West Norwalk hears mall talk, political stump speeches

Former Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms, left, talks to the West Norwalk Association Thursday in the Fox Run Elementary School cafeteria. Those watching include Wilms opponent in the race to represent the 143rd District in the statehouse, former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, right. Also watching, just to the right of Wilms, is state senate candidate Bill Dunne.
Former Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms, left, talks to the West Norwalk Association Thursday in the Fox Run Elementary School cafeteria. Those watching include Wilms opponent in the race to represent the 142nd District in the statehouse, former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, right. Also watching, just to the right of Wilms, is state senate candidate Bill Dunne.

Correction: Fred Wilms was misquoted regarding the mount of state liabilities. The proper figure, he said, is $70 billion.

NORWALK, Conn. – West Norwalk got a series of gentle sales pitches Thursday, from political candidates seeking office to GGP representatives hawking their concept for a mall on the 95/7 property.

About 50 people attended the West Norwalk Association annual meeting in Fox Run Elementary School, including almost everyone who will be on the local ballot this fall, and one – state Rep. Larry Cafero, there as an attorney for GGP – who said it was weird not to be.

U.S. congressional candidate Dan Debicella said it was a first – he agreed with a decision made by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich).

That was after WNA Co-President Linda Forcellina announced that Himes had backed out of attending because it was his wedding anniversary. “He’s made a wise choice to be home with his wife,” Debicella said.

Debicella, Republican and Independent party candidate, said he grew up in Bridgeport and he feels that the American dream is being threatened by both parties in Washington.

“The problem we have in Washington right now is extreme partisanship and gridlock,” Debicella said. “My opponent, Jim Himes, who is not here tonight, is a very nice guy and a very articulate guy, but he’s become part of the problem. He is voting 90 percent of the time with his party. He’s talking about bi-partisanship but then going down there and just rubber stamping whatever his party says.”

Ideas presented by Debicella in his four-minute speech included getting rid of the tax credits for Exxon Mobil and using the money to lower middle class taxes, getting rid of the health care exchanges created in the Affordable Care Act but keeping “the good parts” of the act, and expanding troublesome exit and entrance ramps on the Merritt Parkway and Interstate 95 to relieve congestion.

Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) and Republican challenger Bill Dunne might have the same initials but the contrast between them was hard to miss as Dunne followed Duff to the microphone.

“I feel bullish about the state of Connecticut,” Duff said. “Things are finally starting to happen and the ship is turning.”

Republican state senate
Republican state senate candidate Bill Dunne talks to the West Norwalk Association on Thursday in Fox Run Elementary School.

“Connecticut is in trouble,” Dunne said as soon as he got to the lectern, without any happy talk as a preamble.

Duff used his six minutes partially to promote Gov. Dannel Malloy, who is in a tough battle for re-election with Republican Tom Foley. With 187 part-timers in the legislature, Malloy’s leadership was needed to help craft policy changes, he said.

The results of that partnership are a bi-partisan jobs bill that has created 60,000 private sector jobs and an unemployment rate that is lower than it was four years ago, he said. “We are growing jobs at the fastest rate since the 1990’s,” Duff said.

Duff cited the gun law enacted after the Newtown tragedy, saying, “No other state in the nation was able to do that.”  Norwalk is one of the top school districts in Connecticut to receive money for new preschool slots, the widening of I-95 at exits 14 and 15 is on schedule to be done in the spring and is on budget, and funding to replace the problematic Walk Bridge has been obtained, Duff said. All of the new M-8 Metro-North train cars will be on the tracks by the end of the year, and the train station at Merritt 7 is being redone, he said.

Also, POKO Partners Wall Street Place is going ahead, partially due to state tax credits, Duff said.

Enter Dunne.

“We have a very weak economy. We have poor job growth. As a result, more people and more businesses are leaving Connecticut than are coming in,” Dunne said. “… I think fundamentally a large part of the reason is one political party has had complete control of the legislature for almost 40 years.”

