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POKO Frustration: Some basic facts & some questions

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Facts:

  1. The POKO project has been in the works since 2004.
  2. It is a complicated deal and it has changed many times over the years
  3. Phase I construction started in 2015. It did not go smoothly and stopped after about a year and a half.
  4. POKO ran out of money and defaulted on its Citibank loan, which Citibank foreclosed upon.
  5. POKO defaulted on the agreements with the city numerous times. (POKO claims the city also defaulted.)
  6. Norwalk gave two city owned parking lots to POKO, albeit with some conditions.
  7. In 2015, the City amended the “Loan Recognition Agreement” (LRA) which allowed POKO to cash out refinance the Leonard Street parking lot that they got for free. The LRA-A made the cost for the city to get the FREE parking lot back now become $3 million.
  8. A short time later this cash out loan went into foreclosure.
  9. POKO president Ken Olson passed away in November 2017.

All the above happened prior to my involvement.  In May of 2018 I acquired five out of 32 total individual properties involved in the POKO project. The five properties were in foreclosure when I bought them.

I bought the properties with an open mind about solutions and ideas. I wanted a public dialogue, and for the people and businesses of Wall Street to be involved in the decisions. I cleaned up the parking lot and improved the buildings. I put up lots of art. I made the area clean, pretty, and safer.

It has been four years.

The city has spent a lot of taxpayer money fighting against me. (Collectively over $1 million.)

What do they have to show for it?

Are the leaders and attorneys making decisions that are in the best interests of the people of Norwalk or are they pursuing a vendetta against a defiant, outspoken property owner? I have sought to negotiate in good faith for a settlement but the City continually stonewalls and pursues relentless litigation instead.

Their current strategy is hurting Wall Street and there does not seem to be an end in sight.

At the very least our leaders owe an explanation why they chose this course of action and why they have been unwilling to reevaluate.

Norwalk residents and voters: Can you please help encourage our Mayor & City Council to engage with me to seek solutions to our lawsuits?

I am not looking for a win at the expense of the city. I seek to end the litigation, get POKO built (at least phase I), and to allow myself and others to rebuild Wall Street.

Let’s have a public conversation.

It can start in the Nancy on Norwalk comment section. Harry and his team read the comments.

 

Jason Milligan

 

10 comments

David Muccigrosso April 21, 2022 at 9:11 am

You may just have to wait it out.

This is probably not the sort of advice you were looking for. But I think that a levelheaded, realistic assessment of the situation would tell you that the current administration just isn’t going to budge. If you kept fighting the problem head-on like you’ve been doing thus far, you’d probably make *some* headway over the next few years, but the core problem is that this administration – for whatever reasons that we’ll set aside for the current discussion – just doesn’t like you.

And the thing is, at this stage in the conflict, whatever their original reasons were, they don’t even really matter anymore! Maybe at an earlier stage, you could have done something different to win them over, but right now, to them, you’re just the same enemy they’ve been fighting with for all these years, and they don’t *need* a reason anymore to dislike you. Even if you resolved their original reasons, they’d still just come up with a dozen new ones to continue justifying their now-deep-seated conviction that you’re still just clearly an enemy.

So, I’d pivot.

If you still truly in your heart-of-hearts care about POKO, if you think there’s a chance that what will probably be a 2023 Kydes administration (no offense, Lisa, I’m still voting for you, but he’s clearly the frontrunner at this moment) will be more amenable to negotiating a tolerable settlement, well, then go ahead and do whatever you have to do to stall Rilling from beating you until then. Maybe even start talking directly to Kydes *now*. Or, if you’re feeling bold, I’m sure it wouldn’t be an insignificant campaign promise for Lisa to be able to promise she’d make a deal with you on POKO – it might even help boost her over the edge.

But if there’s any doubt about this… then, my dude, cut your losses! I’m not you, so I can’t pretend to have gone through the emotional rollercoaster of the last 4+ years, but I’d have cut my losses a while ago.

