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Norwalk Developers: Rental Housing Rises Anew

NORWALK, Conn. – If all goes well, within three years Norwalk will have about 1,000 new apartments – and that is the point, said Clayton Fowler, one of three developers approaching the state of breaking ground.

"It's a question of numbers, and it does seem to be the case that what people will pay (for) rental will support the construction of all those rental houses," said Fowler, chairman and CEO of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, which hopes to begin construction on SoNo 95/7 in early 2012.

Fowler and representatives of three other companies hoping to change the face of Norwalk convened at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children on Wednesday. They gave Catherine Smith, new commissioner of economic and community development, a primer course on the city's long proposed developments in a presentation organized by state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. Three of the four developments are moving through the permitting process.

Paxton Kinol of Stanley Siegelson Properties said his company is breaking ground next week for the West Avenue development known as Waypointe. He expects people to move into the 425 apartments in phase one in about a year.

Ken Olsen of POKO Partners told Smith that his Port Chester, N.Y., company was attracted to Norwalk by the redevelopment plan, the 2-mile strip that includes 95/7 and his Wall Street Place. "The success of what I am doing is dependent on what everybody else does," he said. "So I am keenly aware of what Clay is doing downtown, and Stanley right in the middle."

Ray Sullivan represented Mike Discala and the Head of the Harbor project , planned for the Wall and Smith streets area. He said Discala is "very anxious to submit to the town and start the approval process" on the development, which would include 75 units in one stage and 60 units in another.

The developers spoke of public/private partnerships and said they use every tax break available to make their projects happen.

"I will tell you on a general basis that development can still occur on the Coasts. It's very, very difficult to do any development in mid-America because the rents just don't permit it," Fowler said. "We have a very large development in St. Louis. You'll be shocked when I tell you this: It's an apartment, hotel, all in the same building with 234 parking, some retail, redoing of downtown mall. The project cost is $170 million; the value is $70 million; the rest of it is made up of public subsidies."

After the presentations, Smith questioned the amount of housing being built. She wanted to know whether demand would meet the supply.

Tim Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, said the city did studies that show a strong demand for rental housing now. For one thing, there's an issue of mobility. "In terms of the younger demographics, the attitude of the homeowner has dramatically changed," he said. "You do not want to be a potted plant on the East Coast when an opportunity opens up on the West Coast. It's economic. People are looking for jobs."

Fowler said the market is partly open because virtually no one has built anything for several years. This also means there is money available for developers.

"Then, you have the more hurtful reason," Fowler said. "There are plenty of people who can't afford to own a house anymore, and they need to rent. ... Many people are more insecure, insecure about their livelihoods. They can't find a mortgage. You have several factors that suggest strong rental growth for the next several years ... with one caveat: It still is about jobs at the end of the day. It's about heads on beds and butts in seats."

The plans for his own development are not set, Fowler said. Spinnaker is still looking for a company interested in making 95/7 its corporate headquarters but it isn't working out. He plans to approach the city with modifications. "We're contemplating what changes to the plan which we think will be necessitated by the lack of office demand," he said. "We're still looking, but it's a question of economics. Frankly, there are businesses, although they may be expanding, but it's not robust. ... There's only one thing to do and that's residential housing, rental."

Contact reporter Nancy Chapman at nchapman@thedailynorwalk.com .

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