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P&Z reluctantly set to hold hybrid hearing on East Norwalk development

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents plans for The Lofts at Mill Pond to the Planning and Zoning Commission, Jan. 4 on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Residents can express their opinions in person at an upcoming Planning and Zoning public hearing on a development proposal hotly opposed by the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association.

It’s uncertain how many Commissioners will be in City Hall to hear them.

Requests came in for a hybrid meeting on the controversial plan for 77 apartments in a mixed-use development on the circle near Calf Pasture Beach, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin told the Commission at its Wednesday meeting, held, as always, online only.

Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said he’d prefer to keep it strictly virtual unless all Commissioners agreed to do it in person.

“This is an important project about which people feel very passionate,” he said. “And it can be incredibly messy and technology can interfere with us understanding them, or they understanding us… When it’s going to be difficult on a difficult topic, I think we’re just asking for trouble. Nobody’s going to walk away satisfied.”

The State has issued language saying that if residents request a hybrid meeting, the Commission has to allow it, P&Z Director Steven Kleppin said.

“I’m all in favor of hybrid meetings but I can’t commit to attending in person,” Commissioner Ana Tabachneck said.

A rendering of The Lofts at Mill Pond, showing planned public space adjacent to the “mercantile building” on the corner of East Avenue. It’s envisioned as gathering space; the walkway at right would head to Mill Pond.

The project, dubbed The Lofts at Mill Pond, would put two buildings on the 1.6 acres at 1 Cemetery Street, where a bank has sat for decades amidst an expanse of asphalt. One smaller building would sit off to the side along Gregory Boulevard. The large building, prominently placed on Cemetery Street so anyone going to the beach would look at it, would feature a façade meant to resemble a set of smaller New England-style buildings.

“Playing with the different roof lines, going between flat and pitch roofs and changing the architectural style, we feel we’ve achieved a varied composition and something that’s going to benefit the neighborhood and really, you know, make this a place to be on the south end of the green,” Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture said at the Jan. 4 P&Z Commission meeting.

Architectural firm DiCarlo & Doll is charged with offering an independent opinion to the Commission.

“The project presents itself as a predominantly three-story building when viewed from the north,” DiCarlo & Doll states in its peer review filed with P&Z last week, characterizing the project as likely reflecting coming development around the East Norwalk Historical Cemetery, situated within the traffic circle and referred to by some as “the green.”

Given the cemetery’s “gentle topographical rise,” the proposed building’s height “could be anticipated to have the salutary effect of making the cemetery feel more framed and more of a spatially unifying feature than it currently is,” the firm states.

A rendering of The Lofts at Mill Pond. At left is the planned resident amenity space. A public walkway is in the middle, leading to a grand staircase down to the pond.

It’s the first project submitted under the recently approved East Norwalk Village TOD (Transit Oriented Development) Zone regulations. Applicants M.F. DiScala and Spinnaker Real Estate Partners seek to qualify for increased height by providing public amenities, including a public courtyard accessible from East Avenue, across from Sweet Ashley’s ice cream store and adjacent to the planned retail space on the development’s corner which Grotheer called “a mercantile or a hall building.”

Originally submitted in June, the project was withdrawn and then refiled due to traffic concerns, Attorney Adam Blank said Jan. 4. The Connecticut Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over the road and “it took a long time to get DOT to actually take a look at it.”

Traffic Engineer Greg Del Rio explains one of two traffic designs at the intersection of Cemetery Street and Gregory Boulevard, Jan. 4 on Zoom.

Out of that, a plan has developed to turn Cemetery Street into a one-lane road. Other adjustments include moving the curve where Cemetery meets Gregory Boulevard down a bit, turning it into what Traffic Engineer Greg Del Rio called “almost a roundabout type treatment.”

That would enable to the development’s residents to exit out of the planned driveway. The State is also making adjustments to accommodate large trucks, so they don’t need to go over the roadway into the “green,” as they do now.

A public walkway would lead to Mill Pond, but that’s City property and plans aren’t yet developed.

Commissioner Mike Mushak asked about the City’s ability to build there once The Lofts at Mill Pond are constructed.

“The easement language does have language in it, confirming that the City would have the ability to access for construction on their parcel,” Blank replied.

