NORWALK, Conn. – It’s an opportunity to change the way Norwalk does outreach, Norwalk officials said about the need to build a new Norwalk master plan.
“We want people to be answering surveys, commenting (online) on documents, maybe doing blog entries and having a voice in the process without necessarily having to show up” at meetings in City Hall, Redevelopment Agency Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss said last week – at a City Hall meeting with a lot of Committee members and two people from the community in the audience.
“I wanted to bring as many people to the table as I possibly could so that we make sure that we put together a product that will help drive Norwalk for the next 10 years and perhaps beyond,” Mayor Harry Rilling said of the Plan and Conservation and Development Oversight Committee.
Committee members, seated in front of empty chairs in the Community Room, were:
- Economic Development Director Elizabeth Stocker
- Norwalk Senior Environmental Engineer Alexis Cherichetti
- Bike/Walk Task Force Chairwoman Nancy Rosett
- Diane Lauricella, representing the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations
- Diane Cece, representing the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations
- Allen Kolkowitz, architect and urban planner
- Norwalk Preservation Trust President Tod Bryant
- Planning Commissioner Dave Davidson
Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King
- Planning Commission Chairwoman Fran DiMeglio
- Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin
- Mayor Harry Rilling
- Dan Hodge, Hodge Economic Consulting and part of the Stantec team
- Larissa Brown, Stantec principal
- Phil Schaeffing, senior urban designer, Stantec
- Common Council President John Igneri (D-District E)
- Board of Education member Erik Anderson
- Redevelopment Agency Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss
- Planning Commissioner Tammy Langalis
- Planning Commissioner Brian Baxendale
- Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce President Brian Griffin
- Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn
- Tom Closter, Norwalk Health Department
- Harbor Management Commission Chairman Tony Mobilia
- Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman
Taking the time to attend the POCD kickoff were Adolph Neaderland and independent mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson.
“The process itself is very, very important and the way the plan comes together, because it’s really a process of building a constituency for the plan,” said Brown, who explained that as a Stantec consultant she has done a lot of different plans, from New Orleans to Wellesley, Mass.
Norwalk hired Stantec, in a $195,000 contract, to assist in developing the master plan.
The state mandates that its cities come up with a new master plan, or POCD, every 10 years, Kleppin pointed out, explaining, “The state more recently has started acting a little tougher, legislation wise, saying that if your plan is not current you may no longer be eligible for state funding.”
As part of a “very preliminary schedule,” serious outreach will begin in October with the first “big community visioning event” in early November, Brown said.
It’s hoped that the main skeleton of an interactive website will go live in mid-September, Kleppin said.
“We want to get to a point where we can look at what are the most important things that we agree on,” Brown said, explaining that the idea is to work on defining existing conditions until January.
Digital outreach will be key, but Stantec will go to community organizations and also facilitate meetings to be held independently, Brown said. A survey may be ready for the Oyster Festival, and while that may bring in input from the surrounding communities that would also be helpful, Committee members said.
“By early 2017, we want to have a vision statement with a set of principles that will serve as sort of the constitution of this document, because it sets forward what we’d like to be in 20 years,” Brown said.
Once there’s a vision set, a “more traditional POCD process” will unfold, aiming for strategies and actions to back up goals, and “at the end of plan there will be big matrix,” Brown said.
While it’s a 10 year plan, that’s not really that long of a time, she said, explaining that Finance Director Bob Barron informed her that Norwalk’s capital investments will be tied up in building and renovating schools for the next five years.
“The idea is to have around four workshops on topics,” she said, suggesting:
- Sustainable and resilient Norwalk
- Connected Norwalk
- A prosperous city
- City design
Those are “topics that have a lot of meat to them and are relevant to some of the issues people here have been talking about,” and, “We will want department heads to review some of these things so we are not saying something that makes no sense at all,” she said.
The Redevelopment Agency and the Parking Authority have studies and plans underway, and the various consultants have agreed to coordinate with the POCD effort, King and others said.
“Things have happened in silos and what we are trying to do is not have that happen anymore,” Strauss said.
“They understand there’s going to be a unified message put out by the city,” Kleppin said. “They have all agreed that it makes sense.”
Leaders were impressed by a Boston planning website and hired Snyder Group to design something similar for Norwalk, to include a Facbook page, a Twitter account and Instagram, Kleppin said.
“It’s not only going to be a website. So there will be a single planning website for the city but underneath that there will be the plans, each one,” Kleppin said.
“We are trying to get to Millenials, we want people answering a survey on the train,” Straus said. “…We were so fortunate to have these three planning efforts going on at the same time because we really have the opportunity to change the way outreach is done in the city so that we can reach more people and that our plans are more coordinated.”
“You have to have a lot of redundancies in outreach,” Brown said.
But while digital outreach is important, “Ultimately, people in Norwalk have to talk to people in Norwalk. That’s how you create a constituency for the goals and for the vision of the plan,” she said.
Meetings should be fun, with food, raffles and prizes, like free parking in the Webster lot.
Asked for preliminary impressions, Brown said, “People feel like a lot of decisions are not made on the basis of what is our vision for the future but they tend to be ad hoc and reactive. This isn’t unusual, this happens in a lot of communities.”
“Just looking briefly at Norwalk, Norwalk does have a lot of assets, it does have a lot to build from,” Hodge said. “There’s a lot of small to mid-sized cities that would like to be positioned where Norwalk is today. That’s one thing to keep in mind as we are doing this work.”
Norwalk’s population growth exceeds the state’s, with a 3.7 percent growth over the last five years compared to a 1.3 percent growth state-wide, he said. Norwalk has a high median income and businesses categories that are prized, such as professional business services, information, tech and financial services, he said.
“Those are all relative strengths,” Hodge said. “Your location on coast and proximity to New York, and transportation assets, play into that.”
“We have a large group. We’re not always going to agree but we’re going to have consensus building and work together,” Rilling said.
“I tried to compile various talents, various knowledge, various commitments,” Rilling said. “I know the people in this room have really always been committed to helping out whatever way they possibly could. So, I am very optimistic that with this group we are going to come up with a really, really good product, working with Stantec and getting the message out and believe me our commitment is to reach out to the community and engage the community to the greatest degree possible because that’s the only way that we can be sure that the product is what we want it to be and what they want it to be.”