South Norwalk Dems call off call for Zoning head’s resignation

NORWALK, Conn. – A call for the head of a key Norwalk department chief was aborted Wednesday after the fears of South Norwalk Democrats were allayed by a conversation with Mayor Harry Rilling.

Long-time Democratic leader Bobby Burgess and Common Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) had called a press conference to demand the Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene be fired as he “has not been working in the best interest of the City of Norwalk” in the Washington Village application, which goes in front of the Zoning Commission again Wednesday night, this time for a vote. Rilling chatted with the leaders and other members of the District B Committee and assured them the Zoning Commission is behind the project, despite what they had heard.

“It’s not our understanding that what we have heard in the past is probably not the facts. The facts are something completely different,” Burgess said. “The Zoning Commission will be voting in favor of this project.”

State Rep. Bruce Morris said there was concern because there are two resolutions regarding Washington Village, one to approve the plan to replace what is described as the oldest housing project in Connecticut, perhaps the entire country, and the other to deny the plan.

“I was advised that the resolution is just a pro forma way of putting forth different possibilities and that there is widespread support for the project, that it’s unanimous across the board of the Zoning Commission and that the project will be moving forward,” Rilling said.

“These types of improvements are near and dear to the constituents that we serve,” Simms said. “It is far too often that our district and our people are kind of undermined and overlooked.”

He said he has seen comments online about people looking for a handout. He said, “It’s not that people are looking for a handout, but people are looking for opportunity, they are looking for hope.”

Mayor Harry Rilling talks with Norwalk Democrats Wednesday outside City Hall.


19 responses to “South Norwalk Dems call off call for Zoning head’s resignation”

  1. Victor Cavallo

    There are quite a few reasons to deny this project
    1. Most important: it doesn’t comply with the recommendations of the South Norwalk Planning Study for Day Street Housing and Public Parking.
    2. It doesn’t comply with the Plan of Conservation and Development policy to expand the public parking supply on public land off Water Street.
    3. It doesn’t comply with the POCD policy to design streets for people as well as vehicles.
    4. It doesn’t comply with the POCD policy to strengthen the character of neighborhoods by encouraging context sensitive design.
    5. It does not comply with the POCD policy to preserve and enhance the character of residential neighborhoods.
    6. It does not comply with the POCD policy to consider mixed income housing in South Norwalk at density levels of 1 unit per 2,000 sq. ft. of lot area.
    7. It does not comply with the POCD policy to enhance the pedestrian experience to support economic revitalization to encourage transit use.
    The Zoning Commission is required to consider and zoning changes in light of the Plan of Conservation and Development. There have been quite a few protests from some Commissioners that projects put forward have not complied with studies and POCD provisions. I haven’t heard similar protests with respect to this project. I wonder why?

  2. Joe Espo

    All this stupid grandstanding because they shot from the hip and had no clue what they were talking about. They certainly made the Mayor look like a fool. I do feel sorry for him that he had to be dragged into this dull-witted debacle.

  3. anonymous

    Rilling has patience.
    How did Morris not know basic legislative processes given that he’s in meetings like this often as a State Representative?
    All these people should issue a public apology to Greene after making him a headline.

  4. Diane C2

    “It’s not that people are looking for a handout, but people are looking for opportunity, they are looking for hope.”

    Mr. Simms, if they are looking for hope, they will not find it in the Choice Neighborhoods Development that is before you now – I truly believe the residents of Washington Village will never be allowed back, not any where near the area, and certainly not in the Trinity Development. Truly am sorry that leadership in South Norwalk did not ask the tough and unpopular, but necessary questions, and in fact, at least one attempted to stifle the efforts of we “outsiders” who did… and sorrier that the good people of Washington Village may have been mislead.

  5. Bill

    Handouts are living off the government for multiple generations; that is exactly what these people are doing. What does Mr. Simms do for income anyway? Is he even employeed?

