Step one in hoped-for SoNo redevelopment: Dig

NORWALK, Conn. – Three new buildings would rise on a prominent South Norwalk corner, framing the gateway to SoNo in an entirely different way than the 1960’s-era parking lot that is there now, under a plan developed by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.

There’s no money behind this plan, other than the money spent to create it and the money obtained to test the dirt under the lot to see if it’s worth cleaning up and if the project is even viable. The plan is literally a decade old, but it’s got new spark under it with a $200,000 Community Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Brownfields Assessment and Inventory Grant. But the $200,000 is just a start. The city has applied for an additional $400,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to supplement that funding, RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer said. This is all building on a $400,000 EPA grant obtained in 2006. The Webster Street lot is the focus of serious intentions laid out in the 2004 Webster Block Planning and Urban Design Study, but no one knows what contaminants are under the pavement, Sweitzer said. It’s likely that there’s something there, given the history of fabric industry factories, which likely left behind toxic dyes, chemicals and cleaning materials, and residences, which may have left behind oil tanks, lead paint and asbestos, she said.

Pie-in-the sky plans include:

• A new through street from Washington Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive for both vehicles and pedestrians (The corner of Washington Street and Martin Luther King Drive, as envisioned by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in 2004, is seen above).

• Two parking garage sites east and west of the new street

• Continuing the existing pedestrian way next to the movie theater through to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive

• A new public plaza at the juncture of the new street and the pedestrian way

• New housing development along Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and new housing and retail developments along the new street

“The plan essentially breaks the Webster Block into three smaller blocks separated by the new street and the pedestrian way,” the plan states. “The concept plan shown in the accompanying map is essentially a framework for long-term development of the Webster Block and the surrounding study area. The proposed plan will be carried out in a series of smaller phases.” “The thinking is, if the city were able to attract development interest and put together a partnership whereby, obviously, the city controls most of the area and therefore if it were able to partner with a developer to do something like this, it would provide a way more inviting and interesting gateway entrance to South Norwalk, rather than just coming down the hill or coming down West Avenue to a big parking lot,” Sweitzer said. The obvious problem is where do people park when all of this is being constructed, she said. “Fundamentally, the question at the outset is if this is something you could even do. Is the remediation there so extensive and extreme that this is not reasonable to consider? Then you have to move on to Plan B,” she said. “We don’t have any real information on what needs to be remediated, what is there. We don’t know that. That is what this funding helps us determine through test borings and remediation, what is there and what would need to be removed.” The grant was applied for in February, Mayor Harry Rilling said. In March, CREFII-SCC, LLC bought the nearby 50 Washington St. and 67 Martin Luther King Drive. Rilling said the new owner is Mike Oz of Capital Construction and Development. Oz would like to make it Class A office space, Rilling said. Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said one of Oz’s primary concerns is to provide more parking for the building. Oz declined to comment. The 2006 grant inspired the Norwalk Brownfields Task Force, which developed a list of potentially contaminated sites. Of those, 20 were prioritized for assessment. The task force faded away, according to two members, but $300,000 in 2008 DECD Municipal Pilot Brownfields Remediation Program funding was used on the South Norwalk train station, Sweitzer said. The RDA worked with an environmental consultant to identify four sites on the property, she said. Two of the four were cleaned up in work that was completed last year, she said. “We picked two because we don’t have enough money for four,” she said. Those sites were “hot spots,” basically pits that were maybe 8 by 10 feet, she said. “Now we know that these sites are not contaminated anymore,” she said. “If for any reason the city wanted to get into a partnership with the adjacent property owners to develop portions of the South Norwalk train station site, increase parking there and/or partner up on development projects, especially along Chestnut Street, we have good information as to the condition and value of the parking lot.” Which is the thinking with the Webster lot. “Just sort of preparing ourselves to be ready if someone is interested in pursuing this plan, that we know what is there — since we know something is there,” she said. “We know there are issues, we just don’t know the extent and how much we have to deal with it.” Webster Block Planning and Urban Design Study


17 responses to “Step one in hoped-for SoNo redevelopment: Dig”

  1. the donut hole

    the gateway to Sono is West Ave and always will be. The project looks nice as drawn above, but let’s finish 95/7 first please before any more pipe dreams. By the time anyone gets around to doing anything like this, the study will be outdated and we will have just wasted the 200k.

  2. the donut hole

    They even admit the 300k on the train station was basically wasted money. Stop the madness already.

