Wall Street settlement opens pathway to secure library parking

Former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp.

The recent Wall Street settlement between the City of Norwalk and Milligan Properties removes a nagging complication from moving forward with securing permanent on-site parking for users of the Norwalk Public Library.

The settlement clears the deck for a renewed commitment to achieve the vision expressed by Mayor Rilling in his December 15, 2019, post-election letter to Norwalk residents that “on deck [for his administration] is planning for a 25,000-square-foot expansion of the Norwalk Public Library. This project will help make our library a model for all public libraries in the country. It will provide additional public spaces and be an anchor of future economic development in the area.” 

The Wall Street settlement adds momentum to the campaign for on-site library parking for at least two reasons. First, it enables the decision of whether to exercise all or part of the 2017 “11 Belden option to purchase agreement” between the City and Milligan to be evaluated on its own merits without the complications of all the other legal entanglements between Milligan and the Rilling Administration getting in the way.

Second, the settlement opens the door to a new era for the Wall Street area that sheds the past decade of litigation and acrimonious sniping. The City and Mr. Milligan both commit in the settlement to “move forward on their shared commitment to creating a vibrant and modern Wall Street corridor….” Even further, “The City acknowledges that Mr. Milligan has made a positive impact over the years in the Wall Street neighborhood….”

All Norwalk residents can thank Mayor Rilling, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola and Mr. Milligan for successfully negotiating a settlement that looks to the future of Wall Street. And speaking as a concerned resident of Norwalk and not as a Library Board member, I believe that the anchor of the future Wall Street is a modernized and renovated Norwalk Public Library with free on-site parking obtained by the city exercising its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase the existing 40-space parking lot pursuant to a negotiation under the “option Agreement” with Mr. Milligan.

A chain blocks entrance to the private Belden Avenue lot next to the Norwalk Public Library in September 2017.

Who can forget when the dreaded yellow parking chain that blocked library parking was cut down in 2017. Library programming and attendance flourished.  New and better access to the library was opened up for seniors, parents with strollers, residents with disabilities, evening concert audiences, and other attendees at special events like the Norwalk Film Festival, the Wall Street Holiday Craft Show, Independent Author Day and the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Opportunity Zones Briefing. The on-site parking also enabled us to become an official city voting location for District A last year.

Are There Any Realistic Alternatives for Free On-Site Permanent Library Parking?

Let’s examine whether there are any realistic alternatives to purchasing the current lot.

First, the old regulation for library parking embedded in the Norwalk Zoning Code that allowed a public library to be “zoning compliant” if it was located within 1,000 feet of a public parking garage never worked. The Yankee Doodle Garage simply is too far away and too inconvenient for library patrons. It was rarely used and, in my view, cannot be the future primary locale for library parking despite cosmetic improvements under way by the Parking Authority.

Second, the new lease for 30 spaces on the Eagles property is not a solution. The leased spaces may help supplement current library parking, but they are not a replacement. Leased spaces are not a solution because the need for parking is permanent while the lease is temporary. It might be renewed or it might not. The Eagles lot might be sold. Another entity might offer the Eagles a higher price in the future. It would not be wise for the city to invest millions in library modernization or expansion on the rickety foundation of a short-term parking lease.

But even more fatal to the preposterous idea of presenting the Eagles lease as a “replacement” parking plan is that if the partial “option” is not exercised, there will no longer be direct access from the Eagles lot to the library. After Milligan resumes ownership of the library lot if the “option’s” August 30 deadline passes, the old yellow chain will go back up and a new 69-unit residential building or larger will be built in between the Eagles lot and the library.

As a matter of historical background, the paved lot behind the library was part of the 11 Belden Avenue People’s Bank property that could have been acquired for library patron parking but for some reason the City never acted to acquire it. Instead, Milligan purchased it and received zoning approval to construct a 69-unit residential building that would have permanently prevented any significant library parking adjacent to the library.

I was appointed to the Library Board by Mayor Rilling after Milligan had submitted his plans to the Zoning Commission and was tasked with salvaging the parking. We did so, appealing from  Milligan’s zoning approval while negotiating a creative 6-year “option agreement” approved by Mayor Rilling and the Common Council.  That “option” gave the City the right to purchase 11 Belden for a fixed price of $4.88 million with no inflation adjustment at any time during the 2017-2023 period. It reserved the 40-45 space lot behind the library for the City’s use for free and exclusive parking for library users. The 6-year “option” cost $425,000 and expires on August 30. The City must notify Milligan by June 30 if it intends to exercise the “option.”

Third, there is property located at 3 Belden Avenue owned by the First Taxing District now occupied by the Redevelopment Agency that the city may acquire. That change would be very positive but the spaces at 3 Belden are not numerous enough to substitute for the current lot. Like the Eagles leased spaces, they are useful supplemental but not substitute parking. Even more important, that property is the prime location for library expansion and cannot be expected to double usage as both an expanded library facility and a parking facility.

My conclusion is that there is no viable alternative to retaining the current library parking lot.

The Balance of Benefits in the ”Option” Agreement Favors the City

If none of these three alleged alternatives provide a satisfactory permanent substitute for the current library parking lot, what other issues might cause the City to let the “option” expire on June 30 without even attempting to negotiate a purchase of the lot from Milligan?