  6. Mike Mushak

    Victor Cavallo, your post above actually confirms the worst fears of many of the folks of Norwalk including me, since it truly expresses the majority opinion of the Planning Commission and of Mike Greene, who used your exact list of reasons to deny the Washington Village Redevelopment Agreement last year. This forced the Redevelopment Agency to have to seek a two-thirds majority on the Common Council to override your strange and disturbing decision. The fears of the South Norwalk leaders that Washington Village might be denied by the majority GOP Zoning Commission were justified based on your post, as you reveal the thought process of GOP dominated Planning Commission, and Mike Greene.
    To start, you are correct on one point, that your reasons for denial of Washington Village are listed in the Master Plan and two other plans from 2005. But the rational thinking ends right there I am afraid. So let’s dissect your list of 7 reasons point by point and let the public see first-hand the decision-making rationale of Mike Greene and the Planning Commission:
    1) The 2005 South Norwalk Planning Study, as well as the 2005 Mid-Harbor Study, which were both referenced in the 2008 Master Plan, do call for a public parking garage as well as housing on the Day Street property. So let’s read the studies to find out what the garage was for, a logical step to take. The parking garage was to service three uses:
    A) residential use on Day St, B) the Community Health Center, and C.) large footprint retail to be built on the boatyards across Water Street.
    All three items have now become irrelevant since the time those studies were published in 2005. The proposed project actually does provide plenty of parking for the new residential uses on Day St. underneath the buildings, so that is moot. The Community Health Center has since moved to CT. Ave, leaving the old building empty, so that use is moot. And the need for parking for large footprint retail became moot when the new FEMA maps changed two years ago, and after Irene and Sandy flooded the waterfront locations for the proposed retail with 5 feet of water. These facts made any financing of new retail here next to impossible, at least at the scale that would need a a large public parking garage on Day St. So, this entire premise of a parking garage is moot, regardless of the fact that it is still in our Master Plan. A lot has changed in ten years, as indicated by the fact that the two studies I mentioned above from 2005 NEVER ONCE mention flooding as an issue affecting future retail on Water Street. FEMA basically made a planning decision for us that negated those items in the Master Plan.
    2) Same as “1” above, as it relates to the same need for public parking on Day St which is totally moot now.
    3) You have to be joking on this one, sorry. “To design streets for people as well as vehicles” is EXACTLY what the proposed project does, so how on earth can you claim the project does not do that? The project moves parking off Water Street to accommodate new bike lanes, and adds dozens of street trees, plazas, and benches around the two block area. This is a totally bogus reason to have denied the project.
    4) Same comment as 3, sorry. “Strengthen character of neighborhoods through context sensitive design” is EXACTLY what this project does, so this is yet another bogus reason to deny this project. I mean, if you truly wanted to be “context sensitive”, you would be duplicating the dozen or so ugly warehouses that now exist there besides the existing Washington Village, wouldn’t you? This project creates its own new context, reflecting good architectural design and its own new neighborhood character at an urban scale that is more like Brooklyn, that currently doesn’t exist at all in the area but will be indicative of what we will see much more of we can just get the staff and the P and Z commissions to finally implement the 3 year old TOD zoning overlay (more on that below).
    5) What? This project doesn’t “Preserve character of residential neighborhoods?” That is just nuts to think that. The flood resilient design of this project does have parking underneath, where cars can be moved from when hurricanes are predicted. But those garages are well hidden with screening and landscaping, and the streetscape is actually very attractive, with lots of porches and details. Yet another bogus reason to deny the project.
    6.) Another “what were you thinking”? This outrageous item just proves how out of touch Mike Greene and the Planning Commission are, as if they have no idea what density is all about, or cities, or transit oriented development. A density of 2000 square feet of lot size per dwelling unit is basically a two-family house, or a suburban density. Single family homes are generally one unit per 3000 square feet of lot size. Note, this is NOT the size of the unit itself, but the proportion of the unit to the land on the lot it is on. The higher the number, the more spread out the density and more room between the units. South Norwalk is a downtown dense neighborhood near a train station, not a suburb! The 2011 Norwalk TOD Plan, paid for by taxpayers, recommends a density of 1 unit per 1000 square feet, which is actually considered “light” density for a transit oriented development, which can go up to one unit per 200 square feet of lot size for high density. Average TOD density around the country is one unit per 600 square feet of lot size, so even our recommended one unit per 100 square feet is less dense than the average TOD zone. That is why our obsolete Master Plan recommendation of one unit per 2000 square feet is so bizarre, and wildly inaccurate for the setting. This is why we need professional planners to help us with our decisions. This was yet another bogus reason to deny the project as it is not based on the reality of what TOD projects are all about.

    7) Another bizarre and bogus reason to deny the project. This project actually DOES enhance the pedestrian experience to support economic revitalization to encourage transit use. In fact, we added a bus stop pull-out, serviced by an extensive sidewalk network lined with trees and benches, all of which will enhance the pedestrian experience.

