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Are you kidding me? A $2 million giveaway? A zoning reg custom designed for Lowe’s? It’s tonight, folks!

By Diane C2: “Things Norwalkers Really Need to Know”

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s not even Friday and there are even more items to pass on to readers than originally intended for this first week of my rants. In keeping with the “features” I described in Issue 1, I’ll try to group things under the appropriate categories, but be advised before you start reading that both topics I am covering today are on agendas tonight (Dec. 6) at City Hall. If you’re interested in what I submit is the city give-away of public land to private developers, or care about the effects of big box retailers on quality of life, read on, but quickly…..

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Want to learn more about a multimillion dollar giveaway of city-owned land to a private developer? Want to figure out how a project proposed to be “years away” may be applying for a demolition permit in 2013? Read on…

Norwalk Housing Authority plans to apply this month for a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Grant of nearly $30 million to raze and redevelop Washington Village. But it’s not just Washington Village, and it’s not really Housing Authority …

Turns out the city-owned properties on Day Street, which were deeded to city by the state with restriction for light-industrial use only, are a part of the mix. The light industrial restriction had some type of sunset provision on it, allowing it to be used in another way. And the real developer is Trinity Financial out of Boston…..

Fast forward to development plan, and you’ll see the success of the Washington Village plan depends on relocating tenants offsite temporarily as new buildings go up. The proposed site is what will be privately developed mixed-use, mixed-income development on the two Day Street properties. Not so bad, right? But wait, there’s more….

Rather than sell the property for MILLIONS to private developers, the redevelopment agency hooks up with the Housing Authority and a third party, the aforementioned Trinity Financial of Boston, and proceeds with plans to sell nearly $2 million worth of land to the Housing Authority for $1 (one dollar). The Housing Authority will, in turn, give the “space above” the land to Trinity Financial … which, in turn, will build hundreds of units there and on the land where Washington Village is now (waterfront, valued in the multimillions), including hundreds of market-rate units and 136 public housing units.

Think that could never happen? Think the city can’t just give away our city-owned land to a private developer? Think again. The request to move the item forward to the full Common Council was passed unanimously by the Planning Committee on Aug. 2 of this year.

But wait, there’s more…

The Housing Authority tells the residents of Washington Village that everyone residing there now will have the opportunity to return to the new units if they are in “good standing,” but no one provides a written definition of “good standing.” Cycle back to the first iteration of Choice Neighborhoods and you’ll see that many of the original HUD Hope VI initiatives completely misled residents by telling them they could return if they met the preset criteria. Fair enough, except the residents were never told what the preset criteria were! And many were blocked from returning. But wait, there’s more …

In all the meetings I’ve attended regarding first Hope VI and now Choice Neighborhoods, tenants and residents have been told the project is “many years down the road,” “at least 5-6 years off,” “not next year, don’t start packing” and “won’t happen for a long time,” which all sounded reasonable, given how government grants work – until I took a peek at the backup material for tonight’s Planning Committee meeting. I noticed that the Redevelopment Agency’s review of the Housing Authority Annual Plan includes an executive summary page from the Housing Authority that reads “The NHA will submit an application for demolition of Washington Village in 2013”. SAY WHAT?!

Want to learn more – attend tonight’s Planning Committee meeting at City Hall at 7:30 p.m., where the Redevelopment Agency and the Choice Neighborhood developer will present the updated plans … you can bet they’ll be looking for some fast council action soon.

UNDER THE RADAR

Once upon a time, in a land called Norwalk, a non-profit group operating under the auspices of the Redevelopment Agency called Keep Norwalk Beautiful applied for a $20,000 neighborhood improvement grant through Keep America Beautiful’s partnership with Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers.

The grant would go toward building a pavilion in Flax Hill Park, in the Golden Hill section of Norwalk. Golden Hill resident and Neighborhood Association member Jim DelGreco sits on the board of Keep Norwalk Beautiful, so I’m sure he was thrilled! And a nice pavilion to sit under would be a welcomed addition in any park.

Being just a teeny bit familiar with corporate grants, it occurred to me (and others) that retail corporations usually provide their grants to communities where they have a presence, and I knew for sure there wasn’t any Lowe’s in Norwalk. BUT, word on the street was that Lowe’s was looking for a permit to build on either Connecticut Avenue or Main Avenue.

