South Norwalk (SoNo) Wall Street Journal Article

From the Wal Street Journal
SoNo Grows as a Destination
April 15, 2011

On a recent Saturday night, a group of Connecticut twentysomethings decked out to go bar-hopping boarded a Metro-North Railroad train headed toward Manhattan. But they didn’t get off at Grand Central Terminal. Instead, they hopped off the train at South Norwalk.
Since the late 1980s, the increasingly trendy downtown area of South Norwalk, known as SoNo, has been transformed from a grimy, crime-ridden district of Norwalk, Conn., into a regional hub. It draws foodies, artists and scenesters looking for culture and a place to party closer to home.

“From Wednesday through Saturday, SoNo is packed,” says Joseph Petito, 25 years old, who travels from nearby Trumbull, Conn., on weekends to go out in SoNo. “It’s like going to New York City but without the hassle and the prices.”

SoNo’s renaissance has been boosted by its location along the water and proximity to transportation, as well as its concentration of artists and restaurateurs. Bounded by the Norwalk River, the Connecticut Turnpike and Long Island Sound, the main strip of businesses, restaurants and night life are concentrated along Washington, Main and Water streets.

In August, Washington Street attracts 80,000 people from around the tri-state area for the SoNo Arts Celebration, a three-day arts and culture celebration filled with live music, puppetry and dozens of food stalls.

“It pumps up the already vibrant arts scene in SoNo,” says Mr. Petito, who helps plan the event.

Other events like the annual Norwalk Seaport Association Oyster Festival, as well as SoNo’s aquarium and movie theater, help draw people from around the region.

Despite its revival, SoNo hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn. Over the past two years, a number of restaurants and businesses have shuttered.

Large residential and commercial developments also have stalled. A project by Spinnaker Real Estate Partners called District 95/7 SoNo proposed in 2006 was recently given a third time extension on the zoning for a 12-acre mixed-use development. The project calls for a 12-acre mixed-use development including 600,000 square feet of office space, 125,000 square feet of retail space, 350 residential units and a 150-room hotel.

“It’s been frustrating,” says Kim Morque, Spinnaker’s president. But South Norwalk “is still very much a dynamic arts, cultural and entertainment center.”

Mr. Morque says Spinnaker is talking with the city about reconfiguring the project to include more rental units since demand for office space continues to lag.

Local residents and government agencies became worried the downturn could derail decades of progress.

“We had a group of redevelopment projects that had been approved but stymied by the capital marketplace,” says Tad Diesel, Norwalk’s director of business development. “SoNo represents the soul of our city and we didn’t want the economy to derail those efforts.”

As a result, the city and residents have begun a number of initiatives intended to keep SoNo’s momentum going. The city’s redevelopment agency, which attracted $750 million to the area over the past 25 years, tapped a consulting firm to create a plan to attract more foot traffic and business. The city’s arts commission took steps to designate SoNo as a cultural district.
SoNo merchants and the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce also created the SoNo Collaborative to improve the area’s parking, safety and redevelopment. And a semi-annual restaurant week was organized by SoNo eateries.

“The recession was in full swing and we wanted to kick-start SoNo,” said Scott Beck, managing partner of the Loft martini bar and Match, a New American restaurant. “The restaurant scene has dramatically improved and things are now picking up.”  Indeed, start-ups including Bacchus, an Italian restaurant, and Compare Foods, a grocery store, have sprung up. “SoNo is like a slice of New York City’s SoHo,” Mr. Beck says.

—Andrew Grossman contributed to this article.

Write to Shelly Banjo at shelly.banjo@wsj.com