Updated, 4 a.m., Aug. 4: Letter from Harbor Management Commission added
NORWALK, Conn. – Heads up, Norwalk: Connecticut is contemplating changing SoNo’s visual landscape to the point that it would be unrecognizable.
So said Department of Public Works Operations Manager Lisa Burns at Tuesday’s Norwalk Center Task Force meeting, where an impromptu update on the Walk Bridge project came along with the task force forming an infrastructure and transportation subcommittee. The subcommittee came with an eye toward helping Norwalk deal with the coming Walk Bridge reconstruction project and all the other things happening at the same time.
“We have a really bad habit in this town … of not being proactive and getting in front of it,” Task Force Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said, explaining the idea of the subcommittee is “to deal with these issues before they go down the path of spending millions of dollars on engineering and making decisions in a vacuum and then we are unhappy with it.”
When that work was done, at the planned end of the meeting, Burns announced that the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) has a draft version of a high tower relocation plan that includes the preferred option of replacing the current infrastructure with mono poles, from the bridge area to Oyster Shell Park.
This would destroy the view of Norwalk Harbor, Task Force member Peter Viteretto said, summing up Burns’ description.
This needs a lot of explaining.
The Walk Bridge design team is working to get past its long-stalled “30 percent design” phase, but there’s another component to the massive project – rebuilding the 118-year old Norwalk River railroad bridge that keeps breaking down, to the consternation of commuters – that has been under the radar screen.
There’s a team working to get a high tower feasibility study to “15 percent,” Burns said.
And actually, the high tower relocation needs to be done before the bridge construction can begin.
“It’s the electrical line relocation that’s needed prior to the actual Walk Bridge construction,” Burns said, after the meeting.
Former Norwalk Harbor Management Commissioner Tony D’Andrea, whose business is being deeply affected by the planned Walk Bridge reconstruction, explained during the meeting that ConnDOT can’t get the cranes it needs into the area until the tower problem is taken care of.
So the high tower project would be paid for jointly by Eversource and the state, Burns said. Because it’s utility work, it goes to the Connecticut Siting Council, which must balance the needs of utility ratepayers with the needs of local residents concerned with visual impact, because the ratepayers will help fund it, she said.
ConnDOT feels the cheapest option is to put “sterile and industrial” mono poles in South Norwalk, she said. There would be one in Liberty Square, where A.J. Penna and son is currently located; a couple on the Norwalk sewage treatment plant property; one at Oyster Shell Park; more than one on the Danbury branch railroad line and “back to North Water, to Ironworks,” she said.
Which prompted a quip: Task Force member Tod Bryant said the residents of Maritime Yards would not be needing their microwave ovens with all the electromagnetic energy in the air.
This information comes from an “internal city document,” a draft of the 15 percent feasibility study that DPW was asked to provide comment for, Burns said, explaining that once the comments are incorporated she expects the document to become public, probably later this month.
“Once that document becomes public you really want to look at it because they talk about the view,” Burns said. “There are different relocation options and some have tremendous impact on the view and not in a good way. I think they are pushing on some of those options, and we really need some vocal support.”
With that, the previously close-to-ending meeting went on for another 40 minutes.
“I think the undergrounding options, which are the most expensive, are the best for the community versus having high towers strung up all the way to Oyster Shell Park,” Burns said. “… They have some that impact the treatment plant, the flood control structure at the plant. That is like their preferred option, which is crazy. The city can’t allow that to happen. But the most disturbing ones are the ones that are all aerial and come across the Norwalk River, really very close to Oyster Shell Park.”
Burns said she has been speaking out on plans she thinks are crazy, but hasn’t gotten anywhere with ConnDOT, hence the need for vocal community members to break out the proverbial torches and pitchforks.
D’Andrea, who had been quiet, said political pressure would be put on the Siting Council to move this through quickly, as, “They can’t do anything on the bridge until they move the high tower lines are out of the way.”
The state is working to take D’Andrea’s Select Plastics property, as well as A.J. Penna and several other Liberty Square properties, to create a staging area for its construction work.
Robin Penna asked if the state would seek public input on its design for the high tower project, as it has with the bridge itself.
That goes through the Siting Council, Burns and Lightfield said.
While the state needs to expedite the high tower project, cost is the least important factor for the local community, Burns said, announcing that she prefers the option to put the lines underground.
