NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk's history-minded activists know they are late to the party on this one. But there's hope: a big carrot on a stick from a state agency.
Plans to demolish the Norwalk Co., a familiar brick building opposite the Maritime Aquarium, were approved by the Zoning Commission on Feb. 15. But developer Clayton Fowler of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners Inc. is seeking a $500,000 Brownfield Remediation Grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development. State officials are studying the degree of impact the project would have before they hand over the money.
Although the 133,035-square-foot multiuse building planned for 20 N. Water St. is designed to mimic the appearance of the old structure, some people are not pleased.
"I think it's horrible that they're going to knock it down," said Ashley Soltes, who works at Beadworks, which is next door to the Norwalk Co. "It's absolutely beautiful; it's a historical landmark for Norwalk, basically. What are they going to do? Put up some ugly building like they do everywhere else around here?"
There's hope for Soltes, after 50-75 people attended a meeting Wednesday at City Hall, according to Maya Lowenberg, Department of Economic and Community Development permit ombudsman. The majority of speakers there told state officials that they oppose the project as planned.
"The main issue we got out of it is people would like to save the facade of the building," Lowenberg said.
Building plans originally called for the facade to be saved, but concerns over the narrowness of the sidewalk prompted city officials to ask Fowler to demolish the entire building. Jennifer Herring, president and CEO of the Maritime Aquarium, was among those who complained.
"I think the sidewalk is plenty wide," said Soltes. "If you can walk side by side with somebody down there, I think it's plenty wide."
Former Mayor Bill Collins, who worked to preserve South Norwalk's buildings during his term, was among those appealing to state officials to save the facade. "The Norwalk Co. building is a pretty important example of architecture of the period that we were trying to preserve," he said. "The large amount of preservation we succeeded in in South Norwalk has really raised property values, of course.
"So what it appears is developers from time to time come in, and they want to take advantage of the increased value of the property and the area, but they don't want to do the work of the preserving the building or even the facade. That seems unfair."
Lola Richards, who also works at Beadworks and lives three blocks away, hates the idea of demolishing the Norwalk Co. "I wish that whoever is heading up the project would have been a little bit more transparent about it," she said. "We haven't heard anything about what's going on with it, and it's supposed to affect our entire parking lot. I've seen a lot of signage for a lot of developments over the years down here and not a lot of progress."
Collins first heard of the project when preservationists emailed him about Wednesday's meeting. "I read the print paper fairly carefully, and I was caught off guard," he said. "It struck me that the procedure needs to be addressed because either there was not enough notice or it was a failure on the part of the newspaper to be paying enough attention, I don't know which."
The state is seeking feedback as required by the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act. "May 17 is the end for this open process," Lowenberg said. "We receive comments from the public at the state agency, and we'll have to determine what our recommendation would be."
Still, "If the developer decides not to take state funds he can demolish the building tomorrow." she said.
That would bug the workers at Beadworks. "If they were to say they were going to tear down Lockwood and build something that's similar it would be same thing, in my opinion," Soltes said. "It's a historical landmark in Norwalk."
Anyone interested in expressing an opinion can submit a written comment to Mark Hood of DECD at Mark.Hood@ct.gov or by fax to (860) 270-8157. The deadline is Thursday.