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South Norwalk developer looking to modify zoning regulation regarding affordable housing

NORWALK, Conn. – A South Norwalk developer has taken it upon itself to suggest an amendment to Norwalk zoning regulations.

“I think it makes sense,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said at last week’s Zoning Committee meeting of the proposed change to create a “middle tier” of lower cost housing, based on the state’s median income, and combine that with a change in the height requirements.

Spinnaker Partners was rebuffed by the committee in July when it came with an initial concept for a three-building residential complex at 17 and 19 Day Street, requesting height modifications, parking requirement modifications and a change in the income requirement for 10 percent of its affordable housing. Last week Spinnaker tried again, suggesting what Senior Planner Dori Wilson called a “cross breed” between state regulations and Norwalk workforce housing regulations.

The new complex would be called Maritime Village and would feature a total of 70 housing units in its three buildings, Spinnaker representatives said. A six-story building would face the Washington Village project at 20 Day St. and a two-story building would house two duplex units, each with three bedrooms. An existing building is also part of the complex, and Spinnaker is already seeking tenants for it.

While Washington Village was required to be at least 14.5 feet about sea level, Maritime Village would be at 13 feet, because it has to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements and not the stricter Connecticut Department of Economic Development (DECD) requirements that Washington Village had to meet because it includes public housing.

The first floor of Maritime Village is planned to be at street level, and is adaptable to the street improvements planned as part of the Washington Village project, Spinnaker said.

The project is in Norwalk’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) zone, where the goal is to increase the density of housing in proximity to the South Norwalk train station. Zoning regulations allow for one housing unit for every 1,650 square feet if the developer includes 10 percent workforce housing, according to Attorney Frank Zullo, who is representing Spinnaker. But a developer can build one unit for every 800 square feet if it includes 30 percent workforce housing, he said. The allowable height of a building also plays into this, as the 800 square feet option allows for a six-story high building, he said. For 1,650 square feet, it’s four stories.

In July, Spinnaker proposed using a maximum 100 percent of the area median income as a baseline for affordable housing instead of a maximum 80 percent of area median income.

“Why would we want to do that?” Zoning Commissioner Nora King asked.

“I don’t know,” Wilson replied.

New wrinkle: Spinnaker would now like to lower the overall affordability of the project from 30 percent of the units to 20 percent of the units. That wasn’t an option in the description of the regulations given by Zullo.

Of that 20 percent, 10 percent would be workforce, at 80 percent of state median, and 10 percent would be open to those making 100 percent of state median income.

“What we are trying to do is create a middle tier. … We have suggested the middle tier be one unit for every 1,000 square feet,” Zullo said. “In return, he not only has to develop 10 percent affordable according to state statutes for workforce, but another 10 percent that is not technically affordable. We can’t call them affordable as per the state regulations, but they are units that are below the market for that particular unit. So it’s a middle level.”

Under the first proposal, a one bedroom apartment would rent for $1,676 for workforce housing. It would now be $1,127, Wilson said. That same unit would be $1,451 for the “middle tier,” she said. Market rate would be $1,750, Zullo said.

Zullo said this would allow for seven workforce units and seven middle units. If Spinnaker built to the 10 percent requirement, there would only be 30 to 40 apartments and three or four workforce units, he said.

“While it benefits the developer to some degree, it also benefits the city and provides more affordable housing,” Zullo said. “While that middle tier isn’t technically affordable, it’s still about $300 below market and I think that’s an attractive proposition for those that can’t afford the market. This is completely different than the original application.”

Now onto the parking requirement modification.

Spinnaker is requesting that it be allowed to put in one parking space for each studio apartment, one for each one bedroom apartment and two for each two-bedroom apartment, with an average of no less than 1.3 spaces per unit, according to Wilson. That’s a little less than what is required now, she said. The idea is to also apply this zoning regulation amendment to other design districts, including Putnam Reed, Washington Street and South Norwalk business districts, she said.

“This would help Ironworks, Waypointe, other projects you have under way or pending to reduce their residential parking requirement and hopefully enhance some of their ability to fill tenant spaces,” Wilson said. “Waypointe, for example, has a lot of interest from restaurants, which takes more parking than the retail, so if this passes they can come back with revised numbers for their development.”

“Their numbers are actually in agreement with the numbers the staff had looked at when we did our studies,” Greene said. “Our thought was not to do this just by the train station but every part of the urban setting.  I think it makes sense. Instead of holding two separate hearings, just do one.”

Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank, who returned to the commission with the intent of revising zoning regulations, said he agreed with the proposal to a point.

“I think South Norwalk needs more density so I like what this application does in general. To me, if we want more density in South Norwalk, more height is OK. More units per acre is OK, that’s what they have asked for. I don’t necessarily think we ought to tie that all to, ‘if you have this much workforce, if you have this at state median.’ I’d just as soon have a uniform standard as to what the height requirement is, what the density is. Personally, I’d take 10 percent city-wide for workforce housing, with no state median, the traditional 10 percent in every district,” Blank said.

Wilson reminded him that the commission adopted the TOD plan in 2012.

“I don’t care that it wasn’t originally intended to be a residential zone,” Blank said. “The fact is, here we are today, and what do we want for it today? I’m OK with that being residential. I get that in a sense it’s a giveaway for the folks that own property there, they’re going to be able to do a lot more with it if we reduce the housing requirements there, but I think that’s a positive for South Norwalk.”

Greene said the commission could green-light Spinnaker’s proposal and still work on the zoning regulations, rather than holding Spinnaker up.

A public hearing on the project is planned for October.

Comments

19 responses to “South Norwalk developer looking to modify zoning regulation regarding affordable housing”

  1. Jlightfield

    Let’s stop reacting to what developers propose to get around zoning regulations. They are essentially saying here that they can’t develop the properties because the zoning code limits density unless you add workforce housing and then bonus density is conferred.
    .
    Meanwhile they would like to reduce the amount of on-site parking. Here is where a district parking plan would be handy. Parking assets in this area, walkable to the train station, should be sited for use by all the properties in the area. We’ve used within 1000 feet of municipal parking assets in the past. The question remains whether the City wants to be in the parking business, it has mostly mishandled it thus far with a hodgepodge of plans that focus on per development needs rather than district needs.
    .
    These are the type of issue that should be resolved by the zoning commission because it’s policy but require the city to coordinate the other agencies to tackle the policy at the same time. But unlike other agencies, once an application is filed the commission has 65 days to render a judgment.
    .
    Where is the planning commission, planning committee and parking authority on this? Let the great cricket debate commence!

  2. Taxpayer Fatigue

    “Where is the planning commission, planning committee and parking authority on this?” I don’t know – maybe you should check the bar at the Norwalk Inn…
    ;
    P&Z has been talking about changing the parking requirements for a year now – just do it!

  3. Lisa Thomson

    I attended a P&Z meeting last week, trying to get a better feel for how the board operates and renders its decisions. P&Z is probably the most powerful organization in the city – impacting 40,000+ households/properties in Norwalk and the future vibrancy of the city.

    I want to echo Jackie Lightfield. I witnessed lawyers/developers recommending to P&Z what should be done to get around the current regulations regarding density housing in SONO – with P&Z reacting positively. The meeting tone appeared as though the developers were in charge and not the commission. That was until a member of the audience asked for a point of information for clarification and they were shut down immediately.

    I sensed a mood or tone of one set of rules for developers and another one for the rest of us. Some commissioners were engaged – others not. As a casual observer, I left feeling frustrated.

  4. Adam Blank

    @Jlightfield – Immediately prior to my departure from the ZC in 2013 I put together a meeting with planning staff, parking authority and a representative from the Common Council to try to formulate a comprehensive parking plan. That stalled in my absence but it is expected that we will try to tackle that issue shortly. A couple of the more difficult decisions is how to deal with developers (and their lenders) who demand on-site parking at a level that exceeds what we might require as well as whether, in the absence of a comprehensive plan, the ZC should dramatically reduce parking requirements, creating a parking problem that will then have to be addressed by some other agency/department.

    @Lisa Thomson – There is no public participation for committee meetings (as opposed to full commission meetings). However, the public can submit comments in writing in advance of committee meetings. The rules are different for developers who are permitted to participate at the committee meetings.

  5. Taxpayer Fatigue

    @Blank. Any other commission or committee meeting in the city always allows the public to have some level of interaction, particularly asking for a point of clarification. I know it is annoying, but us “public” are paying the bill for everything, including the dysfunctional zoning department.

  6. Suzanne

    Mr. Blank, That is exactly the problem. The developer is the constituency and not the taxpayer. There should be an ability to ask questions and if that slows the process down well, then, so be it. There has to come a point where we, the people who pay for this town, can have a say or point of clarification in addition to the developers who do, in fact, to my observations as well, run this town. It is not a question of fairness, it is a question of the kind of town and quality of life that our taxpayer dollars pay for. That developers are running the show just indicates how little we count and how much profit is the highest motivator in our community.