While the state is thinking “cheapest” when it comes to the towers, Bryant said the state is leaning toward the most expensive option for the bridge itself, the “243-foot Through Truss Vertical Span,” which Project Manager Christian Brown of HNTB Corporation said in May would cost $425 million to $460 million.
The high tower is the transmission line, while the catenary lines are below that, Burns explained.
“You are looking at a transition from 18th/19th century Norwalk to looking at Indiana,” Viteretto said. “You are looking at huge change in scale.”
The existing high towers go along the railroad line so they make sense visually, he said. With this plan, “You have just destroyed the view of Norwalk Harbor,” he said.
There’s another plan to go down Elizabeth Street and put a mono pole at Norwalk Police headquarters, Burns said.
That would destroy the character of SoNo, Lightfield commented.
“I thought it was going to be dropped before making it to 15 percent but it’s still there,” Burns said.
“I need to have other voices in writing coming along instead of just engineering department, city of Norwalk, making comment,” Burns said. “… I was hoping to get some of these things just off the table but I haven’t had much success.”
Norwalk needs a manager for this project, Lightfield said, prompting D’Andrea to volunteer that the Harbor Management Commission asked for that a year ago.
The mall has a project manager and the Walk Bridge is a much bigger expenditure, a life-changing project on the order of bisecting Norwalk with Route 7, or the construction of Interstate 95, D’Andrea said.
“What are we waiting for? What is the challenge? It escapes me. Because you call three different people – Lisa not withstanding – and you get three different answers that aren’t a little bit different, they are substantially different,” D’Andrea said.
“’I totally agree with you,” Lightfield said. “I have pointed out that we need managers on the city staff to manage just our regular development stuff. Project managers are an important aspect of moving projects forward.”
Burns said the Redevelopment Agency has requested a liaison and Mayor Harry Rilling has appointed Economic Development Director Elizabeth Stocker to coordinate the project, but participants said they are thinking of someone with engineering expertise and knowledge of economic impacts to oversee the entire thing.
“We need one person to steer the ship and explain to us where the cranes are going to go, where are high tower line going to go, when is the project going to start? As a business, it would be nice to know when the project is going to start, and are we going to have to airlift food and water into Veteran’s Park because there’s no access to that area of town?” D’Andrea said.
Burns said she has confidence in the Walk Bridge team but not so much in the other ConnDOT teams. The Wall Street work currently underway “kind of dropped out of the sky even though it was out to bid,” and DPW had to step in to smooth out some kinks, she said.
D’Andrea said she’s doing a great job.
“I learned more from you in this meeting than in four meetings with ConnDOT,” he said.
A plan developed: Lightfield said a letter would be written from the task force to ask Rilling to look into getting a manager for the project, copying DPW and the state legislative delegation.
The manager could be funded by the State Bond Commission, she said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) agreed that was possible and asked if city officials had said no to the idea.
“Everyone says it’s a great idea … then nothing happens. It’s not like anyone says ‘no,’ it just doesn’t happen,” Lightfield said.
“Pi squared, I want an engineer in charge,” D’Andrea said.
Instead of 25 people from Parsons Brinckerhoff Engineering Services at meetings to do public relations “maybe we can have two or three less and hire a consultant to do this job,” D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea and others have long decried the lack of an environmental impact statement for the Walk Bridge project, which is mandated by state statute.
That should be out this month, Burns said.
“Will the city of Norwalk fight for the residents and constituents of the city of Norwalk, based on the capability of the social and economic value of the environmental assessment?” D’Andrea asked.
DPW is commenting heavily, Burns said.
After the meeting, Burns said she thinks ConnDOT is “underestimating (costs) because of the geotechnical conditions out there. I still think there’s a lot of flexibility in the costs.”
At 15 percent design, the state estimates $10 million for the mono pole arrangement and $15 million for the underground lines, which would go under the river.
“There’s really overlap,” Burns said. “You can’t say ‘this is 10 and this is 15,’ ‘This is $5 million cheaper,’ because you’re not far enough along to actually make that determination. So I ended up sending them back a table showing that the costs were overlapped for each of the options.”
As for the subcommittee, it will be led by task force member Bob Hard and have its first meeting on Aug. 18, working with the SoNo Comeback Task Force.
Lightfield said, “We have to do the work up front… I am not going to continue sitting in these meetings doing the same thing over and over again. That is the definition of insanity. I would like for us to be proactive about this and get the stuff discussed and part of the system in advance.”