Updated, 1:39 p.m.: Comments from Mayor Harry Rilling.
NORWALK, Conn. — Traffic-traffic-traffic. Also, a desire for a Wall Street train station, a “joke” New Canaan decision that’s affecting West Norwalk, “nothing about East Norwalk” and a Mayoral candidate’s suspicions that the state is directing Norwalk development.
Such were the issues at Monday’s Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations “Quality of Life” forum in City Hall, said to have attracted 45 citizens for an event similar to the Mayor’s Night Out discussions Mayor Harry Rilling used to hold.
Four Norwalk department heads, and the leader of a new community group, took a few questions, listened to citizens vent and heard many suggestions from CNNA moderator Donna Smirniotopoulos about how things could be better.
- Rilling said he’s looking into the legality of a decision made by New Canaan
- The City is seeking a state grant to help fund pedestrian improvements in two areas
- The City is planning compactor garbage cans for SoNo and Norwalk Center
Bike lanes endorsed
Good progress has been made with bike lanes, Tanner Thompson, a South Norwalk resident said, beginning the traffic commentary.
“I think that that working on designing streets to be safer and more walkable, really increases the quality of life of a neighborhood,” he commented. “…I don’t want to force anybody out of the car. What I want to do is create a community where people want to leave their cars and want to run errands on foot or on a bike or anything besides my car because I think that fosters have more integrated, stronger community.”
“Generally, people say ‘I want them to slow down in my neighborhood,’ and everywhere else, ‘I want to be able to speed as fast as possible,’” Bobbie Kinn said, calling East Avenue a classic example of a speedway “between Stew Leonard’s and I-95” when the Interstate is backed up, and people seek workarounds. She endorsed narrowing traffic lanes to slow drivers down and encourage them to stay on the highway, drawing applause.
Smirniotopoulos questioned Thompson and suggested that the City seek grant funding, as Hartford has done, and opined that the mall will increase congestion.
New Canaan move ‘not good for anyone’
West Norwalk is struggling with the same traffic issues that South Norwalk is, a woman said, decrying stop signs erected by New Canaan at Nursery Road and Marvin Ridge Road, just north of the Merritt Parkway, and signs announcing restrictions on left turns.
“To be perfectly honest they did this in order to force Norwalk to act,” she said, describing commuters coming off the Merritt Parkway and going “down Old Rock Lane at 90 miles an hour, so they can pick up 30 seconds and avoid, I don’t know, maybe a mile of the highway.”
“Traffic on Nursery Road spikes to more than 300 vehicles between 8 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, officials have found—a result of New York City-bound motorists avoiding the congested Merritt Parkway,” a January story on the New Canaanite states.
Rilling said he’s attended a recent New Canaan Police Commission meeting where, “Regardless of the fact that there were people from New Canaan that spoke against (a left turn restriction), there were people from Norwalk that spoke against it… it was very clear that they had already made up their mind” to continue the restriction after a six month trial period.
A traffic study recommended no restriction, “So it was really it’s really a joke,” he said. “So I don’t know if there’s anything legally that we can do. But we’re looking into it.”
State Rep. Lucy Dathan (D-142) said there were “funny” things about New Canaan’s process, as West Norwalk residents “got a notice that the traffic meetings was going to be an hour later than it actually was.”
“This wasn’t good for anybody,” Dathan said, describing concern from constituents on “both sides of the border.” She promised to see what the State can do about it, because “I don’t think the intent of making the road safer, which is what New Canaan is claiming, is actually happening.”
Smirniotopoulos suggested that maybe New Canaan residents could be embarrassed by bad press pointing out that they are “creating this is terrible problem for Norwalk.” Audience members told her that wouldn’t work.
Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said 30 complaints had inspired him to send motorcycle police to check on the area, but no speeders had been observed. There was a high volume of traffic.
“New Canaan, they should be working with us also,” Smirniotopoulos said. “We should have a common goal, which is to improve everyone’s quality of life, and in order to do that we have to respect one another. And we’re just trying to get that basic respect.”
Rilling on Thursday wrote:
Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Casey dominated the City-side of the discussion, including providing information about mall traffic measures in a back and forth with the moderator.