    To summarize, all of the reasons given by Mr. Cavallo to deny Washington Village, which were of course the same reasons the Planning Commission actually did deny it last year, were bogus and not based on reality or current planning trends. They were just blindly plucked out of the Master Plan with no relationship to the project or the neighborhood, or current flooding conditions that didn’t exist just 10 years ago. The truth is, this project follows the latest urban design trends for flood-resilient buildings, as described here for the NYC Dept of Planning’s joint effort with FEMA to develop these new standards http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/sustainable_communities/urban_design_principles.pdf.
    To pretend that we are living in the 1970’s, as the Planning Commission seems to think with its outdated ideas of large retail on former boatyards that flood regularly, an overabundance of public parking in areas that don’t need it, and suburban density in downtown South Norwalk, is an indication of just how broken our current planning system is.
    What we really need in South Norwalk is the immediate implementation of the zoning overlay of the TOD Plan for SoNo that has been sitting on a shelf at P and Z for three years while Redevelopment and developers wonder what happened,in order to encourage new projects that increase housing (both affordable and market-rate)and new businesses. We also need to preserve the existing community at the same time, and be sensitive to their needs, which is possible in the context of improving everyone’s lives and adding more jobs and affordable housing. It must be done and it can be done, with smart leadership.
    We also need to review all of the studies and plans for the entire city that taxpayers have paid for but are sitting on shelves gathering dust,unimplemented, because of the apparent inability of our current staff and commission leadership to understand the real need for a professional overhaul of our obsolete zoning code that will jumpstart our stagnant economy.
    In other words, someone needs to take charge,and unfortunately that person is not Mike Greene, as the denial of Washington Village Mr. Cavallo so generously shared in his post and which was formulated with Mr. Greene’s help, indicates. Sadly, we have had decades of bad planning decisions like this, and we suffer from an obsolete and confusing zoning code that will take years to clean up, and the sooner we start fixing it the better off we will all be.

  7. dlauricella

    This is an important discussion that I had hoped would have happened last year.
    By the way, where was Mr. Cavallo and the Planning Commission when the BJs Main Avenue Corridor application was warming up (in house staff helping applicant way too much prior to submission), during (staff conveniently forgetting that POCD principles exist and baseline planning studies worth “hundreds of thousands ” of real dollars were ignored) and after (valid and credible need to implement Main Avenue Corridor changes recommended by said POCD and professional studies is squelched by staff and old guard Zoning Commission)?

    Where were you about that topic? The Planning Commission has a duty to help implement the very same POCD that you now wave around but misinterpret at the last minute AND the professional studies that supported the POCD that remain valid independent of it.

    A wholesale review of land use planning and staff associated with it appears in order…time to consider calling in independent professionals from out of town to examine the broken system.

  8. John Hamlin

    As certain comments above confirm, the opposition to the Washington Village proposal seems to be largely based on opposition to public housing generally. And I think we could all benefit from an intelligent discussion on the purpose of public housing, what the City should be trying to achieve with it, where it should be located (why only in one area of the City as opposed to integrating it), who should have access to it and for how long. But once you take away opposition to the principle of public housing, then the proposal should stand or fall on its own, not for a whole lot of irrelevant reasons.

  9. John Hamlin

    As the head of a City department, Mr. Greene is subject to public review of his performance — or at least he should be. Or does he have lifetime tenure that insulates him from public scrutiny? It seems like that’s what some of these posts are saying. Come to think of it, how are City department heads held accountable? Or are they? How often are City department heads reviewed? Who decides whether they continue in their jobs? If there’s no process for holding Mr. Greene accountable, then no wonder the public has to make a stink whenever they question what he’s doing. And if Mr. Greene is doing his job effectively, I would think he would have nothing to fear from some scrutiny.

