Pinching pennies a highlight of 2010


Hour Staff Writer

Belt-tightening by the city government and high-spending campaigns by political candidates were among the headline grabbers in 2010.

As pundits debated whether the recession was over or not, city officials and many municipal employees assumed the latter. In April, the Board of Estimate and Taxation's adopted a bare-bones 2010-11 operating budget that boosted spending 0.72 percent. Meanwhile, elected officials and city managers agreed to forego wage increases for 2010-11. And the Norwalk Municipal Employees Association and Norwalk Assistants and Supervisors Association reopened their existing contracts and did likewise in exchange for a promise of no layoffs for a period.

"It was a difficult year for the budget and some of the issues were some of the gang activity. But on the positive side, financially, we're in good shape," said Mayor Richard A. Moccia, summing up how Norwalk fared in 2010. "And our police department is doing a good job. We're tackling the crime problem. I'm still very honored to be mayor. Norwalk is still a very giving and generous town and I'm proud to be the mayor of a city like Norwalk."

Big bucks campaigns

As the city and its residents tightened their belts to adjust to economic reality, political candidates spent record amounts of money in their bids to hold elected office.

At the end of the day, the dollars didn't always translate to votes.

Republican Linda E. McMahon, former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, churned upward of $50 million of her own money into her race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Christopher J. Dodd. But she ultimately lost to Democratic state Attorney General Richard M. Blumenthal, who despite having misspoke about his military service record during the Vietnam War won the election.

The run-up to Election Day Nov. 2 contained many twists and turns. Blumenthal jumped into the race after Dodd announced his retirement. Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, once a gubernatorial candidate, withdrew her candidacy for state attorney general. Democrat Ned Lamont bowed out as a gubernatorial candidate after losing to fellow Democrat and former Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy in an August primary election. On Election Day, Malloy defeated Greenwich businessman Thomas C. Foley, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

Norwalker Rob Merkle shook things up by running against endorsed candidate Dan Debicella in the Republican primary for the Fourth Congressional District seat held by Democrat Jim Himes. Debicella won the primary but lost to Himes in November.

The status quo held for local seats in the General Assembly with one exception. Republican Gail Lavielle defeated Democratic incumbent Peggy Reeves in the 143rd District seat in the state House of Representatives.

In December, Moccia announced his bid for a fourth term as mayor. Democrats have vowed to put forward a candidate in early 2011.

Dodd, who served 36 years in Washington, D.C., first as a congressman and later as a senator, told The Hour that he hasn't decided how he'll spend his retirement from politics.

"It's probably wise to take a breath and take time," he said.

Nothing stops progress

Despite the tepid economy, a number of initiatives were launched or came to fulfillment in 2010. In September, the city's Parking Authority celebrated the removal of toll booths and installation of pay-by-space machines at the Webster Lot in South Norwalk. Compare Foods also opened a store in SoNo.

In November, Stepping Stones Museum for Children emerged from a $17-million renovation and expansion which added 22,000 square feet and more exhibits for children.

The Norwalk Land Trust, meanwhile, realized its dream of creating a 16-acre contiguous nature preserve on Farm Creek in Rowayton thanks to years of hard work and donations from individuals, the city and the 6th Taxing District.

Removal of the Old Tokeneke Road Bridge between Rowayton and Darien came to fruition after Norwalk and Darien officials agreed to share the cost of the demolition. The bridge was torn down in December. It remains to be seen whether a footbridge will be constructed in its place. The old bridge was a century old and structurally deficient.

As the weather warmed, the city proceeded with more improvements to Calf Pasture Beach. Added in 2010 were new benches and lighting for pedestrian paths. Despite several closing in August due to high bacteria levels -- goose droppings and an outfall pipe were the suspected culprits -- the beach enjoyed record attendance.

In May, years of research and a curiosity for old buildings by Holly Cuzzone and Celia Maddox landed the Gallaher Mansion at Cranbury Park on the state Register of Historic Places. The Connecticut Common on Culture and Tourism's Historic Preservation Council approved their application to add to the register the 80-year-old Tudor Revival mansion, which once was home to inventor and industrialist Edward Beach Gallaher.

In October, The Norwalk Inn & Conference Center received approval to proceed with an expansion. Zoning commissioners approved the plan, which the Inn and the Norwalk Preservation Trust called a compromise. Under the plan, brokered by state Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-142, and state Sen. Bob Duff, D-25, the Inn will renovate the historic Grumman-St. John House next door.

The Hour Newspapers, meanwhile, sold its building at 346 Main Ave., and will relocate to Shore Pointe office building at One Selleck St. in East Norwalk in January.

No shortage of debates

As consensus formed around the Inn expansion, residents and elected officials continued to debate other topics, such as whether Al Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk, Inc., should be allowed to build a mosque on its property at 127 Fillow St. Opponents said the site could not accommodate the additional traffic. Others suspected that religious intolerance lay behind the opposition. In September, on the eve of a public hearing before the city's Zoning Commission, Al Madany Islamic Center yanked the plan. The center said it intends to resubmit a plan but it hasn't done so yet.

In April, Zoning commissioners got rid of the unpopular fee-in-lieu of parking policy, which required SoNo businesses to pay the city a $20,000 one-time fee for each parking space which they are unable to provide their customers.

The city's major redevelopment projects didn't get off the ground in 2010. But road widening began on West Avenue in anticipation of District 95/7 SoNo did start. And, after some debate, the Common Council approved expanding an enterprise zone to provide tax abatements for the development.

A request to use some state money for property acquisition -- instead of infrastructure work -- for Waypointe came up short after elected officials learned that developer Stanley M. Seligson owed back taxes to the city. Those taxes have since been paid up, and Seligson in November unveiled a downsized redevelopment plan for West Avenue.

Wall Street Place, POKO Partners LLC's plan for the Isaacs Street area, inched forward in August when company President and CEO Kenneth M. Olson delivered to the city working drawings for Phase One of the project. Olson told The Hour that he is securing financing to break ground next year.

The Norwalk Redevelopment Commission ran amok of the Common Council by spinning off a non-profit corporation. At the behest of the council, the corporation was disbanded save for a shell entity, and its assets returned to the Norwalk Redevelopment Commission.

The issue of gang violence, as noted by Moccia, prompted Bobby Burgess and several other South Norwalk residents in November to form a committee to tackle the issue.

Wall Street neighborhood buildings burn

In June, flames ripped through the old Smith Street jail house -- a city-owned historic building that housed two apartments. The fire gutted one apartment and caused water and smoke damage in another on the second floor of the structure. The fire is believed to have been fueled by his book collection. The city afterward decided not to rent the apartments in the future. The Norwalk Historical Society has put forward a plan to use the space for offices.

On Aug. 13, an even bigger blaze tore through the three-story building at 45 Wall St. The fire injured two residents and two firefighters, and forced some apartment tenants to leap from their windows onto nearby railroad tracks.

In an "Open Letter to My Fellow Wall Street Business Owners" in December, building owner Ganga Duleep said rebuilding her property has been a "slow, methodical, frustrating process."