  7. Adam Blank

    @Suzanne – with some limited exceptions virtually every piece of business that comes in front of the ZC at a committee meeting goes to a full Commission meeting and all of the significant applications come to the committee on multiple occasions. This gives the public ample opportunity to comment orally and in writing, to speak with staff, to write to or contact commissioners, etc.

  8. Lisa Thomson

    @Adam Blank – What Suzanne said 🙂

  9. Oldtimer

    I believe the FEMA rules require the lowest occupied floors in a new building in a coastal flood zone to be 16 feet above mean sea level. The insurance on homes that fail to comply is prohibitive. The developer will not be the one paying for the insurance in this case, but it makes sense to meet or exceed FEMA requirements.

  10. One and Done.

    Build affordable housing units in Wilton, Westport, and Darien. We have enough already.

  11. Jlightfield

    @adam blank, awesome. Some if the parking strategies were discussed as part of the connectivity plan. I think that is a good place to start.
    .
    I know it’s hard for the public to speak on zoning issues since often times the public hearings come at the end of the process. It is got this reason that I think that it should be a requirement to post on each property site the details and contact info of each zoning application. Such notice is far more visible to neighborhoods than the current legal notice system that is antiquated and convoluted. Not that I’m recommending it’s removal.
    .
    The developers get to speak at committee meetings so that they can present their plans and the commission can gain an understanding of how the plan deviates from zoning regs. Note that a plan in compliance with zoning regs is approved by right and is not usually seen by the commission.

  12. Suzanne

    My experience has been this: even in Committee, “the horse has left the barn.” The developer has obtained nearly every permit required to build. Any input by the community is proforma, largely ignored and comes after the fact – developers are well on their way to realizing THEIR plan long before the public has the right to speak.

  13. Suzanne

    And I should add: if you want to object to the development or change it, it requires prohibitive attorney’s fees. This burden must be borne by the taxpayers objecting and is often more than most people can financially bear.

  14. Bill

    and we wonder why we don’t create any jobs while Texas, Florida, Georgia, etc are creating jobs left and right. Regulation, taxes, and welfare are the problem.

  15. RU4REEL

    Greene said The commission can green light the Spinnaker proposal rather than holding them up. As plain as the nose on your face who is in charge, it ain’t taxpayers.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @RU4REEL

      Actually, the taxpayers are in charge. They elected the politicians who appointed the Zoning Commission and hired and retained the paid staff. This is why we talk about shining a light on your government, how it is spending your money and how it is conducting business in your name. And it is why I wrote, prior to the 2013 local election, that the most important thing the mayor does is make appointments, and many of those need approval of the Common Council. When you vote for mayor and Council, you invest in them the trust to appoint people who will shape your quality of life, for better or worse. More people should do what you do, and what the majority of our readers do, and pay attention to what is going on. Listening to people at the mosque meeting say they did not know about the settlement or what was in it until a few days before the meeting was jarring. The information is here.

  16. Suzanne

    Mark, I have to disagree with you on this one (and we get to right?) We may elect people who appoint people who work on our Commissions and Councils but we have no way of changing the regulations to which these Commission and Councils must conform. This has been true for decades. Come and go, liberal or conservative, they will tell you they are following what’s on the books. What’s on the books, at least in my experience with the permit process and development, favors developers over the individual taxpayer. We can vote for a Mayor who pledges to change this but we have not had one yet to vote for (unless I am mistaken and Rilling has specifically addressed this problem.)

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Suzanne

      Actually, Rilling recently appointed Adam Blank to the Zoning Commission. Mr. Blank’s stated goal before his appointment is to overhaul the zoning regulations. See the story here. Nora King, another of his appointments, has also expressed a desire to make changes. Rilling’s appointments are still in the minority, and the same staff is still in place, so what happens remains to be seen.

      I would add that change can be good or bad, and simply changing something doesn’t mean it will be better, just different. Time will tell.

  17. One and Done.

    If Rilling so chose to do so, he could use the bully pulpit to lobby for these changes. Maybe he can’t because his campaign was in part sponsored by Al Madany?
    .
    Outside of protecting his special interest(s), I do believe he does want to change the status quo here. Just my guess, but he just hasn’t had time or energy to create a P&Z&RDA&NPA reform task force with the busy schedule filled with smiling for cameras on projects he had nothing to do with. Come on Harry, do the right thing.

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