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‘Scale it Back’: Public asks developer to reconsider application as Commission continues hearing

Diane Cece, East Norwalk Neighborhood Association (ENNA) Board President, upper left, speaks to the Planning and Zoning Commission at Thursday’s hybrid public hearing on a proposed development, The Lofts at Mill Pond.

NORWALK, Conn. —  At the public hearing on the plans for 1 Cemetery St., which was continued from two weeks ago, more than 35 residents took advantage of their opportunity to weigh in on the project, with almost all speaking out against it.

Some said that they would support the project if adjustments were made.

“I’m here today to speak in favor of the project — so long as it is scaled back,” said resident Sam Haigh.

Haigh called on the developer to scale back the project to a “reasonable density, put retail on the ground floor that the neighborhood needs — with enough parking on-site…and keep Cemetery Street two lanes.”

Haigh said that “I think most of East Norwalk would join me in supporting the project,” if those changes were made.

Others have said that they were frustrated about this development and others across the city.

“I have to ask the question—does this city, does the state hate East Norwalk? There’s been so much dumped here,” said resident John Deacy.

No decision was made on Wednesday night and the Planning and Zoning Commission voted to continue the public hearing until next week, which would feature a chance for the applicant to respond to the concerns of the public and the Commissioners to ask questions before any action would be taken.

The date was a little influx as next Wednesday the Council chambers, where the Planning and Zoning meetings — and where the city’s hybrid meetings — are held, are being used for a budget public hearing. Steve Kleppin, the City’s director of Planning and Zoning, said that he would work to confirm a date and time on Thursday, March 16.

The public hearing on the proposed project, which calls for 77 apartment units, of which seven would be workforce housing units, within two buildings on a 1.6-acre site at 1 Cemetery St, the site of a former bank, began on March 2, and featured a more than three hour presentation on the applicant.

Residents had about 90 minutes to weigh in before the Planning and Zoning Commission continued the 5+ hour meeting to March 15. About a dozen attendees — both in person and virtual ones — spoke on March 2, with almost all opposing the plans. Residents voiced opposition to many aspects including: the size of the project, traffic concerns, environmental impact, and more.

 

Diane Cece speaks during a 2021 rally on Strawberry Hill Avenue. (Richard Bonenfant)

East Norwalk Neighborhood Association rebuttal

Diane Cece, a leader with the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association, closed the public hearing by going through some of the main reasons why she, the association, and many residents opposed the project. Cece noted that more than 700 people signed a petition, and hundreds have sent emails and come out to the hearings. She reiterated that many spoke out against the recently passed East Norwalk Village TOD Zone regulations, which allowed for some increased development near the train station.

“Every regulation in the EVT Zone was adamantly opposed by the community and the impact we feared most is coming to fruition,” she said.

She called the train station a “blessing and a curse,” and said that it was “really disingenuous” to compare the East Norwalk train station to South Norwalk’s station, which services multiple lines and has more trains.

“It’s a small neighborhood with a small commuter train station,” Cece said.

Cece also said that ENNA is “being entered as an intervenor in any follow-up proceedings after this,” under the Clean Air Act to “address some of these environmental issues.” Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Lou Schulman said that this was another reason he wanted to continue the application — so the Commission could get more information about what this meant.

The Wells Fargo bank on Cemetery Street in 2020. The bank has closed.

Cece said that just because ENNA and others were opposed to this current design didn’t mean they just wanted the site to stay vacant or be a parking lot.

“No one thought an appropriate use of that parcel was an asphalt parking lot,” she said. “Everyone is agreeable to change there.”

She cited concerns with the “towering effect” the building would have over people, a lack of ground level activation, concerns the traffic analysis was not conducted in the summertime, and more.

She also critiqued the staff memo, prepared for the Commission, which laid out reasons staff supported the project.

“It looks like a marketing plan for the developer when you read through this,” she said.

Cece said that ENNA hired Simco Engineering to review the traffic analysis submitted by the applicant and noted the consultant had “concerns with the studies before you,” including safety concerns entering and exiting the site, a lack of alternate driveways, and traffic volumes.

She called on the Commission to deny the application “without prejudice” and ask the applicants to revamp it to make it “the model for smart, scaled harmonious development in East Norwalk.”

 

Traffic Engineer Greg Del Rio explains one of two traffic designs at the intersection of Cemetery Street and Gregory Boulevard, Jan. 4 on Zoom. At issue is the location and size of the triangular island where the roads meet, in view of the planned driveway for The Lofts at Mill Pond.

Traffic and parking

One of the biggest concerns raised across the board was traffic, particularly because the Norwalk Transportation, Mobility, and Parking (TMP) Department’s master plan for the heavily trafficked circle-like triangle recommends turning Cemetery Street, which runs in front of the project, into a one-lane road. Residents voiced concerns about congestion, accidents, and confusion that could result from making it go to one lane.