A realistic assessment says that even though there’s *potential* for value and growth in the Wall Street area, it’s not going to get unlocked without dramatic changes in the city’s government, changes that are going to take time to build. Judging from your revealed preferences, it seems you don’t really care much to go the political route of openly challenging the system, and that’s fair, but it also means that your best alternative is to identify new directions for your little (no offense) real-estate empire.

This next part is almost certainly biased by my own personal perspective… but if I had *your* money, I know what *I* would do. SoNo is clearly the growth market in Norwalk. I’d start snapping up every piece of property that isn’t already owned by the big dogs. If there are any small businesses that actually own their buildings, I’d buy them out and offer them extremely favorable long-term leasing terms, as well as assurances about helping them relocate to other properties of yours if you decide to redevelop their buildings. Heck, if it’s possible, I’d even offer my stake in POKO up to the bank as collateral for making these purchases – make the project *their* problem! I’d start buying stuff up along Water Street and on Main south of Washington, because that’s the obvious direction for future retail/commercial growth (as I’ll explain).

Look, I’m just an ignorant muggle here, so I’m sure I’m missing all kinds of details about the nitty-gritty of the real-estate business which you know better than I do, but I think there’s also value in zooming back out and looking at the big picture. To me, the big picture says, if you want to be at the center of revitalizing a neighborhood, Wall Street ain’t it. SoNo IS. It’s the one part of town that has thus far been resilient *against* Harry’s mismanagement, let alone the RDA’s.

I’d also buy deeper South into the neighborhood. The thing is, all those huge new condo buildings aren’t going to actually make up the core of what will make SoNo prosperous and great over the next 20 years. You know as well as I do that they aren’t bringing the real tax revenue in (because of Harry’s sweetheart deals), and the population boost they bring is mostly commuters who don’t avail themselves of all SoNo has to offer. As someone who lives in the neighborhood, I can first-hand tell you that despite adding several thousand units in the past few years, they haven’t actually increased demand/foot traffic on Washington. The point is, people aren’t venturing far from their condos because the built environment around those condos doesn’t actually feel like a real neighborhood the same way Washington proper does. It’s not inviting them to come on out.

Hence, the real value will be infill development. Infill along Water Street is already on the table with the current rezoning effort. The remaining single-family and multifamily detached housing along Elizabeth and Haviland, and south of Monroe (west of Main) and south of Concord (between Main and Water), will be prime targets for either future development, OR for renovating and beautifying for massive resale value. In the LONG-long term, the neighborhood south of Concord will eventually be the next target for connecting SoNo to the Icehouse/314 area.

More broadly, the best value will be in owning literally everything that surrounds those hideous condos. If SoNo is going to explode as an entertainment/luxury living district, it’ll be because those condos will be surrounded by the sorts of multistory attached mixed-retail/residential buildings that line Washington – gentle density. It’s not as sexy as those multi-million-dollar condos, but it’s perfectly suited to YOUR – Jason Milligan’s – particular niche: Someone with enough money to make it happen and the acumen to make the businesses that fill it in (like Byron’s bakery!) successful, but who’s been muscled out of the big-condo game by the regional big dogs.

YOU would be the one who gets to shape SoNo’s destiny. And by doing that, you’d generate the kind of clout and public goodwill to return to Wall Street and POKO and actually win that battle.

Jason Milligan April 21, 2022 at 10:55 am

Someone from the city please describe what win looks like?

We can work together to achieve it!

Kenneth Werner April 21, 2022 at 11:50 am

Old Russian saying: When ten men tell you you’re drunk, go to sleep. Jason, litigiously speaking, it’s time for you to go to sleep. It is time for you to stop delaying the rehabilitation of Wall Street, and it is time for you to stop abusing the tax payers of Norwalk.

