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SoNo developer given green light to move ‘affordable’ units off-site

Clayton Fowler of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, left, listens as Rich Redniss speaks on his behalf at Wednesday’s Norwalk Zoning Commission public hearing on the 20 North Water St. development.

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – Impassioned speeches and detailed arguments of protest failed to persuade a majority of Norwalk zoning commissioners Wednesday evening, allowing a long-time Norwalk developer to move affordable housing units out of his project.

Although the plans approved for 20 North Water St. in February provided 11 affordable (workforce) housing units at the site, the plan now is to have only four affordable housing units there, where tenants will enjoy fabulous luxuries that include a movie theater onsite. Others will be at 50 Connecticut Ave., a building already occupied by a racially diverse group of workers.

The commission voted 4-3 to approve a compromise amendment proposed and written during the public hearing by Commissioner Adam Blank: Spinnaker will provide a 12th affordable housing unit offsite, if it successfully closes on a studio apartment it has under contract, and will move two of the affordable units now slated for Connecticut Avenue to another location before it is given a final certificate of occupancy.

Commissioners Harry Rilling, Mike Mushak and Nathan Sumpter voted against the compromise. Joe Santo, Emily Wilson, Jill Jacobsen and Blank voted for it.

Richard Redniss of Redniss and Mead Inc., a certified planner, spoke on behalf of Spinnaker, explaining the financial reasons the company wanted to change its plan. Costs had gone up significantly, he said. That included $300,000 for piles due to poor soil conditions and $250,000 more than what was budgeted for siding. The Second Taxing District expects Spinnaker to pay for electrical improvements in the area, a cost of $186,075, he said. Parking equipment is $150,000 more than expected.

Ths costs have gone up $1.5 million in a 100-unit project, he said, “so it’s a significant amount per unit. You’re not going to get the return on that, because the market is what it is.”

The company is seeking a bank loan of $22.6 million and the numbers need to add up, he said. Quick action was needed for the project to move ahead, he said.

“They can’t complete this process until they pin down what is happening with these units,” he said.

As proof that the company is serious in its plan to build, he offered this factoid: About $1.7 million of concrete has been ordered for the parking garage. “They are very serious about getting this project off of the ground,” he said.

Ed Musante, president of the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, was the only person to speak for the project in the public speaking portion of the hearing.

“This project does a number of things,” he said. “… It pumps money immediately into the economy. It adds to critical mass in the neighborhood, making it more desirable. This is a project that will help expand the offerings in the area. The more people you have on the streets, the more economic activity.”

Others questioned the numbers presented, and the honesty of the application.

Diane Witkowski said the $500,000 Spinnaker received from the Department of Economic and Community Development had not been mentioned in the calculations presented in a Nov. 27 letter to the commission.

“Spinnaker has been in business for a long time,” said Courtenay Austin. “They should know what their costs are going to be. $1 million seems excessive. It looks to me that we may wind up with another bomb site.”

Diane Lauricella seconded that thought. While Spinnaker claims that environmental costs are higher than expected, Lauricella said the previous owner of the property had done studies and an experienced developer such as Spinnaker should have known what it was in for.

Others complained of racial discrimination.

“You’re running all the minority out of here. It’s bad what’s going on,” John Mosby said. “If you don’t stop it we’re gonna bring this lawsuit.”

“All we are doing is moving people from one side of the city to another,” said Corrine Weston of the Sono Alliance.

“Norwalk has a rough edge, which is good,” said Mary Teresa “Missy” Conrad, who said she came to Norwalk for its diversity.

Bobby Burgess reminded commissioners of the NAACP lawsuit the city lost regarding affordable housing.

“Turn the application down,” he said. “I think it violates the consent decree.”

Others said the company should eliminate some of the amenities planned for the property rather than moving people offsite, while former District A Common Council member Rich Bonenfant saw an institutional problem at work. “In the long run I’d like to discourage the practice of offloading problems to other districts and other neighborhoods,” he said.

Sumpter warned of the consequences of allowing Spinnaker to make the change. “I do not want to set a precedent that allows developers to continue to come before this commission, say one thing and then do something else,” he said. “If we do it for one developer it means we are opening the floodgates to other developers to do it.”