Amanda Seroff, resident, said that they needed to address the traffic concerns now.

“But right now, with the congestion that’s happening down in East Norwalk and in Norwalk in general, because we keep building and building and building and thinking it’s not going to cause havoc in our community,” she said. “And then once it does go, ‘oh, well, it’s done. We’ll just have to deal with it.’ That’s why we’re here now. We’re trying to deal with it.”

Susan Brown, a resident of East Norwalk, said that “it doesn’t make sense” to reduce a road to one lane when more people than ever are traveling on it.

“Why are we taking a lane away? It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Beth Iovinelli, a local business owner, said the traffic impacts of this project concerned her, in addition to the strain on the infrastructure.

“My concern is the increased traffic and just the impact it will have,” she said.

Others questioned the amount of parking, particularly allowing on-street parking on the site.

Vinny Scicchitano, a business owner in East Norwalk, who is a Republican candidate for mayor, told a story of how when he opened his business more than 20 years ago and was a spot short for parking, he had to come back before the Commission and “make a lot of concessions to get my business through.”

He said that those reviews were important though because it “used to be about the neighborhood and the quality of life in that neighborhood.” Resident Judy Harris said that the parking didn’t seem to make sense to the size of the project.

“I looked at the traffic, the parking lot, and there’s one handicapped spot, and it just seems sort of inadequate to me,” she said.

 

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents plans for The Lofts at Mill Pond to the Planning and Zoning Commission, March 2 on Zoom.

Project size

Besides traffic, one of the other biggest concerns raised was the size of the project and that it was too dense for the site. The developer is proposing a 3.5-story structure — under the TOD Plan, 2.5 stories are required but builders can qualify for a special permit allowing 3.5 if they provide certain amenities, such as public space and stormwater improvements.

Marlene Harrick called the project “another square building” and said that it was ugly. She cited other developments, like the buildings going up near the South Norwalk Train Station as being the same type of “ugly building.”

“It’s demoralizing to see that kind of thing in our community,” she said.

Harrick said that they should “stop the [transit oriented development] out of Hartford.”

“It’s insanity to have heavy, heavy building going up near a train station,” she said.

Resident Cleo Renee said this property is too big and will cover her house which is located behind the property.

“I’m here for change, it’s all good, but 77 units — it’s going to be a bit too much,” she said. “I worked very hard to get this kid…I worked my butt off to get this house going. And I hate to see this construction going right behind my home — it’s going to cover my house, my value’s going to go down.”

She added that she “cannot afford to go anywhere else.”

“To see Norwalk, the place that I love so much, to do this to my kids, it hurts me,” she said. “I’m having a nightmare, because of the situation.”

James Mitchell, a resident, asked for other plans and options for this site.

“Have there been any other alternative or competing projects proposed besides this one? Is this the only choice that we have? Have the specific desires of the existing taxpayers like myself, and my charming and lovely neighbors been considered?” he said.

Lisa Brinton, who ran for Mayor twice as an independent candidate, also called on the developer to scale back the size of the project, adding that “this project would be great if it’s about half its size.”

“I understand the need for increased density that’s taking place in most of the towns around the country,” she said. “It’s just that many seem to do it smarter and more consistently, tastefully and beneficially for their residents.”

 

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents plans for The Lofts at Mill Pond to the Planning and Zoning Commission, March 2 on Zoom.

School overcrowding

Others like Kerrin Cole, a resident of East Norwalk, who said she was an educator who raised her daughter and put her through Norwalk schools, said that she was concerned with the impact projects like these had on the school district.

“In the last several years the schools have become very overcrowded,” she said.

Cole said that with the addition of 77 units, she “really feared” the education that the children of the area would be getting.

Elizabeth Barrera said she and her husband and son moved to East Norwalk two years ago, joking that it was the only time millennials like them could afford homes. She said that they moved to Norwalk because “we love that you could have the beach, but still have a single family and still have that slice of heaven.” However, she said that it’s been hard for her son who has autism to get services and that adding more people would just cause more challenges.

“To put more people into this area it’s just going to overwhelm it,” she said, adding that her husband takes the train every day to work and it’s also crowded.

“We would love it if it could be scaled back,” she said about the project.

 

Colin Grotheer of Beinfield Architecture presents the City’s plans for Cemetery Street to the Planning and Zoning Commission, March 2 on Zoom.

Some support

Two residents spoke in support of the project, stating that it would bring housing to the city, which they said it needed and it would approve walking and biking in the area.

Tanner Thompson, the chair of the Norwalk Bike Walk Commission, cited items from Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places that this project did. For example, he complimented the building’s facade for being broken up into multiple parts, which makes it “feel more like a village,” and that it gives pedestrians something to look at.

