Common Council, District D: Jan Degenshein

Jan Degenshein.

District D, Democrat

  • Describe how your occupation will assist you in serving Norwalk and give three brief but specific examples, including what committees on which you hope to serve.

From 1975 through 2017, I lived and worked in nearby Rockland County, NY. The lessons learned there translate to a solid experience base I bring to Norwalk. My “day job” is as an architect-planner. As the principal of my firm for the past 48 years, responsible for the firm’s financial and spiritual survival through the best and worst of economic times, I have developed a clear understanding of fiscal responsibility.

a. As a member of the AIA’s esteemed Committee on the Environment (COTE) I am keenly aware that buildings (not vehicles, as one candidate decries) contribute 40% to our carbon emissions, and that it will cost more to retrofit an existing building to net-zero carbon emissions than to build new. When our state offers to pay 80% of the cost of new school facilities (and none to repair and renovate old buildings), it becomes a no-brainer to build new ones. (As a proponent of social equity, I believe we have an obligation to offer all our students and teachers a school environment that will foster excellence in learning.)

In the late 1970s, I attended the Department of Environmental Psychology program at the City University of New York. My double second doctoral topics were “Stigma” and “Conflict Resolution”, both in support of my chosen dissertation “Community Response to Multi-Family Housing in the Suburbs”. I did not complete my dissertation but the subject matter served me throughout the entirety of my suburban professional career. Prescient? The topic is the hot button of the P&Z in Norwalk four decades later.

As an architect, my requisite knowledge of complex building systems and land use considerations provides a natural connection to the Land Use & Building Management Committee.

b. My history of volunteer leadership included a 44-year membership in the Rockland Business Association (RBA) – 27 of those years as a member of the board of directors, twelve of those years as a member of the executive board, and 3 of those years as its chair. More than a county-wide chamber of commerce, the RBA developed into a strong policy advocacy organization, achieving state-wide and national recognition.

I also served on the Rockland County Economic Development Council focusing on business attraction, retention, and expansion. A balanced tax base, local employment opportunities, and economic stability are essential to a community’s health. Balanced community development includes workforce housing – from blue-collar to management. Tourism, recreation, culture, and education are among the many contributors to community development.

That accumulated knowledge is a benefit to membership on the Economic and Community Development Committee.

c. A community cannot survive without underlying physical operational networks. With climate change, “resiliency” has become a household word. Road networks are strained. Water supply, stormwater drainage, and sanitary sewer capacity must be monitored, maintained, and at some point upgraded to satisfy projected needs. We are not in dire need right now (as some say) but we have to plan for future demand.

All new developments must – at the very least – contribute to net zero run-off. Common engineering solutions are at hand. New trees that can withstand urban environments must continue to be planted to create a cooling canopy and absorb excess carbon dioxide. Higher-density housing might start at a lower than present density, with bonus density permitted for more substantial contributions to solutions to our environmental and recreational challenges. This can be legislated through the Public Works Committee in partnership with P&Z.

d. As a bonus, I served as chair of the Rockland County Art in Public Places Committee. One percent of the cost of all public works projects must be set aside for the procurement, installation, and maintenance of public art. It was the third such municipal program after NYC and Dallas. I also was commissioned by Rockland County to design a human rights memorial in a vest pocket park adjacent to the county courthouse. The project was reduced due to limited funds, but the positive impact on the community remains. I was also vice-president of the Rockland Center for the Arts, and I was celebrated by both the County Executive’s Arts Awards and the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center for my contributions to the arts. Art’s unique meaning to each of us is essential to our spiritual development. Metaphorically, if public works represent an organism’s heart, lungs, and digestive systems, art represents its soul. 

  • The Norwalk Charter is on the ballot for its first major revision in about 100 years. Assuming it passes, would you support forming a new Charter Revision Commission in the coming term to address unfinished business? What would be your top three priorities for change? Can you explain why?

The extraordinary hard work of the Charter Revision Committee to contemporize the City Charter is complete and should be adopted. The conversation must continue:

a. Should the terms of office for the mayor and council members be extended to four years? Too much legislative time is now devoted to re-election activities and posturing. With so much to be done, electioneering is counter-productive.

b. The balance of administrative and legislative responsibilities between the mayor and council should be visited. Would some change create a balance of power? Would it be beneficial? (As a sidebar, should council members’ salaries be increased commensurate to the time and responsibilities they bear.)

c. Should the fiscal responsibilities of the Common Council be expanded so that it has more influence in the distribution of funds in the budget process?

  • Do you believe Norwalk should have a Civilian Police Review Board and why or why not?

Norwalk should definitely have a police review board – composed of police personnel and civilians. By and large, intrepid law enforcement officers put their lives on the line with each daily tour. Rarely are they recognized for the services they perform on behalf of the community, nor is the stress associated with their job acknowledged. With today’s severe angst, each of us needs to feel safe and protected. And on an equitable basis.

The need for the review board is not just to weigh in on a rare delicate situation or (even less likely) a bad actor, but to review and suggest occasional policies necessary to fulfill duties in an ever-changing community dynamic. Those policies and actions that work best should also be identified so that they may be enhanced.

  • There is a constant public battle between city government, the school board, and concerned citizens. It seems that all are “dug in” with their positions, eager to “defeat” the other to win their own agenda. What would you specifically propose to bring all groups to the table to solve issues rather than fight about them? Policy changes and revisions can certainly be part of your answer.