Comments

13 responses to “SoNo developer given green light to move ‘affordable’ units off-site”

  1. Oldtimer

    In the end, money is the answer. Fowler wanting to maximize his profit is not a bad thing. The City granting a permit with certain conditions and then changing the conditions when the developer finds a way to make a little more is a bad thing, and will lead to similar situations. The apartments at 50 Ct Ave have been there for many years as workforce housing, and Fowler has avoided the expense of building new workforce housing, a requirement in his permit.

  2. Diane C2

    He cried financial hardship, but spent $2.8 million to buy the property at Connecticut Ave to dump the units in (which already exist, no matter whose math and logic you use).

  3. jackie lightfield

    I’m not quite sure why certain people who seem interested in the issue of affordable housing are crying foul about a regulation that was enacted in 2007 and which has delivered additional affordable housing units despite much opposition to the creation of those units along the way. Remember 80 Fair Street?

    The site location of 50 Connecticut Ave. has a walkable index of 82, is on a major public transportation route, and is within walking distance of grocery stores. Why would draw so much ire?

    The Norwalk Hospital, also within walking distance, is a major employer, and by ensuring that affordable housing is nearby, the objective of the workforce housing regulation is being met. The fact is, Norwalk needs more, not less housing units, affordable and market rate. If Connecticut and Norwalk are to grow, employers need to be able to count on policies that are designed to increase affordability not just by housing cost alone.

    1. Oldtimer

      Jackie
      You do know he isn’t building anything at 50 Conn, Ave ? The units have been there for years as affordable housing. He just wants to take credit for some of them as being the units he promised to build at 20 North Main. Essentially, apartments that have been part of the City’s affordable housing stock will be counted twice to make it look like he is adding 11 units when he is only adding 3.

      1. jackie lightfield

        Yes I do, but the workforce housing regulation was designed to maintain and increase the units counted by the state as affordable, not “build” new units. The state only counts deed restricted units, thus buying existing housing units and designating as affordable in fact increases the number of units Norwalk as a city is credited to having.

        1. LWitherspoon

          Jackie, thank you for sharing your knowledge of the workforce housing rules.

          What rules apply to units once they are deed restricted? Must they be rented below market rates in perpetuity?

          1. jackie lightfield

            A deed restricted unit will in perpetuity either rent to a renter that qualifies as having an income less than the designated area mean income, or is sold to a person with an income less than the designated (ami) and can only be resold to another person who would similarly qualify.

            Having written and contributed to Norwalk’s workforce housing regulation during my stint on the zoning commission, I find it disheartening that so many people who had plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the regulation itself at the time, are now misinforming the public about what it states.

            Facts and accuracy are important.

  4. Diane C2

    Oldtimer, technically the units aren’t counted in the 10% stock right now, but they are affordable. So, still, he adds nothing.

  5. Diane C2

    @Jackie – can you honestly not understand that the words ‘shall approve’ versus
    ‘may approve’ are significantly different? In the words of Mark Twain on the importance of the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening bug and lightening…..
    That regulation should never have been written in that manner, and shame on zoning staff, commissioners, and yes, us the public, for allowing it to go through.
    I don’t think we should wait for a developer to suggest wording for anything, but that Mr. Greene and Commision Chair Wilson should put this regulation back on the agenda for them and ordinance for reconsideration.

    1. jackie lightfield

      @Diane why do you persist repeating other’s arguments as if you have a stake in how they were crafted? The difference between shall and may in the context of the regulation is irrelevant, the operating principal is that they are required to provide 10% affordable units, onsite, offsite or via a fee in lieu. How they do that is up to them. End of story.

      1. Diane C2

        Jackie, re-read your own regulation.

      2. Diane C2

        “to the maximum extent practicable”

        Alternative Sites
        (1) To the maximum extent practicable, workforce housing units shall be built on the same site as the proposed development, as provided herein. as an alternative, the Commission shall approve the construction or rehabilitation of the required workforce housing units on
        another site, provided that such off-site workforce housing units shall be maintained as affordable in perpetuity in the same manner as on-site workforce housing units and that the originating development site shall not be entitled to any additional on-site units or bonus units due to the relocation of the workforce housing units to an off-site location. Such offsite workforce units shall be completed and possess a final certificate of occupancy prior to the request for a certificate of occupancy for the original on-site units.

        1. jackie lightfield

          @Diane your point? Read the next line. This is why lawyers go to law school.

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