Opinion: Proposed mall should come with built-in re-purposing

Gordon Tully is the owner of Tully Architectural Consulting.

Regarding our mid- to long-term future, people seem to fall into three groups. Liberals (in the European sense – we call them conservatives) believe that the market will take care of our problems if we just get government out of the way. A middle group is quite worried, but believes that with sufficient effort (solar panels, that sort of thing) we can solve the problems and coast to a stable global system.

The third group, to which I belong, believe that we are long past the point when our problems can be solved smoothly, and that we should be preparing for a radical breakdown in global systems within the next few decades. To put it succinctly, we are making dozens of risky and crucial bets against the planet, and the planet holds all the cards.

Consider the proposed shopping mall at 95/7. From what I read, retail business today requires rapid and nimble responses to changes in consumer taste and ways of buying, and malls are particularly vulnerable because of their dependence on anchor stores.

These rapid and unpredictable changes are occurring in a world where, for the moment, global and national issues don’t change radically from year to year. This encourages planners and developers to disregard the possibility of radical change.

But radical change is very likely to occur – we just don’t know exactly when and how. Designing for a long-term future that is like the present doesn’t make sense.

So I raise the question: What would you recommend be done differently at the 95/7 site to make it more resilient to the possibility of radical change?

I’ll start the discussion, making the assumption that a mall is a done deal. It could become a city center, a place to gather and exchange crucial information if communication networks were down. It could provide shelter and essential services such as food, water, sanitation, communication and emergency medical services in the event of a Category 3 hurricane. It could be a refuge in the event of political turmoil.

Such projected re-purposing needs to be designed in. For example, bury a network of water supply and sewer piping with stub-ups throughout the project, which could be activated in the event that thousands of people needed to gather there for extended periods. Provide more emergency power generation (which can actually be profitable if done right). Include a grocery store with extensive food storage capacity. Provide meeting spaces. Many of these facilities would enhance the value of the mall from day one.

I’ll stop here and turn the discussion over to you. Please, let’s keep this civil. Focus your anxiety and disagreements on the message, not on the messenger. And understand that this is not just about climate change, which is the least of our worries.


10 responses to “Opinion: Proposed mall should come with built-in re-purposing”

  1. Suzanne

    These are all excellent ideas (and I always respect your opinions.) To my knowledge, however (and admittedly it is limited by spare GGP presentations), the plan is for exclusively retail save 1500 square feet of space for the community. This idea of purposing (as opposed to re-purposing) valuable space to community needs is something I very much want but seems to fall on deaf ears. Thank you for describing a “mixed use” complex so succinctly.

  2. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    @Gordon Tully:

    Agreed! I believe the future of the planet is almost at the tipping point when everything imagined by science fiction writers since before H.G. Wells will eventually come to pass. Ever since early man discovered that an antelope leg bone makes a great weapon and homo sapiens began the trek out of Africa, human nature has not changed. Stephen Hawking may have gone a tad too far when he said, humanity “is just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet.” But, few can deny that we are thoroughly staining the surface of our remarkable planet—one that may not be typical at all, as cosmologists are learning how stringent are the requirements for life to be at all possible on a planetary body just the right distance from its star. It’s the Goldilocks principle.

    But, we digress. Your comments on our coming mall are wonderful, but Utopian. As you and Suzanne point out, it looks more and more like a done deal. Ultimately, it will come to pass as the owner/builder of the property wishes after making a show of consulting the citizens of Norwalk and adding a few cosmetic “improvements”. Considering the proposals GGP has shown, one hesitates to use the word ‘cosmetic’, which implies improved appearance, but there it is.

    One continues to wonder who advises the decision makers. One cannot imagine why all such major projects in Norwalk seem to be initiated by builders, a profession not noted for excellence of design or concern with anything but its ‘bottom line’ accounting. Where are the professionals trained not just in aesthetics but in planning for the long term welfare of their clients?

    Reportedly, one has been hired, but very quietly with no apparent competition. Perhaps the Gibbs firm–a small (sometimes ‘small’ is good) Midwestern firm specializing in planning small malls–can provide some long range p.o.v. However, I fear no one will listen to his advice, and his hiring may prove to be another cosmetic move.

  3. Gordon Tully

    I also think the idea is Utopian, but it seems to me that doing something useful in response to potential calamity will attract more attention to what it ahead than talk of doom.

    As Daniel Kahneman has so vividly shown in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” humans have biases that are very difficult to overcome. One of them is over-optimism about the future. It serves us well ordinarily, but it means people are turned off by Jeremiads, even if the predictions are well-founded on evidence.

    I also want to push for better architecture for the mall. The renderings show a structure designed as a billboard to attract traffic. I contend that a less flashy design will actually attract more traffic, because it would be part of and contribute to the SoNo historic ambience.

    Of course there will be a lot of glass, but the rendering shows the latest fad, using colored panels, light shows and other means to dematerialize the building. We need something solid looking.

    I too am skeptical that we will have any voice, but it’s better to try. In order to do that there needs to be a consensus among activists about how to make the mall better.

    To start with, we need ideas.

  4. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    How about a technology center. My understanding is that there are more than a few start-up companies in Southern New England–the kind that start up in basements–that could be interested in a centralized location (right next to a major artery-95) that would provide them with moderate rentals for work spaces in which to innovate?

  5. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    I should have added:

    “…. that would provide them with moderate rentals for work spaces and support (secretarial, etc.) services with which to innovate?”