The freedom Democrats have to pass any bill they want has led to irresponsible spending and a “race to the bottom of all 50 states in a variety of measures,” Dunne said.

“We’ve got to reverse this decline,” Dunne said. “I think we can do it. We need a healthy, strong, growing economy, because without that, we don’t have resources to spend on public education, to protect our environment … to protect our shoreline. In other words, we need to restore Connecticut as a great place to live, to work, the raise a family and as a place that is affordable enough to retire in, and we don’t have that now.”

“I will not vote to raise taxes or increase fees or anything like that that threatens to kill jobs,” Dunne said. “I want Norwalk and Darien to be a true voice in the state senate for a change.”

Former Norwalk Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel talks to the West Norwalk Association on Thursday in Fox Run Elementary School.

Next on the “stage” (really, a cafeteria) was former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel, seeking to take Cafero’s seat in the statehouse.

“It’s not as bad as it seems. Actually, Connecticut was just recently ranked sixth of the best states in the nation to earn a living. That was published in the Washington Post on Oct. 7,” Garfunkel said.

Garfunkel cited his experience as town clerk, working with “every department in Norwalk and a multitude of state agencies” as the reasons why he is ready to step up to the statehouse.

“It’s not just about working with the state budget and finances, it’s about working with many state agencies, and many departments across the board for regional problems and regional solutions,” Garfunkel said, offering some foreshadowing for the remarks delivered next by Republican Fred Wilms, who is also seeking the seat.

Garfunkel said that, as town clerk, he had spent weeks helping a man in his 70’s get the paperwork he needed to take the vacation of his lifetime. The man had been born at home during the 1930’s and needed a birth certificate to get a passport, he said. “We were able to recreate a document for this man,” Garfunkel said.

“This is the kind of service that I like to provide,” Garfunkel said. “It is conducive to my nature, it is something that I enjoy doing. I enjoy helping people, giving back to the community – it’s not so much giving back to the community, it’s investing in the community. I believe that I can be a conduit from this city, from these constituents … a conduit of information going back and forth from the state level to here in Norwalk. I have listened to your concerns before and I have brought solutions to you. I won’t claim that I have all the answers. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know anybody who has all the answers, but I will help find solutions. If I don’t have solutions I definitely ask the next person.”

The state needs to address transportation problems, Garfunkel said, as no one should have a three-hour commute. He suggested high-speed railroad lines, freight lines, and “possibly freight ports in Bridgeport and New Haven so we can get some of the trucks off the road.” He also said he would support property tax relief.

Wilms said he had met a lot of people by knocking on doors in the district. “What I have been hearing is there’s a lot of concern about the economy, there’s a lot of concern about jobs and there’s a lot of concern about fiscal issues, about the budget and high taxes,” Wilms said.

Connecticut has restored 67 percent of the jobs lost in the economic crash while the rest of the country has restored more than 100 percent of the jobs, he said.

“We’re going to be facing a $2 billion budget deficit, that’s on top of the $70 billion of liabilities we already face,” Wilms said. “… That’s why I believe that someone with my strong finance background can bring a new and fresh perspective to dealing with these issues.”

Wilms said he’d like to do in Hartford what he did in Norwalk, renegotiating union contracts so public employees have plans that are similar to the private sector. He slammed Malloy’s recent attempt to help Bridgewater Associates move from Westport to Stamford with $115 million in incentives, calling it corporate welfare.

Wilms said he works with small businesses in his role as Webster Bank senior vice president.

“The small businesses do not feel that the state of Connecticut is their partner. They feel like a lot of times the state is working against them, making it harder for them to succeed. So what I would like to see happen is the tax rates for businesses lowered,” Wilms said. “… I’d like to bring my strong finance background, not only with Webster Bank but also as chair of the Board of Estimate here in Norwalk for the last eight years, both municipal and private, to work on these important fiscal and economic issues.”

Doug Adams of GGP (General Growth Properties), left, and state Rep. Larry Cafero explain their concept for a South Norwalk mall to the West Norwalk Association.
Doug Adams of GGP (General Growth Properties), left, and state Rep. Larry Cafero explain their concept for a South Norwalk mall to the West Norwalk Association.