I respectfully disagree with your premise. There is an outcry from taxpayers who – like you and I – don’t want the burden of tax increases. There is also an outcry from parents and educators that no measure should be ignored to achieve the best education for our children. Notwithstanding the delicate balance between bearable taxes and the expense of excellent education, it is the Board of Estimate that has the final say in the budget. It is this latter group – not the Common Council (nor the Mayor who sits ex-officio) that establishes the budget which – in turn –  informs dollar distribution. Taxpayers, parents, and educators should be appealing to the BET – in one civil voice – to express priorities. I believe that critical thinking must be taught in our classrooms. It should also be practiced by those who speak out, and those who make decisions that affect all of us.

We must keep in mind that we are still recovering from the economic stress of the pandemic. That being said, this is such an important subject that all concerns must be aired. An annual symposium should be established well in advance of elections in which the goals of the Board of Education and the estimated cost to achieve those goals may be presented. Participants should include Educators, the Mayor, Common Council members, and Board of Estimate members. Experts in achieving grants should also be impaneled. We may not get everything we want, but we should be able to more completely approach our goals. We will learn that our disparate agendas are more aligned than we would have thought. An educated generation will lead to better problem-solving and less need for expenditure in other areas of concern.

It would be helpful if disinformation was fact-checked. You, the fifth estate, are an essential contributor to culling the truth. For example, the cost of constructing a new school that approaches net zero carbon emissions is – in fact – less costly than retrofitting the old school to meet the same criteria for building envelope, air quality, light and sound transmission, maintenance, and modern curricula needs. Environmental equity is a component of social equity. All children – regardless of background – deserve an equal opportunity to discover who they are, to explore and celebrate what makes each of them unique, and to discover their unique path to fulfill the potential of their interests and talents. The reality is that Hartford agrees, and – after weighing options – will only fund new construction in this instance. It is easier to “ride a horse in the direction it is going”, especially when it is heading toward a better future for a more sustainable environment and community.

  • “Housing affordability” means different things to many people. The current standard is based on the median income of Fairfield County, which is $84,233 per household. A job that pays $30 per hour misses that standard by approximately $22,000. What is your definition of Housing affordability, and do you think the standard should be made more equitable?

Affordable housing is that which a household can apply to shelter and still have enough funds to pay for food, clothing, health, education, and transportation. No child should have to work after school to achieve this goal. No parent should be required to work two jobs to meet this simple standard. Many in Fairfield County are housing-challenged. So much so that they can’t afford the other necessities of life described above. The concept of applying thirty percent of household income to shelter does not work when there is such a wide chasm between the rich and the poor. We are short on a supply of housing for the majority of the people we serve and the people who serve us. If we have nowhere to house teachers, how will our children learn? If we have no emergency services workers, who will protect us? This problem becomes more challenging the lower a household income is: Thirty percent of a low-income household’s take-home pay does leave enough cash to cover the costs associated with survival, much less discretionary spending. Even if one was hard-hearted enough to look at this as merely a fiscal issue, it would be far more costly for any community to supply other needed services if housing had not first been addressed.

Housing is not even affordable to middle management employees. The cost of housing in Connecticut is extremely high compared to the balance of the country. (We are seventh.) The cost of housing in Fairfield County along the Gold Coast of the LI Sound is even higher. If a qualified executive candidate can find shelter in the mid-west at half the cost of shelter in the Northeast, the incentive for moving here diminishes. With fewer candidates to fulfill needed employment positions here, businesses will relocate to where the labor force is, and take their corporate tax benefits with them. So affordability is a problem throughout the spectrum of financial need. We must plan our city to accommodate those who will help us support the quality of life we have come to know. Quality of life is not an entitlement. It must be earned every day by each of us.

  • What would you propose to move Norwalk’s government agencies, businesses, organizations, and private citizens toward a zero-carbon footprint?

Also in my wheelhouse as an architect-planner, a zero carbon footprint is achievable for new construction and should be mandatory. The state’s building code standards should be supplemented locally by Passive House (PHIUS) standards. It would apply to all new buildings and can be accomplished legislatively with the same “carrot-stick” bonuses allotted to other aspects of development. This can apply to all additions and renovations, as well. Norwalk can go beyond solar arrays and explore ground-source geothermal heating and cooling on a neighborhood-wide scale. We are capable of cutting carbon – both embodied in construction and operational in fossil fuel reduction.

This candidate not only talks the talk. I walk the walk. Six years ago, I designed and built a sustainable, resilient, accessible, affordable, and contextural house in Cranbury. It won the Energize CT Zero Energy Challenge for the lowest cost per square foot construction. My home is a mere microcosm of what can be accomplished in larger-scale development.

Paying little or no utility costs is a great incentive in a world of carrots and sticks. The provision of electric vehicle charging stations is a modest contribution. Norwalk is on its way to a complete electric fleet of vehicles. Noise pollution will also be reduced. A planting program to create a more complete tree canopy will cool ground surfaces and parked vehicles. It will also absorb more carbon.

For Norwalk’s at-large construction, other incentives can be provided, such as guidance in available grants and financing low-carbon development.

Improvements in public transportation and more complete streetscapes (Federal and state grants are still available) will encourage pedestrian, bicycle, bus, and train options. Denser, mixed-use downtowns will also encourage pedestrian movement and serve to reduce vehicular pollution. And the bonus: less congested roads!


One response to “Common Council, District D: Jan Degenshein”

  1. diane keefe

    Jan has a well thought out approach to moving Norwalk’s carbon footprint and utility expenses lower. I am grateful he decided to run and hope that my fellow District D voters will endorse his wise approach grounded in his experience as a green architect. We need more expertise like his, in the leadership of our city.

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