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Norwalk seeks more thought by ConnDOT in Walk Bridge project

Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) Manager of Facilities and Transit James Fallon begins Thursday's public hearing in City Hall.

Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) Manager of Facilities and Transit James Fallon begins Thursday’s public hearing in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk pushed back Thursday, urging significant more work be done by the state in its effort to rebuild the bridge over the Norwalk River, described as an iconic structure important to SoNo’s vitality.

The three-hour long Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) public hearing in Concert Hall, about the Walk Bridge, was attended by 120 people at its outset with more coming and going and time wore on. It featured comments from Norwalk’s volunteer Board and Commission members alternating with citizens who came to speak their minds, as well as Maritime Aquarium leaders fighting to protect their animals and their business. City staff members diplomatically asserted that while the city understands that the bridge needs to be rebuilt, ConnDOT’s analysis is incomplete.

ConnDOT is three or four months from deciding if there will be a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), after the issuance of its Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Statement (referred to as the EA and EIS), or if there will be the additional step of an Environmental Impact Statement, ConnDOT Manager of Facilities and Transit James Fallon said.

The city is looking for the additional step.

“The city is speaking to you tonight through its various Boards and Commissions and departments because we believe that the Walk Bridge project will have an array of impacts, including significant impacts under the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA,” Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said. “… The information presented here tonight leads to no other conclusion but that many of the significant private impacts have not yet been fully delineated within the document that has been presented.”

ConnDOT’s EA and EIS do not include the other projects that the state plans to do concurrent with the rebuilding of the actual bridge, including the removal of the high towers, replacement of the railroad tracks and reconstruction of nearby railroad bridges, Coppola said.

“As the city’s lawyer I want to remind you how significant impact is defined under NEPA,” Coppola said. “It requires consideration of both context and intensity. Context means that the significance of the proposed action must be analyzed as a whole, how it affects the region, affects the whole, and most importantly for us the municipality. … The city should be presented with an assessment of the cumulative effects of these projects and the alternatives fairly presented and considered.”

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola speaks to

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola speaks to Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) officials Thursday in City Hall as Mayor Harry Rilling, left, watches.

The city appreciates the hard work and, “We understand that this project is a marathon, it’s not a sprint, given the magnitude of the undertaking,” Coppola concluded.

The fact that the Walk Bridge is on the cover of the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) shows its importance, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.

“I think it’s clear that this structure as it stands now is kind of an iconic and vital part of the city, it’s very well-known so I think it’s going to be important to utilize this opportunity to have the new bridge be something that is a signature element of the downtown,” he said.

“The goal shouldn’t be to simply meet the minimum standards,” Kleppin said, going on to quote multiple parts of the POCD, including, “Bridge replacement design must be sensitive to the community.”

Connecting the Norwalk River Valley Trail with other segments should be an important aspect of the bridge project, as it would bring people closer to the water and connects to all the entertainment venues would be value added to the city, he said.

There are many examples of attractive lift bridges, he said.

The EA and EIS don’t adequately address socio-economic impacts, Economic Development Director Elizabeth Stocker said.

“We want you to work with us to identify and develop a detailed plan of project sequencing … well in advance of construction beginning so that we can be prepared to be able to provide the proper outreach, information, and provide detours for any kind of traffic issues that are going to be developing,” she said.

A business coordination plan should be completed one year before construction and the true value of lost revenue should be assessed, she said.

The Maritime Aquarium’s IMAX theater is SoNo’s economic anchor and the aquarium is Connecticut’s largest tourist attraction within 100 miles of New York City, she said.

Redevelopment Agency Vice Chairwoman Lori Torrano echoed some of that.

“Given that the Redevelopment Agency has worked for over six decades to improve Norwalk’s urban context it is particularly; concerned with the socio-economic impact of this mammoth public infrastructure project will have on the businesses and restaurants in the SoNo neighborhood,” Torrano said. “…. While SoNo is strong in character, its economic underpinnings are fragile. The negative impacts to livability and business attributable to a development of this magnitude if not appropriately planned for will be devastating to SoNo.”

Maritime Board of Trustees Co-Chairman Michael Widland expressed “strong concerns on unanswered questions.”

“We are very concerned about the unknown, unquantified and in some instances the unexplored effects of construction on the health and safety of our diverse and exotic resident animals in the aquarium, and employees, volunteers and visitors,” he said.

Maritime Aquarium President Brian Davis said he doesn’t envy the position ConnDOT is in, trying to tackle the complexity of its project, but, “I am also not looking forward to four to five years of construction at some points 12 feet away from my building.”

He requested a more detailed overview of the construction plan so preparations could be made; the age of some animals mean they can’t be moved, he said, expressing concerns about geriatric rescued harbor seals and the effects of vibrations on a 150-year-old building.

“We would be very concerned that the Aquarium would be a going concern post-construction,” Trustee Bill Burnham said. “So we need to focus on the impact on the Aquarium not only in the construction phase but also what happens after the construction is over with.”

The fortunes of the Aquarium and the Parking Authority are linked, Parking Authority Chairman Dick Brescia said. The negative ripples could hurt SoNo businesses and residents alike, he said.

“We would be looking to the DOT to provide relief for NPA revenue loss and the possible additional cost that we might incur in serving the public with reduced parking options,” Brescia said, suggesting a possible jitney from the Aquarium garage to Washington Street businesses.

Bike/Walk Task Force Chairwoman Nancy Rosett took a hopeful tact, advocating for the “completion of the long-awaited ‘missing links’ in the waterfront trails on both the east and west sides of the Norwalk River under the new Walk Bridge” to “improve public safety on existing trails that now dead-end at the bridge,” while Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland slammed the EA and EIS.