It was then Cafero’s turn to help Doug Adams of GGP (General Growth Properties) promote the South Norwalk mall concept, a presentation both have made over and over, trying to win over various community groups.

Adams said that, when he was helping to develop the Waypointe project, community meetings made the plan better.

After talk of jewel boxes – a building within a building, Adams said, protruding from the front of the structure – and plans to promote SoNo within the largely glass walls, there were a few questions.

Building the mall would be just shy of $1 billion, none of which would come from public funds, Cafero said.

One resident said pointed out that there was a lot of talk about enhancing SoNo but none of enhancing the beauty of the Norwalk River.

“We don’t want to under-utilize the roof,” Adams said, explaining that ideas were being examined. “Go on top of Maritime garage you’ll get an idea of what it looks like from about 80 feet, and we’re a little bit higher than that.”

Another question concerned cultural opportunities. Adams said the intention was to honor the part of the 95/7 Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) that calls for that type of activity.

“It is difficult to do something internal to us because of tenant considerations and what not, but on the property we are absolutely intending to do some performance and cultural (events outdoors),” Adams said.

One woman, who declined to be identified, said the presentation had changed her mind about the idea.

“I am probably more open to it after this presentation than I was,” she said, pointing to the glass front shown in GGP’s rendering. “I didn’t realize it was going to be so open, it’s open to the water.”


17 responses to “West Norwalk hears mall talk, political stump speeches”

  1. Stuart Wells

    GGP is not spending “almost a billion” to build this mall. The mall will cost approximately $250 to $300 million. The “almost a billion” is the economic effect on Connecticut, counting the multiplier effect of the money that the construction workers will re-spend, etc.
    Doug Adams from GGP explained this to me after the meeting.
    A project worth about $250 million would generate the $4.7 million per year in Norwalk real estate taxes mentioned in the presentation.
    A billion dollar project would generate 4 times as much as that, i.e. almost $19 million per year, which is why I asked Mr. Adams to explain the difference.
    $250 million is serious money to put into a project in Norwalk and would have a positive effect on the Norwalk and Connecticut economy. There was no need to overstate it. The presentation should have been clearer on the actual money being spent.
    Clearly Norwalk would be better off with tax paying projects instead of holes in the ground. Of course, the type of project, the jobs it will created, and the effect on traffic, etc are important considerations which should be explored and considered before any project approval.
    Stuart Wells, West Norwalk

  2. Betsy Wrenn

    For a dose of reality search “Dead Malls of America” and you’ll find a website all about failed U.S. malls, more added almost daily. Connecticut currently has eight dead malls. There was a detailed article in Atlantic Monthly, which you can also access online, with a profile on each of the big mall developers. Tt mentions that GGP hasn’t funded a winner since the 1980s. It’s a bad plan.

  3. Anna Duleep, City Sheriff

    One small correction: Andy Garfunkel is running for House District 142.

  4. Jeff

    Interesting pic. Something eerie about political leaders and corporate execs doing the dog and pony show about pitching an over sized and outdated concept. . I like Rep. Cafero but unfortunately have to disagree with him on the mall.

  5. Fred Wilms

    Hi Nancy,

    The State liabilities are $70 billion, not $7 million.


  6. Piberman

    Bob Dunne is certainly on target about CT racing to the bottom under Democratic super majority rule. The old maxim about the folks getting you into trouble are rarely the ones that get you out certainly apply to CT Democratic legislators.

  7. WOW just WOW

    Betsy Wrenn
    The thing you forgot to mention is that everyone of these malls were old antiquated malls that were not kept up. Also they were all in dead areas. The fact is that new malls are thriving.

  8. Michael McGuire

    @ Betsey Wren – take a hard look at the data you are putting forth. In each case the demographics of the area are in decline and/or the mall in questions has been out positioned by better (newer, better design, better location) Malls or retail areas.

