SoNo task force debates South Norwalk mall concept

NORWALK, Conn. – If you want to get a feeling for what the would-be mall in South Norwalk would be like, take a trip to White Plans, one member of the SoNo Comeback Task Force suggests.

Another thinks that if General Growth Properties (GGP), the current owner of the former 95/7 site on West Avenue at the intersection with I-95, sold the air rights above the current mall concept to be used for another purpose, it would be a home run for the city.  

“It would be a far more compelling concept and far more beneficial to SoNo,” said Steven Semaya.

The discussion about GGP’s hoped for mall came at the end of Tuesday’s task force meeting, as chairman and former Mayor Bill Collins first asked if anyone was interested in having GGP make a presentation to the task force, then suggested that members go and see other area malls to “get the lay of the land.”

Collins said he had been to the malls in Danbury, Stamford and Trumbull “to see how things are going.” Bill Finger said that the Westchester Mall in White Plains is much more akin to what GGP would do if it’s allowed to build a mall in SoNo.

While the Stamford Mall is a big fortress, the Westchester Mall has store fronts on the street, Finger said. The level of the tenants and the customers that are targeted are about the same as well, he said.

The SoNo mall would be about two-thirds the size of the Westchester Mall, Finger said. Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan confirmed that, saying that the Westchester Mall is about 900,000 square feet while GGP’s concept is for 600,000 square feet.

While some people question the size of the GGP mall and how it fits into the surroundings, under the current Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) the company has the right to go one story higher than it is proposing. Semaya suggested that space could be used for offices or residences.

Sheehan said that, while the vast majority of GGP’s portfolio is malls, it has integrated hotels into development projects and does own some office buildings.

“I don’t think it’s infeasible for them to consider, just from a design standpoint,” Sheehan said. “The question becomes does it meet the project viability economically, to be incorporated into the overall development?”

Bruce Beinfield at first asked if the “pros and/or cons of the GGP proposal” was something the task force wanted to take on.

Collins said the group has no written mandate.

“We haven’t assigned anybody that portfolio, obviously, but it’s sort of like the elephant in the middle of the room and a little hard to ignore. … We all have feelings and we all have observations. I don’t think there’s any avoiding making it part of our discussion, but I don’t know whether we have any particular mission to accomplish,” Collins said.

Finger said the mall would unquestionably have an impact on South Norwalk. “I happen to think positive,” he said.

Beinfield, who is associated with Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, which is currently working with GGP to promote its mall concept, said, “I agree that it will have an impact and because the business district in South Norwalk is primarily oriented to food and restaurants I think that having uses there that would collaterally support those uses would be very positive. If the competition to those uses could be limited I think that would be positive in the neighborhood. I think that the greater transportation from the mall to Washington Street, if that could be initiated, that that would be positive.”

He referred to the effort to form a SoNo Special Services District, a quasi-governmental body that would tax SoNo commercial property owners in exchange for improving the business climate, an idea that has been percolating for months.

“I think that if there is a Special Services district being formed, if (GGP) could be asked to contribute dollars, I think that funding would be perhaps more practical and potentially more important than forcing them to go into businesses that they wouldn’t normally want to be in,” Beinfield said. “Because while the idea of air rights to office space is appealing on some level, it also takes a good deal of infrastructure in the way of additional parking to support that. I think that it’s sometimes dangerous to make people do things that they don’t want to do organically and naturally in order to gain the entitlements that they are looking for, and where the exchange of dollars might be a simpler way of getting a meaningful contribution from this new entity in the community that would support a lot of the other initiatives that have been discussed.”

“We seem to be very willing to talk about a mall even if it isn’t in our mission statement; it seems to be vitally important,” Collins said.

After the meeting, Semaya stood behind his “air rights” idea.

“If they were to have a second purpose for all that air it would be a home run,” Semaya said. “To just do what they’re doing might be very good and it might not, but I can’t tell and I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of the project because I think it could help the neighborhood. But if there were a second purpose which brought a lot more population living or working in the area, I think it’s a grand slam. That’s for sure.”


27 responses to “SoNo task force debates South Norwalk mall concept”

  1. Jeff

    Wake up! We’re in a new century. This is a poor idea and almost ensures SONO’s decline by propagating low income jobs, more traffic congestion and stagnating property values . . . It’s hard to believe we’re entertaining business concepts that were popular in the 70s and 80s. Shopping malls are in decline and there are already too many in the area. Why not start a task force to target corporations to relocate their headquarters at that space and transition it to a corporate park? Yes, a bottom up approach. Let the town secure the leases then and have the corporations build their headquarters there. It’s time to diversify away from housing and retail.

