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City Council Agenda Report March 16, John P. Ramirez, AICP, Director of Community Development Beth Chow, AICP, Senior Planner

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TO:

Honorable City Council

FROM:

Jesus M. Gomez, City Manager

BY:

John P. Ramirez, AICP, Director of Community Development

Beth Chow, AICP, Senior Planner

SUBJECT: HEART OF NORWALK PLAN – CONSULTANT UPDATE

Background:

In December 2020, staff presented the Heart of Norwalk Plan (“Visioning Study”) to City

Council. This visioning study is intended to develop a singular vision for the Firestone

Corridor and San Antonio Village areas. The City was awarded a $100,000 grant by

Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) to undertake this Visioning

Study to assist the City to determine how the Firestone Boulevard Corridor and San

Antonio Village should develop over time. The Arroyo Group is the consulting firm that is

undertaking this study.

Discussion:

The Arroyo Group (“TAG”), with staff direction, has been diligently working on the

Visioning Study by completing outreach with the public and other efforts for this study.

This report will provide a status update, with a summary of activities, including:

1)

stakeholder interviews;

2)

market study of the Firestone/San Antonio corridor; and

3)

public outreach, including:

a. focus groups

b. survey – print and electronic

c. workshops – Spanish and English.

Stakeholder Interviews

The stakeholder list, primarily consisting of developers and business owners, was

provided by staff to help TAG to facilitate interviews and conversations about the

City Council Agenda Report

March 16, 2021

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City Council

March 16, 2021

Heart of Norwalk Plan – Consultant Update

Page No. 2

Firestone/San Antonio Corridor and what can this area can become. The stakeholder

summary memo (Attachment) summarizes the findings from the interviews and has four

(4) sections that describe: 1) the development opportunities, 2) need for investment in

public amenities, 3) development process, plans, and zoning framework, and 4)

community organization and outreach.

The stakeholders shared that while there are development opportunities within the study

area, the lack of a unified vision and clear direction for the area is sometimes daunting

when proposing development. Further, investment into public amenities by the City, to

create attractive public spaces and streets would help bring higher quality development

to the City. Lastly, increasing the City’s efforts in public engagement, community

organization and outreach would provide the City and developers a better understanding

of the community’s needs and desires, while providing an avenue for concerned residents

to express their opinions.

Market Study of the Firestone/San Antonio Corridor

A market study is ongoing for the study area, which will include pro-formas for various

development scenarios. Pro-formas are a set of calculations that project the financial

return that a proposed real estate development is likely to create. Through this type of

analysis, staff will see what is the highest and best use of land within the study area.

In their market study, TAG found that within the study area, there were limited housing

developments, but also found that there is a market to build more condo type housing,

and the rental housing market is strong, with the strongest rental rates for studio type

housing. Through additional analysis, the consultants will look at various scenarios

related to medium-density mixed use development, high-density residential mixed use

development, and high-density attainable residential development. The results of the

pro-formas will be included when the market study is complete.

Public Outreach

The public outreach efforts for this study have included a focus group workshop, a survey,

both print and digital, and community workshops held in Spanish and English. The focus

group workshop was held virtually in early February and included members of the City’s

Teen Alliance Program. There were approximately 35 participants and discussion

included where different types of development could occur within the study area. The

types of development discussed included commercial, residential, and mixed uses.

Additionally, surveys have been available to the public since early February. The website

www.HeartofNorwalk.com, has hosted the survey, with both consultant and staff driven

efforts to have participants fill out the survey on various social media platforms. Print

surveys were made available through various City programs hosted by the Social

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City Council

March 16, 2021

Heart of Norwalk Plan – Consultant Update

Page No. 3

Services Department. The results of the surveys will help represent community’s desire

for the types of developments that Norwalk should focus its efforts.

The community workshop sessions, much like the focus group, were held in a virtual

format with community members logging onto a Zoom meeting. In February and March,

TAG hosted three (3) community workshops, one (1) in Spanish and two (2) in English,

with City Staff facilitating the workshops, where different types of potential future

development were discussed to determine how the community envisions future

development within the study area.

Fiscal Impact: N/A

Citizens Advised: N/A

Strategic Action Plan Implementation:

The recommended actions will further the City’s 2020 Vision Strategic Plan. (3.) Initiate

Innovative Economic Development Plan.

Recommended Action:

Staff recommends City Council receive and file this report.

Attachments:

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The Heart of Norwalk Plan

Stakeholder Interviews Summary

February 15, 2021

Outreach to stakeholders was an important first step in the development of the Vision for the Firestone Corridor and San Antonio Village. The list of key

stakeholders for interview was prepared by Beth Chow, Senior Planner for the City of Norwalk. Interviews were completed by The Arroyo Group via Zoom with the following:

• Alex Hernandez, Brandywine Homes • Gordon Stefenhagen, Norwalk Realty

• Steven Weiss & Joshua Cohan, NAI Global Real Estate

• Brent Sherman, Newmark Merrill (Property Mgr. Norwalk Town Sq.) • Caren Spilsbury, Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, Exec. Director • Board of Directors, Norwalk Chamber of Commerce

• Erika Villablanca, Mercy Housing

The stakeholders interviewed were all developers, commercial property owners, or representatives thereof. The input received, therefore, focused on development opportunities and obstacles, and on the relationship between the City and those pursuing development.

