Big Interest, but Little Public Comment During Hearing on Norwalk’s Massive North7 Development

Renderings seen along Route 7 (Source: BLT)

Editor’s note: Although the North7 project is located in Norwalk and therefore falls outside of our coverage area, GOOD Morning Wilton is reporting on related events for several reasons — the potential impact on Wilton roadways leading to and from the location, the concern of Wilton residents who live on those impacted roadways and close to the location, and the participation of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission and other town officials as invited by Norwalk officials, are just a few issues driving our coverage.

Although Norwalk’s Thursday, June 2 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on the North7 development brought out an audience of more than 100 people, public comment was sparse, leading to an unexpectedly early close for its public hearing. The Commission will still accept written comments on the controversial mixed-use project, which proposes seven buildings between five and fifteen stories high along Glover Avenue close to the border of Wilton. GOOD Morning Wilton was unable to verify how many written comments have been received so far.

A new Facebook group called Residents Concerned about North 7 Development was formed last month by Wilton residents David Cristini and Matt Raimondi, who serves on the town’s Board of Finance. The group now has nearly 200 members hailing from Wilton as well as surrounding communities.

 

David Waters, General Counsel for the developer Building and Land Technology (BLT) began with an in-depth presentation on the project lasting nearly 90 minutes. Throughout the meeting, Norwalk’s P&Z Chair Louis Shulman seemed to anticipate a significant queue of speakers, repeatedly assuring the crowd gathered on zoom that if everyone had not had a chance to speak by the evening’s cut-off time, the public hearing would be continued.

In the end, only eight people volunteered to speak about the project, one in favor and seven opposed. Thursday’s hearing was open to residents living anywhere in Connecticut.

The Public Speaks Out

Although most of the comments came from Norwalk residents, one of the most detailed critiques came from Wes Hanes, Executive Director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. Hanes explained that the Conservancy has been working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) for more than a decade to reconfigure the Route 7 and the Route 15/Merritt Parkway interchange to make the exits safer and more efficient. He criticized Waters for depicting only one of the two leading interchange options, known as Alternative 21D, in the presentation, when in fact the public review process is ongoing and no decision has been made. Hanes noted that the Conservancy prefers Alternative 26, an option that is half the size and cost of other options under consideration.

“Should approval of [North7] result in the elimination of Alternative 26, it would delay building the 7/15 interchange another five years or more,” he said. “We request that the Commission obtain written verification from Connecticut DOT that Alternative 26 meets the capacity requirements of the new traffic resulting from the masterplan or condition approval of the plan on its compatibility with Alternative 26.”

Hanes also expressed concern about the height of the complex, noting that the Merritt Parkway’s intrinsic scenic quality lies “in the exposure of the sky pierced by trees, not tall buildings.”

Liana Shante raised the topic of the socioeconomic impact of the project: “We’re gentrifying Norwalk to the point where people who grew up here can’t afford to live here. We’re generating a lot of revenue and not putting any of that money into the pockets of the people who live here.”

Elizabeth Lazarou referenced the Feb. 1 collapse of a pool patio at the Allure, one of the developer’s high-rise properties in Stamford, and questioned whether the complex would be safely constructed.

Leigh Grant spoke to reiterate written comments she had already submitted, pointing out that the tallest of the proposed buildings are three stories higher than SoNo Corporate Center and four stories higher than the existing Merritt 7 buildings. “These new buildings are not in a downtown area — they are now creating a downtown area. We don’t need a third city center.”

Environmental consultant Diane Lauricella, who described herself as a proponent of transit-oriented development, nonetheless urged the Commission to, “Tell BLT to go back to the drawing board. This particular project is too intense and too dense that I’m not sure it fits with the intention of the Plan of Conservation and Development.”

The sole speaker in favor of the project, Benjamin Hanpeter, said, “I know most folks’ complaints about this project relate to about traffic, but I think that’s a pretty weak argument against building housing. I think that means that we have to find ways to alleviate traffic.”

BLT Responds

In a rebuttal period following the public comments, Waters responded to some of the concerns that had been expressed.

One speaker called on the Commission to explain any tax breaks the development would be receiving and the impact that this loss of revenue would have on school funding. Waters said that the project would not be receiving tax breaks or tax credits from the city of Norwalk.

Norwalk’s Planning & Zoning Commission

Several speakers questioned the validity of a traffic study done in 2021, when more individuals may have been working from home. In response, Waters explained that 2021 is the date of the report itself but the data was collected in 2019. However, several people also questioned whether data collected prior to the completion of the 700-unit Curb development on Glover Avenue could still be considered accurate and Waters’ clarification about the data timeframe did not address that concern.

Waters also responded to Hanes’ comments about the 7/15 interchange project underway, noting that he has participated in the process himself. He clarified that BLT does not prefer one alternative over another and depicted Alternative 21D only because it was “the most impactful.” He said that issues of whether Alternative 26 would be able to meet the added traffic capacity of the North7 development would be addressed during the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) and DOT approval process.

Looking Ahead

Although the formal public hearing period has been closed, written comments will still be accepted through June 15 at 3 p.m. Residents of Connecticut may send comments, in favor or opposed, to Norwalk’s Planning & Zoning Director Steve Kleppin at skleppin@norwalkct.org. The next meeting of the Norwalk P&Z is scheduled for June 15 at 6 p.m.

The North 7 site lies far enough from the border of Wilton that the town does not have a formal role in the review and approval process. However, the Norwalk Zoning Commission invited comments from Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission “as a courtesy, because of the scope of the project.” Wilton’s Town Planner Michael Wrinn submitted preliminary comments in writing ahead of the public hearing, in which he underscored the importance of requiring any traffic improvements to be in place prior to any of the buildings being opened and called the height of the tallest buildings “substantial.”

The project and any further comments that may be made are expected to be discussed at the next meeting of the Wilton P&Z, currently scheduled for Monday, June 13 at 7 p.m.