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A popping city

Artist Duvian Montoya at 136 Washington St.

A partnership between Norwalk 2.0 and the F.D. Rich Co. in South Norwalk has filled a vacant spot with temporary retailers and impetus for a lively downtown and richer economy.

“One of the things that we want to do in SoNo is engage the streetscape. You have to have feet on the street for that to happen,” said Emil Albanese, chairman of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, tasked by the city to promote commercial attractiveness and strengthen its economy.

Albanese said the pop-up shop model is perfect for SoNo because the area is similar in nature to that of the Brooklyn neighborhoods Park Slope and Williamsburg and Astoria in Queens, which have all experienced strong development as cultural centers.

Norwalk pop-up shop art market

“When you want to implement something like this it can’t just be good for the one, it’s got to be good for the many,” Albanese said. “It’s taken a long time to get where we are today, but we’re clearly on the right path.”

Albanese said he expects to see ground broken at the long stalled 95/7 project early this fall. The project will bring 200-plus residential units and around 500 residents to the other side of the Maritime Center in SoNo.

“With that you’ll really start to see the retail district moving closer to the Maritime garage and you’ll see Main Street beginning to grow,” Albanese said.

The current pop-up project that will last in a space at 136 Washington St. until the end of August is an art market, where screen-printing workshops, and two art exhibits are being held.

Nightlife outside Norwalk pop-up shop art market

“We looked for ideas that would generate feet on the street, bringing new people to South Norwalk to have an experience that was unique and fresh,” said Jackie Lightfield, chief problem solver at Norwalk 2.0, a community development program company for Norwalk.

Norwalk 2.0 provides the space and act as mentors in how each project comes into play.

“In 2008, we introduced to the Norwalk Arts Commission the idea of displaying art in vacant storefront windows as part of the Sounds of SONO concert series,” Lightfield said. “As the economy challenged property owners to maintain leased space, we came up with events like an indoor, winter farmers market to keep these retail spaces activated. This certainly isn’t a unique concept, downtown areas across the nation have been turning to artists and pop-up style events to combat the same issue, but the idea that we had was to create a retail incubator that would act as a farm team and generate businesses that would grow into sustainable leaseholders.”

Downtown SoNo

Lightfield said property owners had doubts about whether the concept would work. A feasibility study commissioned by the Redevelopment Agency reported last fall that the idea of a retail incubator would not be successful.

“Fortunately T.R. SoNo Partners, an affiliate of the F.D. Rich Company, decided that they were willing to experiment with us,” Lightfield said.

Through the support, Lightfield began to model projects that would fit in South Norwalk. Lightfield said because pop-ups are temporary they also have to be compelling and enticing to work.

“From our perspective, we welcome pop-up shops as temporary tenants,” said Stephanie Pelletier, SoNo representative for F.D. Rich. “It’s a win-win for everyone, the vacant spaces are temporarily occupied, the temporary tenant is able to conduct business, the existing merchants are happy that the area is busy and visitors to SoNo have even more to do. Having activity in a space for lease keeps everything looking lively and is attractive to potential tenants looking for a longer term lease.”

Pelletier said a temporary tenant usually has a time frame in mind for their retail needs.  “So we work with the tenant to determine the best available space for them.”

F.D. Rich provides the space and electricity and the tenant provides the rest like tables, chairs, cash registers, lighting, clothing racks and whatever is needed.  A certificate of insurance, rental fee and letter of agreement are all that is needed to open up shop. Any other special permits are the responsibility of the tenant.

The SoNo Design District has leased several pop-up shops in Norwalk, from clothing retailer Nat Nast to the most recent series of art shows at the 136 Washington St. space.

“Surrounding businesses are always pleased when the neighboring stores and spaces are filled with merchandise and activity,” Pelletier said. “We encourage all of the SoNo businesses to co-promote with each other and certainly, the idea of a pop up ‘special store’ is appealing to shoppers seeking an authentic shopping experience.”

Pelletier said one of the reasons that F.D. Rich has focused on SoNo is that it retains a urban vibe that is hard to duplicate and can be just as hard to capitalize on without the proper fostering.

“I think a pop-up store, here and there, while we seek longer term tenants, is a terrific strategy that adds value to the SoNo scene and provides a great opportunity for retailers and merchants to experience all that SoNo has to offer,” Pelletier said.

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