Too many big box stores in Norwalk, not enough real development

Construction of the new CVS at the corner of Scribner and Connecticut Avenues can no longer be ignored.
Construction of the new CVS at the corner of Scribner and Connecticut avenues has reached an eye-catching status.

By Harry Rilling

Democratic mayoral candidate

NORWALK, Conn. – Yet another big box is about to go up on Connecticut Avenue, further clogging an already congested stretch of roadway. The traffic congestion is also set to spread to Main Street and Westport Avenue where developers are eying new sites for even more big boxes. Is that what we want for our city? More parking lots and strip malls?

Big-box stores with large floor area, wide selection, discount prices, and huge parking lots can be cheap places to shop. Unfortunately they also generate lots of traffic, pay minimal property taxes, employ workers at rock-bottom wages (often part-time and without benefits), and take the place – quite literally – of mixed-use and other development that would provide housing, better jobs and business opportunities for Norwalkers.

While the headlines in Stamford herald NBC Sports, Bridgewater Associates, Starwood Hotels and the massive Harbor Point development along with the thousands of high-paying jobs, housing units and well over a billion dollars’ worth of taxable new development, the headlines in Norwalk announce the arrival of more big box stores and strip malls like CVS, Lowes and maybe even a BJ’s Wholesale Club. Why do we get the traffic congestion, the low paying jobs and the negligible property tax revenue from this type of development?

I’ve talked to many Norwalkers who ask themselves these same questions and the answer is simple: neighboring communities are pursuing better development for their communities while Norwalk keeps approving the big box stores under our welcoming zoning regulations.

And all-the-while our local mom and pop businesses are wondering if they’ll be the next one forced to close under pressure from these multi-national corporations.

It is now too late to undo much of the damage caused by big box stores and we have missed our chances for much of the development that passed us by for other towns, but a new city administration needs to blunt the ongoing harm as quickly as possible.

Mayoral inaction on zoning is hurting our city badly and needs to be corrected. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of past years, lest Main Avenue and Westport Avenue become two more impassable arteries in our city. This is one area where new forceful leadership can make a very visible difference.


Zoning Commissioner Harry Rilling, former Norwalk Police chief and candidate for mayor

A pickup truck driver expresses exasperation with deadlocked traffic Thursday at the intersection of Scribner and Connecticut Avenues.


18 responses to “Too many big box stores in Norwalk, not enough real development”

  1. Tim T

    Odd Harry as I have also talked to many Norwalkers and the answer is simple: they say build more retail as they are sick of having to ride to Milford.
    The last thing we need is more corporate offices and banks. What we need is a mall and big box stores. I have spoken to many Norwalk taxpayers and they all seem say target,sears, lowes sams club,christmas tree shop and Ruby Tuesday type restaurants and so on.
    Also as far as mom and pop stores go let them go as they are overpriced, have a poor selection and poor return polices. They are to retail what an Edsel is the the car industry .
    I realize that retail does not pay as much as corporate offices but lets think about convenience of the residents for a change . Also maybe if we cut down on waste in Norwalk that would offset the tax loss of the retail tax issue. The one thing Harry is forgetting to mention is that these corporate offices get city and state tax breaks for many many years before they pay the full amount and when the tax break is over they relocate. With this said retail actually bring more tax revenue to the table..

  2. Tom

    Wrong Tim: Do your homework. Big box stores destroy the backbone of the American economy, the “mom and pop” stores that employ more people than all of the big box stores combined. How many more family-owned businesses will be forced to close because of these stores? Seymours Paint and hardware, Brandman’s, Richard’s Pharmacy, Windsor Drug…should I go on.

    I have spoken with many people too. We need to grow the grand list and take the excessive tax burden off the backs of homeowners. Why do you tyhink so many people are moving out of town?

  3. EastNorwalkChick

    I do agree with Mr. Rilling in regards to the number of big box stores coming to Norwalk, but what is his solution to stop this, attract other businesses to our City and help the local small business owners grow?

  4. jlightfield

    Traffic concerns, proximity to a central first responder site, and exceptions made to a thoughtful zoning requirement of a minimum of two floors for new construction in commercial zones, are the purview of the Zoning Commission. There’s nothing inherently wrong with big box stores, they represent an era in retail that is in-fact slowly dying off. The buildings that they they typically construct are the issue, warehouse type facilities that do little to enhance the property value, streetscape, or immediate neighborhood. This is a good discussion to have, but for Harry to think that the Mayor’s inaction on zoning is a factor here displays an inherent misunderstanding of Norwalk’s local government, something I’m familiar with as a former Chairman of Zoning.

  5. NorwalkVoter

    JL – I can appreciate that you know EVERYTHING about local government but you may choose not to recall all the zoning fights that preceded the mess that Connecticut Avenue is. Pressure groups like the West Norwalk Assoc. lobbied heavily to prevent “more office buildings and housing” on CT Ave and the Esposito administration caved. Don’t tell me that this isn’t how things are done. A mayor and his/her administration has a lot of incluence of zoning laws and some buckle under to the NIMBY’s of this world.

  6. oldtimer

    Harry believes there are better uses for the properties where the big box stores are being built and he would prefer employers that hire full time employees and pay better than the big box stores. It is hard to disagree, but the damage is done and the best we can do now is to try to focus on attracting the kind of employers, and jobs, he prefers without giving away too much. That is primarily a marketing job and Norwalk has a lot to offer. Maybe, when he is elected, he will do better on attracting the employers, and jobs, the city needs. More effort, and budget, needs to go into marketing the City.