This excerpt from the application for The Lofts at Mill Pond really highlights the desire to “get as many residential units in there as you can,” East Norwalk Neighborhood Association Board President Diane Cece said at ENNA’s January meeting.

In a lengthy East Norwalk Neighborhood Association (ENNA) Jan. 16 Zoom meeting, leader Diane Cece meticulously detailed facets of the development and the P&Z process.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people that there’s no way that this development should go through, ‘it’s too big, we don’t want it, it’s the wrong location.’ It’s too many apartments etc.,” she said, before  delivering the unhappy news, “that ship has really already sailed.”

Once the TOD regulations were passed, “in order to actually spur larger scale development to happen around the transit hubs like the train stations,” it became a “done deal,” she said. “It’s not really going to be productive for people to say that ‘we don’t want this at all.’”

The key is to try to mitigate “what could be a tremendous impact, a negative impact, on our community,” she explained.  If there are “enough questions or suggestions or concerns” raised at the public hearing, the applicant “would then have to go back and do revisions and come forward again.”

Cece explained that the plan for two separate buildings is due to a City easement for an underground stormwater pipe. The driveway is where it is, “where it doesn’t really make sense,” so the City can reach its pipe without demolishing a building, she said.

The main building is “pushed” to closely front Cemetery Street because of setbacks on the inland wetlands and the flooding that occurs in what is now the back parking lot, she said.

“The community is very concerned about this,” Cece said. “…Reasonable people certainly could reach a conclusion that the directive was really to design something for greed” as developers are “maximizing everything out…. The mandate was get as many residential units in there as you can and just do (enough) retail that’s going to satisfy the mixed use requirement of a special permit plan in here.”

No one is opposed to developing East Norwalk, she said. “Yes, of course, they should make a profit. They should make a reasonable profit. They should make a fair profit, and something that allows them to continue to invest. But this is not it.”

A rendering of The Lofts at Mill Pond.

Further conversation focused on traffic concerns with predictions of serious issues at the area’s big events, the July 4 fireworks, dog shows, concerts and boat shows. Cece said residents oppose the City’s plan to narrow Cemetery Street to one lane, fearing gridlock.

She decried the Commission’s decision not to demand developers create a 3D model, saying it would give people more insight into the proposed height, and cast aspersions on the public amenity plans.

“They’re looking to do as inexpensive-as-possible and easy-to-put-in amenities to rack up points that allow them to have three and a half stories,” she said, characterizing the amenities as being difficult for residents to notice and the building itself blocking the would-be water view, in possible violation of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

She mentioned lawyers and said ENNA holds out hope that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) might oppose the project based on its impact to wildlife.

Few people spoke in response; Jesse McGarty said the swans and the ducks and other “beautiful birds” she’s been watching for 27 years will surely leave once the project is built.

Liz Conti called predictions of low traffic impact “pie in the sky.” But one speaker, Ben Hanpeter, noted the struggle to get housing nowadays and expressed support for the project.

Cece said 30-40 people were attending the ENNA meeting and about 200 opponents were needed to make a dent on Commission’s opinion about the project.

Last week’s P&Z meeting and the comments about a March 7 hybrid meeting drew a sharp rebuke from ENNA in a YouTube video titled, “Excuses for P&Z Commissioners No Shows @ Hearing.”

As for Schulman’s comment, “asking for trouble,” the unnamed ENNA narrator states, “asking for trouble is holding a public hearing while you hide behind a camera and a computer.”

Kleppin, at last week’s meeting, said either he or Principal Planner Bryan Baker would be in City Hall to act as a “gatekeeper,” for citizens who want to speak at the Council Chambers lectern. Commissioners can attend in person or via their computers.

Mushak said he wanted a camera focused on the audience area, not just the speakers.

“I think that’s going to be a helluva mess,” Schulman said. Kleppin agreed, saying he’s heard it’s been done elsewhere and been “very messy.”

Tabachneck pointed out that the Common Council has been holding hybrid meetings for months and said the audio has worked “pretty well.”

Commissioner Jacquen Jordan-Byron said she has “no problem” attending in person because, “I think it’s important that if the public wants to take the time and effort to respond, support or oppose a project, I think the least we could do is be there to hear them.”

Commissioners Richard Roina and Tamsen Langalis agreed.

