Washington Village plan sharply criticized at Norwalk Zoning hearing

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Architect Kendra Halliwell explains the plans for Washington Village at Wednesday’s Norwalk Zoning Commission public hearing.

NORWALK, Conn. – Possible flooding and the potential expense of millions of dollars were the concerns expressed by members of the public who stayed late enough Wednesday to address the Norwalk Zoning Commission about an application to build a $105 million development in South Norwalk.

The commission made no decision regarding the Norwalk Housing Authority’s and Trinity Financial’s plans to rebuild Washington Village and the surrounding area into a mixed use development, although several commissioners said they were expecting to vote on it after the public hearing. Senior Planner Dori Wilson said she needed time to do her due diligence on recent information submitted with the application. She said the vote will happen at the commission’s Jan. 15 meeting.

Diane Cece weighed in with many objections to the plan.

“Perhaps like me, you, too, have serious reservations about approving a major development that is slated to use public tax dollars to build within a FEMA flood zone, especially when other viable alternative sites were not given serious consideration, including just inland from the current proposed site,” she said. “Even if we expend millions in Norwalk tax dollars to raise the intersection, I ask that you consider the likelihood of residents’ cars being submerged under water during flooding events, and possibly even during routine rain events.”

Like others, Cece said the plan is in direct conflict with Norwalk’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).

“Please also note that the document is really called the Plan of Conservation and Development, not the Guidelines or Wish List of Conservation and Development,” she said. “After all, what is the sense of dozens of people working for years to finalize the plan, only to have it be tossed aside when it suits other agendas?”

The POCD had already been a topic.

New Commissioner Nora King questioned the planned removal of on-street parking on Water Street, and was told that the POCD actually called for taking out that parking to make room for bike lanes.

One Norwalk Planning Commissioner said recently that the project should not be approved because it was in violation of a POCD recommendation to put a parking garage in the area.

The Planning Commission approved a regulation change Tuesday evening allowing the Trinity Financial plan to put parking under the building. The Zoning Commission must also approve the regulation change, without which the plan cannot be approved.

Attorney Chris Smith of Shipman and Goodwin, representing the applicant, said the proposal is in line with part of the POCD, which calls for putting public housing on public property in the area.

The city has approved a transfer to the Norwalk Housing Authority of property at 13 and 20 Day Streets if funding is lined up for the proposed development. NHA will lease it to Trinity. Eva Ehrlich, project manager for Trinity, said that lease would be for at least 75 years.

Ganga Duleep also spoke against the proposal, expressing her opinion and that of Chris Potts, who left before the public was allowed to weigh in at 10 p.m.

The plan includes raising the intersection of Day and Raymond Streets to provide a dry area during a flood. Duleep said both she and Potts are concerned about potential flooding stemming from that plan.

“We don’t have to wait for Sandy or Irene; any time there is rainfall water will be diverted to the surrounding neighborhood,” she said. “Chris Potts thinks because the city has agreed to be responsible there will be a lot of lawsuits. … We want you to protect Norwalk taxpayers.”

Planners hope to pay for the project in part with a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Cece said the promise to move all of the current Washington Village residents into bigger apartments in the new development should be looked at with skepticism, because that grant may not come and planners are looking for other funding.

“One could assume that, if the Housing Authority is not awarded the Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant, then Trinity Financial could still proceed with private funding and would have no reason and no requirement to include public housing units in their mix,” she said. “And, in the same way another developer committed to onsite workforce on Water Street and then moved it, there is nothing to stop Trinity Financial and the NHA from doing the same if they don’t receive the HUD Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant next year. And worse, the number of required affordable units could go from the 137 Washington Village replacement units down to the zoning regulated minimum of 10 percent, meaning only 27 of the 273 units would accommodate workforce residents, and likely none would be allocated to any of the public housing residents.”

Zoning commissioners should also take into account the cost of raising the intersection, she said.

“Estimates of these costs have been as high as $10 million,” she said.

Washington Village resident Raymond Dunlap spoke in favor of the plan very briefly, handing the commission a petition signed by about 50 residents.

Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo said some of the comments were not relevant to the commission.

“Financial matters are important, but they’re not in our purview,” he said.

Ehrlich said Trinity has a history of building affordable housing development, with eight projects in New England. If the Choice Neighborhoods grant does not come through, the other funding sources would have requirements for public housing. That would be enforced by regulatory agencies, she said.

“It’s very much our goal and intention to do the plan as we proposed,” she said.

Smith addressed the flooding concerns, referring to the FEMA designation AE zone for high risk flooding areas.