  2. Suzanne

    “I think that it’s sometimes dangerous to make people do things that they don’t want to do organically and naturally in order to gain the entitlements that they are looking for, and where the exchange of dollars might be a simpler way of getting a meaningful contribution from this new entity in the community that would support a lot of the other initiatives that have been discussed.” Bruce Beinfield
    WHAT? Someone please translate.
    One question: How does this concept in anyway connect to an overall urban plan for Norwalk? Or, is Norwalk supposed to adapt to it? Do we really want to be selling air rights? How high, how much? (OK. That was at least four questions.)

  3. EDR

    Target corporations to relocate to Norwalk? Talk about a very 1970s concept. Connecticut has nothing to offer but state tax credits and when they expire companies either negotiate for more or they leave. Is that a sustainable business model? I guess if you are a politician looking for votes.

    Office construction is at the lowest level it has been in a generation for a lot of reasons that folks commenting on this blog have failed to mention or at the least understand. Office rents are at the same level they were 25 years ago.The region has inventory that either needs to be repurposed or torn down because of functional obsolescence. And demand is horrible because of poor job growth and the role technology plays in new office planning.

    Let’s stop with the naive belief that offices are the highest and best use for 95/7. It is not true and it probably never was given the dynamics of the office market.

    Norwalk has a great office park in Merritt 7- let’s not canibalize that. We have had tremendous Multifamily growth. Let’s support that. The 95/7 mall makes a lot of sense if folks step back and look at it in the context of a city. Connect it to the fabric and it will work.

  4. Jeff

    Have you heard of Ebay, Amazon . . . really a mall? I couldn’t disagree more. You raise a good point though in the fact that most office complexes are obsolete and energy inefficient and would be looking to build from anew. Also, timing would be optimal with Tom Foley (being our next likely governor as most of the polls are leading us to believe)who is all too familiar with the policies that have stifled business from relocating and staying headquartered in CT.

  5. anon

    Good idea here from this article, “greater transportation from the mall to Washington Street, if that could be initiated, that that would be positive.” Get GGP to help develop and fund infrastructure improvements that add value to SoNo as well as the GGP plan, the kind of improvements Norwalk couldn’t do on its own, without raises taxes that is.

  6. EveT

    A shuttle bus between the proposed mall and other SoNo destinations sounds nice, but who’s going to to pay for it, not just the first year or two but on an ongoing basis?
    Speaking of buses, I’d like to see a news article about bus transportation in Norwalk. We have the massive fleet of Wheels buses which run almost empty. Then the so-called commuter shuttles which serve only Merritt 7/Glover and Norwalk Hospital/Belden Ave, running only during morning & evening rush and only to & from the South Nwk train station. Oh, and no public restroom at the Burnell Blvd bus hub.
    If you are too poor to own a car, or you have impairments that make you unable to drive, or your car is in the shop, you’re mostly out of luck.

  7. Michael McGuire

    GGP’s 95/7 coupled to an attractive, coordinated circulator trolley bus tying in SoNo AND Wall Street to 95/7 would be a world class development. Each piece supports the other. The result would significantly boost SoNo’s retail dining business and result in significant job growth as small businesses, of all types, are attracted to the SoNo-Wall Street corridor.

    The results would be studied far and wide for its innovative use of a significant destination retail format to tie together disparate sections of an quasi-urbanized core. Make Norwalk attractive and businesses of all types (except large corporate office)will come. The formula is straightforward . What makes and attractive area attractive? Simple, by being attractive.

    Think outside the box – SoNo to Wall Street anchored by 95/7 is the mixed use development everyone seems to want. The reason many people don’t see that is because most of it is already here.

  8. Mike Mushak

    I pretty much agree with everything everybody said above, except for Jeff. Sorry Jeff!

  9. One and Done.

    When will the mayor lead instead of outsourcing his responsibilities to task forces that have no binding authority whatsoever? The former mayor admits there isn’t even a written mandate. The city needs leadership badly not speeches about the obvious.

  10. Suzanne

    Words are fine but a picture tells a thousand words. Promo guy Michael McGuire greatly influenced, apparently, by GGP, please demonstrate how your words are really going to work. I am SO not convinced.

  11. Taxpayer Fatigue

    @One and Done: The mayor needs task forces to get citizen’s input since the Planning and Zoning Commissions aren’t doing their jobs. When we have actual functioning Planning and Zoning Commissions, and to a lesser extent, the Redevelopment Commission, the task forces won’t be needed anymore. It takes four years for the mayor to replace the non-functioning commissioners under our city code.

  12. One and Done.

    @TF. You mean the P&Z and RDA functions that report to him?

