NORWALK, Conn. – In the spirit of Sunshine Week, celebrating “open government” to improve efficiency and effectiveness to strengthen our democracy, I submit this essay and hope you will take the time to read it. There is always much going on in Norwalk, and much to discuss. Much gets missed as well in our busy lives. Being a passionate life-long student of cities (visiting over a hundred a year in the US and around the world, meeting local residents and officials, and taking thousands of photos) and being a professional landscape architect licensed in three states with an urban planning background, I bare my soul and my research periodically in an essay to make Norwalk a better place for all of us.
Thank you to city officials for listening and responding to my concerns at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting when a good discussion on paving happened around the approval of the $3.8 million paving contract with Deering, a Norwalk based company.
To clear the record, Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord stated that he had never mentioned Deering’s long record of past poor performance in the press, after I had just indicated that he had in my statement. I’m sure he just forgot with all he has on his plate, but here is the article from July 18th, 2011, in the Daily Norwalk, written by Nancy Chapman:
“Hendricks Avenue also sat for weeks in a milled but unpaved state. Deering Construction asked to mill other roads before paving it to maximize equipment efficiency. ‘While they were there the milling machine broke down,’ Alvord said. ‘Then the paving machine broke down. That’s why Hendricks sat there longer than we would want it to sit there.’ Alvord said that ideally, the DPW would like a road paved within a few days of being milled.”
I have to ask if it is acceptable to allow Deering to maximize efficiency for their equipment, presumably to save them money, at the expense of Norwalk residents who have to then risk their safety maneuvering around the resulting obstacle courses left in the streets for weeks and months? This was a main source of complaints on the record about Deering over five years from 2007-2011, and here we have our own DPW director stating that he would prefer paving within a few days of milling, just as we all would for issues of public safety as well as convenience. We all remember, including police officers and many officials who heard the complaints, of the debacles on Fort Point, Union, France, West, Hendricks, etc. Let’s hope that message gets through to all city supervisors and the owners of Deering when they begin the large number of paving jobs this year.
We must also make sure Mr. Alvord has the resources and staff to properly supervise this large amount of work, another issue not brought up last night but that has been a big concern of his and the Common Council in the past. Short of hiring new staff, which will not happen, we all hope that responsibilities of the already stretched-thin staff could somehow be shifted to allow for more inspections and oversight, to protect public safety and ensure the top quality work taxpayers deserve.
I am happy to hear that Deering has promised to change their past ways, and that city officials including Mayor Richard Moccia and previously skeptical Common Council members are now confident that rules and safety standards will be followed from now on. That is an amazing transformation for a company to go through in just one year, and should be applauded by all Norwalk residents. We all look forward to the newly paved streets. Also, always good to keep business local. Great point made by Mayor Moccia and Mr. Alvord.
I also mentioned bike lanes for newly paved streets last night, and the four studies that recommend bike lanes for Norwalk that taxpayers have paid for totaling close to $1 million in the last 3 years (P and Z: $90,000; Connectivity: $200,000; NRVT: $200,000; and the new Transportation Plan, in final draft, $500,000). Any new street that is paved should be cross-referenced with these plans and have the bike lanes installed when re-striping, unless a very strong reason not to is offered up by city officials. We certainly do not need any more plans, since we already have four.
This year, a major street in Rowayton (Councilman David McCarthy’s district), Highland Avenue, is scheduled for repaving, and the P and Z study shows a mile of striped bike lanes from Flax Hill to Highland Court, passing in front of Brookside and McMahon schools. South of Highland Court, sharrows (arrows indicating shared road for bikes and cars, but no bike lane) will be installed where there is not enough room for separate bike lanes, which is the ONLY situation sharrows are recommended for as laid out in our multiple studies and in federal standards (low volume, low speed under 35 mph, no room for bike lanes).
Bike lanes are not just for 20-something cycling extremists, as some in Norwalk still believe (including some city officials), but they are for folks of all ages and abilities, including children and elderly, exactly the kinds of folks we are trying hard to attract and keep from leaving our communities. Almost every garage in Norwalk has at least a bike or two, or sometimes many more when families are included, and yet most folks are too scared of speeding traffic and lack of state-of-the-art biking infrastructure to actually go out on our roads at this point. Our many expert studies support this. We also have many low income folks who ride bikes now out of necessity, and this would surely increase if safer bike lanes were installed, helping folks who can’t afford expensive cars to get around the city without risking their lives as they currently are forced to.
