Jack Chiaramonte remembers when South Norwalk was as busy as Manhattan, but it's a far cry from that now.
The SoNo jewelry merchant is closing his SoNo Silver store on North Main Street, saying that he can make more money by renting the space than continuing to operate a store there. It's the latest business casualty in a slump that has prompted Harry Rilling, the city's mayor, to act.
Rilling has set up a SoNo Task Force to further a conversation that began before the November municipal election about making improvements in SoNo to help the merchants there.
"One of the many issues we are going to be looking at is how we can work with the Parking Authority to make regulations a little less difficult and how we can make them a little more structured so they're all consistent," Rilling said in announcing the project.
Former Mayor Bill Collins, on whose watch in the 1980s Washington Street was renovated and the Maritime Aquarium was constructed, is the chairman of the new SoNo Task Force.
"This task force grew out of a couple of meetings that Harry had with South Norwalk merchants and restaurant owners prior the election," Collins said. "I attended those meetings with Harry, and we got quite an earful. So Harry promised at that time that if he got elected that he would set up a task force to examine and codify and try to come up with a few solutions, anyway, to the main problems."
There are 11 people on the task force, Collins said. The first meeting was last Friday in the offices of task force member Bruce Beinfeld, an architect whose influence has been keenly felt in SoNo since 1985, with about 250 projects to his name, he said.
Collins asked him to look into parking and its impact on the SoNo neighborhood, he said.
"One of the key components to that is the relationship between the Norwalk Parking Authority and the business community and why the parking authority isn't more supportive of the business community than it is perceived to be.," he said.
Another goal for Beinfeld: Recommend possible zoning changes.
"I think right now there's somewhere between 9 to 14 different zones within South Norwalk," he said. "It makes it so that with varying densities and various different uses, it's difficult. If there were fewer and simpler zones it would be much easier for people that are interested in coming in from out of town, and knowing what they can do and having the potential to do it."
He defines South Norwalk as the area bordered by North Main and Concord streets, from the South Norwalk train station to the waterfront.
South Norwalk, he suggested, should be emulating Brooklyn.
"That's an area that's been revitalized and there's lots of new boutique manufacturing like breweries and coffee roasting houses and small businesses," he said of the revitalized New York City borough. "But a lot of the present zoning doesn't allow for that kind of manufacturing uses. In one place they will, but the building that people are potentially looking at is not quite in the right place, and on one block they allow housing but no business, and on another block they allow business and no housing. It hasn't been really re-examined in a way that looks toward the future of the neighborhood, and what this neighborhood could become." Read Full Article
The task force's first meeting was productive, Rilling said.
"We talked about some partnerships with the public and private sector that might be able to facilitate some of our programs and projects," the mayor said.
Among the members are: Rod Johnson, who was director of the Redevelopment Agency when Collins was mayor; Stephanie Pelletier of TR Sono Partners, LLC; Common Councilman Travis Simms, D-District B; Chris Lloynd of the Maritime Aquarium; Susan Sweitzer of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency; Eric Rains of Eric Rains Landscaping; Steve Semaya of Strada18, and Bob Burgess. Common Councilman David Watts, D-District A, also attended the meeting, Rilling said.
"The committee is a work in progress," Rilling said. "The Parking Authority should have somebody at the table. But it's still a work in progress. We're trying to figure out who would be best to sit on the task force. There's probably some other people who would be considered."
"We're trying to find the points in each problem where we can apply some pressure for change," Collins said. "Parking is the worst one. Something has to be done to make parking more friendly. There is an issue of maintaining cleanliness in the district. Not terrible, but it's sagged over the years. In some places the lighting is not adequate to make people feel comfortable." Everyone is bringing something to the table, the former mayor said.
"From my standpoint, there has not been any updating of the public art in the area," Collins said. "It's not so well organized. The district needs something exciting. I mean, it was exciting 30 years ago when we put up murals on blank walls. But after 30 years people get kind of accustomed so we need some new stuff."
Chiaramonte said parking has always been an issue in SoNo -- when he opened his business people were double-parking because the area was so busy, but the city-owned lot behind him was a problem because of a gate that caused a bottleneck whenever a movie let out.
Attempts have been made to fix parking issues, he said, which have helped but not really solved the problem.
People also don't have the discretionary income these days to come in to his store and buy jewelry, Chiaramonte said, even though he designed it to be reasonable.
He has all merchandise marked down 30 percent until the end of the year, when he expects to close. Still business has been slow.
"I hope the next week and a half is crazy," he said.