NORWALK, Conn. — Questions surrounding density, traffic, parking, and other issues dominated two days of public hearings on the proposed East Norwalk Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) plan, which outlines zoning and design recommendations for future developments in the area around the East Avenue train station.
“This area has a lot of promise,” Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin said at the July 1 public hearing.
What’s in the plan:
There were 10 highlights that came out of the two-year planning process, as outlined by Kleppin and Emily Innes, of Harriman, the consulting group that helped put together the proposed plan.
- Rezoning the East Avenue corridor from about I-95 South towards Gregory Boulevard and Cemetery Street from neighborhood business to a new village district designation. The rezoning would allow either current property owners or new developers to build up to 3.5 stories—currently 2.5 is allowed—through a special permit. Much of the area would also require ground floor commercial and public amenities to “create activity on the street.” The additional story would only be allowed if the developer gave back certain amenities, such as rain infrastructure, seating, streetscape, etc. “What the village district designation does is allows the city to have design control over what’s built there,” Kleppin said, highlighting areas such as building design, facade, architecture, sidewalks, and lighting. “It gives the applicant a sense that the city has outlined what they want in this area.”
- Implementing a facade improvement program primarily for Charles Street north of Osborne Avenue to allow home and property owners to make improvements.
- Looking into relocating the Department of Public Works garage, which currently sits along the water. “There might be a better use for that property,” Kleppin said. “It could be a return to a marine commercial use, it could be a park.”
- Making no changes to the Water Pollution Control Authority site.
- Rezoning pockets of property in primarily residential areas from “neighborhood business” to residential. “We’d like to pull the activity closer to the train station,” Kleppin said.
- Allowing ground floor industrial use with residential units above it in areas to the right of East Avenue. “We thought there might be a way to enhance the economic viability of these properties by allowing a modest amount of residential above the ground floor industrial use,” Kleppin said. “They couldn’t turn the property into residential.”
- Rezoning a section of Gregory Boulevard to the village district designation.
- Preserving as a separate village district the Liberty Square area, where increases in property heights would not be allowed. Such a designation would serve to “protect that area,” said Kleppin, calling it “a very unique and interesting part of the city.”
- Recommending a pedestrian promenade along Veteran’s Park to help connect South and East Norwalk, and provide a broad walkway, some seating options, and potential activities such as outdoor gym equipment or games. “One exciting thing that came out of the process, which I think will be a real win for the city in the long run, is the idea of creating this pedestrian promenade that can connect South Norwalk to East Norwalk,” Kleppin said.
- The Preserving as a district the Cove-First Avenue, with a designation similar to that of Liberty Square. “That’s got its own unique kind of vibe to it, what we’d like to do is protect that as much as possible,” Kleppin said.
Ideally, the plan would work in conjunction with the East Avenue realignment and the East Avenue railroad bridge replacement, as a part of the Walk Bridge project to enhance pedestrian and bicycle safety along East Avenue, Innes said.
“East Avenue is not a great environment for pedestrians at the moment,” Innes said, adding that the proposed change would help create a “village center” feel for the improvements along East Avenue.
“We want people to feel like they’re coming into a village center,” Innes said. Wider sidewalks would allow more interaction along East Avenue, a public plaza vibe that would create a strong environment for pedestrians, she said.
Reaction to the plan:
Residents were invited to share their thoughts during two presentations in early July. Over 40 people offered written and oral questions, nearly all related to the proposed rezoning along East Avenue. The public also raised concerns about traffic, parking, the increased height of buildings, and the potential for added density in an area that’s already a challenge to navigate.
Lou Garcia, an architect and a 50-year resident of East Norwalk, said that while he thought it was a “good effort to try to do something in East Norwalk,” he didn’t agree with a lot of the East Avenue-related proposals.
“I don’t think increasing the density and going to 3.5 stories makes any sense for East Norwalk,” he said. “We have a very small amount of space on East Avenue. You will realize the space is very constricted. We have two lanes that (are) clogged with cars back and forth every single morning and every single afternoon.”
Kleppin did highlight that the lot sizes on East Avenue would be one way that future developments would be restricted. For example, developers in a mixed-use area must allow 1.3 parking spaces for each residential unit, so the size of the property would limit what could be built there.
Jessie McGarty, an East Norwalk resident, echoed Garcia’s concerns over the prospect of taller buildings.
“The thought of some big building—and I consider 3.5 stories big for this area,” she said. “I’m a New York City transplant. We do have that cozy New England feel and that’s why folks really love this area.”
McGarty also asked if there were any additional incentives to help existing business owners spruce up their properties.
Many people also voiced concerns about additional apartment rentals in the area, as opposed to condominiums that require ownership.
“We’re not out seeking rental apartments,” Kleppin said. “Our decision to recommend adding density…is based on a formula that can help revitalize the area. If everybody gets condos, that’s great.”
“Can any of this plan be implemented without adding one more apartment or residential unit to East Norwalk?” resident Barbara Punzi asked, citing current developments already under construction. “I kind of think that’s enough apartments. We don’t need to become South Norwalk or, God forbid, Harbor Point in Stamford.”
Kleppin noted that under current zoning, developers can already build apartments or other residential units in the neighborhood business district up to 2.5 stories—the same area that would be rezoned into a village district. He also emphasized that properties along East Avenue were much smaller than those along West Avenue, or other areas of the city that house larger developments.
“The density we’re proposing and the additional story I propose as modest,” he said. “Three and a half stories to me, especially with well-crafted design guidelines, is much different than six, eight stories you can do in other places in the city.”
While the plan aims to promote more “walkability” and other modes of transportation besides driving, many residents raised concerns about how many cars the added density could bring to the roads.
“Parking is obviously a big issue for many, many people,” resident James Mitchell said. “We see this as already maximized in various streets and locales.”
Diane Cece, a member of the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association (ENNA) and oversight committee for this plan, praised the members of the public for coming out and raising their questions and concerns.
“I’m glad that a lot of the questions came up around height and overall density, because it’s a lot of what ENNA has been hearing for months,” she said.
Cece, who has been critical of the plan, said that ENNA conducted surveys of East Norwalk residents in which they disagreed that the proposed amenities would provide enough of a tradeoff for increased density and height. She also said that in a survey with more than 300 respondents, two-thirds said they wouldn’t want to see more than 300 apartments added throughout the entire plan area.
Kleppin pushed back and said that even if nothing changed, there could be the potential for 300 units or more in the area right now.
“The density and height continue to be very serious issues,” Cece said.
Other members of the East Norwalk TOD Oversight Committee, including Councilman John Kydes, (D, District C), who represents the area, said that they appreciated the conversation and comments, but also felt that the proposed changes represented a step in the right direction.
“I’ve lived in East Norwalk my entire life, and what I see with stone yards…multifamily homes blighted…auto body shops—that’s not what I think about in a thriving seaside village district,” Kydes said. “There are improvements to be done to the area itself.”
The full plan can be found at https://tomorrow.norwalkct.org/