Home Economy Covid-19 presenting opportunities for Norwalk real estate, panel says

Covid-19 presenting opportunities for Norwalk real estate, panel says

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The real estate market in Norwalk is looking good, thanks to renewed interest in the suburbs, according to the panelists on The Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce’s 4th annual “Real Estate Outlook” discussion.

Held via Zoom on Oct. 15 and sponsored by law firm Halloran Sage, the event found its participants in a relatively upbeat mood, with one of the underlying themes being that Covid-19 — while obviously devastating to millions of families as well as to thousands of businesses — has actually presented some attractive opportunities.

In some ways, said moderator and Halloran Sage attorney Eric Bernheim, he’ll be “sorry” to see the summer of 2020 go — not just for a renewed appreciation of al fresco dining, but for witnessing so many of his restaurant clients deftly pivot to offering to-go and delivery services that they hadn’t before.

“That has created new revenue streams and more opportunities,” Bernheim said, with the rise of “ghost” and “cloud” kitchens — centralized, licensed commercial food production facilities where up to several restaurants can rent space to prepare take-out and delivery meals — likely to continue.

“Instead of spending $2 million on a new building, they can join a cloud or ghost kitchen for a $30,000 investment,” he said. “And that’s a revenue stream that’s not going to go away when the pandemic goes away.”

The attorney also asked state and local legislators to consider keeping relaxed restrictions in place even once Covid-19 fades away, saying that what has helped dining and entertainment venues stay alive now will also help them recover in the future.

As for the masses of people moving from New York to places like Norwalk, realtor Judith Dominguez of WEB Realty Co. said Fairfield County property sales alone are up 9.16% in March-October of this year, compared to the same period in 2019. That those are sales and not rentals means that “People are coming here to stay,” she said. “They like the area and are looking at what the city has to offer.”

The beaches in Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield have been particularly strong selling points, Dominguez continued, but even the Greenwich/Darien area — where she said some properties had been on the market for 200-plus days — are “now flying off the shelves.”

Bernheim added that even towns without mixed-use developments and walkable communities such as Weston, Easton and Redding are now picking up. “I’ve had clients buying properties sight unseen for cash” because of their rush to leave New York City, he said.

Reacting to criticism from some quarters that there are now too many apartments being built in Norwalk, JoAnn McGrath, director of leasing for Merritt 7 Ventures-Marcus Partners, said, “We’re responding to demand. Our goal is to address supply concerns.” Without the proper amount of supply, she noted, the affordability of dwellings grows farther out of reach for many would-be residents.

On the retail side, SoNo Collection Senior General Manager Matt Seebeck said that brick-and-mortar merchants have increasingly had to become fulfillment centers. Even so, he said, while 10 years ago stores’ fulfillment areas were in the 30- to 45-mile range, during the pandemic, SoNo stores have been fulfilling orders from places like Mississippi and Alaska.

The back-to-school season helped ease some concerns, he continued, as online transactions for soft goods declined for the first time since the pandemic began — partly as consumer confidence in the safety of shopping in person has grown. Nevertheless, Seebeck said, disruption issues with supply chains are still being worked out.

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli said the city is still actively working to redevelop properties in a number of neighborhoods, with “huge opportunities” on Norwalk’s west side. Connectivity is again on the upswing with the resumption of local transportation service Wheels2U, an on-demand bus service he dubbed “Uber for buses.”

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