He also cited his support for adding a bike lane to the street, but asked that it be put between the sidewalk and car parking to protect bikers from traffic. He also spoke in support of making the road a one lane road to help slow down drivers.

“When you add more lanes, drivers are comfortable driving faster,” he said.

Thompson, who lives in the Golden Hill section of Norwalk now, said that if he still lived in East Norwalk he would be “jazzed about this project.”

“I would want that to be within walking distance of my house, I would want the improvement that comes with replacing the Wells Fargo.”

Ben Hanpeter, who lives near the proposed development, said that he was strongly in favor of the project because he supported building dense multifamily housing in areas near transit.

“New housing is desperately needed in Norwalk and Fairfield County as a whole,” he said.

Hanpeter added that “denser housing will make East Norwalk a nicer place to live,” as it helps promote affordable, walkable, liveable neighborhoods.

 

One other note

Council member Bryan Meek, the lone Republican on the 15-member body, called in and said that when the Commission took a 10-minute break about two and a half hours in, it was hard for the public to get back in.

“When you’re done nuking East Norwalk and making every train station into a public housing project, I’d appreciate it if you’d know how to conduct a public meeting, thank you,” he said.

The reporter for NancyonNorwalk was on Zoom the whole time and did not get kicked off or have to rejoin. The microphones were just turned off during the break.

 

Next steps

 The applicant team will have a chance to respond to the concerns, questions, and comments raised by members of the public at the next meeting — which could potentially be by Zoom on Wednesday, March 22 or hybrid Thursday, March 23, if the room is available. Commissioners can then ask questions and get more information before deciding to vote on the project.

Kelly Prinz, formerly Kelly Kultys, is the founder of Coastal Connecticut Times.

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Comments

10 responses to “‘Scale it Back’: Public asks developer to reconsider application as Commission continues hearing”

  1. David Osler

    I don’t they just keep it in commercial property and require it to be some type of retail or office like it has been you don’t have to rezone it developer can just follow the zoning limitations. Look at how badly South Norwalk was done with all the apartments and no construction for any level of retail in any sensible way or additional parking at the train station if we’re trying to be a hub City to New York or even a downtown area in Sono like is being forced down our throats for walk score or whatever makes no sense because we don’t have any thing that would make it useful the city would try to copy old Greenwich that would be great you could do that in East Norwalk you could do that in Sono you could do that in West Norwalk maybe it’s been done in Rowayton I don’t see why they can’t figure this out

  2. Tysen Canevari

    This is somewhat comical as the East Norwalk Residents are just waking up to whats been going on in Norwalk? Buildings all over, Overcrowding of schools, Nowhere to park, eroding sightlines in the city? No kidding. The mayor has been selling us out for years but everyone keeps voting for him. He sits in the background and counts his pension money and fat paycheck while his chief of staff runs city hall. At least we will now get a tax assesor that isnt skiing all day in Vermont and on the Norwalk payroll. At least the developer proposing the 77 units is a long time Norwalk company with a vested interest who constructs tasteful projects and contributes to his community. Unlike, Governor Lamont (Mayors friend) who will help finance another monster building in the Webster parking lot. That brings what to Norwalk? Oh yeah, more free housing!

  3. David Muccigrosso

    The misplaced sense of grievance is hilarious here: “does the state hate East Norwalk? There’s been so much dumped here”

    Are you effing kidding me? South Norwalk gets the worst of everything. East Norwalk is relatively pristine. Almost every project proposed there in the last five years has… GONE NOWHERE, BECAUSE OF NIMBY OPPOSITION. “The state” is literally dumping NOTHING on East Norwalk because East Norwalkers seem to always have the time to come out and nuke the deals!

    Meanwhile, SoNo is at the mercy of Harry and his developer buddies instead of engaging in the kind of organic growth that East Norwalk has a golden opportunity to kickstart.

    For shame. People need to “go touch grass”, as the kids say, because if you think East Norwalk is a “target” of any kind, you’re not connected to reality anymore.

    Gee, *I* wish I could afford to live in a nice suburban house or condo and have my own little bubble like that. But, what’s this? I CAN’T. Because no one built enough houses and condos for the last 30-50 years.

  4. Bryan Meek

    To be clear, the meeting info disappears from the city’s website sometime after the meeting starts. I wasn’t the only one kicked out. Instead of going to the city’s main page, you have to click on Agenda/Meetings/Minues, then click on Agenda, then find the correct “Zoning” Link out of the scores of other dead links in the Commissions Agenda page, and there you can find the link again. Again, I’ve never stated opposition to hybrid meetings, but what I can’t figure out is how 3 years later and this city still can’t figure it out. One can only conclude that limited participation is the goal.