    The task forces give Harry a layer to obfuscate his responsibilities and is an admission that he can’t handle the duties of the office. The office that he wanted by the way.

  13. @suzanne – more to the point, why would it not? Should we continue on with nothing? Development was tried and failed for over a decade on this site for a host of other uses.

    Promo man I’m not. I just reflect what 30 years of commercial real estate analysis empirically shows. My earlier posts on this topic cover most of the reasons why this would work. However I’ve yet to hear a reasonable argument as to why it won’t. Arguments calling for the death of malls and retail in general can’t really be taken seriously. Likewise the assumption that this will be like the malls we grew up with needs to be checked at the gate.

    Clearly the thousands of savvy investors who place money with GGP collectively might know a bit more than the Norwalk naysayers.

  14. Jeff

    @Mike. I’m not sure what kind of kool aid is being served at the task force meetings but General Growth Properties filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008 and those “savvy investors” were within a stone’s throw of all being wiped out. Please elaborate, what does 30 years of commercial real estate show and why can’t the death of malls be taken seriously when industry experts are predicting that 50% of the shopping malls won’t be around in the next 15-20 years? Then what?

  15. Suzanne

    That may be true, Mr. McGuire, but you are forgetting that those Norwalk naysayers are part of the community.
    And typical of Planning and Zoning and RDA, there will be little listening to the citizens who object to this mall model that is truly dying across the United States. Please see the following references. They are well-referenced and from reputable sources. I am not including the report from CBS, already copied on other threads extensively.
    Why should we trust GGP and their vision for Norwalk?
    General Growth Properties, GGP -0.25% which owns more than 200 U.S. malls, filed for bankruptcy protection April 16, due mainly to its failure to refinance billions of dollars of debt coming due. While the real-estate investment trust has said the filing will have no impact on its mall business, analysts say a prolonged bankruptcy proceeding could make retailers nervous about sticking around once their leases expire. (from WSJ online, admittedly 2009 but has the economy recovered so much that GGP can say it will continue to be successful with no retail fleeing after initial leases are up?)
    This isn’t naysaying, this is deep concern for Norwalk’s future. Retrofitted malls that include truly useful amenities to the community such as day care centers, grocery stores and the like with open air architecture (including in heavy winter cities) are what is gaining ground according to the articles I have read.
    I have no reason to distrust articles from reputable sources who have no stake in the outcome of those malls. I do, however, have a keen mistrust of those who seem so heavily invested in putting this type of mall, in decline everywhere, on a piece of land so apparently valuable to Fairfield County and, as was said by others, the Eastern Seaboard. I do not believe just anything should be placed on this land to “settle” as opposed to making Norwalk a truly successful urban area.

  16. John

    Were you folks awake during 2008? Perhaps you’ll recall that the global financial markets were in free-fall? This period ranks among the most horrific in U.S. financial market history. Tons of great companies collapsed and lots of hard-working people lost their jobs including me and my parents. The companies that emerged and thrived (like GGP) did so because the investment community believes in them.

  17. Suzanne

    What the investment community believes in should not trump what the community wants or needs. My family too was affected by the financial downtown and we too lost our jobs. This has nothing to do with what GGP plans for Norwalk.

  18. Michael McGuire

    @ Suzanne – Those who support this mall live and work in Norwalk as well.

    All the articles you site, these included, state the same thing – the “failing” malls are in lower-income areas, are obsolete and have falling sales due to declining demographics in their specific area. That’s a fact of commercial real estate “life”. All neighborhoods have a life cycle and all properties do as well – this proposed mall, my office building, your house, etc. will all be obsolete someday. How about focusing on the productive portion of a property’s lifecycle?

    The articles also states that well located, high end malls do very well. 95/7 is located in an area that would support a thriving mall – we have excellent demographics, high incomes, huge barriers to entry, and arguably some of the lowest retail square footage per capita of anywhere is the US.

    My earlier posts on this topic cover all the negative issues you site. I pulled that information from industry specific sources and local information on our specific markets, not news articles written by generalists. All real estate is local – you need to take a deeper dive into the information and compare that with what is being proposed by GGP.

    Like you I’m invested in Norwalk’s future. I came here in 1998 expecting great things only to watch the dysfunctional system dither away opportunities to make Norwalk a great place of live and work. I’m hoping the seeds of change have been sewn but that’s a different topic.

    When finally a real prospect shows up with cash in hand and the wherewithal to make something truly remarkable happen you can bet I’ll be supportive of it. Are there other iterations that could be successful – maybe, but it would take years to find out. Most have been tried and failed.

