NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Zoning Commissioners plan to give POKO Partners yet another a six-month extension for its long-hoped for Wall Street Place project this Wednesday, in spite of the caustic skepticism they expressed last week.
Commissioners agreed they would grant the extension for the commencement of construction of the long-delayed project at Thursday’s Plan Review Committee meeting, but not before subjecting Attorney Liz Suchy to biting remarks and pointed questions. Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan also found himself on a bit of a hot seat.
NancyOnNorwalk missed the meeting, but obtained a recording Friday from the Planning and Zoning office. Some telling comments:
• “It’s always a song and dance. I don’t think this project is going to get built.” – Alternate Commissioner James White
• “It’s taken longer than the Afghan war. We’ll be out of Afghanistan before they even break ground on this thing.” – Commissioner Mike Mushak
• “I’d rather give them three days.” – Commissioner Joe Santo
Plans for Wall Street Place include a phased development of 380 apartments, 870 parking spaces, 60,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and a performing arts center (the Globe Theater). The project was approved in 2008 with a Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) dated Nov. 14, 2007. POKO was granted six-month extensions in 2011 and two in 2012.
Suchy, who only took on POKO as a client two days before Thursday’s meeting, began the request for an extension by saying POKO has been arranging financing for the project.
“There’s just one piece of federal funds that they’re in the pipeline for …” she said, before being interrupted by White.
“I don’t believe that,” he said.
Suchy replied that the letter, regarding federal tax credits, was in the file and then said the redevelopment agency had granted an extension – something Sheehan quickly refuted.
POKO is in compliance with its LDA, he said, and has until September 2014 to finish building the project. No extension was granted by the redevelopment agency, he said, a comment that apparently was not absorbed by Santo.
“At what point would redevelopment not grant them extensions?” he asked, a short time later.
“Let’s be – the redevelopment agency did not grant extensions,” Sheehan said. “… Just to be clear, the redevelopment agency alone could not provide an extension. It would have to be the two public parties to the LDA, which would be the redevelopment agency and the Common Council.”
In September 2011, not long before the last municipal election, state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), Mayor Richard Moccia and Emil Albanese, then of the Norwalk Redevelopment Authority, joined Ken Olsen, president of POKO Partners, for a celebration of POKO’s application for a demolition permit. The men playfully waved golden shovels, but Olsen could not say when the work would begin.
“The application process is at a minimum 120 days,” he said then, explaining that residents and nearby businesses were given time to voice their concerns and for utility companies to look things over. He added that financing for the project was “mostly there.”
Nothing has happened.
Thursday night, Sheehan had an explanation.
“The developer has expressed an intent, or a desire, to begin demolition,” he said. “There’s concerns about that because then you’re taking down that portion of the street wall with no certainty that we’ve got the ability to do vertical construction. The agency has chimed in that that shouldn’t happen until we know that there is something to replace it.”
Suchy said POKO has 80 percent of its financing in place. That includes a $5 million Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development grant and financing through Citi Bank, she said.
Santo questioned whether POKO really would get the $5 million from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.
“I have not seen that there is actually a contract between POKO and the state,” said Sheehan, who recommended approval of the extension, “but the state has publicly awarded it.”
Santo wondered at what point the state might pull the award back. Sheehan said there were “performance measures” associated with the state award, but again, he hadn’t seen the contract.
Santo asked, “Don’t they owe you money, too?”
Sheehan quipped, “I am so glad I came tonight.”
He explained that the terms of the $150,000 “loan” to POKO were being worked out.
The “loan” would be taken off the money the redevelopment agency would have to pay to take the land back.
“The agency under the LDA has a right of re-entry,” he said. “That right of re-entry has a cost. That $150,000 that he owes us would be used to pay down our cost of the right of re-entry.”
The other component of the financing is the tax credits. Sheehan said that, before the state grant was awarded, the numbers did not add up in such a way as to make it likely that POKO would get the tax credits.
“They feel they are in a better position to get new market tax credits,” he said. “Hopefully, third quarter, fourth quarter, hopefully by the beginning of next year. It’s like anything else, you apply and then you go through the community development entities and then, hopefully, you’re in the pipeline and you get it.”
White was not impressed.
“The state is borrowing money to run the government. I just don’t see any of this happening,” he said.
POKO can’t even handle routine maintenance, he said.
“At this point he doesn’t even have people out there making sure the weeds aren’t growing in the parking lot,” he said. “I had to make that request last year. It’s starting to look like a jungle again down there. I mean, they’re doing nothing.”
Commissioners agreed to grant a six-month extension, but the matter will be voted on Wednesday.
Santo said, “We do it for six months because it gets us information every so often.”