Opinion: Support the Norwalk Library settlement

From left, developer Jason Milligan, former Mayor Alex Knopp and Mayor Harry Rilling at Friday’s press conference outside the Norwalk Public Library.
Former Mayor Alex Knopp.

Ending the nightmare of chronically insufficient parking at the Norwalk Library is now at hand.

We have concluded an agreement to present to the Common Council that preserves the Library’s opportunity both to expand on-site parking and to modernize its now-outdated facility so that it can serve as a vibrant community center for Norwalk and as the anchor for revitalizing the entire neighborhood surrounding the Library.

It’s time to end the frustrating quandary in which Norwalk taxpayers pay taxes to operate the library but are constantly stymied in their efforts to enjoy the Library because there is no place to park nearby.

So to the hundreds of Norwalk senior citizens—and parents with strollers—and residents with disabilities—who complained to me during the last year that they don’t come to the Library anymore because they can’t park nearby, I invite you to return to your Library very soon.

The Agreement we announce today is fair but complex. I urge Norwalk residents to keep an open mind and become informed about its benefits and costs. But, in my mind, there’s no doubt that approving the Agreement is the best and perhaps the only realistic choice for protecting the Library’s future.

In exchange for the Option purchase price of $460,000, the agreement terminates the 69-residential unit approved project and thereby preserves the opportunity for Library expansion and modernization; it opens the parking lot behind the Library for immediate non-exclusive use by Library patrons and it provides for six years of exclusive library parking after Council approval; it allows the city to expanded parking behind the library from the current 14 spaces to a newly configured lot of approximately 50 spaces; and it locks in the right to purchase all of 11 Belden Ave. at a current fair market value at any time during the next six years for $4.88 million with no escalation in the purchase price.

Unfortunately, a bold headline in Friday’s newspaper about the cost of the parking deal reflects an incomplete summary of the Agreement. The Agreement provides the City with the Option to purchase the property for a fixed price at any time in the next six years but does not require the City to do so.

The Option purchase protects the City’s interests by enabling it to react to changes in market conditions over the next six years. Perhaps the City will want to acquire only part of the property; or renegotiate the purchase price downward based on new real estate values or zoning conditions; or enter into a partnership with a developer to pay for a library addition or garage, as happened with Blue Back Square in West Hartford.

I hope the City does not ever pay the full amount to exercise the Option to purchase and instead finds creative ways to leverage its contract rights and redevelopment authority. This is the creative public finance opportunity we have preserved by using the innovative Option model rather than a standard purchase model.

The last time this Library was expanded was 35 years ago, in 1982. If the Common Council approves this agreement and we can move forward to the next stage of modernization that lasts for another 35 years or more, spreading the cost of the Option Agreement of $460,000 over 35 years means an investment of $13,000 per year.

There is a reason why each and every municipality surrounding Norwalk — Westport, Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Fairfield, Stamford, Greenwich and Ridgefield — have all expanded and modernized their libraries during the past decade. These towns recognized that libraries have become the new community centers of the 21st Century, serving as the hubs of learning, the laboratories of entrepreneurship and safe spaces for community dialogue.

Now is the right time for Norwalk to make the same commitment. Surely we don’t want to have Norwalk families and businesses look back in 10, 20 or 35 years and say that our generation failed to support Norwalk’s future learners by neglecting to make essential long-term investments.

Going forward, if this agreement is approved, the Library Board intends to conduct a broad, inclusive community conversation about the services, facilities and programs sought by residents as we design the future Library.

Let me make it clear that we would not be standing here on the launching pad of success without the support of Mayor Rilling. When the Mayor asked me to lead the Library Board, I said I would do the job if he were truly committed to the Library’s future. He has kept his word every step of the way on this long journey of negotiations.

Finally, in addition to Mayor Rilling, please allow me to thank many of the people who contributed to this outcome, including Council President John Igneri and Majority Leader John Kydes; Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola and Chief of Staff Laoise King; Tim Sheehan of the Redevelopment Agency; Steve Kleppin and Mike Wrinn of the Planning and Zoning Department; Norwalk Parking Authority Chairman Richard Brescia; Librarian Chris Bradley and Library Director Patsy Brescia.