    Saying malls are dead is like saying Americans no longer want to shop.

    The facts are very clear. Real estate valuation experts and good developers use a Highest and Best Use (“HBU”)analysis which goes through all the scenarios of possible development. In each case the cost vs. benefit analysis is done and consideration if given to legal and permissible use. Lets walk through an HBU analysis for 95/7 starting with 11 acres of prime real estate located at a newly configured intersection capable of handling the traffic for a 1.0 million square foot development.

    Step one – what’s feasible. Office will not work in today’s market, it is simply unfeasible, we have way to much vacant space at rents that do not financially support development. Ditto for industrial at that location. Residential is a possibility but right now its to risky since we have 1,000 new units a half mile to the north (POKO, Head of Harbor, Waypointe, Avalon) and several hundred a half mile south. Add in the developments in Stamford and Westport/Fairfield and the completion is pretty stiff. Besides why locate housing next to a freeway – there is always a discount for located residential next to a highway.

    So, if not office, residential or industrial what else can go there that is feasible, beneficial, productive, and will be a draw to Norwalk for business, and an attractive focal point for the community.

    The only feasible answer is retail. Retail rents are high enough to support new development and provide an adequate return to the land.

    The next step is figuring out what kind of retail. If you only have 11 acres to work with do you make a standard shopping center, or something more unique which would draw from a larger area, or a power center (big boxes lumped together), or how about a mixed use area with office/retail and housing in a downtown looking format. Lets quickly look at each.

    Big box rents are not really high enough to give the best return as smaller space users pay more per square foot. And a standard shopping center is just too, well standard, run of the mill blah, nor would it maximize the use of the land. Besides we have retail strips with shopping centers (CT and Westport Ave).

    OK, we are down to two candidates left, the mall concept for lack of a better term, and a mixed use concept that has office/retail and residential.

    The mixed use concept would require using roughly 20% of the space for exterior roadways/walkways etc. So you have a big lose factor. Accordingly you need to charge higher rents since you’ve lost space. Plus you are basically building another SoNo, or Wall/West/Main. Why build that when you would likely lose tenants to those lower cost areas. Or worse, cannibalize them. Therefore, mixed use is too risky – you need higher rents and risk directly competing with SoNo and Wall/West/Main.

    This leaves us with a mall concept. Note this does not have to be a fortress type mall like Stamford – there are good design concepts the open to the street on all sides. The use of the 11 acres is maximized, the density allows for lower rental rates hence more retailers to choose from. ITs size, scale and draw would attract a broad spectrum of retailers.

    And its unique in Norwalk, it does not compete with CT Ave or Westport Ave, nor does it cannibalize SoNo or Wall/West/Main. In fact it complements all those areas and brings in added business.

    I would be amazed if any other real estate expert would come to a different solution for this site.

    The thing we in Norwalk need to focus on is having GGP integrate the mall as best as possible to complement SoNo, Wall/West/Main, CT Ave and Westport Ave and our business community. By doing so Norwalk becomes a more attractive place for both businesses and families.

  9. Betsy Wrenn

    My feeling about malls is no different from most people’s today: Why waste time finding a parking place and schlepping down ginormous hallways, when I can buy it online in under 20 minutes? I quote from Atlantic Monthly’s, “Death of the American Shopping Mall”:

    “There are very few thriving physical retailers these days outside of the daily consumables markets. I did a quick analysis on the high-level health of the National Retail Federation’s list of the Top 100 retailers in 2012, focusing on merchandise retailers that would likely be located in malls (removing grocery, drug, restaurant and online retailers). I looked at three measures of retailer health: total sales growth, comp store sales growth and number of stores.

    The analysis doesn’t paint a very pretty picture regarding the health of the leading physical retailers in the United States. Total sales growth is mixed and is negative for 20 percent of the sample. Comp store sales growth—arguably the key measure of retailer health—is also mixed and a quarter of the sample is negative. And note that many of these sales results include the retailers’ online segments, so the picture for their physical stores is even worse. Lastly, store counts are simply stagnant—about as many top retailers shrank their store count as expanded it, and precious few are expanding aggressively. The largest retailers in the U.S. do not look very healthy. And if they’re struggling, it’s likely that their more marginal physical competitors are struggling even more.

