NORWALK – City officials approved plans for a mixed-use, 77-unit project in the East Norwalk Village on Wednesday, calling opposition to the project by more than 700 neighbors misplaced frustration with recent zoning changes to encourage development in the “stagnant” area.
Developers of the mixed-use project at 1 Cemetery Street leveraged waterfront access to the nearby Mill Pond, a plaza, parking and the inclusion of a rain garden to expand the development from 44 apartments to 77 apartments – allowed under 2021 zoning changes, which grant developers bonus points to construct additional stories and apartments in exchange for including public amenities in their plan.
A petition signed by 731 residents called on the developers, Spinnaker Real Estate Partners and M.F. DiScala & Co., to scale back the project, citing concerns of increased traffic on busy, local roadways and potential environmental impacts on water and air quality.
But at the Wednesday Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, an attorney for the developers told local officials the vast majority of neighbor opposition was not about the impacts of the development itself, but the zoning that allows it to be built.
“You could say that it was about this project, but it wasn’t about the project. It’s about the zoning,” said attorney Adam Blank.
Blank said the developers were asking Norwalk to fairly apply the town’s existing transit-oriented development regulations to their application. He told commission members that if neighbors wanted to halt development, they would need a zone change.
Louis Schulman, chair of the commission, agreed with Blank and said a steady decline in East Norwalk’s businesses and housing warranted change.
“We specifically changed the regulations to encourage development of the area,” said Schulman.
Under the 2021 zoning change, developers in the East Norwalk TOD Zone could build mixed-use buildings up to 3.5 stories high with one unit per 1,250
square feet of lot area given amenity bonuses. The zoning changes were opposed at the time by neighbors who feared massive developments and the city putting developers above community needs.
In addition to the 77 residential units – seven apartments designated as affordable with rent capped at no more than 30% of the median area income, and 70 market-rate – developers of the 1.66 acre, two-building project planned to provide commercial space and more than 100 parking spots.
The development is the first step toward the city’s goal of transforming the area into a transit-oriented community. The project would be less than a quarter of a mile from the East Norwalk train station. Commission member Mike Mushak denied resident claims that Norwalk was growing at an “outrageous rate,” and pushed for growth around the East Norwalk train station.
“It looks like we’re building a lot, but we’re building smartly,” Mushak said. “We’re building near transit. We’re following millions of dollars of recommendations. We’re doing what every city in America is doing.”
Mushak said many of the resident claims about impacts on traffic and the local environment expressed in the petition and public hearings were based in fear, not fact.
“I know how passionate everybody feels about this and there’s a lot of fear and a lot of anger,” Mushak said. “And I can relate – I’ve been at that podium.”
Commission member Tammy Langalis said she listened to East Norwalk neighbors, and had concerns of her own about traffic.
A traffic analysis by engineers Hardesty & Hanover concluded that the project would have no adverse impact on traffic, projecting that intersections and lanes off Cemetery Street, East Avenue and Gregory Boulevard would continue to operate the same during peak hours.
But Langalis echoed doubts from the East Norwalk Neighborhood Association – a local nonprofit organization that, according to their website, works to preserve the residential character, natural and historic resources and quality of life in the community.
“They want to get to and from their homes like everybody else, and they’re concerned that [if] you add a building with 77 units, it’s just going to add more traffic,” Langalis said.
At a crowded March 22 public hearing for the project, ENNA President Diane Cece said the association had hired consultants from SIMCO Engineering to review the submitted traffic studies. She said the Hardesty & Hanover traffic analysis was flawed and told commissioners that SIMCO engineers had “serious concerns” about the study.
In a letter to Cece, SIMCO recommended that the applicant should consider increased traffic from additional delivery vehicle stops, analyze traffic counts in the summer, consider additional access points to ease congestion and analyze pre-pandemic crash data.
“The firm identified nine different recommendations for those deficiencies that should be looked at,” Cece said.
At the March hearing, Cece said that she’d petitioned for intervenor status in the project application given environmental concerns. But on Wednesday, the project team backed their traffic analysis and commission members denied Cece’s petition to intervene.
Commission Chair Schulman said it was “perfectly appropriate and right” for the ENNA president to petition. But during the meeting, commission members passed a resolution – seven in favor and member Ana Tabachneck opposed – that they did not believe the application would unreasonably pollute, impact or destroy the public trust in city air, water or other natural resources.
The commission ultimately approved the developer plans in a 6 to 2 vote, with members Langalis and Tabachneck opposed. Cece was unavailable for comment upon request.