  6. piberman

    The problem some of us have with a downtown regional mall is that it precludes the alternative possibility of a corporate mall with its associated high paying jobs that would encourage the real revitalization of downtown Norwalk. We only need to compare the growing disparity in Grand Lists between Norwalk and Stamford to see how attracting and encouraging high valued land use boosts the Grand List. We’ve learned a valuable lesson with Big Box bringing paltry gains in City taxes but lowered property values and objectionable congestion serving citizens outside Norwalk. And we can see that Merritt7 et al development on upper Route 7 brought far more value added to the City. To those who focus on the depressed corporate office park market in Fairfield County the answer is straightforward. Provide sufficient tax incentives to encourage a corporate downtown park. By using using our last remaining large tract for low value added retail (low taxes and low wages) our City officials will destine Norwalk for many decades to remain and unattractive high tax low property valued residential bedroom community struggling to prevent a Bridgeport solution.

    Of course, those of us who have lived here for many decades understand how “deals” get done in Norwalk. First co-op the politicians. That’s been done with former Mayor Moccia and putting former Rep.Cafero on the generous payroll. Then use City resources to provide “expertise”, hold some innocuous hearings demanding “more information” and by all means avoid hiring a major league real estate siting consultant. Hold a hearing or two and the deal is done. Norwalk “captiva”. Better spirits and more capable officials could have encourage a corporate park instead of Big Box. But they took the easy way out. Those responsible for that unsavory development are now gone from active civic life. But the current generation seems equally at odds on how to use the 95/7 property to generate high end jobs and high valued development. Our neighbors understand the difference. That’s why we’re celebrated as the hole in the middle of the dognut. Our City officials do understand the difference. They just lack the incentive to do what’s best for the community. Norwalk desperately needs high end jobs – not more retail with ensuing traffic congestion. Would there be just one City official who understands the difference ? It’s easy to get the ball rolling. Just hire a major league consultant, not one from a 3 man shop out in the mid-west solely to give an opinion without presenting detailed studies of traffic generation, tax consequences, City required outlays, details of jobs creation, etc. Councilman Hempstead this is your chance to make thee difference here for future generations and fulfill your desire to prevent Norwalk from drifting into Bridgeport West.

  7. Mike Mushak

    Nice essay. Resilient urban and building design is the buzzword these days in urban planning circles.


    Coincidentally, the new HUD Washington Village design uses state-of-the-art “flood-resilient” design principles to allow the complex to bounce back quickly after a flood with major utility systems and living spaces intact. Basically the debris washed in by a major flood would have to be cleaned out of the first floor garages built with waterproof materials, and all of the units would be above any conceivable storm surge level. The same with Head of the Harbor that was just approved last week.

    These same principles are now being used in flood prone urban areas in NYC and around the world to allow humans to adapt to sea level rise from climate change. It’s actually nothing new-think villages on stilts in the Amazon or in Asia where seasonal floods occur every year. Humans have always adapted to the climate and this time the changes will be fast and furious, but we have the brains and the know-how to figure most of this out.

    Back to the mall, in an economy where Stamford has a 27% vacancy office vacancy rate, and the county is averaging around 20% I believe, It is hard to justify waiting around forever for that segment of our economy to change.

    With the “Resilient Urban Design Guidelines” I linked to above that argue for dense mixed-use urban neighborhoods with bike- and walk-friendly streets and numerous transit options, I would argue that the mall fits well into that scenario (while still providing convenient car access which is not being replaced anytime soon).

    We must look at our entire downtown corridor as an existing complex mixed-use system, growing denser with each project such as Waypointe, POKO, Ironworks, Head of the Harbor, The Pearl, etc., with thousands of new residential units and plenty of neighborhood retail and abundant smaller scale office space already in place but underutilized..

    The mall fits into that existing mixed-use scenario as a prominent retail component quite well, and so I would argue that on its own merits, the mall is inherently fulfilling some of the Resilient Urban Design Guidelines already. Could it do a better job with LEED standards and some built in flexibility for future adaptations? I am sure it can, but we don’t have an application yet, and I do know already that the applicant is committed to helping establish transit and livability improvements with a “circulator” trolly system, a bike-share program, and abundant pedestrian and bike infrastructure improvements. (see recent NON article https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2015/01/ggp-plans-tunnel-bike-connectivity-with-its-sono-mall/).

    That is a good sign that this applicant is serious about building an updated 21st-century mall with a new vision that engages transit and its community , and not an obsolete “fortress” style mall that turns its back on the city, as the Stamford mall did 35 years ago.

  8. Big Tex

    @Piberman. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary regarding the proposed mall structure. I agree with all of your points and believe that most residents don’t want this yet our politicians and Mayor who campaigned against this are nowhere to be found. The “Group Think” plague seams to have taken hold with the city’s elected leaders that this is the best use of land with minimal due diligence being performed. How did we get to this point? Sad to say the least.

  9. Mike Mushak

    “Big Tex” never posted on here before as far as I know. Welcome!

    The mall will provide 2,800 jobs at mixed income levels. Our city needs jobs.

    There is no market for new office now, despite what Piberman says. There is no data to back up his claim, a claim he has made many times now. In fact, Fairfield County has one of the highest office vacancy rates in the country now. How long should we wait for that market to return as we state at the empty hole in the ground. 10 years? 20 years? Forever?

  10. Missy Conrad

    To amass the property for 95/7, homes of low income people were taken by eminent domain. Still there is not enough affordable housing in our area. The permit for 95/7 was granted with the understanding that a certain number of housing units would be built. If the developer shall not honor the agreement that it has purchased, we must at least require that money be provided for the housing units elsewhere. We of Norwalk have suffered this empty lot, even the lone big tree was removed after a few years, and we and our state have paid for the road improvements. Please, citizens & residents, require that the desperately needed housing be supported.!

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