    These trends are hitting the market capitalizations of most of the largest owners of retail real estate. Simon, General Growth, DDR and Kimco between them own over 600 MILLION square feet of U.S. retail real estate, according to nreionline. Simon’s stock has performed strongly, but the other three stocks have created virtually no value over the past decade.

    Most real estate professionals understand that profound changes are afoot. Don Wood, CEO of Federal Realty Investment Trust, says “there is too much retail supply in this country.” The Wall Street Journal reports:

    Green Street Advisor, an analysis firm that tracks REITs, has forecast that 10 percent of the roughly 1,000 large malls in the U.S. will fail within the next 10 years and be converted into something with far less retail. That’s a conservative estimate; many mall CEOs predict the attrition rate will be higher.”

  10. EveT

    Can we get GGP to change the building design to a more traditional New England style, especially more red brick to harmonize with the Maritime Aquarium building and the historic buildings along Washington St?
    All of that glass looks like the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim (not far from Disneyland).

  11. Michael McGuire

    @ Betsy Wrenn- you make great points that are worth taking a deeper look at. Regarding the “10% of all existing major malls going out of business or changing to an alternative use in the next 10 years”, that’s reasonable since most malls in the US were built prior to 1990 so most existing malls are functionally past their prime to begin with. Since they started building malls in the 1950’s its reasonable that 10% will be obsolete in the next decade as new formats come out, demographics shift and older designs are bypassed.

    “I don’t think we’re overbuilt, I think we’re under-demolished,” said Daniel Hurwitz, president and CEO of DDR Corp., a Cleveland-based REIT. This comment was regarding the need to flush out the old crappy malls. As he states “Retail has a finite lifespan and once you reach that lifespan, you can put up all the signs you want, and charge as low rent as you want, but that doesn’t make [tenants] want to take the space.” This further explains the Green Street Advisor comments.

    I agree with Don Wood, we do work all over the country and see too much space in many markets. Don Wood is reiterating what Dan Hurwitz was saying. However, here in the NY metro area we have a different problem – not enough space, and certainly not enough new space. This is why our rents are so high – supply and demand. Our geography and zoning history has really curtailed development in our area such that we have pent up demand.

    Extrapolating Don Wood’s and Dan Hurwitz’s concepts across the broad spectrum of publicly traded retailers and it makes sense that you would see overall sales figures moving sideways on average. Particularly with the floundering economy we’ve had to deal with over the past 6 years. But I go back to basics – since all real estate is local how are we doing on that front? Retail rents in the downtown areas of every town around us, and Norwalk included have increased significantly, since the 2009 crash, for quality product. That local trend is only supported by increased sales year over year. Our national work suggests rents holding steady in most other “average” markets. But above average markets have seen rent growth and sales per square foot growth year of year. We are an above average market blessed with affluent demographics, very limited supply of developable property and proximate to the strongest economic engines in the world – NYC.

    Again, all real estate is local. Accordingly you have to look at the “trends” and then ask yourself if that is applicable here and in this case. Given our market demographics and barriers to entry I can’t see any other feasible use for 95/7. If the numbers and market info showed a realistic alternative I’d be a proponent of that as well.

    So I have a question for you – if not a mall, what else should go there?

  12. Independent Voice

    A mall is redundant given the plethora of retail in the area and shift to internet shopping. What, if any, stores or featured attractions not already here that would be on a shoppers list or bring in a crowd. Traffic is a potential showstopper as well. One need to only observe the traffic and I-95 congestion that exists from exits 12 -16. Couple this with an enormous mall and what you have is a traffic nightmare in the making. Will GGP also widen I-95 to make this remotely feasible? Probably not.

