Development in Norwalk stretching well beyond forthcoming mega-mall

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Mention development in Norwalk to non-Norwalk residents, and you’ll probably receive a remark or two about the SoNo Collection, the 700,000-square-foot mall that’s been the subject of a whirlwind of meetings over the past year.

While that is a massive project — one that “is going to be transformational for Norwalk and for South Norwalk in particular,” said Felix Serrano, chairman of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency board of commissioners — it is hardly all that is happening in what some locals still call Oyster Town.

Chief among those is the South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development Redevelopment Plan, designed to redevelop underused properties for commercial and residential uses in and around the South Norwalk Metro-North Railroad station while beautifying area streets and sidewalks.

The plan has been a sore subject for many residents for years, based largely on fears that such improvements will price them out of the market. Timothy Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency (NRA), was quick to point out that the agency and city government have been careful to listen to and address those concerns, with a final public hearing scheduled for Sept. 27.

Norwalk developer M.F. DiScala & Co. Inc. is involved with a plan to acquire city land along Bates Court — about a quarter-mile from the train station — to be turned into a housing development. Plans call for a four-story building with 40 units and about 52 parking spots at 1 Bates Court. A public hearing on that project is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Another major project is Head of the Harbor, a planned two-phase development by M.F. DiScala. Head of the Harbor South, consisting of 60 housing units in a pair of buildings on Smith Street and a plaza, is expected to be completed in spring 2017. Head of the Harbor North — including a five-story, 80-unit apartment building on High Street and a two-story, 8,000-square-foot retail space on Main Street — was proposed by the developer about three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, NRA recently sent out a request for proposals for a Freese Park Master Plan, including construction plans and bid specifications. The roughly one-half-acre park “has been somewhat neglected,” Sheehan said. “There is so little open space in the Wall Street area that we thought it was time to reconsider the space and the types of uses that we want to encourage in the park.”

One of the NRA’s biggest splashes is expected to come with the Washington Village Transformation Plan, which Serrano said involves replacing one of the oldest public housing units in Connecticut. Part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods Program — which supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods with distressed public or HUD-assisted housing through neighborhood transformation — the project by Boston-based developer Trinity Financial will demolish a public housing complex near Water Street and replace it with 136 public housing units, 67 workforce housing units and 670 market-rate units.

“That will make for much more of a mixed-income integration,” Serrano said. Groundbreaking is expected in October.

As for the SoNo Collection, most signs are pointing to actual site work beginning in late fall.

Serrano said that the NRA, the city and Chicago-based developer General Growth Properties worked together to navigate the twisty trail of meetings and approvals in about a year, an extraordinary pace for such a massive undertaking. “I remember we were meeting on weekends in the middle of snowstorms,” he said.

Foundation work at the mall site, off West Avenue and Interstate 95, will begin within a couple of months. “They have a two-year construction window,” Sheehan said, “and GGP has a timing issue as well.”

That issue for General Growth Properties, according to Serrano, is that “They only open (mall properties) two times a year, in April or October, so the SoNo Collection will probably be up and running in October 2018.”

The NRA executives said at least one developer is also exploring building a hotel on South Main Street close to the SoNo complex.

Not all of Norwalk’s development projects are proceeding smoothly, however. The mixed-use development project known as Wall Street Place at Isaacs and Wall Streets suddenly halted in August.

Developer POKO Partners, of Port Chester in Westchester County, began phase one of the $49.8 million project in 2015, but after the firm’s managing member Kenneth Olson was diagnosed with a chronic illness this summer and turned over his responsibilities to brother Rich Olson, work suddenly stopped. No official statement has been made by POKO and Norwalk government officials declined to comment.

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