  3. Mike Mushak

    The question P and Z Director Greene needs to answer to the city, to developers and property owners, to the Planning Committee of the Common Council, and to other officials including the Redevelopment Agency, is why the taxpayer-funded TOD (Transit-oriented Development) Zoning Overlay that is 3 years old has not been implemented for this site, or for the rest of South Norwalk for that matter, which would increase allowable housing density and reduce expensive and obsolete parking requirements. Democrats on the Zoning Commission have repeatedly asked this question of staff, with no answers given.
    The current zoning for the Webster Lot and the parking lot across the street at the bottom of Flax Hill is a leftover remnant from the 60’s era South Norwalk Business District, which has a suburban housing density requirement of 1 unit per 1650 square feet if lot area, or 26 units per acre. The TOD zoning overlay would increase that allowable density to one unit per 1000 square feet, or 46 units per acre. It would also decrease the obsolete 70’s era suburban parking requirement which I describe further below.
    This would increase the building of market rate and affordable housing as well as make financing easier for this and many other projects. Citywide, our obsolete parking requirements, which have not followed national and CT wide trends, have contribute helped contribute to the stalling of projects based on financing. This is the case with Poko on Wall Street whose owner, Ken Olsen , recently admitted in a meeting that reducing our ratios to match other cities would make financing Phase 2 of his project much easier (it’s too late for Phase 1 to affect it).
    The TOD study recommends reducing the parking requirement in South Norwalk to 1.16 spaces per unit (one per unit with one visitor space for every 6 units).
    Another taxpayer-funded expert study, called the Norwalk Parking Master Plan, also from 2011, recommended that by 2014 we should have reduced our commercial and office parking requirements citywide by 25%, and residential by at least 30% and more in some cases.
    Every structured parking space costs about $20,000 to $30,000 to install. Stamford and most other CT cities have reduced their parking requirements to encourage development in their walkable downtown areas near transit hubs.
    Stamford reduced their parking ratio to one space per unit, while Norwalk’s is still at a 1970’s era obsolete level of 1.5 spaces per one bedroom unit and 2 spaces per 2 bedroom unit. Just this week, the developer FD Rich asked for a reduced parking ratio of .85 spaces per unit on a huge $100 million 672-unit new project for the “hole in the ground ” on Tresser Blvd, called URL Stamford (stands for Urban Ready Living).
    Unfortunately, these studies are not being followed by our P and Z staff or the current Zoning Commission leadership in Joe Santo or Emily Wilson, who do not seem to be interested. This follows a disturbing trend by these folks to not follow any professional studies or our Master Plan, as evidenced most recently with the rejection of solid recommendations in a 2006 study and our own 2008 Master Plan to protect the neighborhoods of Cranbury and Silvermine, hundreds of existing small businesses, and public safety by limiting retail on a Main Ave. to 10,000 square feet. Instead of allowing public comment on this crucial zone change, Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk, her treasurer for state office (Wilson is running for Cafero’s seat), voted down the zone change in committee, treating us to a frightening speech on property rights and the fact that the Zoning Commission did not have the right to limit any building size on a Main Ave, paving the way for another CT Ave big box nightmare that will ruin neighborhoods and negatively affect hundreds of locally-owned small business, on one of the most dangerous roads in CT.
    I point these facts out to illustrate how dysfunctional our planning process has become in Norwalk with poor leadership and stubborn staff (many if whom don’t live in Norwalk)who refuse to listen to experts or follow any studies that taxpayers have paid for. It is sad to witness, as it directly affects all of our lives, through public safety, quality of life, property values, and lack of affordable housing and new businesses.
    This must change soon or we will miss this economic cycle as surely as we have missed the last two because of our inept and uncoordinated planning process, and because of petty obstructionism on the Zoning Commission by just a few folks who are tone deaf to anything the experts we all hired have to say.

  4. the donut hole

    300k / 2 x 8×10 spots = $1875 per square foot. Criminal.

  5. Carol

    we need new people on zoning-new ideas,not people that stay on for years and years it has become a fiasco the commission needs to get real,we do not need another box store on main ave.

  6. EDR

    The dislike you have for Mr. Greene and the current leadership of the zoning commission is obvious. Did you ever wonder why you do not get anywhere with your ideas?

  7. Carol

    edr-i have the greatest respect for mr. greene,i just believe that people should not serve on commissions forever,we need new ideas and leadership on commissions.

  8. Dorothy Mobilia

    Mike Mushak makes many strong points about seizing the moment to move Norwalk ahead. Zoning officials should make it a priority to look around the country to see what other municipalities have done to turn themselves around into viable, inviting, successful places to live and work. Equally important, we should adopt the studies the city has paid for over the years to improve Norwalk. It makes no sense to pay for them, ignore them, and complain about taxes. He mentions other zoning issues, but the one that plagues me the most is parking, especially in Norwalk Center and SoNo. There’s plenty of evidence that rational parking regulations and more space availability are needed–otherwise, we are squeezing the life out of our small businesses, not to mention the city’s wonderful libraries.