    I’m not sure what the answer is but a mall “as our only option” is the emerging spin that could place the city in a compromising position to potentially accept a risky bet. The city should open the forum to other ideas/concepts before it is coerced into something that is just not needed or wanted. If GGP is incapable of working with the city in exploring other ideas than the Mayor should think about brokering GGP out of this site and inviting other developers back in. Speaking of, what exactly is GGP’s backstop should a mall get the thumbs down? Perhaps they can contribute to the board and enlighten us to other options on the table? Bueller.

  13. Michael McGuire

    @ Independent Voice – I don’t see the traffic issue as a problem – the intersection there of WEst and I-95 is configured for a larger development – its 7 lanes wide. The project abuts the freeway.

    I-95 is stacked up now due to the construction and road widening taking place to alleviate this major bottleneck.

    The City can’t broker a deal on this site. GGP bought it and is the owner. All the City can do is impose its rights as per the LDA and stick to a project that Spinnaker could not make work because its financially unfeasible. Sure we can delay another decade but what good does that do?

  14. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Interesting arguments on both sides of the issue of whether to mall or not to mall in Norwalk, but I would add these considerations to the discussion:

    It is evident that it is the duty of all Americans to shop. Without our obsession to acquire “stuff” as fast as we can be persuaded to do so, the world’s economy might collapse. It is the law of supply and demand, and we seem to be the world’s biggest demanders. Without us, what would happen to the economies that produce the “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in China” and all the other “Made ins…” that keep us supplied with almost obscene quantities of buyers’ choices, and what would happen to the raw material providers that keep the “Made ins…” going and the flow coming this way? (Curious and worrying how difficult it is to find few products, be they shirts or giant earth movers that say, “Made in the USA”).

    Our duty to sustain the world’s economies by consuming also makes us the top producers of the detritus that inevitably results from all that ingesting. It also produces an unsustainable and eventually uncontainable dissatisfaction among the “Made ins…” who have witnessed our well exhibited, fortunate way of life and intend to share in it one way or another, regardless of the limited resources planet Earth provides.

    So, what does this have to do with the Mall Question in Norwalk? Maybe nothing, if we can’t see beyond the ends or our noses. Is it our duty to contribute one more questionable outlet for the “Made ins…” in an area that is already over-supplied with them in a time when even all of us as consumers are tightening our ample belts? Forgetting the big picture, is it wise to imperil our own local economy with another speculative gamble on an enterprise with a questionable lifetime in a time and place now overly supplied with outlets for those needy and restless “Made ins…”?

  15. Casey Smith

    “It’s not as bad as it seems. Actually, Connecticut was just recently ranked sixth of the best states in the nation to earn a living. That was published in the Washington Post on Oct. 7,” Garfunkel said.

    I don’t care what the Washington Post says about this being the 6th best place to earn a living. I don’t know about the rest of the Norwalk residents, but I care about earning enough to pay the bills and I’m losing ground. Raises are a thing of the past, I haven’t gotten one in years, and my spouse got a paycut. I’m seeing stores go out of business and vacant buildings all over the place, so I disagree with the statement that this is “not as bad as it seems.”

  16. Michael McGuire

    Amen Casey – all the more reason to send Fred Wilms, he understands finance, business and municipal operations. We can’t afford to keep sending nice people who don’t understand in depth fiscal issues with government and business.

  17. Maritime Yards Condo Owner

    Has GGP released this presentation to the public for consumption outside of the meetings? I have been unable to attend any of the meetings and would enjoy seeing what they have to say (I do commend GGP for being accessible to the community) – I am a big skeptic of the project as I currently understand it. To me the project could be a success if the details are right and complimentary/fill a void in the neighborhood – the right stores (i.e., unique grocer or grocers), diversification away from strictly retail (i.e., sports complex, boutique hotel), the right retail (and I am skeptical of allowing any chain restaurants in the complex)and incorporating Norwalk’s water. Also, from the information I have seen, GGP seems to overstate a lot – I would enjoy having access or a presentation on their model with some of the detailed assumptions and how they were built.

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