First, the recent POKO settlement removes the City’s litigation against Milligan from the table and enables officials to deal with him on the specifics of negotiating the purchase of the parking lot under the umbrella of the “option” without other Wall Street complications. Let’s test his expressed commitment to making Wall Street flourish, as he promised in the settlement. A vibrant modern library will make his Wall Street properties more attractive to residential tenants and small business operators.

Second, the City will never be in a stronger negotiating position against Milligan than it has now under the “option” agreement because the overall price of the entire property was fixed in 2017. We made sure there was no future inflation adjustment allowed in Milligan’s favor that could distort the “option” decision. In an arms-length property sale, the seller will always try to claim a higher sale price based on inflation, a favorable assessor’s opinion, changed business conditions, etc. But this is not a traditional “arms-length” property transaction because the entire price was fixed. This benefits the City.

Third, in my opinion the City would be getting the better deal by negotiating a partial “option” purchase. When you balance the benefits to both sides, my conclusion is that the City has the most to gain. Of course, this balancing is not simply a mathematical exercise because of the intangibles involved. The City’s options are to exercise the full “option” for all of 11 Belden or to negotiate for a partial “option” purchase for the current library lot. I’ll deal with the latter option only, but the logic applies to the resale value for the City of the rest of 11 Belden as well.

What would be the benefit to Milligan of selling just the library parking lot? He most likely would be getting an above-market price for the 40-some parking spaces. The Wall Street settlement assigned a price of $22,000 per space for the 88 spaces Milligan must set aside for the City on the former Leonard Street municipal parking lot. If a similar value were assigned to the library’s 40-some spaces, the comparable value would be $880,000. I am not willing to guess what the parking lot-only “option” price might be, but in all probability it would benefit Mr. Milligan financially. Let’s not forget, however, that the Norwalk Parking Authority has already invested funds in leveling, paving, and gating the lot for library patrons—an investment that will not have to be duplicated.

On the other hand, we should be careful about assuming that such a sale in fact is in Milligan’s long-term financial interest. The library lot’s commercial value to Milligan is enriched enormously if the City fails to purchase it because instead of making a modest profit from selling 40-some spaces at a higher-than-normal commercial rate he could construct a 69-unit or bigger residential building in the middle of downtown Wall Street at a much higher profit rate where new vacant property is not being created anymore! I view with skepticism the widespread assumption that Milligan is licking-his-chops even at the higher price-per-space.

What is the benefit to the City of purchasing the existing parking lot? I dare to say it is “priceless” because the land-locked Norwalk library cannot thrive or expand without it. It’s a pity that nothing was done when the bank property was for sale some years ago, but now we have to face the choice before us. We face a “now or never” choice. Yes, the cost of the parking spaces probably is higher than commercial comparables but spread over the next four or five decades of use the price becomes not unreasonable and that is the proper way to judge capital investments for the public good.

Fourth, there is City capital funding available to purchase the parking lot-portion of the “option” without jeopardizing the City’s triple-A bond rating or interfering with the substantial budget for  school construction. Funding was set aside in the library’s approved capital budget for Fiscal Years 20 and 21 before the library project was moved out of the library budget in Fiscal Year 22 and into the economic development department’s budget.

In addition, the city is about to receive over $4 million from the sale of property on Monroe Street to Spinnaker. And for those seeking poetic justice, the City just received over $1 million in cash from Milligan as part of the Wall Street settlement.

The 2017 “option” agreement was set at 6 years to make sure that the library capital budget requests did not interfere or compete with the massive school construction program given the City’s limited fiscal capacity. But now it is time for a modest capital expenditure to benefit the library or to risk losing this once-in-a lifetime opportunity. We stopped Mr. Milligan’s  residential construction in 2017 but don’t count on that miracle repeating itself.

Finally, does it really benefit the City to be overly cautious when it comes to the role of a convenient modern public library in adding to Norwalk’s quality of life? Not when we consider how city officials in the past looked out for future generations by purchasing land to build the Oak Hills Golf Course, purchasing land to build a city beach at Calf Pasture, purchasing land for Cranbury Park, purchasing land for a community garden at Fodor Farm (and to prevent a large-scale residential development!)—and future generations visiting the library will feel the same gratitude.

Our neighbors in Westport, Fairfield, Darien, New Canaan, and Stamford have all modernized their libraries at least once in the past 15 years. They clearly understand what a modern library means to their communities. I’m glad we restored the long-neglected SoNo Branch Library in 2004-5 and are now repurposing the SoNo facilities again.

But June 30 is the last time we will ever have to preserve parking by using the once-in-a-lifetime chance presented to Norwalk by the 2017 “option” agreement to serve the thousands of customers who each week are seeking to park conveniently and free as they enjoy the tremendous benefits of the main branch library. I am convinced an acceptable agreement can be negotiated. Please, please do not let this opportunity pass!

Alex Knopp is the former Mayor of Norwalk and served from 2016-2022 as President of the Norwalk Public Library Board of Directors. He submitted this Opinion Essay as a Norwalk resident and not as a member of the Library Board of Directors.