  10. Torgny Astrom

    As Chairman of the Norwalk Planning Commission, allow me to submit the following for the record:
    On January 14th, 2014, the Planning Commission voted (6-2) to APPROVE the Washington Village proposed zoning changes:
    “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the reasons for this action are:
    1) To implement the Plan of Conservation and Development (“POCD”) goal to “Consider designating a redevelopment area at the South Norwalk Station to help achieve goals for transit enhancements and transit-oriented development here” (E.2.2.5, p. 37); and
    2) To implement the Plan of Conservation and Development goal to “Pursue mixed income development when renovating, rebuilding, or developing new public housing units” (A.2.1.2, p. 11); and
    3) To implement the Plan of Conservation and Development goal to “Encourage new development around transit access and allow new development which does not exceed the capacity of infrastructure systems (roads, sewers, water, etc)” (B.1.1.2, p. 16); and
    4) Complies with POCD policy to “Maximize the number of affordable units available in the Norwalk Housing Authority inventory, within current resources, to address the shortage of affordable housing for all eligible populations (A.2.2.5, p. 12); and
    5) Complies with POCD policy to “Allow for the future needs of Norwalk to be met as identified in this Plan (i.e. housing, economic growth, community facilities, etc.)” (F.1.1.6, p. 40); and
    6) Complies with POCD policy to “Continue to provide funding to redevelop the West Avenue, Wall Street, and Reed Putnam areas with new housing and mixed use developments” (A.2.1.3, page 11); and
    7) Complies with POCD policy to “Rehabilitate Norwalk’s existing inventory of public, private, and non-profit housing” (A.2.2, p. 11); and
    8) Complies with POCD policy to “Use publicly owned land to provide long-term affordability” (A.2.4, p. 12); and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that notice of this action be forwarded to the Norwalk Zoning Commission.”

  11. Torgny Astrom

    Correction: The January 14th Approval date referenced above is incorrect – should have read December 10th, 2013.

  12. Mike Mushak

    Torgny,(Chair of the Planning Commission), please explain your vote last year to kill the Washington Village Plan, with the criteria you used. It is, as I recall, based on the same bogus parking garage idea for Day Street that Victor Cavallo listed above, which was the same criteria the staff listed to deny Washington Village last night.

    By the way, Mike Greene has told me I cannot talk to you directly, and kept your email private from me (he told me all correspondence between me and the Planning Commission had to go through his office first. Why I wonder? Was it to maintain control over the Commissions by keeping them separate and not in any communication?
    If I was Chair of the Zoning Commission, we would have full cooperation between the Planning and Zoning Commissions, to implement the Master Plan and fulfill the contents of Chapter F,”Governance, Zoning, and Urban Design”, which is basically ignored by the P and Z Department. The Director would fulfill his obligations as staff to both commissions, instead of stifling communication between the Commissions and deliberately manipulating the process to further his own goals for the city rather than the community’s and Master Plan’s goals.
    Imagine that-a process that works for the people, with public advocacy and professional studies that are respected and incorporated into the process, just as the Master Plan recommends but is certainly not the case now in our broken planning system. Why do you ignore items F.1.1.7 and F.3.1.1, which call for a strategy to implement the Master Plan elements?

    The South Norwalk community is wondering, what ever happened to item F.2.1.8: “Amend zoning to remove barriers to development types that fulfill planning goals on South Main St.”? That was meant to foster locally owned businesses and new residences on that struggling main spine. Greene just made it go “poof” even though it was highly recommended in the two studies from 2005 as well as the 2008 Master Plan. Ten years later, and still no action.
    What ever happened to the TOD zoning overlay for South Norwalk recommended 3 years ago that would create new jobs and housing while respecting the existing community? Ever hear of that Torgny?

    Hey Torgny, nice talking to you directly without Greene pre-screening our communications! Imagine what we could accomplish together and how much smart development we could stimulate if Greene got out of the way and the two commissions could actually work together as the Master Plan recommends! But then, we have Joe Santo as chair, Oh well, scratch that idea for now. But just imagine….

  13. Mike Mushak

    John Hamlin, the Washington Village proposal is NOT public housing, a common mistake folks are making. It is a Choice Neighborhoods community, which is a public/private model promoted by HUD to replace aging public housing projects (that are often dangerous and promote a cycle of poverty), with mixed income projects including market rate units.
    This project will replace 136 dilapidated public housing units in the current Washington Village with the same number on site, but add 137 more units composed of 67 Workforce units (affordable at 80% of median income of the area),and 70 market rate units. This project will be privately owned and operated, with an on-site security force, on land leased from the city for 75 years, and in partnership with the Housing Authority which will still manage the 136 subsidized units within the project.
    This model has been successful around the country to replace obsolete and dangerous housing projects, and stimulate economic revitalization of struggling areas, exactly what South Norwalk and Norwalk in general needs right now.

  14. Joe Espo

    In reference to all of the goals that Mike Mushak has in mind, I would like for Mr. Mushak to explain to me and the rest of the NON readership the procedure for implementing those Master Plan elements. Are they implemented upon application from a property owner? Upon application from a city agency? Upon motion or application from a zoning commissioner? Does the planning commission have the authority to just accomplish this without an application before it concerning property? Is it possible for the planning and zoning commissions to conscript landowners into modifying their properties against their will or force a landowner to apply for a zoning change? Lend some assistance and explain how it can be accomplished; perhaps by posting a flow chart?

