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Preliminary recommendations made for Norwalk Industrial Zones

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

NORWALK, Conn. — Industrial zoning was developed to separate the factories of the 19th and 20th centuries from residential neighborhoods, a good strategy given the toxic waste, air and water pollution, and other hazards that were byproducts of many Industrial Revolution-era manufacturing processes.

No more. Digital technologies are enabling manufacturers of all stripes to reinvent virtually every aspect of their businesses, improving quality, efficiency, safety, and innovation in the process. Industry is undergoing a radical change, most – if not all – for the better.

Cities are changing, too. Public and private investments in downtowns, waterfronts, and innovation districts are blurring the lines regarding what belongs where. A heightened appreciation for the assets in today’s post-industrial cities is giving rise to the New Urbanism: a rapidly growing lexicon of terms such as “walkability.” “Heritage tourism.” “Placemaking.”

Behind the buzzwords is a new way of living, in areas that are truly mixed use. For today’s urban dwellers, the definition of a vibrant, livable neighborhood might very well hinge on proximity to the same types of businesses zoning laws were created to segregate.

With that in mind, Norwalk, like many cities, is grappling with its existing laws and notions regarding zoning. The Industrial Zones Oversight Committee met on March 10 to discuss recommendations by a Boston-based consulting firm, Utile, which has spent the past few months surveying and analyzing the city’s industrial zones.

“Our goals here are to support employment and economic growth, understanding that industrial businesses, and manufacturing businesses can be vital to creating vibrant neighborhoods that contribute to placemaking as well as employment,” consultant Maggie Tsang said.

Another goal was to address a “misconception about the scale” and “bad reputation that industry of the 20th and 19th century had.”

Tim Love of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

Simplifying the industrial zoning language, providing space for industrial businesses, and alleviating the heavy burden of contractor yards in South Norwalk were among Utile’s preliminary recommendations. So was the creation of separate plans to address development at Norden Place and properties along the Norwalk River.

“Here we are really thinking about how industry has changed in the 21st century – it’s much more smaller- and medium-sized businesses,” she said.

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

1. Simplify industrial zoning to reflect current industrial uses on the ground as well as 21st century trends and desired uses.

One of the challenges noted was that although Norwalk has three specific zones for industrial uses, they are allowed in many others, so there are times where industrial uses end up next to commercial next to residential, which can be challenging. Sometimes, these can work together, Tsang said, particularly in the case of “boutique” manufacturing, which can include breweries, printing, bakeries, textiles, and other “small batch” manufacturing.

“Because the market prefers multifamily development, oftentimes what that means for industrial development is that it kind of crowds out or encroaches onto viable industrial sites that might be useful for job creation and where some of these light manufacturing uses can even take place,” Tsang said.

To accommodate the different types of industrial uses along with existing multifamily developments, the group recommended three zones where industrial could be allowed:

  • Industrial (which would replace the current I1 zone)
  • Mixed-use commercial industrial (which would replace the current restricted industrial, light industrial, marine commercial, business 1, or business 2 zones)
  • Mixed-use residential, commercial, industrial (which would replace the current central business and neighborhood business districts)

One of the biggest changes would restrict multifamily developments in the mixed-use commercial industrial zones to special permit, instead of the current code, which has them listed “as-of-right,” meaning a developer can build that use in that specific zone without needing special approval.

“These are areas that are currently occupied by sort of ‘big-box retail,’” she said. “They’re along what is U.S. 1 and along Main Avenue, Main Street. So we don’t really want to incentivize more multifamily development in those areas.”

 

2. Within the mixed-use residential, commercial industrial districts, incentivize ground floor boutique manufacturing and live workspaces, through height bonuses.

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

“This is something that’s pretty consistent with the two neighborhood plans that already exist: the Wall Street West Avenue neighborhood (plan) and the East Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Development plan),” Tsang said. “In both of those plans, there is a desire for incentivizing boutique manufacturing on the ground floor and allowing for these types of innovation spaces.”

This height bonus could allow for five stories at about 85 feet in the industrial and mixed-use commercial industrial zones.

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

Steve Kleppin, Director of Planning and Zoning, said that while height bonuses might work in some places, East Norwalk might be different, after hearing feedback from their TOD process.

“We went through a pretty exhaustive analysis and planning process as part of the East Norwalk TOD plan,” he said. “I think going above the height that’s permitted right now in the industrial one (zone) that parallels the railroad tracks, I think would be problematic there.”

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

Sabrina Church, the City’s Director of Business Development and Tourism, said her main goal with this process is to make it easier for people who are looking for property and new places to locate.

“The calls that I’m getting for industrial space at this point are between 10,000 and 25,000 square feet,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of employees, but they’re specialty makers, they’re printers, they’re computer chip makers, they’re those types of things. And green energy has been a big pop-up as of late as well. And the thing is, they need the larger space.”

 

3. Up-zone within the mixed-use commercial industrial zone to accommodate hybrid industrial, commercial building types.

Consultant Tim Love said he’s worked on these types of projects recently in other cities, where there’s ground floor manufacturing, usually with ceiling heights of 28 feet to accommodate machinery, and then commercial above it – some of which is often used by the company that has the industrial space below.

