NORWALK, Conn. – It didn’t take long for traffic to become a topic at Monday night’s public informational meeting in City Hall, where input was sought on the proposal to build a mall in SoNo.
“I feel there should be a traffic study that looks at the cohesive impact of having a mall at exit 15,” said Sarah Hunter, the third speaker, who said she didn’t have enough information yet to know if she is for or against the mall. “My fear would be that as soon as it is jammed up with traffic down at exit 15, if you add a mall and residential you’re going to have more traffic, no two ways about it, unless it’s a magic mall and people make money without going there. … I haven’t done a traffic study. I don’t know, but I feel there should be a sufficient traffic study before we approve the LDA for the mall.”
This was echoed later by Diane Lauricella. Rebuttal reassurances started with a speech from former Zoning Commissioner and Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak.
Mushak, who said he was always concerned about traffic when he was on the Zoning Commission, said, again, that it’s “too early for a traffic study because you need to know what the project is and different uses have different generators.”
“This site will have a project. It will be residential, it will be office, it will be a mall, it will be something, but it will have something huge on it. That will generate traffic. No matter what it is,” Mushak said.
Either development would have “tidal” traffic he said. A mall would have different peak hours than office or residential. “You would have massive traffic at the same time everybody is trying to get out of South Norwalk and return home,” Mushak said.
The traffic from a mall would be “more spread out and it includes more peak hours on weekends when no one is going to work,” Mushak said. “So Saturday afternoons and Sunday afternoons are really the busiest times in retail. Those are times when, if you know South Norwalk, those streets are not very busy at those times and I would be the first person to be very concerned about traffic. It’s a concern for sure but I am not concerned when I know that the developer really has said publicly that they will invest in major infrastructure improvements to make traffic flow. Of course, it’s premature to talk about what those are with no plan yet but they are even thinking about a tunnel that might go under the road.”
Lauricella turned a skeptical eye toward the idea that a traffic study will come later. She’s lived here more than 30 years and applicants always say the traffic will work as designed for their project, she said.
“I say look at Connecticut Avenue where we were told the same thing,” she said.
There are computer models that can be used, where different numbers can be plugged in for each of the scenarios outlined in the proposed Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) for the property, she said. It will be too late if government officials wait to tweak it later, she said.
“There are neighborhoods I think will be impacted, both in East Norwalk because there will be backup with the exits, and I think all of you good people here tonight have the responsibility to start learning the traffic impacts because if you have ever been on the Merritt Parkway right at the Trumbull Mall exit, during the holidays,” she said “… Again, there are fewer lanes, so you can say we’re going to have more lanes on 95, but I think you owe it to the citizens and taxpayers to take a look now, not later, not after your LDA vote.”
Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Ed Musante said traffic is a good thing.
“Without traffic there would be no businesses and I can list a few cities in Connecticut were they have no traffic and they have no jobs, and they have no businesses and they have no people downtown,” Musante said. “If you want to have a downtown like that then keep saying we don’t want traffic in our community. We want traffic, but what we want to do though is we want that traffic to be mitigated so that people can actually get around.”
The goal is to make sure people can move, that there is no gridlock, he said.
General Growth Properties Senior Developer Doug Adams said the company has committed in writing to having the city do its own independent traffic study, in addition to the full traffic study GGP will do.
A mall would fail if shoppers felt it wasn’t worth the trouble to get there, he said. After all, it’s an optional trip – not like going to work or getting home, he said.
“We are really very focused on traffic. We just feel it comes when we really get into the real design process. … You really need a plan and design to run the traffic study. So you would typically or always during the site plan approval process which follows this would bring forward a plan along with the traffic study to make it work. So that is the process that everybody goes through and we feel it is appropriate.”
Don’t forget, the Connecticut Department of Transportation will weigh in, he said.
“The previous project was issued a state traffic permit for the 1.1 million square feet and we are intending to have less a development on the site,” Adams said. “Understand that it is a change so we will have to do a whole new study, but we don’t feel that it is unreasonable to expect that the traffic can be mitigated and made to work. Lastly, as a retail developer, traffic is critically important to us because it is an optional visit, it’s an optional trip, and if traffic doesn’t work right then we suffer.”