NORWALK, Conn. – Optimism was the key word uttered Friday for a group of movers and shakers tasked with rejuvenating South Norwalk, or SoNo.
Former Mayor Bill Collins, chairman of Mayor Harry Rilling’s SoNo Task Force, opened the meeting held on the second floor of the South Norwalk Library with an announcement that it would now be called the “SoNo Comeback Task Force.” Reports followed on lighting in the area, garbage pickups and promising developments, with a theme being stressed over and over: Things are not as bad as they might look, even with vacant storefronts dotting the landscape and a series of high profile exits of long- term businesses.
“I am more optimistic about the potential of this neighborhood now than I have been in a number of years. It’s partly because that issues are being positively addressed,” architect Bruce Beinfield said, referring to the imminent influx of residents into the nearly complete Ironworks Sono on the corner of North Water Street and Washington Street, and the expected construction of “The Pearl” at 99 Washington St.
That will build “more of a core in here,” he said, with $50 million of new parking situated in the middle of an area with a “very successful movie theater,” a “very successful aquarium,” and a railroad station.
Beinfield said the commercial area of the new development will feature a market similar to the one SoNo Marketplace had, with vendors in stalls.
“That is the perfect place for that to happen in terms of connecting between the Maritime Aquarium and Washington Street. So there will be a potential draw as soon as this summer at that location,” he said.
The new development will have a courtyard with a beer garden, he said.
“It will, in fact, give people a reason to check out SoNo again, even if they have written it off in the past. There will be enough going on for them to give the area another chance,” he said.
Collins said the promising new developments include a proposal, mentioned recently by Rilling, to have jazz concerts throughout the summer.
A location is not set, but the person who called Rilling is working with Parks and Recreation Department Director Mike Mocciae to figure out the details, Collins said.
“This is just out of the blue. Nothing that any of us had gone out and sought, but this fellow is proposing it on his own buck. So we’ll follow up with it, but it’s what happens,” Collins said. “I noticed it about a century ago when we first started SoNo. Very creative, good citizens came out of the woodwork to do things. They wanted to make suggestions, they wanted to help. That was a very important part of getting things off the ground.”
“In my experience in SoNo, the positive things happen when there are opportunities that present themselves that are then followed up on,” Beinfield said.
While Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) cautioned against allowing gentrification to push the current residents of South Norwalk out, Beinfield found plenty of support for his positive opinion.
“The truth of the matter is that it’s not a neighborhood in distress,” Tom Rich of F.D. Rich said. “The neighborhood is a lot more successful, as I am sure you would agree, than the press will give it credit for. Neighborhoods have ebbs and flows. They have tenants that move in and move out. Some tenants have long runs, some tenants have short runs. We happen to only have really two vacancies in our whole portfolio right now. This snapshot right now looks like there are a lot of vacancies – you know, Caffeine Connection moves out so all of a sudden SoNo is failing. It’s far from that.”
F.D. Rich is about to sign a lease with a new occupant for the space formerly occupied by Shangai restaurant, who will also offer Asian cuisine, he said. Bacchus will reopen, he said. Nola, the restaurant on the corner of Washington and South Main Street, is remodeling, he said.
A sign on the former Bacchus advertises “Arnies,” a “New and Exciting Concept Coming to Sono!” and “fun, food and wine.” Nola will become Local, another source said.
“One tenant may be moving; we have replacement already,” Rich said. “So my report is that my portfolio is healthy. The strong survive. It’s the same anywhere. Caffeine Connection, in my view, and I am not afraid to say it, didn’t have a good product. They limped along for a long time without a good product. They eventually went out.”