  9. Mike Mushak

    Thank you Dorothy, and Carol. EDR, who is former Zoning Chair Ernie Des Rochers who is now on the Oak Hills Authority, repeats a silly statement that I have heard him and others say many times, that somehow these are “my” ideas that are in millions of dollars of expert studies and in our Master Plan. That gives me a lot of credit for influencing dozens of consultants who are nationally recognized and who taxpayers have paid to help Norwalk move forward. I am truly flattered that he gives me all the credit for all of these smart “ideas”!
    Perhaps Mr Des Rochers should read his own lease between Oak Hills Park Authority and the city, which clearly states any city staff time that OHPA uses will be fully reimbursed back to the city to protect taxpayers from corruption of process. This relates to Mike Greene’s serving to help OHPA with their own master plan, which is NOT following established city process for parks but seems like a hobbled together attempt to justify the $4 million driving range with still mysterious financing sources. Ironically, Mr Greene is improperly helping OHPA it seems while he has not been to a Zoning meeting in over a year, a job he is paid $150,000 a year to do by taxpayers as he is the designated staff member to the Zoning Commission. He has also eliminated any oversight by the ZC to his actions by threatening legal action if we discuss a performance review of him, which he hadn’t had since 2006 when Moccia got elected. Basically he is free to do anything he wants no matter what the consequences, since he answers to absolutely no one but himself in City Hall, including ignore his job while he continues to get paid millions over the years by taxpayers. He can just go decide on his own to help his old buddy Ernie over at OHPA in what appears to be a corrupted master plan process, ignore expert studies like the TOD plan and Parking Master Plan that is holding the city back, and terrorize the Zoning Commission with legal threats to eliminate proper oversight the ZC has the right to do according to the City organizational chart and best management practices for municipalities.
    But in EDR’s mind, all this is just fine as he is good friends with Mike Greene, and how dare I state all of this corruption of process publicly! Why, it is me who is the problem of course, not Mike Greene, who is almost universally disliked by many developers and other city officials who understand the lost potential of Norwalk under his 35 year reign, and whose big “accomplishment” was the poorly planned big box nightmare on CT Ave (and now on Main Ave, sadly) that had led to strangling traffic jams of regional traffic on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and a reduced tax base and lower property values.
    We still don’t have proper zoning enforcement because Greene had used the treble damage law for zoning staff as an excuse for decades, until we worked hard to change the law 2 years ago to eliminate Greene’s excuse (which no other city in CT used by the way) and we still have no policy changes to keep up with all other cities. He just shoves the zoning violation cases over to the overworked Corporation Counsel office since he can’t be bothered, clogging the courts, angering judges, and angering the good folks of Norwalk who never seem to get chronic violators in their neighborhoods to correct their violations.
    And meanwhile we ignore all those pesky expert studies representing millions of dollars of wasted taxpayer investment that Greene routinely ignores, and actually has disdain for as they were commissioned by his arch personal enemies over at the Redevelopment Agency (yes, it’s that bad), and who Greene’s “protectors” such as EDR and Joe Santo help enable with deliberate attempts to thwart transparency and accountability on both OHPA and the Zoning Commission.
    It is unbelievable but that’s what we have been burdened with, and will only change with new appointments and a serious commitment to professionalism and integrity which can only happen with staff changes and new blood, not just in the P and Z department but in DPW as well. It will happen, and I may take repeated hits by the usual thugs protecting the corrupt status quo, but there is so much momentum now for change that it will be impossible for this inept crowd to continue with the entrenched Keystone Kops approach to planning the future of our great city. Just wait for the upcoming OHPA fiasco to reveal itself, thanks to EDR and his old buddy Mike Greene.

  10. John Hamlin

    Thank heaven that Mr Mushak speaks and works for sensible change and refuses to be stifled by those clinging to the mediocre underpinnings of a failed status quo. Accountability and common sense should be the bedrock of our city administration.

  11. Mike Mushak

    Thank you Mr. Hamlin. Well said. It is certainly looking more optimistic now, but it will take another couple of years to actually clean out the mess and start over with new blood and new ideas. Be patient, it’s coming, and everyone knows it.