5 responses to “Wall Street settlement opens pathway to secure library parking”

  1. Adam Blank

    I think the POKO settlement makes this more unlikely to occur. I don’t see how the administration can pay more than $1M for the parking or it will be ripped apart on the POKO settlement. But maybe the City can negotiate a deal to pay roughly the same $22k per space for access to parking at this location rather than an outright purchase of the land, thus allowing Jason to develop the parcel with excess parking earmarked for the library.

  2. Mike McGuire

    A couple of things for the Common Council to consider as alternatives to the Knopp Parking Plan.

    First – The City’s Transportation, Mobility and Parking commission headed by Jim Travers has a Wall Street Redevelopment plan which includes a land swap with the Post Office and in doing so, creates pedestrian access to the sorely underutilized Yankee Doodle Garage by way of the redesigned intersection of Wall-West-Belden. This is the plan that is being implemented over the next several years for the Wall Street area.

    The Travers Plan would be far less costly than the Knopp Plan. Plus, this would allow Milligan to develop the property into much needed housing in a plan that is already approved.

    Second – the Wall Street area from Main to Mott, and in particular the area west of Belden Ave has far more parking spaces than are needed for the buildings and uses that area already down here. We just need some creative work by Travers and others to unlock it. The taxpayers don’t need to fund another bad land deal.

  3. Alex Knopp

    I appreciate the plurality of opinions being expressed about the library parking issue and the future of Wall Street and would like to offer my view on these comments.

    My many disagreements with Mike McGuire about Wall Street over the years continue. The Travers Plan is an excellent contribution to the Wall Street Revitalization plan authored by my administration and partially implemented by the DiScala development on the eastern portion of the neighborhood. I support the concepts in the Travers Proposal and hope it will be successful. But the Yankee Doodle Garage no matter how it is reconfigured and no matter what color it is repainted will not solve the parking problem for the library, which requires parking adjacent to the library for the convenience of seniors, parents with strollers, people with disabilities, children and others in good weather and bad. Mr. McGuire’s suggestion that the Travers reconstruction of many streets and pathways is cheaper than what I advocate for the library parking is as questionnable as were his election denial conspiracies voiced after the last election. Again, the plan put forward via Mr. Travers’ department is excellent but it will not provide the free, adjacent and convenient parking the library needs. As Mayor I tried to acquire that Post Office’s property now under discussion but ran out of time to negotiate with the Post Office. I hope Mr. Travers is more successful than I was because it will help Wall Street even if it does not satisfy the library’s parking needs.

    I simply disagree with Mr. Blank’s assessment. Unfortunately, it was Mr. Blank who led the Zoning Commission’s questionable approval in 2016 of Mr. Milligan’s application to build 69 residential units when Mr. Blank was chairman of the Norwalk Zoning Commission. There were enough loopholes in that approval, including a strange allowance of off-site and unmeasured parking spaces across Mott Street, that enabled us to bring a substantial appeal and have the Milligan application withdrawn as part of our settlement with him along with the “option agreement.” Approval of the Milligan plan surely caused an increase in the cost of the “option” in 2017. In my opinion, Mr. Blank’s pro-developer attitude and continued support in his comment even today for a large-scale Milligan residential development ignores the needs of library patrons, just as his rebuttal misstated and ignored the wishes of hundreds of East Norwalk residents to downsize the inappropriately large residential development on Cemetery Street that he represented before the Zoning Commission last month.

    The plan I am advocating is not the “Knopp Plan” but is the plan based on the “option agreement” approved by the Common Council and Mayor Rilling in 2017. As Library Board president at the time, I may have contributed to the negotiations, but I have no current role in implementing a City negotiation strategy under the “option” framework. I am seeking a good faith effort by the City to negotiate with Mr. Milligan to purchase at least the current library parking lot. After having spoken to all the parties over the years and studied their financial positions, I am convinced that a good agreement for that parcel can be reached by the June 30 deadline. The fact is that the parking alternatives to acquiring the current lot just don’t work. I wish they did work! I can think of practices that could have been done differently since 2017 to make a new agreement more palatable but now we have to look to the future and not rehash prior complications.

    Wall Street can and will be a great New England Main Street destination of cultural, educational, small business and downtown residential life for Norwalk; the library proudly serves as the anchor for this vision of Wall Street; and free and adjacent parking is vital for the success of a modern library. Unfortunately there simply is no alternative to acquiring the current lot even if the spaces end up costing more than spaces elsewhere in the city. It is the cost to future generations of Norwalk families of ignoring the library’s parking needs that is truly unaffordable.

  4. Barbara Meyer Mitchell

    Thank you, Mayor Knopp. Only a person who isn’t disabled or a new mother would think that parking at Yankee Doodle is an acceptable solution. Please Norwalk, invest in your future.

  5. Michael McGuire

    I think they have handicapped parking spaces available to address those issues onsite, no? Call me a skeptic, but when ‘Alex Knopp’ and ‘land deals’ are used in the same sentence I can’t help but be wary. Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t it Alex Knopp that gave us POKO, Oak Hills Restaurant, and the Norwalk Parking Authority.

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