What kind of city does Norwalk want to be?
That’s the question facing Fairfield County’s third-largest municipality as it continues developing its Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD). For many, Norwalk tends to get overlooked by nearby Bridgeport — involved with high-profile projects like a proposed casino and the forthcoming Harbor Yard amphitheater — and the even closer Stamford, continuing to build its reputation as a city friendly to corporations and tech firms.
Both pitched themselves as potential homes for Amazon’s 8 million-square-foot second headquarters — something it’s hard to imagine Norwalk doing. In fact, the city explored offering the online behemoth its Norden Park flex property as a potential distribution center, but finally decided it was too small: the 650,000-square-foot parcel is already 40 percent occupied by Northrop Grumman.
But like Bridgeport and Stamford, Norwalk is in the midst of booming development. And unlike them, it’s got a Brobdingnagian project of its own in the works: the 728,000-square-foot SoNo Collection mall, scheduled to open in October 2019.
But even that may not turn out to be Norwalk’s defining characteristic, according to Steven Kleppin, director of Norwalk’s Planning and Zoning Department. Which would be just fine with some residents and business owners.
“We’ve had hearings on that,” Kleppin said. “The fact is that nobody’s really sure of what (the mall’s) impact will be. Will visitors stop off at other places downtown? Or will they just go to the mall and then go home?”
Taking the temperature of Norwalk’s residents is very much on the minds of Kleppin and other city administrators as they put together their POCD. Due to the state in July, the plan will most likely be finalized at year’s end, he said.
The city formed a 35-member oversight committee to assist the Planning Commission in overseeing the POCD’s development. Committee members include staff from the Planning and Zoning Department, the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations and city residents.
Alerting Norwalkers that their voices should be heard is key to those efforts, Kleppin said. “Unfortunately, outreach is one of the more difficult components of the plan,” he remarked. “We’re trying to cover as many bases as we can. But not everybody is on social media — and even if they are, when they get something their first reaction is usually to clean it out and move on to the next thing.”
A recently completed online survey garnered about 350 responses — barely a drop in the bucket for a city that has some 88,000 residents, but Kleppin maintained that those who did reply represent some of Norwalk’s most passionate citizens.
Respondents generally voiced satisfaction about living and working in Norwalk: more than 80 percent rated the quality of life in the city as good or excellent, while 64 percent gave the same rating to it as a place to work.
Traffic, walkability and over-development were not unexpectedly the largest areas of criticism, Kleppin said. “Getting from South Norwalk to Wall Street, getting around some of our more urban areas, are problems that kept coming up.”
Governance and how it’s structured also received some flak, he said: “A perceived lack of planning was a big concern, and zoning enforcement is always a big topic.”
Outreach will continue with a series of public “neighborhood meetings” this month, with Norwalk broken into nine districts. Those meetings, which will center around what each group would like to see happen in their district over the next decade, begin on March 3 at the West Rocks School Library (one each for the Cranbury/West Rocks district and the Hospital Hill section) and wrap on March 27 at the SoNo Library for those living in South Norwalk.
Available at the meetings will be a draft “vision for the future of the city” document, which will be revised throughout the spring as more feedback comes in, Kleppin said.
The city is also striving to keep posting updates on its POCD activity on its tomorrow.norwalkct.org website, which launched last fall.
Ultimately, Kleppin said, the hope is that Norwalk emerges from the process as a city with a discernible vision.
“Right now, we don’t have an identity,” he said. “We want that to change.”