NORWALK, Conn. — To be continued…
A presentation by General Growth Properties (GGP) about its proposed SoNo Collection mall came to an abrupt halt at 10 p.m. Wednesday when Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank suggested that enough had been said for one evening and that GGP should continue May 4.
This, after three hours of talk that included explanations of updated traffic plans, including a new concept for Crescent Street and a promise of an “insurance policy,” an additional system to keep things moving.
Blank took pains to ask GGP, on behalf of the members of the public that had waited for a chance to speak, how long its presentation would take during Take Two of this show. Attorney William Hennessey said he guessed it would be about an hour and 15 minutes.
So keep that in mind if you’d like to express an opinion to the Zoning Commission.
About 30 non-GGP affiliated people attended the first public hearing on the proposed mall, with several filtering out before Blank called a halt. One woman exiting mouthed the word “filibuster” to describe GGP’s presentation; a couple on their way out said they had talked to GGP Senior Planner Doug Adams before the meeting about their traffic concerns for West Avenue.
One man cornered Attorney Larry Cafero in the hall for more than 20 minutes, expressing many objections to the mall.
“What are we going to do with a vacant building?” he asked, at one point.
The presentation started with a lesson about the history of the property; more exciting was the zippy 48-second animated video, showing the proposed mall as if from the viewpoint of a driver on North Water Street and West Avenue.
This was followed by a tedious-to-the-public explanation of a requested zoning change, with Hennessey explaining that the two lots were divided into sub-areas of the Reed Putnam Urban Renewal Plan area, and that there’s a zone district change midway through the two properties, one north of North Water and one south of North Water.
“Having a zone line through a building probably wasn’t a great idea,” Hennessey said. “So we had a long discussion with staff and we think the zone change is appropriate.”
More history followed – the Fred F. French proposal for the site was bigger than the 95/7 proposal that GGP has replaced, he said.
The lingering effects of 95/7 were mentioned in the traffic presentation, which came along an hour later.
The infrastructure improvements in the area help make it a good place to put a mall, John Plante of Langan Engineering said.
“The infrastructure is there to help facilitate traffic going in and out. … There is extra capacity in infrastructure already available to support a project such as this,” Plante said.
Only about 15 percent of the cars going to the mall will use local roads, with 60 percent of arriving shoppers coming via Interstate 95 and 25 percent using Route 7, he said.
“This is the right location for this project,” Plante said. “… The city has designated this site years ago for this kind of dense urban project. … It’s the right location from a traffic perspective because of where it’s locate.”
Langan estimates that 90 percent of the people who leave the mall will do it via West Avenue and 85 percent will get back on the highway, he said.
Blank asked if GGP had any idea how many people would drive to shop elsewhere, heading to Stew Leonard’s or the Container Store, for instance.
GGP did surveys at two similar malls, Adams said.
“It was generally very positive and in fact showed more cross shopping than we had expected,” Adams said.
Shoppers headed elsewhere wouldn’t be spread evenly through Norwalk, Blank said.
Blank pressed, but Adams did not have an answer.
“The survey didn’t try to pinpoint where they are getting back in their car,” he said.
Peak hours would bring 900 vehicles into the mall on a weekday or 1,300 on a Saturday, Plante said.
GGP is proposing to add traffic signals at Fairfield Avenue and I-95, and at Reed and Stuart streets, Plante said. There will be one traffic signal on North Water, although two had been prepared for under 95/7.
The traffic signal at Reed and Stuart is a recent addition, as previously a 4-way stop had been planned.
Sending traffic down Reed Street is convenient because there are no curb cuts, Plante said.
It’s been thought that truck traffic would enter GGP’s private driveway behind the mall by going down Crescent Street, but Adams said that is shifting due to discussions with neighbors to the north and with DPW. Trucks would enter the private driveway via North Water and exit out the other end, in more of a loop, Adams said.
“We are certainly open to that. It is just to be resolved with DPW,” Adams said.
GGP had been planning to put a traffic signal on Crescent Street to control one-way traffic, but the only place it really needs to be one way is at the pinch point, next to the Pine Island Cemetery. Adams said DPW feels it doesn’t need a traffic signal because the sight lines are good and trucks exiting the mall will be able to see oncoming traffic. A stop sign will suffice, he said.
Langan feels that driver experiences will actually be improved by the mall, Plante said. That’s because of its “comprehensive look” at the conditions and proposals to change the pedestrian interaction and add traffic lights, he said.
GGP is proposing “concurrent pedestrian phases,” which would mean that pedestrians would cross as traffic moved in the same direction beside them. This would keep traffic moving, Plante said.
“That is one of the tweaks that we make working with staff,” he said, attributing the proposal to the “powerful new equipment” that has been installed.
Plante went on to explain that there’s an “insurance policy” for traffic.
“We feel what is proposed works and works well, and what GGP has agreed to do at the request of staff and the peer reviewers is to provide what is called an adaptive signal control system,” Plante said.
GGP has agreed to install closed-circuit television cameras at intersections, in a system that adjusts to real-time traffic conditions, he said.
“You can program the phasing and timing, but this allows for the system to automatically adjust if traffic isn’t operating the way you studied it,” Plante said.
City staff would monitor the system, but it would be automatic, he said.
“If a road is closed because of accident or construction project … this system will adapt,” Plante said. “It’s a tremendous system and one that GGP has agreed to provide.”