“I think what people need to understand is that the mall is not just related to city approvals… some of those decisions are also related to state of Connecticut DOT transportation decisions,” Casey said.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation decided traffic lights were needed and Norwalk has worked to install adaptive signals, lights that will change their patterns in accordance with the volume of cars lined up, Casey explained.
Wall Street garbage
“I’m curious about the garbage policy,” Wall Street area real estate mogul Jason Milligan said. “…There’s garbage on the street many of the days which has been an ongoing complaint for the residents and businesses. Because there’s different people that pick it up different private garbage collectors. Have you thought about it?”
“I am working on it,” Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr said, describing his experience with apps in other communities he’s worked in.
“One of the things that we’ve learned is that we can do a better job on this,” Casey said, describing the input that she and Carr have sought as new Norwalk department heads. “What was happening at one point in time is that we had garbage bins that were out and residential garbage was building up in the garbage bin. And as a result, the garbage bins were removed.”
Norwalk is “looking at” compactor garbage cans to install in South Norwalk, Wall Street and West Avenue, she said.
Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan on Wednesday explained:
“These are called compacting trash cans and would replace the more traditional metal (and open) receptacles in the area. Those style garbage cans overflow and trash can blow around. Compactors require fewer bins and hold more waste. These would be located in the SoNo and Wall Street/West Avenue areas. Adding those would then allow the city to move the existing garbage cans to other areas. A RFP will be going out in the coming weeks.”
The Wall Street garbage issue is “a complex animal for sure,” Casey said Monday, describing conversations with Wall Street Neighborhood Association President Nancy McGuire on the topic. “I think we’re all working in the same direction. And we all know that, you know, again, come back to quality of life, it needs to be safe, and it needs to be clean.”
How many people does Norwalk want?
“Do you know how big Norwalk is going to become? Or if you don’t, how about we step back and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to slow down till we figure out how big we want it to be?’” Ron Palladino asked. “…Do we want 125,000? 100,000? I thought it was too big at 75,000. Not because I don’t like people but because the infrastructure can’t handle what we have.”
“No, we don’t look at it as a number. I don’t think you can, say 100,000 people is the magic number,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin replied. “…The city is going to naturally grow over time. There’s demand to be in Norwalk by people who don’t live here and haven’t lived here their whole lives.”
Water companies have sometimes reported that demand drops after a new development because the old infrastructure is replaced, Kleppin said. Traffic studies that follow up on development sometimes show traffic has decreased.
“I think people have kind of had it with the driving around town,” Norwalk Citizens Traffic Safety Committee leader Audrey Cozzarin said, as a member of the panel. “…Maybe from the city perspective, everything is working just fine. But I think most people are, are stressed out by the traffic.”
Smirniotopoulos opined that she can’t walk to a grocery store, and, “I think it’s great to talk about adding density into some of the central business districts… But what about everybody else who doesn’t live within easy access, we’re dependent on our cars?”
“It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg exercise,” Casey said, asserting that increased density encourages businesses to open, creating amenities like nearby grocery stores. “That’s when you start to see the businesses come in, whether it be urban Whole Foods or an urban size Trader Joes or whatever that happens to be.”
Director of Transportation, Mobility and Parking Kathryn Hebert talked of microtransit and the coming rollout of a bike share program, and the Norwalk River Valley Trail extensions.
“We want people not only to connect to all of these neighborhoods, but to become more … we are looking at all of these other these programs and services and mobility options to connect Norwalk, not only within Norwalk, but to get people in and out of Norwalk in the most safe, reliable way in in in a in a reasonable amount of time.”
Wall Street train station
Rilling took a little heat from Wall Street businessman Michael McGuire, who suggested that he be like Nikita Khrushchev and “take his sneakers off,” demand that the state put in a train station for the Wall Street area.
The state is planning to spend $250,000 on a study on the train station feasibility, Rilling said, explaining that he spoke to ConnDOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti.
“Why does it take years and years?” McGuire asked.
“We are huge advocates of transit,” Casey said. “And obviously I think that the tone of the room tonight is that transportation is key and that traffic is a real challenge.”
ConnDOT is moving ahead with the study, and it’s not just about Norwalk Center, it’s also about the impact on Danbury, she said.
the there’s the infrastructure costs of the actual station. And then there’s the operating costs of actually having the operate the state carry the operations for being able to have that train station be active
“Do we have to go through the whole exercise of a feasibility of $250,000 study in order to for Norwalk to say we want this?” Smirniotopoulos asked. “I don’t understand how the snail’s pace of how governments work.”
