South Norwalk business owner blames parking, too many restaurants for closing

John Deorio South Norwalk Sassafras 024
John Deorio enjoys one of his last days as proprietor of Sassafras, a South Norwalk fixture for 29 years.

NORWALK, Conn. – John Deorio’s South Norwalk store is still open but it won’t be for long.

Sassafras, which opened while half of Washington Street was still under reconstruction 29 years ago, is closing within days, a victim of “the evolution of decisions and how they brought us to where we are,” Deorio said.

Deorio had planned to close June 30 but is hanging in for maybe another week, selling glittery Christmas ornaments and colorful Halloween decorations while soft melodic music plays throughout the tourist-oriented store.

You might think he’s closing because of the economy, but Deorio cites two other prime factors – the mix of restaurants to retail stores is way off, he said, and the parking enforcement is too aggressive.

“Parking as a commodity became less of a city-offered amenity and more of a commodity to be exploited, essentially to make money off of,” he said.

With 16 restaurants between the Stroffolino Bridge and the railroad trestle at Washington and Main Streets, there aren’t enough stores to bring people in, he said. Most of those restaurants don’t serve lunch Monday through Thursday, meaning that people shopping can’t grab a bite to eat, making the stores less appealing, he said.

“By virtue of the fact of its longevity down here, at some point a space would open to sell food, and the city would give a variance,” he said. “And before you knew it there was real big (shift) … less retail. That became a little bit of a tipping point.”

The tipping point in that downward spiral happened about 10 years ago, he said.

Many of the surrounding towns have a good mix of retail to restaurants, with municipal lots offering free or reduced fee parking, he said. Not so South Norwalk.

“I feel the place is swarming with meter people,” he said. “They’re always down here. You add to that the new construction that’s going on, different areas of the street here, it’s difficult to run a business. Fifteen, 20 years ago there was a better mix, parking enforcement wasn’t so difficult, the economy was better down here.”

Mona Aboueofatoh, who works at And Co. Inc. just down the street from Sassafras, agreed about the mix of retail to restaurants. But she said the economy is a major problem, as since 2007 it “went down, down, down, and then it gets harder, harder and harder.”

Deorio agreed the economy is a “big drag.”

But life is good at Pelligrini Jewelers, across the street.

“I have no complaints about it,” Larry Pellegrini said. “My business is OK. We’ve been here 62 years. Maybe for his business it’s not conducive. Each business is different.”

Parking is a problem in that it’s non-existent, he said. The lots are full, he said, but he’s optimistic with a parking garage being constructed by Spinnaker Partners at the 20 North Water St. development and the stacked parking planned for 99 Washington St.

“It will relieve a lot of the parking,” he said. The additional residents those projects are expected to bring can’t help but bring more business to South Norwalk, he said.

Parking enforcement? Not an issue, he said.

“I talked to one of the gentlemen with the Parking Authority,” he said. “They walk a pattern. … If there’s nobody in violation they just keep walking. If there are, it takes longer to take the walk. If you’re the one to put the money in the meter and they just happen to be walking around, it looks aggressive. But they could have been around half an hour, 45 minutes ago, and nothing was there. Because I see them walk by.”

Deorio thought parking meter readers were using computers to see which meters were expired, and catching people who were only a few minutes over. Not so, said Pelligrini.

“They don’t notify the guy walking that that meter is overtime, run down and give them a ticket,” he said. “That’s what I was told. That would be too much.”

Halloween costumes for sale in the basement at South Norwalk’s Sassafras.

Deorio said he plans to reopen somewhere else in about a year. He’s looking for an area that has the right mix for his store, a place with tourists, history and maybe a waterfront, like Mystic, Newport, R.I. or Salem, Mass.

He plans to put the Christmas decorations up on Washington Street this winter, one last time.

There is one government agency that he wanted to laud.

“I must speak kudos to Norwalk Redevelopment Agency,” he said. “Really did fine things down here by encouraging land owners, property owners to upgrade their facades with a 50-50 grant. That was a good thing to do; they did the planting. … To a large extent, they made this whole thing happen, but then I guess what happens is it gets away from the powers that be and gets to the private sector. Private sector sometimes has their own vested interest.”


11 responses to “South Norwalk business owner blames parking, too many restaurants for closing”

  1. Ken P Jr

    Things change etc. My only comment is I dont think there should be parking meters on a public street. I already pay to park there with my taxes. Unless theres a way to not charge taxpayers the meters should go away. If we need money that bad close up a houseing project, theres something which contributes absolutely nothing but a money drain for the city.

  2. M. Murray’s

    There absolutely is a way. Resident stickers (aka beach stickers) could be displayed and exempt norwalk residents from parking fees

  3. EveT

    We already have the resident passes for beach parking. It would be a boon to businesses if we could use them for parking in metered spaces and pay lots. In my experience, the employees of the Norwalk Parking Authority are rude and unhelpful if you try to ask them a question. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Not to mention the chaotic patchwork of different rates, different methods of payment, and misleading signs at various parking lots around town.