Development Opportunities in Firestone Corridor/San Antonio Village The business and development communities are anxious to see new commercial amenities and housing in the Firestone Corridor/San Antonio Village area. Numerous sites were suggested as prime for recycling or more intense development:

• Southeast corner of Firestone and San Antonio, often referred to as Front Street (five separate property owners make a unified development of this site difficult)

• San Antonio frontage between Firestone and the Freeway, including but not limited to the vacant CalTrans site

• Norwalk Town Square (mentioned by everyone as a real opportunity site)

• Much of Firestone Blvd., especially the carwash site near the intersection with Imperial Hwy., and the Soccer Facility located on the property of a recently deceased owner

There appeared to be widespread concern over a recent proposal to develop the current City Hall site at Norwalk and Imperial with a major commercial or mixed use development, apparently because the

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community enjoys the large lawn area and because such development would reduce retail development potential on other sites which are already zoned for commercial development.

Numerous property owners appear anxious to move ahead with sale or intensified development of their property. These include the carwash site which is now on the market, the bank building on the southeast corner of San Antonio and Firestone which is seeking a gasoline service station and/or minimarket developer, and Norwalk Town Square which is aggressively seeking commercial tenants and considering recycling a portion of their property into a small residential or mixed use development.

The Need for Investment in Public Amenities

The development community believes that the City needs to do more to provide attractive infrastructure and community amenities to support increased private investment in Norwalk. They feel that Norwalk desperately needs higher end retail, restaurants and entertainment, and they believe that highly visible “upgrades” of public streets and open spaces can help attract such tenants to the City. Downey was cited as an example to emulate.

Development Processes, Plans and Zoning Framework

Overall, those interviewed felt that City staff was very receptive to development proposals and

demonstrated a positive attitude and working relationship with developers, commercial property owners and business interests. They appreciated recent efforts to reach out to the development community, and applauded the formation of the City Development Committee.

Developers felt that Norwalk’s outdated plans, zoning map and development standards tend to discourage them from undertaking the large effort required to prepare development proposals and to pursue

entitlements. Unusually high residential parking requirements and prohibition of tandem parking were specifically mentioned. Most developable sites are currently zoned for commercial or industrial use, for which there is currently a relatively weak market. A residential or mixed use proposal on such a site will often require up to seven separate entitlement actions. Lacking an up-to-date plan and development policy, staff is unable to give clear direction to property owners who are seeking reinvestment in their property, and developers are unable to anticipate the uses and densities which the City might approve. From a residential standpoint, most felt that the City was most receptive to townhome-type ownership housing, discouraging rental housing and taller, more urban buildings. Fortunately, according to developers, the current market for medium density ownership housing is strong in Norwalk.

There was a considerable amount of confusion about the series of related studies being undertaken by the City. References were made to the Community Congress effort and the Kosmont Study, wondering how the Heart of Norwalk Plan related to these earlier studies, as well as other concurrent studies. Although not specifically expressed, those interviewed seemed to question whether the City was spending too much effort on separate studies and not enough effort on action.

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Community Organization and Outreach

There appears to be a relatively low level of community organization in Norwalk, with few neighborhood groups. As a result, staff was unable to give developers much guidance on how to engage potentially concerned residents aside from legal noticing requirements. When developers undertook their own community outreach efforts, such as knocking on doors in the project vicinity, they found residents to be largely uninformed about City plans and projects, but very thankful to be asked for their opinion on a plan or project which might affect them.

Consultant Conclusions from Stakeholder Interviews

We feel that the interviews with stakeholders affirmed the wisdom of the City in preparing and adopting an overall vision for the future of the Heart of Norwalk. The lack of a long-range, over-arching vision forces City staff and developers to approach each development site as a stand-alone, independent project. The result may be that the full development potential of a property is not realized, or that a use with strong market support is placed on the wrong site or at the wrong scale, thereby reducing development opportunities on other more suitable sites. For instance, without a vision of what could and should be developed, the owner of the vacant bank property at the corner of Firestone and San Antonio may proceed to develop a gas station and minimart on the his small corner property, making it virtually impossible to redevelop the entire block into a large mixed use project of shops and residences which may be supported by the market.

The Vision will give the development community the direction needed to inspire quality development proposals at the right intensity at the right locations. However, it is only the first step. In order to streamline the entitlement process and to promote high quality design and tenancy, the best course of action is for the Vision Study to be followed immediately and seamlessly by a Specific Plan and

Implementation Strategy. Together, the Vision, the Specific Plan, and the Development Strategy can provide City leadership with the tools needed to actively address the big picture, ensuring that

development is allocated to available sites in a manner which maximizes benefits to the City, to private property owners, and to existing businesses and residents.

Finally, we hope that the Heart of Norwalk Plan can help to build a citizenry that is engaged with planning and sees the plan’s vision as authentically its own. The community outreach process which is a part of the study (including a project website, community survey, social media and community workshops in both English and Spanish) implements a listening approach, where members of the community provide the values, knowledge and ideas that inform the later development of the plan. These types of processes often generate a sense of excitement and ownership among residents of all ages. If the City can keep in touch with the people engaged through the process and deliver the kind of development that advances the vision, it can reinforce the belief among residents that their input matters and build the kind of places that residents want to be tethered to for the long run.

References

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