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Norwalk Zoning Commission Considers 'Big Boxes'

This story was updated at 12:12 p.m.

NORWALK, Conn. – Bowlers beware: If a proposal before Norwalk's Zoning Commission goes through, Rip Van Winkle Lanes won't last long, says one of Norwalk's former mayors.

Bill Collins was protesting what he called the "Big Box Promotion Act:" an amendment to zoning regulations that would revise the minimum building height requirements for firehouse and retail buildings with more than 80,000 square feet in certain zones. The amendment would eliminate the requirement that such stores must have a second story, reversing a decision made in 2009.

"Who else would this effect than big box retailers?" Collins said at Wednesday's Zoning Commission meeting. "It makes those of us in the city very nervous that out of its own cogitation the commission would present this. Because it would seem to a normal citizen that if there's one thing Norwalk does not need today, it's more big box stores."

The commission sent the matter back to the zoning committee after protests from several Norwalkers, including Tod Bryant, Diane Cece, Diane Lauricella, Jackie Lightfield and Collins. It will be voted on later, allowing activists time to spread the word.

"This is not the time to undo good work, to replace it with zoning code that promotes sprawl and decreases the potential tax revenue needed by our city," Lightfield wrote in a letter to the commission. She was chairman of the commission when the current regulation was written.

"Bear in mind that this was approved and then we hit the economic slump," Lauricella said.

The proliferation of big box stores on Connecticut Avenue is reason enough not to change the amendment, opponents said. "Every time I drive past the bowling alley I marvel that it's still there. I am sure that if this regulation passes the bowling alley will be gone very soon," Collins said.

"That development, I don't see as harmful to the community," said Commission Chairman Joe Santo, who has been on the commission since the late '80s. "It was our conscious decision at that time to make Connecticut Avenue into a retail center and to make Route 7 into what it is today. ... If people were going to take advantage of this they would have done it, and they haven't really. Walmart and Walgreens on West Avenue built a second story, and it's useless space for them to have that second story."

Commissioner Mike Mushak said the change would not make much of a difference. "The retail industry is shrinking rapidly because of the Internet," he said. "Big box stores are emptying out rapidly – we did see Circuit City fall a few years ago. Just this month in the Los Angeles Times, Best Buy is shrinking and closing 500 stores and they're going into a smaller footprint in a more urban environment. The era of the big box stores is basically over , according to all of the experts."

But Mushak is against the change. "I believe maintaining the two-story requirement for retail stores at any size, allows for future adaptive re-use for office and housing, as the retail landscape changes," he said in an e-mail. "If any retailer wants to build in Norwalk that badly, they can still do it at 80,000 square feet or over, but they will just have to build a second floor as currently required."

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