John O'Neill April 21, 2022 at 1:11 pm

Jason: I have a Great idea for you and the city. Why not build an oversized Temple on a small parcel of land? It seemed to work on Richards Avenue. Hire the venerable Liz Suchy to represent you and the various players involved. Have Zoning Group get interviewed by local TV news and mock residents who might disagree with plan. Let me know if you need any other ideas. Over the past 10 years there’s many to choose from.

Stuart Garrelick April 21, 2022 at 1:26 pm

Mr. Milligan,
Was this a new Letter to the Editor or did you just recycle the same one we have been reading for years?
l, like most everyone else in Norwalk, would like to see this matter resolved and our city center restored to reflect our movement into the 21st century. I have previously supported your efforts to negotiate with the city, to arbitrate the issues. But the missing link remains an offer by BOTH sides to submit to BINDING arbitration.
ARE YOU WILLING TO DO SO? YES OR NO?

Jason Milligan April 21, 2022 at 4:04 pm

@Kenneth the city the only party that can put the lawsuits to bed. They have been unwilling to consider any alternative or to even articulate their aspirations publicly.

@Stuart you know I am ready to mediate, arbitrate, debate, negotiate.

Typically when you have a winning argument you are anxious for discussion.

Jason Milligan April 21, 2022 at 6:04 pm

@David-I lived in SONO for a number of years at 2 different locations. Once single and once married. I enjoyed my time there, but it is not where I currently choose to invest.

The Wall Street area is where my office is located.
It is takes 7 minutes to get from my house to my office.
I am the largest property owner there.
I love Wall Street.

All it needs to unlock its tremendous potential is for the government to slightly loosen their grip.

Dagny April 22, 2022 at 12:22 am

Just imagine, if 4 years ago, instead of a lawsuit there was actually an embrace, a welcoming of community involvement and private money to fix the disastrous bureaucratic mess of the Poko years-long stalled-out project failures! Wall Street would be beautiful now instead of having the blighted Tyvek Temple continuing to loom over the area sapping the life and heart out of so many progress attempts!

Why do bureaucrats like to kill creativity? Or is it that there was just too much government waste and shenanigans that took place behind the scenes with government grants and $$ that they had to keep from being discovered. Too much to lose? Keep fighting at all costs.

So bring in the lawyers! The City never has to worry they have endless access to money. The city knows best! The people are too stupid to know, too dumb to have their say in tax dollar spending. Feed the people images of a bad monster who is messing up all the good things that the government is doing. Keep repeating over and over until the masses start chanting along. The public is fickle and has short memory.

4 years ago, I remember the article in Nancy on Norwalk before Mr. Milligsn ever bought the properties in the Wall Street area. He provided visionary enthusiasm, great creative ideas to help revitalize the area, ideas that included getting the community involved to bring back the vibrance of what Wall Street used to be. It was a wonderful article and it also had a very explicit publicly announced intention with a exact date of when this purchase would happen.

It was not a secret! There was plenty of notice of his intentions. So how was it such a surprise when he actually did what he said he was going to do?

The really crazy thing was that instead of the expected cooperation with the city to get things going, to break the failure cycle, to get the creative visionary planning moving along with the city, Mr. Milligan was hit with a lawsuit. Unbelievable! Enthusiastic vision for improving the city was completely slammed shut — with being sued instead! Which ultimately shut down any public discussion about the matter. Makes you wonder doesn’t it?

And now here we are four years later. The city continues to spend tons of money fighting the one person who is actually revitalizing the area, who has great vision, ideas and actually follows through.bringing enthusiastic new ideas to the area. It just makes no sense to me whatsoever!

It truly is a sad state if affairs!

David Muccigrosso April 22, 2022 at 8:40 am

@Jason – That’s fair enough, and You Do You, but I sincerely think it’s a strategic mistake.

Jason Milligan April 22, 2022 at 2:13 pm

@David If I were to give up my entire business focus and abandon Wall Street, I can promise you that I would not relocate down the street and deal with the same players. I would go to a place that rolled the welcome mat out. A place that values the benefits people like me bring to a community.

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