    I challenge you, or anyone, to find a better use. If you can I’ll support that. In the interim we should focus on working with GGP to incorporate the larger area (SoNo-Wall) to make a better, more prosperous, and attractive Norwalk.

  19. Michael McGuire

    @Jeff – 30 years of commercial real estate is my background in the commercial real estate industry as an appraiser, corporate real estate consultant, developer, investor, and advisor. My livelihood requires me to track the changes effecting the industry, why they are happening, and what is the likely outcome.

    So to address the 50% gone in 20-30 years here is my response. 20-30 years is roughly 1/2 the life of a commercial property assuming no upgrades or major repairs etc. This is particularly true for special use properties such as a mall.

    To say that 50% wont be around in 20-30 years makes sense since most malls were built pre-1990 making most malls older than 25 years as of today. Add the mid-point of 20-30 years, or 25 years to the current mall age of 25 years = 50 years or older.

    Since you can’t move a mall but you can move people, and stats show a move back to the Cities with concentrations of wealth to the seaboards and major cities. Is it any wonder that lots of malls in the once thriving rust belt, Midwest, and less developed areas of the southeast have fallen on hard times. This fact is not in dispute.

    I agree that malls older than 50 years are likely great candidates for repositioning/recycling/demolition/etc(see my comment to Suzanne regarding life cycles).

    But I would bet that 99% of each and every one of those malls had a very productive part of their lifecycle. Right up to the point where either they were out-positioned by newer product, or had a decline in the local supporting demographics. It don’t see those issues as a factor to effect 95/7 in any foreseeable future.

    Finally, @John’s comments on the bankruptcy issue pretty much sums it up.

  20. Suzanne

    “How about focusing on the productive portion of a property’s lifecycle?” So Norwalk is now building for a “high end demographic” (where?) and a “lifecycle” of 25-50 years depending upon how you look at it. This means that, in order to realize this mall, we are building a ruin or expensive re-imagining for our children’s future. In addition, your idea of where people will choose to live and how is pure speculation.
    There is Trumbull Mall, Danbury Mall and Stamford Mall. There are big box stores lining Route 1 in Norwalk as well as high end stores in New Canaan, Greenwich, Darien and Westport. There is plenty of shopping – and no demonstrable need for anymore (show me that statistic and I will start to believe this might be good for Norwalk.) The Internet takes up roughly six percent of shopping needs and is growing. So between what is already here and what is available on line, all of your industrial real estate knowledge does not seem to apply.
    There are filters people place on their opinions and on statistics when they are in the business they are in. Just like I have found numerous generalists who have a point of view, so have you represented the point of view of your industry. Generalists have no such buy in and are paid to do research at a neutral level:
    Retailers in Malls are failing. Malls like the one proposed are not being built – in the ENTIRE United States because they are dying. Not speculation, not a filer, but neutral reporting and research by a number of respected journals.
    This Mall is not a good bet for Norwalk just like more office space is not. If what is successful in America in terms of Malls, again without filters but from those researched reporters out there, are the retrofits that include multi-use elements and are open walking malls (as so prominently featured on GGP’s WEB site.) This is the retro “big-ugly box”, dressed up to look expensive for a demographic that does not exist or is hoped to exist at some point in the future with a life cycle of, what was it 25-50 years?

  21. Taxpayer Fatigue

    @One and Done: Go read the city code and look at the org charts. The P&Z director reports to the Zoning Commissions and only they can hire/fire the position. Amazing how ignorant people are of the structure of our government. The only way the Mayor can influence is when they are in long enough to get his own appointees in the majority of the Commissions. That takes four years.

  22. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    It seems none of those who have been tooting their horns in favor of adding a glitzy mall to the 95/7 property have been reading the financial times lately. To add to Suzanne’s cogent list of links and opinions about the fading future of malls, please all of you take note of the frenzy of recent activity on Wall Street about ALIBABA. If not, let me tell you by cutting and pasting the following from several sites with sharp eyes on the future of “shopping” worldwide.
    “So, what exactly is Alibaba? It is the biggest I.P.O. (Initial Public Offering) ever in the United States? Known as the Chinese e-Bay, Alibaba is the world’s biggest e-commerce business.
    The group has three major websites- Taobao, Tmall and Alibaba.com- which operate as a selling platform for consumers and businesses. Overall, the group handled $248 billion in transactions last year- that’s more than eBay and Amazon combined.
    Alibaba is already the world’s largest Internet commerce company, with 231 million active buyers using its site, 11.3 billion annual orders and $296 billion in annual merchandise sales, a measure Alibaba uses instead of revenue.To put this in perspective, Amazon has less than $82 billion in revenue. EBay has just over $17 billion.
    But what excites Alibaba’s potential investors isn’t only its size, but its prospects for getting bigger. China currently has 302 million Internet shoppers. That’s less than half the country’s 618 million Internet users. And Internet penetration in China is less than half the country’s population of about 1.35 billion. Competition from brick-and-mortar retailers in China is far less than in the United States, which should also drive increases in Internet shopping.
    None of this bodes well for the future of Malls.