  5. Bryan Meek

    At least Zoning had the meeting on it’s agenda. The BET meeting last night that covered $250 million in spend wasn’t even posted legally. No room #, no zoom info. Just the link from last week.

  6. Johnny cardamone

    This project will make a great target for the next tropical storm or hurricane coming into the Sound like Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012!!!! Save the waterfront!!! for everybody!!!!! make it a Park!!!!

  7. Peter Franz

    These are clearly beautiful designs that will enhance the area. Not sure why this is being missed. This will benefit surrounding property values not hurt them. Plus, as mentioned, this is adding buildings where they belong: near areas of mass transportation. We need more of this: smart architecture and civic design that includes better walking and cycling infrastructure.

  8. David Rysz

    So. I have read all the comments and would like to add mine.
    The tidal pond behind the existing bank branch building was dredged several years ago with great gnashing of teeth as it had been the depository for chemical waste from the hat making business in East Norwalk. Special efforts were required to mitigate the pollution found in the soil above and below the water.
    After the dredging, plants were placed to help keep the chemical waste from entering the East end of the Norwalk Harbor as well as “channels for the water to follow” to keep the sound clean.
    Now we are looking to build in and on soil that has been “capped” by the bank and parking lot for as long as I can remember. We are going to expose, move and disturb that material without any evaluation?
    Norwalk was a second sister to Danbury in the hatting industry and the East Norwalk “Hat Factory” was a major player. Many generations of Norwalk’s folks worked there and some became “Mad Hatters”.
    The pollutants in the soil should be evaluated and at a minimum mitigated. Harbor Commission?
    Thanks for letting me comment. Sometimes History is important.

  9. Bryant Hinnant

    Don’t expect the DEP to do much if the original problem was ‘solved’ by placing an impervious cap on the dirt. DEP is concerned in situations like these that a child could eat contaminated soil, hence the requirement to cap the soil. Unless a lender requires an EPA Phase 1 or 2 survey, and unless that shows traces of benzene and other carcinogens or harmful substances greater than the EPA threshold, nothing from the environmental issue mentioned will likely transpire to affect the project. Even then the only remedial solution would be to manage the soil being removed, as the property would again be capped by the building and any paved parking lots. Mercury (used in the hat industry) has different life cycles and may not be significantly present in that soil any longer; mercury technically doesn’t completely degrade, it just moves to different areas, such as from soil to water.

  10. Mimi Chang

    Noteworthy is that Ben Hanpeter, one of two city officials speaking in favor of the Cemetery Street/Mill Pond application on Wednesday night, didn’t introduce himself as a Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals appointee since 2/14/2023. My understanding is that he violated Connecticut General Statute § 7-148t as an appointee to a land use board speaking publicly and favorably on a land use application, presenting an obvious conflict of interest. He exhibited inability to remain impartial and arguably should be recused from having anything to do with the application as a Zoning Board of Appeals appointee. Stakeholders were only made aware of Ben’s appointment when a speaker brought it to their attention, and an audible gasp was heard from the audience. Maybe NoN could follow up with Steve Kleppin and Mayor Rilling as to why a land use appointee was permitted to publicly speak with bias on a controversial application.

    Councilmember Nora Niedzielski-Eichner recently commented that Mayor Rilling appoints individuals to boards and commissions with consideration that their
    skillsets are befitting of appointments sought, which doesn’t seem to be the case currently with land use boards and commissions. What uniquely qualifies Ben Hanpeter to be appointed to Norwalk’s Zoning Board of Appeals, other than he’s one of a few East Norwalk stakeholders in a sea of several hundred who spoke publicly multiple times in favor of Steve Kleppin’s 1,200 apartment unit EVTZ density agenda, and he is one of a few who spoke in favor of the Cemetery Street/Mill Pond application in its current form. He showed his hand, therefore, he cannot be objective with regard to this application as a land use appointee. Similarly, P&Z Commissioner Ana Tabachnek, who shared that Steve Kleppin personally sought her out to be an appointee in January, stood out prominently over the years in public comments as commending Steve Kleppin’s density agenda. Ana, like Ben, was never critical of the EVTZ zoning amendments, the excessive apartment unit projection, the broadly rejected amenities bonus points system, traffic congestion issues and flawed traffic analysis by the go to traffic consultant, or inadequate parking requirements which will create spillover onto residential side streets. Ana and Ben were agreeable to what the vast majority of East Norwalk stakeholders staunchly opposed; overwhelmingly critical comments at both public hearings on the application underscore majority opposition. No coincidence here. Steve Kleppin stacking the deck and handpicking appointees with bias to advance his agenda is a glaring ethical issue which perhaps NoN can shine a light on.

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