  12. Mike you have many good ideas as I have said in the past. Check the record. You unfortunately come across as angry and not open to any opinion but your own and those who agree with you.That is obvious with you constant criticism of Mr. Greene and your fellow zoning commissioners.

    For the record he was at our meeting on his own time as a favor to me. I asked for his help and guidance as my friend and he graciously offered to help the OHPA because that is who he is.- willing to help anyone. Your personal attacks toward him are unprofessional and just plain wrong.

  13. the donut hole

    Perfect quote on thehour.com. Link here.

    Nancy Chapman posted at 5:44 pm on Mon, Apr 21, 2014.

    NancyCPosts: 1

    Thank you Mr. Torrano for putting into words that many of us feel about Mushak and his lengthy and tiresome tirades

    Editor’s note: The alleged Nancy Chapman who posted this comment on The Hour is not Nancy Guenther Chapman of NancyOnNorwwalk. We have posted a comment on The Hour version of Mr. Torrano’s letter that also appeared on this site to clarify that. We thank Mr. Hole for calling this to our attention.

  14. Mike Mushak

    EDR, is Mike Greene on your Master Plan Committee, and have you met regularly with proper FOI public notice? Or have you met secretly? How many times have you met? Is there a conflict with Mike Greene serving to advise a private business venture prepare a master plan that will then come before 3 separate commission under his control, the Zoning, Planning, and Conservation Commissions?. Are you following the established park master plan process used at Vets park, Cranbury Park, and Mill Hill, that includes months of public meetings and feedback and is controlled by an advisory committee of ALL stakeholders including neighbors of the park?
    I recall hearing in a public meeting that Mr.. Greene had offered other staff’s time to help in this process. Are they all donating their time as well? The lease is strict about this issue and any staff time MUST be reimbursed to city taxpayers, as I understand OHPA was designed to run the park completely on revenues generated there. If I am wrong on that please correct me. Perhaps I am reading the lease and the city charter wrong.
    Last, I am highly disturbed by Mike Greene’s absence from the Zoning Commission meetings for over a year even though he is paid $150,000 a year by taxpayers to be our full time staff member. In fact, Mr. Greene said he and his staff were so busy with new permit applications that he had no time to administer the long-delayed waterfront trail system in Norwalk, so it was taken away from him and given to the Redevelopment Agency which has made great progress in the last year. How can Mr. Greene be so busy that he hasn’t had time to attend ZC meetings but he has enough free time to offer his own time and his staff’s time to help OHPA?
    The tragedy is that over the past year of Mr. Greene’s absence on the ZC, we have discussed and approved many major projects without his involvement, but other crucial initiatives have been blocked or delayed including the Master Plan-recommended Main Ave. zone change designed to protect public health and safety and the neighborhoods of Cranbury and Silvermine as well as hundreds of existing small businesses. We also have seen long delays on implementation of the TOD zoning overlay in SoNo and the Parking Master Plan that many developers and other officials have been desperate to get approved to help them plan and finance their much-needed projects to spur economic development and provide more housing and jobs.
    Mr. Greeen has no time to work on these important issues but he has time to help a private business build a driving range at Oak Hills Park? How can this be? How can the city continue to allow this unacceptable situation to continue? Something has to change, soon, or we will all suffer and miss the next economic cycle as surely as we missed the last two as property taxes skyrocket and Mr. Greene continues to collect $150,000 a year from Norwalk taxpayers while not doing his job.

  15. EveT

    What, if any, is the city’s explanation offered for Mr. Greene’s “absence from the Zoning Commission meetings for over a year”? This sounds like something that shouldn’t be tolerated, unless there is another side to the story that we are not hearing.

  16. spanner

    Where is the Environmental task force?

    Every vacume truck load of contaminants from West ave to Washington st manholes has a chemical footprint,no one has ever thought it was important to tell the taxpayers what they are pumping out of the ground?This process happens more often than not.The level of protetction of its workers tells you there is something coming out of the ground thats nasty.

    An old landfill sits on the 95-7 land who talks about that?It was eviedent when the rail bridge was put in by the city blind eyes were developed.

    The city is full of people more intetested in parking spaces urban planning than the health of others this can be read in some postings.Maybe its ignorance not profit or community advancement that drives most planners.

    “We picked two because we don’t have enough money for four,” What was in all four that made them candidates?Who did the work was it a professional company or a dirt job buddy?Never a straight answer from Sweitzer on what she knows or what she doesn’t.

  17. Local Ed

    Everyone should go to event tonight at 50 Washington Steet hopefully they will address the Lot. 5:30-7:30
    “The Norwalk Redevelopment Agency invites you to a presentation by author and planner Robert Gibbs”

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