Parents will be thrilled to find out that their kids may want to ride their bikes to both the elementary and high schools on Highland Avenue on these new bike lanes when they are installed later this year, hopefully, if Mayor Moccia and the Traffic Authority approve them as they should. Surprisingly, we are still waiting for bike lane signage and markings on Seaview Avenue, three years after repaving, despite promises from city officials that they would be installed. What happened? There should be no more delays on this, as all other cities around us are rapidly installing on-street bike lanes to improve safety and attract economic development. I look forward to hearing Mayor Moccia’s and the Traffic Authority’s reasons for not striping new bike lanes in Norwalk, when thousands of residents are eagerly waiting for them.
A very important point about paving and streets I did not have time to mention last night (three minutes is a short time to discuss important issues affecting Norwalk’s future, and I appreciated the extra two minutes the mayor granted me as it was), was the rejection by the city of the ‘Complete Streets” solution for West Avenue, from Mathews Park to Wall Street, recommended in the $200,000 Connectivity Study completed last year. The experts recommended a “road diet,” or three-lane solution, to slow traffic and add bike lanes, increasing safety for pedestrians, bikes, and cars. See a description here.
The city has decided to keep the obsolete four-lane solution that exists on West Ave., except with new expensive traffic islands, and install “sharrows” instead of bike lanes. Speeding on four-lane streets is guaranteed by the design (as well as higher injury and accident rates) and West Avenue has extremely high speeding traffic as any police officer, local resident, or business owner will attest to (ask Curry Tire owners, who have been there for decades). As mentioned already, sharrows are NEVER recommended (per our own studies and federal standards) where traffic volume and speeds are high, and where there is potential room for bike lanes. West Avenue has high volume, high speed (which will continue with four lanes as experts tell us), and there is room for bike lanes with the three-lane road diet, as recommended. Therefore, the choice of sharrows and the four lane solution, by a small number of city officials, is out of code, and must be rejected as a serious planning mistake.
Bike lanes are always PREFERRED for safety for both cars and cyclists. That is exactly why the Beach Road sharrows are so dangerous, and were not recommended by any experts the city hired. The decision to abandon the road-diet trial period last year was highly politicized and sad to watch, for the hundreds of safety advocates who worked so hard on promoting the three taxpayer-funded professional studies that showed bike lanes and or a road diet as appropriate solutions for the conditions. The resulting “sharrows” solution, passed by the Common Council by a slim margin, gave Norwalk the honor of receiving a “Loser Award” from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. I think most Norwalkers would prefer we receive “Winner Awards” when it comes to public safety improvements. Hopefully that will happen, but not if we continue on the same path we are now.
I don’t think any parent would allow their child to go out on a bike onto the Beach Road “shared lanes” in the summer with speeding and passing traffic, and high volumes on weekends, because even adults are intimidated by these sharrows that were installed as a poorly conceived “compromise” by the Traffic Authority. Now we are about to repeat the same mistake on West Avenue, defying advice from experienced professionals and federal standards. This is just mind-boggling at this point, to be blunt. It is also potentially a serious legal issue, as city liability is increased when accepted standards are not followed. Beach Road is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and so is West Avenue if we do not change the bad decision by city officials.
The biggest tragedy of the city’s rejection of experts’ plans for a state-of-the-art “Compete Streets” solution for West Avenue is that the new developer of Waypointe has stated a preference for bike lanes in front of its $250 million project it is now building, in the last Zoning meeting. In fact, the developers stated that they were required by Stamford, just down the road, to install the bike lanes at their own expense in front of another one of their large projects, which Norwalk has never required, but which clearly indicates the strong commitment to bike lanes that our neighbors have as they install miles of lanes all over town for their residents.
All studies indicate that the marketing potential of new apartments relies heavily on proximity to transit options and the availability of biking infrastructure, as folks looking to move into more urban environments such as Waypointe are hoping to use their cars less, or not even own one (the majority of 18 to 35-year-olds do not own cars in recent studies). This includes older folks as well, sometimes called empty nesters, who are moving back into more vibrant and culturally rich cities near transit in droves across America. That is why the developer is including bike storage areas in the new complex.
Imagine the disappointing news potential residents will hear upon visiting Waypointe’s sales office when they find out the city has no downtown bike lanes like other cities, but only short stretches of dangerous “sharrows” on busy four lane roads full of speeding cars where they take their life in their hands. They can forget about riding their bike to the SoNo train station along West Avenue, based on the lack of a bike route along West Avenue. I am sure many will decide to live in a different city that promotes safer streets and a more vibrant urban scene.