“If there was a prohibition against building in an AE zone, you wouldn’t have any building occurring along the Connecticut coastline or our major rivers in this state,” he said. “Your regulations do not prohibit building within the AE zone, and the federal government doesn’t either.”


4 responses to “Washington Village plan sharply criticized at Norwalk Zoning hearing”

  1. Suzanne

    The developer can build within a FEMA designated AE zone, take their money and run. Norwalk will be left with the repercussions of the bad decision made to develop within a flood zone. And, if the desired grant for work force housing is not obtained, the number of units falls precipitously for an asset the City desperately needs. Except for the money these developers make, what is the advantage of this Washington Village development to all Norwalk citizens? Just any housing and any retail space and, yes, any parking is not necessarily good housing, retail or parking. Why is Norwalk going to such lengths to accommodate the developer? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Who is in charge of the best interests of Norwalk taxpayers? This is a highly skewed proposed project favoring the developer’s desired wishes and NOT meeting basic criteria of good sense and Norwalk needs. When is the perspective going to change when dealing with developers and these commissions? Are sitting members so blinded by fancy talk and pretty pictures? Norwalk needs to be setting the standards and developers need to meet them – not the other way around.

  2. scott kimmich

    I understand that the plan to redevelop Washington Village calls for the elevation of Day street by 5 or 6 feet., with a down slope westward toward Main Street. What will be the effect on Ryan Park, which lies between Day and Main? Where will rain water that falls on that slope go? In a heavy cloudburst, let alone a severe Northeaster, or a hurricane with the usual torrential rain, what will happen to Ryan Park, and the Church beyond? What about Main Street itself? Right now Main street is just outside the flood plain, but what will happen if that slope is in place when it rains cats and dogs? I suspect Main Street will flood.

    And what about the legality of what the City is planning to do there? Ryan Park, as far as I know, is protected against the kind of inroads that are being made there.

    In the meantime, what are we doing about infrastructure along Water street? Are we supplying the storm drains in the area with oneway valves that prevent salt water flooding during high tides? Are we considering other measures that would protect Water and Day streets from flooding during storm surges, which are progressively getting worse. Are we maintaining the storm drains? Do we have a plan to put permanent industrial-strength sump pumps, with portable auxilliaries in that flood plain? Have we considered floating, water filled berms to protect the shoreline from the fiercest surges? With or without the berms, have we planned to install stanchions that, together with swinging flood gates on cross roads, would hold high water back along Water Street? You can go on line and see all of these anti-flood devices. When is Norwalk going to come to its senses? Either you have to install such systems, or don’t build on the flood plain and build somewhere else. The Dutch have found that heavily planted level fields make good sumps to suck up floodwaters. Maybe that is the future of Ryan Park and the vacant lots across the street from it.

    We are in an era of rising sea level and increasingly heavy rainstorms. The problem is not limited to Washington Village. It’s in Shorefront Park, Harbor Shores, and Rowayton. Raising streets and building housing on pylons is merely temporizing with Mother Nature. We don’t need short-term solutions that ignore long-term dangers. What we need is to look at what is happening in the Netherlands and how they are managing the problem. They’ve got the experience and expertise. Why not hire their experts to look at our problems? City wide.

    Why not site the Washington Village redevelopment closer to the transit-oriented housing near the South Norwalk train station? As the redevelopment people said, “This area has the potential to be a vibrant, attractive neighborhood for both current and new residents and for private investment that will bring jobs, enhance real estate values and improve the quality of life for the entire community.” Sounds like a good plan. And flooding isn’t a problem.

    Trinity, the developer, is working with what it’s been given, trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. But, it’s not enough to build models and make nice with architectural renderings. The infrastructure has to be right. When the Governor, the cabinet member, the senator and the congressman were here, they were shown unrealistic, out-of-date sketches, where the house threshholds were still at the former street level. We don’t need that kind of a snow job. We need to take care of a flood job.

  3. Debora

    We should also be mindful of the recent executive order on preparing for climate change. Any funding continent on federal funding may be in jeopardy in the future.

    Executive Order 13653—Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change

  4. Oldtimer

    Raise Day St 5 or 6 ft ? Knowing that would be a very expensive project, what benefit is anticipated ? The parking and the living space can easily be built high enough to avoid flooding for many years without raising Day St. The concerns for the effect on drainage above Day St on South Main St, are valid and should not be ignored. One-way flood control gates at all the storm drains that go to the river, and salt water, can be very expensive when designed to survive salt water and still require regular maintenance to be effective.

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