Alex Knopp was Norwalk mayor from 2001 to 2005 and is now Norwalk Library Board of Trustees chairman.


NPL Option agreement executed by Knopp and Milligan with exhibits 5-31-17 (S7069601)



21 responses to “Opinion: Support the Norwalk Library settlement”

  1. Donna

    @Alex Knopp, thank you for brokering a deal to increase free parking for library users. While the deal sounds reasonable and the CC should support it, the way the Mayor, the Library board and Mr. Milligan got here troubles me. In a post on another thread, you reference the “poor decision of the zoning commission”. The zoning commission is appointed by the Mayor and the CC. Many of those sitting on that commission were appointed by Mayor Rilling. As a former mayor, how do you feel about retaining these and other similar seats on the planning commission and ZBA as appointed rather than elected positions? The Library Board positions are also by appointment of the Mayor and CC. Given the frequency with which alternative deals are hammered out because appointed boards decide poorly, would you support Charter Revision to make these boards accountable to the voters directly? Being new here, I’m not even sure if there is a nomination process in place to fill vacancies when they occur.

  2. Lisa Thomson

    Mayor Knopp,
    I appreciate your public acknowledgement of my concerns, in a previous story; which is more than I’ve been accorded by Mayor Rilling or my own District E Council President 🙂

    The planning and zoning issues the City ROUTINELY mismanages are too numerous to mention. Even you acknowledge the mistakes. Since Mayor Rilling took office, there has been NO improvement in our zoning issues. In fact, many neighborhoods would argue they have gotten worse.

    Perhaps your brokered solution is a good one, but as Donna asks – how did we get here in the first place? Politically expedient, bandaid solutions do not address the root causes of our administrative planning and zoning problems that go back multiple administrations. One need only look to the charter, personnel or appointed boards and commissions, who enjoy political connections, but possess few qualifications and have no accountability. That is why P&Z rests with the Mayor’s Office.

    For years, nothing has changed. Only smiles, lip service, status quo and ‘naysayer’ accusations by those in power. I don’t have a D or R after my name and want no political or financial quid pro quo – I’m just a taxpayer, albeit a vocal one, who is tired of a city with politicians, in over their head, in planning and zoning matters. I’m tired of paying for mistakes. I’m tired of a grand list not keeping pace with employee costs.

    Nobody ‘in power’ has chosen to look at the big picture – just short term special interest decisions and photo ops. That’s why our core looks the way it does and why our neighborhoods are left to organize and defend themselves.

    Finally, that is why I supported and campaigned vigorously across the neighborhoods for ‘Vote No’ on the thinly veiled Charter Revision last fall. Perhaps you can now appreciate the ‘Do it Right or Not At All’ mantra.

  3. Lesley Korzennik

    I have a dream..
    I dream that Norwalk’s Wall Street area is transformed into a regional jewel. A model of 21st century city planning that attracts residents and businesses. I dream that a Metro North stop be added, so that the 1000+ new apartment dwellers can walk to transportation. Along the way, they can enjoy shops, grocery stores and restaurants in a newly designed WALKABLE neighborhood. The diamond in the rough and focal point of this new neighborhood ? THE LIBRARY. A world class architectural design that meets the needs of Norwalk, incorporating classrooms, childcare facilities, coffee shop, meeting rooms etc with a fantastic design would make our city one of the best in the Northeast. The Community College could locate some of their classrooms across the street from the court house ( redesign those hideous buildings there now) and take advantage of the new theater. All of a sudden, we would have a fantastic city. The convergence of public transportation, bus, parking garage and train, plus a pedestrian friendly atmosphere coupled with great architecture and cultural advantages would be unbeatable. Let’s not be Hartford. Let’s plan and get it right. We have so many advantages, so much going for the city. LETS DO IT!!!

  4. Donna

    “Vote No” was the right call on Charter Revision, @Lisa. No wonder the neighborhood association are vocal and active. The City government organization needs an overhaul. This is why, as Lisa points out, Norwalk makes a habit of belated, piecemeal, reactive decision-making, which is a waste of time and money.

    Would love to know Mayor Knopp’s thoughts on Charter Revision and City appointments to boards.