  4. Bryan Meek

    City parks cost $3 million annually to maintain and we spend millions more on capital improvements, so we are in effect paying for the beach etc through involuntary taxes. If you don’t use the beach or other parks, you are still paying for them and don’t have a choice in the matter.

    The parking system costs roughly $5 million annually to maintain including over $1 million in debt service payments for structures like the Maritime Garage.

    Right now there is zero cost to taxpayers and the system has been self sustaining for a number of years. You only pay when you decide to use it. If we were to subsidize this, I would conservatively estimate that it would cost taxpayers at least a few million a year. A careful study would need to be done to anticipate the impact of such a switch. Keep in mind you would be asking taxpayers for these millions against competing interests like the schools, fire, and police.

    Look, no one likes to pay for parking. And even fewer like parking tickets. But the reality is parking ticket issuance is near an all time low and is done not primarily for revenue, but for compliance. If we did not enforce, business owners would have to stare at the same car sitting there all day instead of having customer turnover. If we depended on the city to subsidize, we would not be as flexible to do repairs on the garages and make necessary improvements without going through the full gyrations of the council. Things like the cameras in the train stations that have been helping to catch criminals would not be there. The Haviland deck might have had to be condemned at one point because the council couldn’t react in time. The Yankee Doodle garage may have been closed. I could go on. The Enterprise fund nature of the parking authority gives it autonomy and flexibility to do what is right for the system and not what is politically expedient.

    More parking is coming on line and new businesses are coming in rather quickly, so the NPA will need to monitor the situation and make adjustments where needed and it has within its power to do just that. All constructive input is welcomed and valued, so please contact the NPA with your suggestions. http://www.norwalkpark.org. If you are insistent on taxpayers picking up the tab for this, you’ll need to work with the council.

  5. Dawn

    Paying to park… number one reason i stopped shopping, eating, etc down there over a decade ago.

  6. Bryan Meek

    Every vendor and store has the opportunity to give parking vouchers. Some do with great success and some chose not to manage it that way. We can not force businesses to do either. It is a free country and if you don’t want to pay to park then you don’t have to unlike involuntary taxes that fund the rest of the city’s services.
    If you are more concerned about paying $1 to park than you are paying $50 for a trinket that costs $1 to manufacture then that is your own personal choice. No one can or is forcing you to do either.

  7. LWitherspoon

    @Bryan Meek
    Which are the vendors that give parking vouchers? Do the vendors pay for the vouchers?

  8. Bryan Meek

    Several businesses in the Sono and Wall Street areas pay for their customers and employees to park or store vehicles. It is up to them to advertise these services themselves and this is solely at their discretion. All businesses have the opportunity to do this and no one is stopping any patrons from asking if parking is validated. Again, parking fees are not some mechanism for the city to stick it to people. We have $20 million in infrastructure that needs maintenance and we have businesses that depend on enforcement so that cars are not ‘abandoned’ in vital spaces that can accommodate numerous patrons throughout the day.
    We are not NYC and we are not Stamford. We are not Westport and we are not Darien. The system is working and could always be better, but those screaming for free parking are ignoring the real costs that would have to be paid by taxpayers who may or may not decide to use it. This is the best of government, no matter what the detractors say. room for improvement? Of course. Our most pressing issue? Hardly.

  9. Rick

    @ Bryan Meek

    The city may be saving money on one hand with this parking system but it’s losing on the other side by people choosing not to shop/patronize sono.

    The way they had it before was better. Maybe we should have worked to improve that system instead of selling it off to a large corporation- LAZ.

    It’s easy to say the city saves x-amount but look at the longterm implications. Good luck explaining this mess when there’s just a handful of businesses and customers left down there. More customers=good for business=more tax revenue for city=a better place to visit. Forgive me for oversimplifying but this current regime has done more harm than good.

    I’m willing to pay for parking of course- that’s not the issue. I’m not willing to get a ticket while waiting in line to feed the meter at water st. I used to live on Washington St. and I saw that parking attendant hide and wait for people to make mistakes- and then pounce out of nowhere , and then proceed to berate and yell at the poor sap who wasn’t quick enough. I was given tickets daily though I had a permit to park. I was once given a ticket while pulled over with hazard lights on to check my tire for all of 30 seconds. It’s out of control.

    It’s simply the most aggressive, predatory parking enforcement I’ve ever witnessed including NYC where I lived for a time.

    You make a great case for the system in place- but you’re not fooling anyone here: the prevailing wisdom is to avoid SoNo at all costs and with good reason.

  10. john chew

    The lack of parking and over zealous parking enforcements are a big turn off for attracting REGULAR visitors. The people on this blog supporting the parking situation are obviously not residents or the business of washington street. To get a ticket because the meter expired at 5:30pm is being overzealous. Resident passes are a good idea. Tourists are ‘willing’ to pay for parking because they expect to. Regular visitors and residents are not as willing to pay or spend 30 minutes looking for a parking spot, so they may opt to go elsewhere. i am a resident and constantly fighting for a parking spot unless i am willing to walk 3 blocks. The noise level at night is really becoming unreasonable and there are no good reason to allow places like beer garden and other bars to blast there music. SoNO needs to clean up their act.

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