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