NORWALK, Conn. — Helpful suggestions mixed with resident resistance Tuesday as the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency held a public hearing on its draft South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Redevelopment plan.
Ideas included a right of first refusal for residents on new housing, the assertion that parking spaces drive up the cost of rent and the suggestion of a panel to look into “35-65” housing. (The Fair Housing Advisory Commission is pushing for housing for people who make between $35,000 and $65,000 a year.)
There was also some drama, as a surprise attendee was used as Exhibit A to show that community doesn’t know what’s going on, and South Norwalker-Commissioner LaTanya Langley pushed back on routine complaints made by John Mosby.
Mosby said the agency doesn’t care about South Norwalk and doesn’t understand the problems faced by low-income residents; Langely said she grew up in South Norwalk, chose to come back and isn’t the only Commissioner who cares deeply.
The plan is six years in the making, with roots in the 2011 TOD master plan, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said. It is “in no way in its final form,” will be the topic of a joint meeting of the Zoning Commission, the Planning Commission and RDA, and won’t be finalized until sometime this summer, he said.
Mike Mushak was one of the first speakers, presaging some of the comments that came later with a preemptive strike on objections.
“South Norwalk can do two things: have a plan, which is the TOD plan that controls the growth, or not have a plan and let market forces range,” Mushak said. “… Developers, they sometimes will buy up pieces of property under different names and all of a sudden you have a neighborhood that is gone. This happens. The TOD plan doesn’t allow that, it actually controls the growth. “
No plan leads to “gentrification faster than you can say ‘Brooklyn,’” Mushak said.
Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib took aim at the draft plan’s research, which shows that new housing will attract people who are less than 35 years old and older than 57.
That’s not who is in South Norwalk now and if the goal is to retain residents then there have to be changes, she said. The current housing stock of small buildings features many apartments with up to four bedrooms while new developments typically have a maximum 2-bedroom apartment size.
RDA is buying small building and fixing them up, and, “Why not offer those units back to the people who have lived there or other people living in the neighborhood?” she asked, advocating for a right of first refusal for the residents.
The mayor could create a 35-65 housing panel as part of the plan to come up with concrete solutions instead of vague goals, Suib said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said TOD could be anywhere with the creation of new bus lines, and 35-65 housing should be scattered throughout Norwalk, she said. There is a non-profit developer who is interested in such infill housing.
“TOD can be broader than South Norwalk,” she said.
Dom Palladino said he grew up in South Norwalk, and the word “redevelopment” always made the hair on the back of his neck stand up because it always seemed the agency was after his father’s repair shop.
“We just want to be part of the progress. We were down there when it was nothing, now we want to be here when it’s something,” he said.
Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin said she had been to a seminar, where everyone talked about low-rental housing as a need.
“Nationally, there’s a shortage of low-rental housing. … My concern is we are losing low-rental housing, and the character of Norwalk. … Gentrification might be good, but gentrification is chasing out the people who live here,” Franklin said.
Sheehan said the state statute for affordable housing, 8-30g, is cumbersome and results in a significantly lower income threshold than $70,000.
But, “I don’t disagree with that. The issue is how best to structure it,” he said.
Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano said the public hearing was important, so these things could be heard.
“Way back when,” there were 400 jobs for the poor people, Mosby said, naming Perkin-Elmer, United States Surgical and Norden Systems.
“You are making a mistake. … You are not fixing up for the poor people,” Mosby said.
“We built Norwalk, now the people coming, they taking over Norwalk, and no one wants to listen to us,” Mosby said.
“You’ve got to get some Hispanic here. … We the blacks. … Yes, indeed, the blacks was run out of this town,” Mosby said.
The draft plan calls for requiring developers of housing buildings with 12 units or more to contribute 10 percent of their units to workforce housing, Sheehan said last week.
Former Mayor Bill Collins on Tuesday called that “wonderful” as the regulation is currently for a developer of a building with 20 or more units but, “If a developer is proposing a project of under 12 units, he gets off Scot free,” he said.
A developer could build 11-unit buildings in a block under different names, he said.
“If you have a threshold like that, anybody that divides their project, – and we have good lawyers in town, they find ways to do these things – doesn’t have to pay anything,” Collins said, calling it a “very serious flaw.”
Requiring developers of all sizes to contribute money for affordable housing would bypass this, he said.
“I understand the Zoning Commission has turned a blind eye to that kind of recommendation in the past and I expect that the Agency made that plain to the consultants that put this together. … But times change,” Collins said.
There will likely be turnover on the Zoning and Planning Commissions come July 1, he said.
“Not to include it as an option in the plan seems to me hard to explain,” Collins said.
Diane Lauricella also brought up changes in zoning.
“Their director left, retired early, shall we say, in polite company,” she said, advocating for an elimination of “silos” in City Hall.
“The structure of the city of Norwalk stinks in many ways,” Lauricella said, asserting that the TOD plan will not be carried out without an overhaul of city government.
Colin Grotheer said that research shows that the minimum parking requirements add $250 to $350 to a monthly rent, because the spaces cost the developer money to build.
“That is making apartments by default less affordable, so there might be a less need for as much affordable housing if you required less parking. There are many areas of the country that are leaning toward parking maximums as opposed to minimums,” Grotheer said.
Collins got up to say something had happened.
He had been driving around South Norwalk very slowly that afternoon, sizing things up in preparation for the meeting, and a man had come over to ask he if needed help, he said.
He had explained what he was up to, and, son of a gun, the man had just showed up at the meeting.
“He showed up, he came here on his own,” Collins said. “It makes me think how we go about notifying people in neighborhood where there is meetings coming up that are very important to them. … It’s quite possible that we should be tacking things up on fences and taping them up on phone poles.”
Edgar Hendrickson went on to complain about the quality of life on Chestnut Street, with noise well before the legal time of 7 a.m.
“I spent a lot of money on my house but all these things coming and crowding me,” he said, describing a “BAM, BAM, BAM,” even when his wife is sick.
“It mess you up,” he said.
There should be letters about issues of concern but there are none, he said.
“Nobody invite me. The system is bad for the small man. This is what is happening, development is good for Norwalk but at the same time don’t kick the small man,” Hendrickson said.
Before the hearing ended, Langely answered Mosby, pointing out that she is a black person on the Agency. Serrano pointed out that he is Hispanic.
“I am from South Norwalk. I was raised in South Norwalk. There are people in this room that were part of my growth in South Norwalk,” Langley said.
Her mother worked at Norden and Perkin-Elmer, she said.
“Be very, very careful when you get up in a forum and you say no one hears you and no one cares,” Langley said. “Because the people that you created and that you made, we are here. You were a part of who created me, so don’t doubt yourself.”
“All of us hear you and we have long dialogues about these issues,” Langley said. “Let me be clear, this is not an issue that we take lightly. We will look at all the comments that you brought here tonight. We will talk them through and we will work with you on them. So Just to be clear I hear and I know my fellow commissioners do as well.”
Mosby said he respected her but all the jobs were gone.
“Your point is taken but keep in mind there are people who care,” Langley said.
Ernie Dumas spoke up.
“I am not here for any sarcasm, whatsoever,” Dumas said. “I am here to talk about the facts of life, and the quality of life in South Norwalk. I am also going to talk to you about, if you don’t water a flower, it dies. This means that if you don’t talk to your community, as you sit on that Board, and talk to your community and allow your community to understand what is going on in their city, then it dies.”
“This is the point of the process,” Serrano said. “We want to hear from the community, and we will follow up accordingly.”