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.”
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.”