Someday, the (potentially) fatal planning mistake the city made to build the seven lane West Avenue expansion in front of 95/7 without bike lanes will be corrected, with re-striping and narrower lanes, but I suspect we will have to wait for new leadership to do that. The CT DOT, who mostly designed and funded the expansion, would have responded with a bike-friendly design if Norwalk officials had simply requested it, but we didn’t. At the same time, other cities were spending state money on new roads with bike lanes upon their request, including Stamford next door.
Unfortunately, our Planning and Zoning department offers no feedback, review or input on major transportation projects like this, despite the fact that the American Planning Association lists transportation planning as the most crucial element of good urban planning, and our 2008 Master Plan of Conservation and Development has an entire chapter devoted to transportation design including bike lanes. We must do a better job of coordinating our departments and making sure all road projects follow the intent of our master plan and our numerous studies, before crucial decisions are made.
Above is a short video of a coastal city similar to Norwalk — Portsmouth, Va. — that has incorporated smart transportation design into its zoning code and street design, including bike lanes. Please note how crucial bike lanes are to this vision of a more livable city. Contrast this video to the broken planning process Norwalk has in place, where departments do not communicate, and our leadership lacks any vision for what Norwalk wants and needs to become to remain healthy and vibrant, with a growing tax base and great quality of life. Strong words, but necessary.
Renowned planner Jeff Speck, in his new book “Walkable City,” which I am recommending to everyone I know who cares about the future of Norwalk, states that one of the biggest mistake modern cities can make is having their streets designed by their Department of Public Works, which is exactly what Norwalk is doing. With all due respect, engineers are not urban planners, and have a limited perspective when it comes to what kind of city we are trying to become, which is more walkable, bikeable, and livable with a vibrant street life to attract the kinds of folks to fill the thousands of new apartments we are building in the next decade.
This is a great short interview with Speck, who has interesting things to say about how important mayors can be to ensure good urban design as well as the common mistakes cities make (Norwalk is making all of the mistakes as we speak).
We simply can’t afford to keep making these same mistakes now, just because of an apparent knee-jerk fear of bike lanes based on obsolete perceptions by DPW, Mayor Moccia and the Traffic Authority, who seem to hold all the power in these decisions despite the pleadings of the Redevelopment Agency, the private sector including major developers, the national experts taxpayers paid for, and the thousands of Norwalk residents and businesses who are waiting for state-of-the-art progress on street design in Norwalk. Everyone I know, professional and layperson alike, seems to get it, especially if they travel to other cities, but many of our city officials seem to be stuck in a car-oriented time warp from the last century. I hope they read this essay and the links carefully, and forgive me for being so blunt. Someone has to do the dirty work of shaking things up sometimes, and I guess that’s me in this case.
Another disappointing effort by the city is the frustrating and delayed opening of the long-awaited, beautiful, and transformative 3-mile Norwalk Harbor Loop Trail, which will easily turn Norwalk into a more walkable and sustainable city instantly if it can even just temporarily open this year, which it can do without much effort using easy detours around missing links. It will immediately boost economic activity and property values as many studies show these types of trails will do, as well as enhance the city’s image and marketability as many new projects come on line in the next few years. The NHLT has been under construction for 35 years and is 90 percent complete, yet we still have a few missing links with no progress on them over the last two years, despite many promises from city officials in the last election cycle.
We need a summit meeting with Mayor Moccia, Economic Development Director Tad Diesel, and department heads to find out what exactly is going on with this trail. It seems to have slipped quietly into the background and been forgotten about by officials, but not the thousands of folks, including residents of condos, businesses and cultural institutions that are located along its route, who are waiting patiently for it and asking constantly about the delay.
There will hopefully be many events scheduled this year on the NHLT, including potential events involving the Chamber of Commerce, citizen groups, and cultural institutions, and we need to get a renewed commitment from city officials that progress will be made, especially on the crucial missing links at 130 and 148 East Ave., and at the Riverwatch Condos on St. John Street, where a zoning approval and Certificate of Occupancy were granted by the city despite the owner not fully completing the zoning requirement for a public access boardwalk on the river (staff never fully explained how this happened, and legal action may now be needed to get this fully completed.)
The public deserves a full explanation about why nothing is happening on the Norwalk Harbor Loop Trail, the single most important project we have to enhance walkability and livability in the city, and which was started in 1981.
Thousands of Norwalk residents (and voters) will be watching for progress on the above issues. Thank you for your time, and sorry for the long read but hope you learned a few things. Have a happy spring filled with all kinds of “sunshine,” including celebrating “open government.”
Mike Mushak, zoning commissioner