“In addition to either an industrial project or a commercial project development project … is a zoning code that allows for a hybrid to be built,” he said. “I think it jives very well with the Connecticut economy and even the Norwalk economy, where you are allowed to put commercial office space above high bay industrial space on the ground floor. That works well for medical device manufacturers. It works well for life science (research and development). And it’s a way for the city to maybe incentivize the next generation of high bay industrial space to get built.”

 

4. Distinguish contractor yards from other industrial uses and identify more suitable locations and sites for them.

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

According to existing zoning, contractor yards are an “as-of-right use” in an industrial zone, but they are also allowed in business districts through special permits.

“We just wanted to take a moment to sort of address what some of the challenges are with contractor yards currently, especially in the South Norwalk neighborhoods,” Tsang said. “There are a lot of those heavier industrial or heavier, more intensive uses that we talked about, that require maybe larger trucks, semis as well as more frequent truck activity, maybe noise.”

One of the major parts of this recommendation was “thinking about where else besides in South Norwalk contractor yards could go.” Tsang said that they took into consideration both truck access to the site and buffering from residential neighborhoods. The consultants recommended three other areas where contractor yards could be allowed “as-of-right” to try and alleviate the burden on South Norwalk. These include: along Martin Luther King Drive, within the Moeller Industrial Park, along Route 7, and, the most discussed area, the one between I-95 and U.S.1, which is “currently occupied by a lot of big box retail.”

“Some on the Committee are like, ‘that’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.’ But here’s a way to think about it, which is big-box retail was vulnerable before COVID, (is) vulnerable after,” Love said. “And ultimately, in the long term, those are good sites for commercial office, especially commercial office where companies want to put a logo on the building … it’s a very popular location for retail, but (you can) allow contractor yards to go there as a kind of holding a kind of market holding pattern.”

Love said that allowing contractor yards there would keep them away from residential areas and locate them more equitably throughout the city.

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

Still, some Committee members, such as Lou Schulman, who currently chairs the Zoning Commission, had concerns that rather than move contractor yards out of South Norwalk, the city would be essentially inviting more in.

“This idea of equity makes a lot of sense if we can move some of these contractor yards out of South Norwalk, which has absorbed over the years way too many of them,” he said. “(But) I think that the only result will be the proliferation of the number of contractor yards in the city of Norwalk. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. And it does absolutely nothing for South Norwalk.”

He was also concerned that the placement of contractor yards along Route 1 would make for a poor introduction to Norwalk.

“To some extent, that Route 1 corridor is a gateway into the city of Norwalk, and I don’t think you’ll want a bunch of contractor yards as the gateway,” he said.

Diane Lauricella, a local activist, said that she wanted to make sure the City would work to remove the illegal contractor yards in South Norwalk, as opposed to working with them to make them legal.

“I hope that we are not trying to help them stay there. They should never have been allowed to be there in the first place,” she said.

Love and Tsang said all of their recommendations also came with a need for “better enforcement.”

 

5. Two ‘very special sites’ – the Norden Place site and sites along the Norwalk River – needed to be looked at on a ‘more case-by-case basis’ with separate plans for each.

Norden Place, which occupies approximately 37 acres, is one of the largest parcels in Norwalk, Tsang said, but its location with a lack of direct access to the site and adjacency to residential areas makes it challenging. Residents voiced strong opposition to a recent proposal to make the site a distribution center, before the application was withdrawn.

Tsang said they would have a baseline recommendation for the sites, such as what uses might fit best there, citing biotech as an example for the Norden Place site, but each could use more in-depth plans for what might be best.

“Other suitable land uses might include industrial commercial that doesn’t have such intense truck traffic or doesn’t require that type of direct access onto I-95,” she said. “So vehicles that are just passenger vehicle traffic, to and from the site through Strawberry Hill Avenue, that wouldn’t be any more intensive than what currently exists”

Maggie Tsang of the Boston-based consulting firm Utile shares zoning recommendations Wednesday with the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee.

As for the Norwalk River and waterfront properties, the consultants recommended that the city’s harbor management plan be updated to include future developments, existing properties, and waterfront access.

The next step is to gather community feedback to the recommendations, with meetings being planned for the next few weeks, particularly with property owners and neighbors to the industrial zones being discussed.

Comments

One response to “Preliminary recommendations made for Norwalk Industrial Zones”

  1. David Muccigrosso

    Route 1 is already a “poor introduction to Norwalk”. On either end, you drive past several dozen ugly strip malls, which fade into dying strip malls, which fade into the dying Wall St. corridor, completely bypassing the only remotely lively part of town (SoNo), and then resumes with the ugly strip malls.

    Eventually, you pass into either Darien or Westport, and at least the strip malls are less ugly. And their downtowns are much more homey-feeling, with recent constructions and none of these absurd setbacks. They look like traditional New England towns, not New Jersey suburbs.

    If we really want to revitalize Route 1, we need a LOT more than just shifting the deck chairs around. And although it *starts* with fixing our setbacks, it by no means ends there.

    Let the market build what it wants to build.

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