NORWALK, Conn. – Since the SoNo Collection officially launched in October, about half of its tenants have opened for business, with an additional 15 percent expected to open their doors in the next six weeks, according to Brookfield Properties representatives.
Paul Madden, director of design for Brookfield Properties, along with Attorney William Hennessey, who represented the company and its predecessor General Growth Properties (GGP) in negotiations with the city, provided updates to the Planning Committee on Thursday.
“We were asked a couple months ago if we could appear at one of your meetings and just give you an update and I’m happy to do that,” Hennessy said. “The most profound update is the mall’s open.”
Stores and restaurants within the mall have been opening on a “rolling basis,” a strategy adopted by Brookfield Properties in the spring, Madden said, when they realized that not all would be ready for the planned October opening.
“We kind of changed our approach — the anchors also staggered openings so we kind of developed this rolling opening concept, where you had Nordstrom and a smaller percentage (open),” he said. “Bloomingdales opened roughly a month later. We had Pinstripes open about a month after that. We’ll probably have another 15 percent open within the next six weeks.”
Part of the delay was due to higher than expected construction costs for the fit-ups, Madden said.
“We’re 90 percent leased,” he said. “Some of the tenants actually, as so much work was going on towards opening, they actually ran into some issues with construction pricing, on average about 30 percent higher than projected…Some of those tenants had to rebid, little bit of redrawing that kind of slowed up some of the permitting. So, 90 percent should be here come late spring, so we feel like we’ll be stabilized at that point.”
Council member Tom Livingston (D–District E) said that the biggest question he hears is: “Is it meeting expectations?”
“The short answer from a corporate perspective is absolutely,” Madden said.
Madden said they have about 10 percent of “fill-in space” left that the company is working on leasing.
“Nationally, we run about 95 percent so it’s kind of an incremental uptick to get to where we consider ourselves stabilized from a corporate level,” he said.
Council members also questioned safety at the SoNo Collection, given the reports of large groups of teenagers and children causing issues at other malls across the state and country.
“We have a parent–guidance initiative at a number of our properties, we don’t think we need to use that here,” he said.
The initiative that the company deploys in other malls requires all visitors under 16 or so to be accompanied by an adult at all times, Madden said, adding that it hasn’t been necessary to implement in Norwalk.
“As of right now, what we’re seeing the people that are coming to visit, we’re not seeing that as materializing currently as an issue,” he said.
Update on “tools” for West Avenue/Wall Street
The Planning Committee also received more information about potentially expanding its Enterprise Zone to include the West Avenue-Wall Street area, adding a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to the area, as well as a look at what potential properties could be developed in the area over the next few years.
In a December memo to the committee, Norwalk’s Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey explained that “an enterprise zone is a designated geography in which taxes are abated as of right for a period of 7 years to encourage new development and business growth in underutilized areas.”
The city established an Enterprise Zone for South Norwalk in 1982 and is looking into expanding the zone to include the West Avenue-Wall Street area.
To qualify as an Enterprise Zone, a census tract must be zoned to allow commercial or industrial activity and meet at least one of the following criteria:
- 25 percent or more of the residents must be below the poverty level;
- 25 percent or more of the families must receive public assistance or welfare income
- The unemployment rate must be at least 200 percent of the state’s average.
The West Avenue-Wall Street census tract meets the second and third criteria, with 33.5 percent of families receiving public assistance or welfare income and an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, Casey told the committee.
Casey also said the City is looking into implementing a TIF district in the Wall Street area. The way a TIF district works, Casey explained, is that a base property tax is paid to the city but if the taxes on a property go up due to improvements made to the site, that increased amount, or a portion of it, can be put into a special fund that is used to help the district in some way, such as improved infrastructure, lighting, landscaping, etc.
Casey said they’re planning for the fiscal year 2021 budget “to put money into the budget to bring on a TIF consultant to be able to start the process.”
The area has multiple “potential growth sites,” Casey said, some of which have approved plans that are already in the works, some of which have been stalled, and some of which could come into play down the road.
She listed the Loehmanns Plaza site (also known as “the Pinnacle development”), the YMCA site, Wall Street Place, Highpointe and Norwalk Public Library as “short-term” sites that could come online within the next three years.
“Medium-term” sites in the area included the Yankee Doodle block, Pulse Point/Riverview Plaza, Head of the Harbor North and Smith Street.
Casey said some of the sites listed as “long-term” might not be currently utilized to their “highest and best use.” Those sites listed were the library block, which includes the buildings surrounding the main library, the Lillian August site, Auto Zone and the medical office sites, and CVS and Dunkin Donuts sites.
While no action was taken on either the Enterprise Zone or TIF district on Thursday, Casey said that the committee could take a vote to move forward with the Enterprise Zone soon.
“It’s a much faster process, we can bring it back for a vote, let the committee think about it and bring it back for a vote,” she said. “That’s something we can move on sooner.”