“We believe the area of project effect is significantly understated and only addresses the historic districts that are immediately adjacent to the bridge,” Westmoreland said. “The bridge is at a low point in the Norwalk River Valley which is surrounded by ridges to the east and west. The massive proposed bridge will become the single defining characteristic for all of Norwalk south of I-95. The (EIE) should include the other historic districts in the area such as the Golden Hill historic district.”

The mitigation plan is “entirely inadequate,” he said.

“It is quite concerning to us that the DOT is seeking a finding of no significant impact from the FTA (Federal Transportation Authority) …. Many impacts will not be able to be determined until the plan is actually completed. Equally concerning is that the City of Norwalk has not been able to participate in any of the face to face meetings the DOT has had with the FTA, which may lead to concern you are guarding a potentially biased decision from the FTA,” Westmoreland said.

“We have been told by the Connecticut Department of Transportation that they are working toward a FONSI, or a Finding of No Significant Impact, by April,” Common Council Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) said. “…. This document’s purpose is to assess the human and environmental impacts resulting from the project, rather than justifying decisions already been made.”

It’s impossible to develop mitigation plans given that the impacts have not been fully assessed given that associated projects have been left out, he said.

“After reading the document I came away wondering if the preparers had any first-hand knowledge of Norwalk, or if they reached out to community in any way to determine impacts. The document certainly checks required boxes but in my opinion it fails Norwalk,” Igneri said. “…The City of Norwalk’s position is this is being done to make the DOT’s project to move more quickly by slicing and dicing this large project. By excluding the Danbury dockyard project, East Avenue, Osborne Avenue, and high tower relocation project from the process it does a disservice to the community and fails to recognize the total stress to the human environment.”

7 comments

Save Norwalk November 18, 2016 at 9:28 am

So, now that Malloy admits the deficit next year will be a staggering $1.2 billion (which before the election he lied and said it would be “minimal) how does the State plan to pay for this $1 billion albatross? Will the State start the project – take all of these properties – put all of these businesses under – and then let it sit for years and years? They have done it before – they will do it again.

Piberman November 18, 2016 at 11:21 am

The missing “resource” here is the absence of high profile engineering talent hired by the City to give it equal status in negotiating with the DOT. It’s easy to blame City Hall here but the real story is a visible deficit of our most able citizens from participating in civic afffairs.
Had Mayor Rilling retained our highly credentialed former US Corp of Engineer DPW Head we might have had a valuable resource. So we make do with a long retired engineer from tiny Killingsworth.

Once the DOT releases the “construction schedule” and details on how the City will be physically impacted by this unprecedented City public works project (perhaps the most complex rail bridge construction in the nation) our citizens will have a better understanding of what’s truly involved.

Will GGP’s investors sit by idly while the new Bridge is being built just a few blocks away fro the Mall site ? We’ll soon find out.

Norwalk’s government isn’t highly rated. Maybe it will “step up to the plate”. Many if not most of us suspect the Walk Bridge replacement will encourage some serious thinking about the qualifications required to run a modern City dealing with complex issues.

Some of us are excited about the Mall with its prospects for revitalizing our long neglected downtown. Then comes the Bridge which brings no economic benefits at all. Only major costs absorbed by our City. The “smart monies” are betting that DOT will build the bridge.
Not because its the “right thing to do”. But because City Hall lacks the managerial and professional expertise to protest and secur the best result for our City. As our President is fond of saying the Walk Bridge replacement will provide a “learning experience” for Norwalk.

So we’ll see how it turns out. When its finished those politicians involved in the “decision” will be long gone. Those with engineering and finance backgrounds will have the “proof of the putting”.

Congressman Himes is pretty savvy. There’s a reason he offered his help having done the same for hard pressed Bridgeport. That City leaders are ignoring his assistance says it all.
Norwalk citizens are about to have a “teaching moment”. So bring on the “Bridge”. Once it starts there’s no stopping. No matter how much economic damage is done to the City. We’ll likely have almost a decade to watch what happens and wonder how it all began.

(Editor’s note: Bruce Chimento retired as Killingly’s town engineer in early 2014. He was hired as interim Norwalk DPW director in mid-2015 and eventually hired to be permanent director.
His leadership credentials include his election as national chairman of the Solid Waste Processing Division, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and president of the Connecticut Solid Waste Officials Association. He served as chairman of the Operations Committee, Solid Waste Processing Division, American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and as chairman of the Steering Committee, Connecticut Chapter, National Solid Waste Management Association. He is a member of the Municipal Solid Waste Recycling Advisory Council for the Connecticut Legislature.
Chimento’s early career includes 12 years on the Norwalk DPW staff, first as a senior engineer, and subsequently as the commissioner of Public Works, where he administered a six-bureau, 200-staff department, served as the city engineer, and was responsible for all capital Public Works projects, including their planning, design, engineering and construction.)

Piberman November 18, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Thanks Nancy for bringing attention to Mr. Chimento’s resume. But there’s no indication of managing a large City’s DPW. That’s the essential skill set. Not activities in national associations. Killingwowrth is a small town. Most, but not all Norwalk residents understand why Norwalk is best served by the “best available talent” obtained by professional search. Mayor Rilling chose not to follow that parth and instead hired a mid-70’s long retired engineer from a small town without big city experience. Our former DPW Head was a major officer in the U.S. Corp of Engineers with major league experience and well regarded within the City and the Crops for his professional achievements. But not by DPW Unions and the rest is history. Hires from small towns do not a Great City make.

cc-rider November 19, 2016 at 8:25 am

Piberman- you forgot to mention punitive taxes and depressed property values in your comments. Surely that is an oversight…

Tony P November 19, 2016 at 10:08 am

@Piberman – he did manage a large city DPW – Norwalks! For 12 years!

@cc-rider – took the words right out of my mouth

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