“I want to be clear about something,” Casey replied. “The City of Norwalk has never called the State of Connecticut and said ‘please do not open a transit station here, please do not look at this,’ right? That has never been a conversation that’s ever happened.”
“Saying we’re not against it isn’t the same” as supporting it, Smirniotopoulos said, drawing a snicker and nod of agreement from Brinton.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say we’re for the train,” Casey replied, pleasantly.
Rilling said Thursday that his administration will reach out to Giulietti and check on the study, and he will talk to State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137), who “got the funds approved.”
“There was a question that evening whether the city supported the train station on Wall Street or if we had no opposition to it,” Rilling wrote. “I’ve made it very clear that I support a train station on Wall Street.”
Building ‘what the state wants’?
Brinton asked Kleppin a “quick question.”
“Steve, are we building?” she asked. “What the state wants? Or are we building what Norwalk residents want?… Are we … going to cram as many people in Norwalk as we possibly can, or are we building for the residents who live here to maintain a quality of life, because that’s what this forum was supposed to be about.”
“I don’t think anybody has ever said we need 5,000-10,000-20,000 more apartments,” Kleppin replied. “I’ve never been in one meeting with the state of Connecticut where they say Norwalk you need to build this or build that. I don’t think that’s their role.”
Casey said the market drives development, prompting Rilling, in the audience, to wave his arms as if to say, “Right.”
Isabelle Hargrove commented, “It is not the market. It would be and I agree with you, it should be the market, but it’s not really because of all the tax subsidies and the abatements.”
“I can understand that,” Casey replied. “And I would say that that’s a piece of the puzzle. Right. So I would say that there’s a puzzle that with a lot of pieces, and that’s one of them.
She reminded everyone that she decided to move to Norwalk before getting her current job because she felt welcomed while visiting.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve seen Stamford grow and change, you now are starting to see in Norwalk grow and change. …That changes along a transportation line. And that changes depending on what amenities you’re looking for and how you’re looking for them. It depends on affordability, it depends on housing options. It depends on all the quality of life variables that we’re talking about. But when we decided to move to Norwalk, it’s not because we got a tax abatement, or we got a tax credit.”
Unhappy audience members
After the forum ended, George Kensinger complained that he’d had his hand up and been ignored.
“She only called on people she knew,” he said. “What about the East Norwalk traffic?” Not only did the traffic studies for the mall stop at the Stroffolino Bridge and therefore didn’t consider East Norwalk, but East Avenue is being lowered under the railroad bridge to invite 18-wheelers, he said, and “They didn’t talk about East Norwalk.”
South Norwalk got attention. Common Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B) went on at length about problems there, including contractor yards, poor sidewalks and traffic.
“Everything you’re saying is resonating with me,” Smirniotopoulos said, referring to “forgotten neighborhoods of the city.”
The faith community is organizing open houses to get South Norwalk input, Casey said.
Morgan issued a press release Wednesday. “Next week, on October 2, the City of Norwalk and community partners will be hosting two open house sessions to gather feedback from the public about initiatives occurring in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Corridor in Norwalk,” he wrote. “Residents and businesses are invited to attend to share their opinions on potential enhancements in the neighborhood, such as education, economic development, jobs, and housing.”
“The first session is from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., and the second session runs from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. Both open houses will be held at the South Norwalk Branch Library, 10 Washington Street,” the release said.
Carr said Monday that the City is seeking a state grant to fund sidewalk work on Woodward Avenue, outside of the City’s regular paving and sidewalk work.
Morgan explained Wednesday:
“The city is still waiting to hear on the grant. The application is for new pedestrian signals, additional crosswalks, ADA compliant ramps, and sidewalk/curb replacement projects along Westport Avenue and Woodward Avenue.
“Along Westport Avenue, work would be on George Avenue and Dry Hill Road, with ADA improvements and new pedestrian signals at the intersections. On Woodward, work would be from Neptune Avenue up to Burritt Avenue, with ADA ramps at the intersections – Woodward and Meadow; Woodward and Lawrence; and Woodward and Baxter.”