“I just want to make everyone aware that COVID is still spreading, it’s still an issue,” Mushak warned, alleging that the Council Chambers’ ventilation is not designed to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards.

“I just would say if somebody starts coughing their head off in that room, God bless you all for being there,” Mushak said. “I mean, you know, because they’re probably not going to have a mask on and nobody else is going to have a mask on and then you’ve got an event.”

The East Norwalk Neighborhood Association plans to meet at 7 p.m. Monday.

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Cemetery traffic 23-0123

 

 

 

Comments

12 responses to “P&Z reluctantly set to hold hybrid hearing on East Norwalk development”

  1. Bryan Meek

    Underground parking next to the LI Sound. What could possibly go wrong?

  2. Bryan Meek

    3 years to flatten the city’s landscape. Why not just elect ChatGPT to run the city?

  3. John Custodio

    Enough is enough. With all the affordable housing and apartments that have gone up in Norwalk recently I for one would love to know a) how many units in total were built, and b) what is the current occupancy rate? And as for “mixed use” with all the other vacant space in the city none can be retrofitted for this? It seems to me that Norwalk is bearing the brunt of providing affordable housing in this area of the state. Why not knock down the buildings and build a nice, pedestrian open space area? Let’s leave some green, open space in our city.

  4. Marjorie Madden

    Why are meetings still being held via Zoom? How can it be stated that they are unsure of the technology after all this time. If they haven’t figured it out by now I have no hope for them. All meetings need to resume in person. Come on Norwalk DEMAND IT

  5. Mike O’Reilly

    If it was not for NON and the outstanding work of Diane Cece all we would see is a little mouse print notice in The Norwalk Hour. I also understand we are missing some very pertinent documents that are required for all hearings.
    No documents regarding the required Architectural Design review have been submitted to the commission.
    The DOT has Not completed their review of the request to modify Rt. 136 on Cemetery and Gregory Blvd.

    Neither P&Z staff or P&Z commission have requested or required that an environmental impact study be completed in connection with the project.So much more but the real issue is why are we moving the meeting to 6:00pm Meetings have always been 7:00pm .God forbid people could get home in time to feed their kid’s and attend the meeting. Total lack of transparency. The East Norwalk Village TOD had a few good points but was thrust upon us without enough feedback from the community.
    To think the best excuse they could come up for not having a public hearing is Mike Mushak stating ” I just want everyone aware covid is still spreading” Really Have we all not been in a room with more than 20 people in the last year. Maybe some of us have taken a cruise? or gone to a concert We should all be outraged.

  6. Lori Kydes

    It’s going to sink. It floods there and much of the lot is level with the pond. This looks like a money grab and consequences be damned.

  7. Skip Hagerty

    We constantly hear that due to climate change the sea levels will rise considerably over the coming years. That being the case, why are builders being allowed to construct housing like this so close to a flood zone? And why would banks lend long term money to the owners of a complex that will supposedly be, at least partially, underwater soon?

  8. Tysen Canevari

    I would have to say MF Discala has been entrenched in our community for multiple decades as a developer who constructs sound developments and sticks by them. They dont throw up tasteless buildings like these out of town developers and then sell them 2 years later. The state and our mayor has encouraged our town to become developed to the brim so we might as well make sure we bring in local, professional, competent companies to do a good job. MF Discala has a proven track record here, regionally, and nationally.

  9. Suzanne Buffone

    Between this comment …”I’m all in favor of hybrid meetings but I can’t commit to attending in person,” Commissioner Ana Tabachneck said, and pulling the Covid card this is absolutely ridiculous. There should no longer be virtual or hybrid meetings. People are back to work, school, activities, parties, vacations etc etc but an in person meeting is too dangerous? If people can’t take their positions and the responsibility that comes with that seriously then maybe they should rethink it. Kudos to the Commissioners that do see the need and stated so.

  10. Mike O’Reilly

    Why were Ernie DeRochers comments deleted??

    1. Mike, we are also wondering why some comments disappeared. We have theories and this shouldn’t be a long term issue. Thanks; I didn’t realize Ernie’s were on the list.

  11. Niz Judia

    I live in that area. Disagree with it all together. Knowing that will be ignored, please the roads have to be re-engineered. Driving around the graveyard to get to the laundromat is tricky.

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