  15. Don’t Panic

    It should not be that functional interaction between the commissions is wholly dependent
    on who the chair happens to be. Are their by-laws actually written that way?

  16. spanner

    I hope when this is all done and over with my suburban street feet from washington Village is not a parking lot because no one thought of widening the State route or fixing the fact the only way off our island is by boat when the streets flood.

    The more I read about what Norwalk needs is starting to make me wonder if these facts flying around will work for my nice quiet street I call home.Hey those warehouses along water st hire local people to pay for some of our homes next to Washington Village Klaffs parking lot is always full so isn’t the boat yards.Maybe dislodging the stick may bring some calm thought to the rest of us who so far have endured enough crap to last a lifetime.Im for housing I’m for a lot of things but to plan a city where I bought a home becuase it was suburban living is where I may draw the line.

    The deals on water street have been going on for a long time our political real estate agents can tell you that.My concern is the suspected contamination that may be in or near Washington village,who has the clean bill of health for that to build all of these buildings?This oldest housing complex was near the oldest factories in South Norwalk has anyone talked about how the land was left?

    Hate to see a stall in the new Washington Village while the other side of water street builds the high rises that are probably planned.Hate to see my friends in the old Village get the short end of things because no one bothererd to talk about possible delays from whats underground.I have no faith in those who use red herrings to hide facts Norwalk seems to have a lot of story tellers who love to talk facts from other cities and not ours.

    pedestrian experience in South Norwalk is to have been robbed thats my world.

  17. Piberman

    Imagine if our mighty So Norwalk Dems took an interest in NEON ? Now that would be something !

  18. Mike Mushak

    Spanner, I addressed some of your valid concerns as best I could in another post on NON about the Wash. Village approval. The engineering studies to be done before the project ever starts will address existing local flooding issues as well as potential impacts of the project on the neighborhood. Required environmental studies will also be performed.
    JoeEspo, I know the process of making zone changes happen, but I will ask you to have Mike Greene explain it all to you, as he is paid over $150,000 a year to do exactly that. Of course, he has stopped attending all evening commission meetings over the last year, even though he is the official staff person. He basically isn’t doing his job, and without performance reviews, he will get a raise from taxpayers this year no matter how lousy a job he does.
    I recall a moment from 3 years ago when I kept asking why our drainage standards were obsolete and allowed pollution of the harbor to continue, and I asked that we hire a drainage expert to advise us as we had funds to do, he said we had no money to do that, and that if I wanted the standards updated so badly, I should do it myself! The standards are still not updated, making us the laughing stock of cities on the Sound as we are the very last city to complete this important task to maintain the health of the Sound.
    Yes, in Greene’s world, let’s let dedicated volunteers do all the work for well-paid department heads who get guaranteed raises no matter how badly they treat others or how many meetings they skip, or how much they abuse the taxpayers who pay their salaries. And Republicans like Dave Mccarthy who repeatedly defend this mediocrity and unprofessionalism pretend folks like Mike Greene are doing “stellar” jobs despite the fact that most developers and thousands of residents know otherwise. I wonder if McCarthy has explained to his anti-mosque constituents that the city still hasn’t amended the obsolete zoning regulations that allowed the mosque to be built at that original size in the first place. It’s unbelievable, but that’s how Norwalk has been run for decades. Suggest change, like I do, and watch the attack machine go into full gear, as it has repeatedly from entrenched staff and corruption apologists like McCarthy who is relentless in his attacks on anyone wanting to change the broken City Hall, or who criticize the repeated bad decisions that are made.
    Yes, JoeEspo, go have Mike Greene explain to you why all of the expert studies and Master Plan are ignored over decades, and why Norwalk is held up as an example around the state on how NOT to plan a city. No wonder Greene doesn’t live in Norwalk. Why would he be that stupid to live in a traffic-clogged city with struggling downtowns that he has helped ruin with his decades of bad decisions as he has simultaneously collected millions in salary and benefits from the taxes of all of us who do have to live in this mess? And ask him for his professional credentials while you are at it, since no one knows what they are.

  19. jlightfield

    For the record, it is the chair of the zoning commission directs staff to prepare resolutions based on the sentiment of the commission. It can be for an approval, denial or both.

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