  7. Tim T

    Wrong Tom: Do your homework. The days of the mom and pop stores are gone. You say “the “mom and pop” stores that employ more people than all of the big box stores combined”. That statement is almost comical as the mom and pop stores no longer exist. You also state “We need to grow the grand list”. Yes we do but not with office buildings that get tax breaks and when the tax breaks expire they relocate. Maybe you are not aware but Norwalk is filled with office building that remain empty. On the other hand retail locations remain vibrant and filled. Also you ask “Why do you thank so many people are moving out of town?” The reason I hear from many is CRIME.
    Tom I would suggest that you my friend do your homework but hey you are entitled to your “opinion “.

  8. LWitherspoon

    This letter identifies what Mr. Rilling feels is a problem, but proposes no real solution. What specific actions would Mr. Rilling take as Mayor to prevent developers from building big-box stores and encourage the “mixed-use and other development that would provide housing, better jobs and business opportunities for Norwalkers”?

  9. David

    I think this post is spot on, and the comparison to Stamford is striking. Two cities, same general area, similar issues. Yes, one is slightly larger than the other, of course, but Stamford progressed through the recent hard times while Norwalk barely hung on – if the Grand list is any indicator, that is.

    Norwalk needs a visionary. It’s very clear that the current Mayor isn’t one, but what I don’t see from any of the democratic candidates is a coherent vision of any sort.

    What will Norwalk be in 10 years? What will we be known for? The City that people come to work in? Live in? Shop in?

  10. Diane C2

    JL – Lowe’s application resulted in ‘spot zoning’ – plain and simple. The exception they needed ended up being worded precisely to suit the purpose of building Lowe’s in that exact spot.

  11. Asa H.M.

    Just wondering….if Mr. Rilling can’t prevent the big box stores from entering Norwalk with his position on the zoning commission, how will he stop them from coming if he is mayor? Does anyone know how he voted? Did he support the Lowe’s site?

  12. Tim T

    I just want to know what makes Rilling thinks he is an expert on the matter. He is only giving his opinion nothing more nothing less.

  13. Jill st. John

    What Harry may not understand is that these stores can pay top dollar for the real estate, it’s a market decision to place them where they are, the idea that mom and pop stores are going to pay for insurance or have a higher pay than chain stores shows an ignorance of how small start up businesses work. CVS and their lot, either take a long term land lease or purchase the property, and in the real estate market place they are generally a 500lb gorilla, very difficult competition financially. While I may not understand why we needed another CVS anywhere in this city, the market will ultimately bear out that theory…or not. If there is a need and people shop there it will survive, if the market is flooded with that brand, it will fail. But ultimately it is up to us…will you shop there?

  14. Jlightfield

    @NorwalkVoter Enough with the mindset that every issue has to boil down to fights that occurred in the past. Why is it that a certain generation thinks the apex of what is important happened in the in the 80s or 90s, or even before?. I simply view that era as the dark ages– the era before the digital revolution changed everything. The entire economic future of this country is being disrupted because everything has changed in how ow we find information, how we consume entertainment , how we purchase goods and services etc.

    To keep regurgitating a 90s argument as a major policy issue based on the threat of “big box” retail simply exposes a lack of understanding that Amazon and the Internet have won. Game over.

    I’m just not interested in hearing endless debate about the merits of the buggy whip industry and the late 20th century equivalents. Especially as it relates to land use.

  15. Jlightfield

    @Diane C2 Not quite spot zoning as nothing prevented Lowe’s from building there under the unmodified regulation. It’s more an example of how the Zoning Commission has stopped innovating policy and become simply reactive to applications that come in. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but the regulation was designed to increase the the density in commercial zones to encourage either mixed use or more robust buildings.

  16. LWitherspoon

    @Jill st. John
    Excellent comment. Ultimately the ones who decide what stores we get are all of us consumers. Every day we “vote” with our discretionary income, and CVS and other “big box” stores are pleasing enough people to continue thriving. That’s capitalism, which is imperfect, but it’s a lot better than any alternative. Still, I’m interested to hear what specific actions Harry Rilling would take as Mayor to reduce big box stores and replace them with housing and businesses that pay good wages.
    To anyone who thinks there’s truly a choice between a new CVS or having Bridgewater Capital move here, I’ve got a pier at Calf Pasture I’ll sell you…

  17. Tim T

    Maybe all the pro corporate office types would like to explain why we have such a huge vacancy rate among office buildings . However on the other hand retail seems to be filled.

  18. Suzanne

    I just returned from a California town that has grown by 150,000 people in the last twenty years. The small, local stores still exist in “old town” while the rest of the community looks like every other community with Home Depot, Lowe’s, Costco, Walgreens, CVS, Starbucks, etc. These stores are ubiquitous and any character left in the areas plastered by them is gone – that would include not only the sense of community but in the generic architecture, retail choices, etc.

    Now, these stores do provide many things a consumer would want but so do the smaller stores that are owned and operated by long time locals.

    L. Witherspoon is right, we do “vote” for the retail we want with our dollars. It would be a conscious choice rather than an automatic drive to go to Ring’s End, for example, rather than Home Depot for that box of penny nails (or whatever.)

    Norwalk gets to decide then what it wants to be through the character and amount of its development. Any town can have a Lowe’s or a Home Depot or a Starbucks but only one town has a “Neat” or “Goldenberry” or “Wave Bread” bakery and cafe or a “Palmers”. These establishments contribute far more to making a unique and vital neighborhood and we, as consumers, should frequent them.

    Otherwise, we are going to turn into the land of big box characterlessness that might comfort if you like to feel secure in the world seeing McDonalds on every block but does nothing for an individual town’s identity.

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