Proposed Norwalk reorg, innovation district unpopular at hearings

NORWALK — Mayor Harry Rilling’s proposals to reorganize city government and offer tax breaks to spur redevelopment in central Norwalk faced strong opposition during two public hearings at City Hall on Tuesday evening.

Speaker after speaker asked the committee to demonstrate the worth of the proposed tax abatements or simply dump the idea amid recent redevelopment experiences in Norwalk.

Bill Nightingale Jr. cited the transfer of tax incentives to mall developer General Growth Properties, the halt of construction on Wall Street Place and financial troubles of the newly re-opened Wall Street Theater as examples of public subsidies misused or gone awry.

“We want to attract businesses that can stand alone, that have proper investment behind them and that do not need the support of our city government,” Nightingale said. “Once you start that slippery slope of giving tax abatements to one business, everybody in the neighborhood is going to come asking for tax abatements.”

About 50 people attended the hearings, which committee Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez moved to the council chambers because of the crowd size.

Nightingale was among nearly 20 people to voice their concerns about the proposed Innovation District, where tax incentives would be available on a case-by-case basis per council approval to eligible office, mixed-use, retail, manufacturing, information technology and light industrial uses in the Wall Street and West Avenue areas on central Norwalk.

Jackie Lightfield, a former city zoning commissioner and co-founder of the nonprofit economic and community development organization Norwalk 2.0, gave several reasons to oppose the idea.

“When does it stop?” Lightfield asked. “We’ve been providing incentives for development for many, many years in Norwalk and yet there’s no accountability whether these incentives actually work.”

Bill Collins, a former Norwalk mayor whose administration spearheaded the revitalization of SoNo several decades ago, stood by that effort as an example of the city offering developers incentives and getting what it wanted in terms of development. He said the proposed Innovation District goes the opposite way.

“It’s says, we will subsidize the developer to do essentially whatever he wants,” Collins said. “And there’s so much loose language that it’s quite possible that the developers will be able to build exactly what they have been building on West Avenue and spots they get ahold of in South Norwalk — and they want to do that. They’re eager to build in these places. They just want to squeeze the most money they can out of the city before they put a shovel in the ground.”

Drawing applause, Collins said the city would do better to subsidize Garden Cinemas Theater rather than developers. The independent theater on Isaacs Street reportedly is being eyed by John McClutchy, a Stamford developer wishing to take over the Wall Street Place project.

Jason Milligan, a Norwalk commercial real-estate developer who was sued by the city after purchasing properties within the Wall Street Place development area, said officials have refused to listen to him. He said he’s not opposed to an innovation district but described what’s on the table as something else.

“This is slap the name ‘Innovation District’ on it, provide some very loose tax incentives with not-clear deadlines, not a clear process, with complete control in the council,” Milligan said. “There’s not any specific way that you could ensure that you would get any incentives, and if you were denied you have no recourse.”

After the lengthy hearing, Norwalk Director of Finance Bob Barron and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Timothy Sheehan presented the committee an “Innovation District Hypothetical Tax Incentive” showing current and potential net real estate taxes derived from an unidentified property within the First Taxing District in central Norwalk.

The property, valued at $2.9 million and assessed at $2.03 million, currently provides the city $54,198 in property taxes each year. With $5 million of improvements, the same property would provide the city $100,757 annually during the first seven years of the tax-abatement program and $147,315 annually thereafter, according to Barron and Sheehan.

In a separate public hearing Tuesday evening, residents largely opposed Rilling’s plan to reorganize Norwalk city government under seven senior-level managers overseen by a chief of staff and the head of the law department.

Mark Suda, Norwalk Republican Town Committee chairman, voiced opposition to the proposed Innovation District as well as the government reorganization plan. He labeled the proposed chief-of-staff position a $30,000 salary increase for the current assistant to the mayor.

“Nobody is worth $30,000 to $40,000 (more) when we can’t even have our kids attend a full day of school because there’s no air conditioning in the schools,” Suda said.

According to Rilling’s administration, the reorganization would deliver city services more effectively and efficiently by grouping like functions together.