NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Zoners appear poised to approve the revamped plans for Wall Street Place, commonly referred to as “POKO,” in spite of continued legal threats from real estate broker Jason Milligan.
“This seems to be a really impressive development,” Commissioner Joshua Goldstein said just before Christmas, echoing the thoughts of other Commissioners in praising the product produced by the partnership of the City’s design review consultant and Michael Weissbrod of Crosskey Architects, working with JHM Group to advance construction on the Tyvek Temple, Wall Street’s long-standing eyesore.
“I think it’s a fantastic job that was done between the two architects, I just can’t get over how our peer review architect and the project’s architect have cooperated,” Commissioner Richard Roina said.
Zoners expect to take up the matter Thursday, after delaying their decision to receive input from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. Redevelopment is slated to meet today, Tuesday Jan. 5, to conduct the design review expected by Zoning.
Neighbors are itchy: Michael McGuire, who owns 64 Wall St. directly across from the Tyvek Temple, alleged over the holiday break that the City held its latest meeting on Dec. 22 because “the less the public knows the better.”
The Zoning Commission’s hearing began on Nov. 5 and was continued to Nov. 18, then to Dec. 9. At that point there was a glitch: Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin announced that it wasn’t being broadcast to YouTube, so conversation stopped and the hearing was continued to Dec. 22.
Milligan and his attorneys are the only members of the public to weigh in during this process, mostly at the Nov. 5 hearing. Milligan asked if he could speak eight times since he owns eight properties near Wall Street Place and was refused in that request. Attorney Emily Wilson, a former Zoning Commissioner, said it was “a little odd” that Wall Street Place was being grandfathered in, given that it’s “something that doesn’t exist.” Attorney David Rubin, Milligan’s warrior in the ongoing court battles, furthered that theme by arguing that the underlying redevelopment plan that the “grandfathering” is based on is invalid.
This is a matter in front of the court.
“There are four other lawsuits and I’m starting a new one as soon as you approve this,” Milligan told Zoners on Dec. 22. Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said the legal battles are beyond the Zoning Commission’s purview and not a factor in its decision-making process.
Attorney Bill Hennessey, representing JHM, alleged that the fact that no one from the public has spoken at the hearings except for Milligan and his lawyers is “a testament to the fact that they’re quality buildings, and they’re welcomed by the community.”
Construction on Wall Street Place halted in mid-2016. JHM’s new plan, developed in private discussions with the Redevelopment Agency and the City, features 151 apartments, in contrast to the originally planned 101 apartments, and an additional building: the defunct Garden Cinemas are set to be demolished and replaced with a parking structure and apartments on the upper floors. The housing is planned to have a high affordable component, with 45 apartments at market rate.
A “little pocket park” along Commerce Street is among the additions discussed by Weissbrod.
“I think this peer review process is made a great project an excellent one,” Weissbrod said, detailing changes made since the Nov. 5 hearing. Some minor examples:
- One style of brick is planned instead of two, “making the material palette a little bit more streamlined and cohesive”
- Brick is extending all the way to the ground level in some areas, where concrete had been planned before, to “tie in the relationship of the architecture between the upper floors and lower floors”
- The metal roof at 17 Isaacs won’t be the original blue design but a gray fishscale, matching the gray fishscale on the upper floors at 64 Wall St.,
- Benches have been moved, spaces for public trash cans have been added and two bike racks have been planned
Weissbrod and the city’s peer-review architect, Bob Grzywacz, also focused extensively on window treatments. Zoning regulations call for “75 percent transparency” at the ground level, and Grzywacz engaged the Commission in questions about what Norwalk might desire in design guidelines – is a mullion considered transparent?
“Generally, mullions are the single vertical bars that separate two sides of a single window,” theSpruce.com explains.
Weissbrod said mullions had been added to some of the windows for architectural effects and, “It helps break down the glass on the upper stories and helps relate to the mullions on the storefront below.”
“We are treating the Wall Street corner and facade a little bit differently given its prominence of the project and adjacency to the historic building,” Weissbrod said, explaining that the windows did not have mullions but now a “four over one” pattern – four small segments over one large pane – is planned.
Architects did a sight-line study by taking photos of the existing buildings and superimposing the modeled project into the images, Weissbrod said. Even though the project’s tallest floors will be six stories instead of the five currently allowed by Zoning, the images “demonstrate that, you know, the six-story mass will not negatively impact the Wall Street pedestrian experience, and you’re only going to catch ever so much of those, a small glimpse of this as you pass between the buildings,” he continued.
The project was recently fine-tuned in response to comments from the residents of the Phoenix condos at 19 Isaacs St., Weissbrod said. Now the open space between the two buildings is planned to coordinate, to “more or less double the usable space.” And architectural elements have been added to what had been planned as a plain wall.
Milligan commended this move, alleging that the neighboring residents had just become aware of the plans.
The conversation “went a long way to actually meeting some of the community needs,” Milligan said. “We felt like this project was getting slammed down everyone’s throat, and that that actually changed a lot of people’s opinion that they were working with the community.”
Hennessey alleged that Tod McClutchy of JHM reached out to those residents in August and met with them without lawyers present.
“I will be appealing this unfortunately,” Milligan said, alleging that 1,500 people had signed the Wall Street Neighborhood Association’s petition calling for court-assisted mediation in the ongoing legal battle.
On Monday, nearly two weeks after that comment, the petition has been signed by 1,417 people. On Dec. 15, 1,401 people had signed.
“You should look for mediation, because there’s a lot of issues to resolve, and nothing’s going to happen with all this litigation. They’re not going to get tax credits,” Milligan said to Zoners on Dec. 22. “…We’re not getting out of this mess unless we get around a table together.”
Hennessey pointed out that the Tyvek Temple is sitting there.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been perhaps some of you have associated with a project that is this unusual,” Hennessey said. “I mean, we have a situation here, where a building has been sitting unfinished and exposed to the element for several years… It was designed by others, and it has as a central feature, a completely useless robotic parking situation.”
Given the complicated scenario, most people would say “any solution is probably good enough, even if it’s a marginal product, we got to get, we’ve got to figure a way out of this mess,” Hennessey said.
He said, “But what you have in front of you, is not a marginal product, you have a great product, you have a great building that’s been worked on, frankly, by two talented architects over the last several months to take it, as Michael described to you, as a really good product into an excellent one.”
Schulman took a poll, to guide Kleppin in drafting a resolution for Thursday’s possible vote.
“I’m more inclined to go forward with it,” Commissioner Nick Kantor said, noting the affordability component as “really important to the area” but expressing reservations about the height.
Commissioner Galen Wells agreed.
“I’m in support of the project. I mean, it is a well thought out project. And as you say, a lot of time has been invested,” Commissioner Michael Witherspoon said.
“This is not a vote,” Schulman said. “This is our impression at this point in time. We have yet to review what the Redevelopment Agency has to say. But, Steve, I think you’ll have what you’re looking for going forward.”