allowed to provide as much or as little recreation area as they feel is appropriate for the building. This amount is not static. It can increase or decrease depending upon market conditions. The City of Norwalk wants to increase foot traffic in the area, but the regulations require each project to provide a tremendous amount of onsite recreation area that encourages residents to stay inside their buildings. These imperatives work against each other. Make the residents walk outside the building to the gym or cafe, and foot traffic increases naturally.
- Change the on-site parking requirement. The neighborhood character has been established above. Wall Street is an urban area. So the regulations should attract residents who are willing to walk. Increased foot traffic helps the existing businesses and encourages new ones. It makes much more sense to congregate parking into larger lots or garages to take advantage of economies of scale. The Yankee Doodle garage is half full, and the Parking Authority would love more customers. Not everyone has a car. As it stands, car-less renters shoulder some of the cost borne by developers of the on-site parking requirement. They should instead get a discount.
- Stop requiring 10 percent “affordable” apartments in every project over 20 units, and reclaim the definition of “affordable.” The state and city currently define “affordable” apartments as only ones that have a legal restriction recorded on the land records that limits the amount of rent that can be charged. The rent that can be charged is set by the state through the infamous CGS 8-30g.
CGS 8-30g requires that each city or town in Connecticut provide at least 10 percent of its housing stock as “affordable.” Norwalk currently complies with around 11 percent. Norwalk has decided that the best way to stay in compliance is to just require every project that is 20 units or more to provide 10 percent of the units as “affordable.”
In addition to the thousands of deed restricted “affordable” apartments, Norwalk has hundreds of apartments that charge rents that are affordable in every way minus the deed restriction. Without the deed restriction, they actually count as unaffordable in the 10 percent calculation, which is a misrepresentation of the true situation in Norwalk. Changing the state definition of “affordable” should be a long term goal of every Norwalk citizen, but for now Norwalk can create a trial program in the Wall Street area that does not require 10 percent of the apartments in each project to be “affordable” and still safely remain in compliance with the CGS 8-30g. At present, Norwalk is safely within the state standard of 10 percent affordable housing stock. Meanwhile our many neighboring towns are well below the bar.
- Abandon out-dated rules like coverage, FAR (floor area ratio) and density tied to land area. This tweak is a bit technical and a beyond the scope of this article. The point is that the zoning regulations in Norwalk are overly complicated, but they could be simplified with a few tweaks.
Lifting the Wall Street curse is easy. Let investors take all the financial risk—not taxpayers through subsidies—and let the market forces drive the details as long as the big picture honors the Neighborhood Character as defined by those who live and work there. I promise you, the Wall Street Neighborhood character is not wrapped in Tyvek.