Meanwhile, back at City Hall in the springtime, you’ll recall the ongoing saga of the zoning department seeking to change the height regulations for big box retailers to eliminate the need for a second story on structures greater than 80,000 square feet. Got to thinking “Lowe’s!” But P&Z Director Mike Greene voluntarily, without anyone even asking, tells the zoning committee that the request to change the regulation was not the result of an application – meaning, no application was received.

Question: Had Lowe’s submitted an application to build in Norwalk? Answer: No. Because an application is not an application until it is submitted. Kind of a “depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” explanation.

Months of getting the word out to concerned citizens results in folks figuring out that the only reason the regulation would need changing is if a big box retailer (could it be Lowe’s?) was about to apply for a permit. So some folks start to argue against the zoning change, which would essentially allow any big box retailer (like Lowe’s) to build sprawling buildings with massive parking lots on Connecticut Avenue, Main Avenue, Westport Avenue, and even some neighborhood business zones (which were later removed from the zone change request).

All the while, we’re scratching our heads wondering why Mike Greene is insistent on changing the regulation to make it easier and cheaper for big box stores (read: Lowe’s) to build here if there wasn’t even any application (for Lowe’s).

By this time, others and I are publicly using the name Lowe’s and Connecticut Avenue in every reference to the zoning change, but the denials continue.

Late spring or early summer, we hear that Norwalk indeed has won the Lowe’s $20,000 grant for the park pavilion.

Short story long, the zoning committee obviously wants Lowe’s to come to Norwalk, so rather than approve the regulation as requested, which would open up all the business zones for more big box stores, they write what is essentially a zoning regulation specific to the Lowe’s location:

“Buildings with a retail floor area of eighty thousand (80,000) square feet or more shall be exempt from minimum building height requirements, so long as they are located within .8 mile of an on or off ramp of an interstate highway.”

Not 1/2 mile, not 3/4 mile, not 1 mile, but exactly, precisely, 8/10th of a mile.

May as well have written the regulation “only retailers whose names start with an “L” and end with an “S” on an avenue that shares it’s name with the state”.

But to make matter worse, and to preempt any neighborhood quality-of-life issues down the road (‘scuse the pun), we have this gem on the night of the approval:

“Mr. Greene reminded all the commissioners that if the amendment is passed, the courts have assumed that traffic volumes had been considered before voting on the proposed amendment.”

The amendment passed. Lowe’s filed its application to build a 135,000-square-foot facility at 100 Connecticut Ave. Looks like no one can raise the point of excessive traffic?

Lowe’s will be coming before the Zoning Committee this evening for “further review” of the application. I expect their requests for special permit and parking requirement changes will be scheduled for public hearing very soon.

Prediction: Next up, BJ’S on Main Avenue, where I’m sure additional “applicant-friendly” (read: specific) zoning will be approved – something like “approved only in a zone that is within 1/2 mile of a parkway that begins with M and ends in T” …. I only hope that the “grant” payment on that one is WAY more than $20,000.

Comments

4 responses to “Are you kidding me? A $2 million giveaway? A zoning reg custom designed for Lowe’s? It’s tonight, folks!”

  1. John Frank

    Diane
    Great column. You’re right, you can’t make this up. When we see city property given away, there has to be a significant reason. It is hard not to wonder who benefits personally from such a transaction.
    They must know the market value of the property and there must be some requirement to replace the Washington Village units, but “giving” land away does not seem to make sense unless there is some “under the table” benefits for somebody. And even raising the question makes people angry.
    Who voted on raising the tipping fee for garbage trucks and who gets that money ?

  2. Diane C2

    John, thanks, and stay tuned.
    On the tipping, I’ll check the minutes for you, but I think it passed unanimously on Public Works Committee and Council. I think city gets revenue, but will try to find that out as well.

    1. John Frank

      Diane
      It passed the council with no apparent discussion on Nov.13 and seems to apply to the crescent street transfer station. It will be interesting if that pushes more business down to City Carting’s transfer station on Meadow St, or if their price went to that amount, too. Going through minutes, I find Alvord explaining recycling has gone down, because of the economy. Good thing the city didn’t rent the meadow st transfer station for $500/yr, counting on recycling income to cover the expense, back when Alvord was advocating that idea..

  3. Oldtimer

    Within means equal to or less than. They have opened themselves up to interpretation here. 100 Ct. Ave about .8 from the ramp near Swanky Frank”s, and much closer to the ramp on West Ave. Does this mean any property within that distance from a ramp qualifies, Including the big empty properties on West Ave ? Do we see a super Walmart coming to West Ave now that they have made it so easy ? Maybe there is more than a Lowes going on.

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