The "Norwalk Town Center" project, approved by city land use boards and soon ready for construction, will transform the look and feel of a city block smack dab in the center of Central Norwalk.
With a July 20 Zoning Commission approval in hand, a Greenwich real estate investment firm is moving ahead rapidly to redevelop the 4-acre block which fronts on the east side of West Avenue.
The new development is separated by one block from Mathews Park and the (on the same side of West Avenue), and it's about three blocks south of .
The development is called “Phase I” of Norwalk Town Center and , some said to be of historic value, on the block bounded by Orchard and Merwin streets.
In their place will be an array of five-story brick, glass, and wooden shingled modern buildings housing retail, restaurant and mostly luxury residential units similar to upscale redevelopment projects the developers have brought to Greenwich and Stamford.
“DEMOLITION” signs have been nailed to the businesses and homes, with many of the short-term lease occupants told to leave by Sept. 1. Some of the businesses have been told they could stay until January.
Demolition is scheduled to begin in October, with construction starting in December and taking two years to complete.
Creating something new
The project is the culmination of a 30-year period of municipal contemplation and studies of ways to revitalize Central Norwalk—“Uptown” to some old-timers (“Downtown” being South Norwalk, a separate town until its merger with Norwalk in the 1870s).
These are the project's three phases:
- The first phase (approved) will consist of 330 luxury apartments—with 10 percent of the units set aside for low- and moderate-income tenants—and 45,000 square feet of street-level retail and restaurant space. The plans include a vehicle parking garage with more than 600 spaces. All of it will be on the block between Orchard and Merwin streets.
- The second phase (plans just submitted to city land-use officials) will redevelop the former Bigelow Tea factory on Merwin Street into a mixed-residential-retail-restaurant space with a three-level parking garage.
- The third phase (in early planning stages) is a redevelopment of Loehman’s Plaza, also to serve residential, retail and restaurant tenants. The entire project is budgeted at $200 million.
Belpointe Capital, LLC, a real estate investment firm based in Greenwich, submitted the Phase II plans on Friday. The third phase is in planning development, according to Brandon Lacoff, Belpointe managing director. Belpointe is co-partnering with MacFarlane Partners, an institutional real estate investment manager, along with Stanley M. Seligson Properties of Norwalk.
Seligson assembled most of the properties in the 10-acre combined site over a period of years and began to prepare redevelopment plans eight years ago. The plans stalled when a partner suffered economic setbacks.
Eight months ago, Belpointe began acquiring several additional residential properties on Orchard Street and in January applied to zoning for final site plan approval, said Lacoff.
Amenities and atmosphere
The ultimate goal of the project is to attract well-heeled apartment dwellers and upscale businesses and restaurants to the urban core along the West Avenue corridor, coinciding with enhancements to the mass transportation infrastructure, according to Michael B. Greene, who directs the planning & zoning staff.
Apartments built in the first phase will have kitchens with island counters, stainless-steel appliances, walk-in closets, balconies and high, loft-style ceilings, Belpointe has announced.
Amenities for residents will include a clubroom, fitness center, a billiards room and a private courtyard with an outdoor swimming pool. The developers will set aside 10 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income residents.
An open-air pedestrian plaza in the center of the project will eventually connect Merwin Street to Orchard Street and on through the present-day Loehman Plaza to Mathews Park.
“It will have a European feel,” Lacoff said.
His partner in the project and Belpointe's managing director, Paxton Kinol, said in a news release: "Norwalk Town Center will feel like a city built over several generations. We believe in redeveloping urban areas with modern housing, convenient shopping and great restaurants.
"Parents will enjoy strolling wide sidewalks with their children, couples will pause from their busy lives to eat outside, shoppers will find their favorite stores and discover a few new ones," Kinol continued. "People are busy and we will make their experience unbelievably convenient."
Preserving something old
When talk of redevelopment led to meetings and hearings eight years ago, the city used the threat of eminent domain to encourage property owners to negotiate favorable terms of sale with the developers, said Nancy Esposito, owner, with her brother Casey, of Casey’s Sheet Metal at 15 Merwin St.
“We went to the meetings, and we lamented,” she said, dreading the loss of the historic establishment which had been a blacksmith shop before it served the carriage industry a century ago.
(A tin man—a landmark in the neighborhood for more than 15 years—stands on Casey’s rooftop with his fist held high, in keeping with a tradition of sheet metal proprietors, Esposito said.)
“The concept of taking private property for private development rubs me the wrong way,” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair."
Esposito needn’t have worried.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Suzanne Kelo case in 2005 that the city of New London could condemn private property for private development, it unleashed a storm of outrage across the country that put a damper on some municipal eminent domain plans.
Esposito and her brother are the sole holdouts who wouldn’t sell but were nevertheless able to negotiate terms to enhance their property with attractive landscaping.
“The new developers respect the right of private property, which makes us happy,” she said.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 7:22 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 16, with the addition of some information and by moving a paragraph.