  5. Fred Wilms

    This is good news for Norwalk. The longstanding parking shortfall is finally addressed, plus it is done so with a creative financing solution that provides relief to the City capital budget.

    Great job Alex.

    On a separate but related note, perhaps the Mayor could try this approach with the East Norwalk train station parking shortfall?

  6. Rick

    Great now we get LAZ to come in and takeover another parking lot, put the parking lines in and and signs and even curbing yes street work instead of the DPW ,then the shell game of expenses by the parking authority begins. ( LAZ did all the work on MLK then the owner told the city to leave his newly paved newly painted 80 car lot with signs by LAZ there would be no parking lot after all.) Look at the players on this new lot,the taxpayers have been set up again

    Its nice to see progress but now lets gauge the real expense to the taxpayer.

    Again the city moves without its taxpayers or input from those who have insight to how the city really works.

    This seems like another Trojan Horse the Democrats have built and pushed up everyones well you know what.

    Did this lot come with snow removal or will the city have to drop a school or two to maintain this lot?

    Most of those people the Mayor thanked need to work on Quintard ave such a stella crowd with so many strings attached could prevent a larger lawsuit from the residents or Firetree now that there not busy with pet projects maybe the city will work with those who have been ignored.

    Odd how parking was never an issue on Quintard ave when permits were issued and paid for.

  7. Rick

    Hey Fred how did you and Perone vote on the sober house issues yesterday in Hartford? Now that we see you have a parking lot forte we could still use your help on Quintard ave.

  8. Donna

    @Rick, Firetree is the Trojan horse on Quintard. Both the mayor and the police chief knew what was planned in 2014 and said and did nothing until Quintard neighbors started sounding the alarm. I don’t expect the mayor or the police chief to know the nooks and crannnies of every Norwalk street and the ins and outs of all the zoning regs. But they could have told the neighbors or at the very least the Planning & Zoning office and then responded to the applicant appropriately. Had the Mayor been proactive, he could have averted this mess. In other towns proactive mayors have successlly driven away unwanted uses from their back doors.

    And if this LULU doesn’t go away without a costly lawsuit, the failure will fall into the Mayor’s loss column and will hopefully be remembered on Election Day.

  9. Mike McGuire

    @ Lesley korzinnik

    Love the vision. I agree all the way. We lost GE and now maybe Aetna because we haven’t created the atmosphere to attract business, because we don’t provide the essential infrastructure to be attractive to what business needs – educated millennial. Downtown Norwalk Has the bones. It just needs the vision you laid out to become a true TOD center of commerce, lifestyle and culture.

  10. Alex Knopp

    I would like to thank State Rep. Fred Wilms for his kind remarks and support for the Library plan. I would also like to acknowledge a congratulatory e-mail I received from former Mayor Richard Moccia. In my opinion, these gracious messages from two current and former Republican political leaders of Norwalk show that the Norwalk Library has tremendous bi-partisan support in the community and that members of all parties and sections of the community will rally behind reasonable and necessary efforts to enhance its facilities and programs. Thanks again, Fred and Richard, for demonstrating your commitment to the Norwalk Library and to its many thousands of patrons!

  11. Donna

    @Alex Knopp, could this have gone differently in order to have saved Norwalk money? Specifically since you have said the zoning commission made a poor decision regarding Milligan’s proposed development, would an elected zoning commission have had more accountability to the taxpayers funding this win-win deal? The poor decision of the appointed zoning commission resulted in a lawsuit by the appointed library board leading to a settlement brokered in part by the mayor who appointed both. Those held accountable–the taxpayers who will ultimately fund the “option”–are not ones who got us here.

  12. Disgusted

    While I’m glad that we have secured additional parking for the Library I feel its a temporary solution and we’ll be revisiting this in years to come.

    I struggle to understand some of the decisions made in this town…. Right up the block (Poko) we hand over a large parking lot to a developer and damn near kill any business depending on it in the process. Now theres talk about handing over the High St. lot in a similar deal. So we lease a parking lot for 6 years and people are planning parades. Come on!

    So Norwalk will exercise eminent domain in situations such as the Waypointe, The SoNo Mall and the Police station built in the case of the Library we’ll get raked over the coals by a developer.