  23. EastNorwalkChick

    If Malls are on there way out, then why is it that when I go to the Danbury Mall it’s always packed, weekdays or weekends. What makes them a viable mall as compared to the Stamford Mall which seems to be like a ghost town now? Demographics? Income levels? They do seem to get a lot of NY State crossovers.
    I’m in favor of a mall, but not with the existing glass behemoth design that they have presented, and especially not if it’s going to be like the Westchester Mall with it’s high end retailers that very few can afford.
    Why shop in Norwalk with the unwashed masses, when just down I95 they could stroll Greenwich Ave. in comfort with their own at the same or similar stores….

  24. Jeff

    @Suzanne & RLF. Well stated! It’s refreshing to see such cogent thoughts.

  25. Suzanne

    The malls often referred to in articles about the “Death of Malls” are part of a photography exhibit that has traveled the States both on and off the Internet: they are Randall Park Mall located in North Randall Ohio and Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, OH. And, yes, these represent a part of the “Rust Belt” demographics that would put Malls out of business.

    However, what does this have to do with, for example, Palm Springs, San Mateo, CA, Scottsdale, AZ and West Hills, CA, as well as Westminster Mall, a suburb of Denver, all well-to-do areas with malls that were either destroyed, abandoned or repurposed (some to office space, in part, oh no!)

    How packed will Danbury Mall be if another Mall like it is added to the landscape? (Please see reference below as to how this adds to Mall failure.) And what about all of those high end stores on New Canaan, Darien, Westport and Greenwich Main Streets? Is this Mall’s purpose to put these main street businesses out of business?
    BuzzFeed has an excellent portrait gallery of abandoned Malls. It also has a US map showing how many Malls have either gone out of business or on their way out.
    The New Yorker on Mall futures:
    CNN Money on the Death of Malls and the Mall style that works (hint: it is not the big-box covered Mall planned for Norwalk.)
    CBS News on what low Mall attendance is doing to restaurants and stores.
    Yet another article from Online WSJ. http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB124294047987244803
    “Failing malls didn’t get into trouble overnight, and most began their descent long before the tough climate. Typically, a mall begins to suffer due to job losses and other pressures in the surrounding neighborhood or because a newer mall opens nearby.”
    (Hello Danbury and Stamford!)
    It goes on to say:
    “Developers, in fact, have been moving away from the enclosed-mall format in favor of big-box centers anchored by free-standing giants such as Wal-Mart or open-air shopping centers with tiny parks and outdoor cafes sprinkled among fashion stores. Only one enclosed mall has opened in the U.S. since 2006: The Mall at Turtle Creek in Jonesboro, Ark.”
    What has appreciably changed in our economy, in Norwalk’s economy, since 2009 to support the vision of the proposed Mall as opposed to the several sources above talking about the Mall’s demise? To anticipate high end demographics as a marker for a Mall’s success in Norwalk is, well, just mind blowing. Are we to expect that, as one of the GGP presenters stated, wealthy New Yorkers will be using the train station and shuttles to shop here? Hint: New York does not need Malls nor more places to shop. It already has plenty.
    At the very least, if a Mall must go in Norwalk at all, GGP should be planning on the Mall model that works, like the configurations cited above, and which figure prominently on their WEB site. Anything else will not only short change Norwalk but will leave our children with a hulk of a building to somehow adapt, re-use or destroy at incredible cost.
    Are we willing to spend our tax dollars (and it does come down to us, not just GGP) on a Mall hulk today to bend and break the backs of the taxpayer a generation from now? I am only one, just like Mr. McGuire or RLF, Jeff, Taxpayer Fatigue, Eve or John: but, frankly, I don’t want to be the ONE taxpayer that says what GGP is planning is OK for now or for our children’s future.

  26. Jen

    Something outdoors would be preferable over a dated enclosed mall. Evergreen Walk in S. Windsor is a good example. Also more emphasis on housing with the right kind of shops to support the community.

  27. Amanda

    @ Jen,agree. The idea of an enclosed mall in that space is awful. Norwalk should take a cue from Harbor Point in Stamford who is doing a very successful job of revamping the South End. Building a mall in Sono is NOT the answer. Oy.

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