    We should have declared eminent domain on this sliver of lot, paid fair market value for it and moved on. This articles carries on like these folks solved world hungry.

    The Norwalk way… Oversell and under deliver.

    Editor’s note: According to Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer, eminent domain was not used for the Waypointe project.
    Eminent domain was used for the police station.
    The SoNo Collection is planned for the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal area, which was created by eminent domain more than 20 years ago.

    1. Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan clarifies that there was one eminent domain property taking for the Waypointe project. He called it a “friendly eminent domain taking” at the request of the property owner.

      He said, “The Common Council authorized the City’s use of eminent domain for a public facility for the Police Station and it was used.”

  13. LIsa Thomson

    Politicians thanking politicians – how nice 🙂

  14. Donna

    Temporary Parking solution for the Library–$460,000

    Photo-Op for Mayor and former Mayor–Priceless

  15. Concerned

    @ Donna, dwelling on the past isn’t going to accomplish anything. We have a solution so let’s us look towards the future to prevent the mistakes of the past. The voices of the people were heard and yet you remain bitter, what does that accomplish?

    I for one am glad that I will be able to park at the library. I’m not a senior, nor disabled, nor have a stroller, I am your average book lover and will be returning to my local library now that I can actually park near it! Thank you for a reasonable solution!

  16. Donna

    @Concerned, we have a stop gap solution that could have been averted through better governance from the top down. I respectfully disagree that my comment amd those of others represent armchair quarterbacking. In fact I’ve been advocating for comprehensive Charter revision so solutions like this–a superficial photo op win–don’t bedevil Norwalk in the future. So while we may have averted a crisis through this privately brokered solution, we still haven’t fixed the things that got us here. If I were @Concerned, I’d be @concerned about long term consequences of brokering deals to avoid litigation, and I’d focus some attention on fixing a broken and dysfunctional city government where many elected and appointed officials suffer no consequences for their poor decisions. Remember it was the poor decision of the zoning commission, according to Knopp, that led rhe city to sue itself. That’s a mighty ugly way to score a win for library parking.

  17. Lisa Thomson

    @ Concerned – Didn’t Winston Churchill say, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it…” or some such line? I think this quote sums up Norwalk’s approach to city planning and zoning. We never learn.

    While parking spaces for six years is nice (and expensive) I fail to see how this rental agreement represents a long term solution. Who’s going to be in charge in six years to re-negotatied with taxpayer money?

    How does any of this fit into a master plan for Wall Street, or a parking master plan (think Yankee Doodle or the other parcel of land on Main that the city wants to give away) or a Master Plan for the Library? How does the South Norwalk Library, just down the road, fit into the equation?

    No Wall Street Plan, No Parking Plan, No Library Plan. Just taxpayer money thrown at the situation for another ad hoc, politically expedient solution during an election year that nobody will remember six years from now.

  18. Michael McGuire

    Can we please just get the Wall Street Train Station re-activated so that Downtown Norwalk can finally take off and evolve into a the great TOD center it’s meant to be (See Lesley Korzennik’s comment above).

    Norwalk can’t afford to miss opportunities like this. Companies are leaving to find better access to highly educated millennials. Millenials like to populate cool, funky urban environments with great rail transportation to NYC.

    DOT is about to start the “Dockyard Project” which electrifies the Danbury line to just south of Downtown Norwalk. Encourage our leaders to press DOT to extend the electrification to Wall Street. Install a simple station and watch what happens.

    What does this have to do with the Library? Everything – see Lesley Korzennik’s comment above. None of this happens without a train station, because none of this happens without the business to support it all.

    Make Norwalk Great – Re activate the Wall Street Station!

  19. Sue Haynie

    @Lesley Korzennik, I love your dream as outlined in your comments above. Great post.

  20. Dawn

    Did I read correct. The property was assessed at $2,144,670. Purchased for 2.65 million in 2015. The city has an option to buy for $4,885,000. That’s more than doubling the money for nothing.
    Why would we pay nearly 5 million dollars. Mr. Milligan is making out like a bandit and gets to act like he’s doing something good for the community.

    I’m not that smart. How is this a win for Norwalk, the taxpayers or the library that could use that 2 million to buy…I don’t know… books, technology???

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