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GGP plans tunnel, bike connectivity, with its SoNo mall

From left,
From left, Norwalk Bike/Walk Task Force member Judd Aley, Doug Adams of General Growth Properties (GGP) and Attorney Larry Cafero discuss bicycle and pedestrian issues in relation to GGP’s proposed mall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Ways to get bicycles, pedestrians and automobiles around the would-be South Norwalk mall were the focus of a collaborative discussion Monday at the Bike/Walk Task Force meeting.

That includes a plan for a car tunnel from the southbound side of West Avenue to the underground parking area of the mall that General Growth Properties (GGP) would like to build on the 95/7 site.

Doug Adams of GGP and Attorney Larry Cafero started the discussion with a very short version of their usual presentation, then segued into a bicycle-centric Power Point display, which included plans for a bike share program, rerouting the Norwalk River Valley Trail from next to Devon’s Place playground to a new route through the cemetery, and using Crescent Street for access behind the mall, which would also improve the bicycle-pedestrian route to Oyster Shell Park.

Adams said the idea was to start a dialogue and hear more ideas.

“Let’s put everything on the table and we’ll talk about it,” Adams said. “I just, at some point, again, it’s all about balance. So we have to balance the pedestrian experience, I have to make sure that I can get retail tenants that like the sidewalk experience. It’s good to know what you want us to think about and again we’ll come back and have a honest dialogue.”

The tunnel, which was mentioned early in GGP’s presentations to the community, is now a plan, Adams said. “It’s to try to avoid backing up at the busiest times, for people who are just trying to get through, to their homes or their restaurants,” Adams said.

The tunnel would be in the southbound section of West Avenue, where additional lanes begin for drivers wanting to make a left turn onto North Water Street. The road would drop and head under the mall. West Avenue would only lose the beginning of the turn lanes, he said.

“If you go here and it’s a terrible experience, getting here or leaving here, you won’t come back again. So, as a company, we spend I can’t tell you how much time and energy on making sure the traffic functions properly,” Adams said.

The mall could include bike lockers, a bike valet for special events and bike racks, which are features of other GGP malls, Adams said. A bike share program would work for West Avenue if it were not overly ambitious at its outset, connecting the South Norwalk train station with Waypointe, Ironworks and Washington Street, he said.

“We are sincere that we think of bicycles as a big component of how people come and go from the center,” Adams said. “… This is our first ground-up mall in probably 12 years, 10 years, and there is an absolute focus internally, in the company, from the CEO on down, to make this a state-of-the-art facility.”

Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak said plan for the development of Crescent Street to include sharrows (shared lanes for cyclists) is the “best news I have heard in a long time,” as it is in the $200,000 Connectivity Study.

“We are committed to working with the city to make improvements,” Adams said.

Mushak also brought GGP ideas. Narrowing the lanes on West Avenue from their current width of 11 feet wide to being 10 feet wide would create room for bike paths there and 15 to 17 on-street parking spaces, he said.

If you think the idea of 10-foot-wide travel lanes on West Avenue is ridiculous, Mushak has an answer for you – East Avenue, where it goes over Interstate 95, also has 10-foot lanes, he said. “It’s congested, everybody goes slow, but it works,” Mushak said. “That bridge carries the most traffic of any road in Norwalk and it works fine.”

Co-Chairman Peter Libre agreed.

“The city has traditionally said that they don’t want 10-foot lanes because they want people to be able to drive safely faster ,but New York City has Vision Zero, which is a Scandinavian concept: You shouldn’t be regarding accidents to be inevitable, and that when there are pedestrian fatalities it’s because a road was badly designed,” Libre said.

There really shouldn’t be any need to go more than 25 miles an hour on that stretch, Mushak said, explaining that current thinking is that cyclists want to go where everybody else goes.

“This bike lane is kind of like a throughway for somebody who is going from SoNo to central Norwalk,” Libre said. A bike lane on West Avenue would appeal to the type of people expected to move into the new apartments built nearby, while teenagers biking to the mall would likely use side streets, he said.

Mushak’s ideas include taking out the West Avenue planting islands and putting in delineators, the type of flexible plastic rods that are on the East Avenue stretch. GGP could work out a deal with the Second Taxing District to use its nearby land on West Avenue as well, he said.

Another Mushak idea was not news to GGP. The company plans to build part of its mall over North Water Street. Mushak suggested LED lighting that would mimic blowing leaves, but Cafero said they had already talked about that.

“GGP takes very seriously the fact that that is their front door. The last thing GGP wants is this dark, scary tunnel,” Cafero said.

Adams talked about the trolley-like circulator that GGP plans to create. There would be a ride available every 10 to 12 minutes, with big screens letting people know when a trolley would arrive next.

Libre said making Norwalk more bike and pedestrian friendly is largely a matter of changing the mindset.

“Things have started to change fast with DPW in Norwalk, and I think they’re starting to be cracks in the fortress at the state, too,” he said.

Mushak said the effort to get bike lanes on Belden Avenue had taught everybody things. “We haven’t heard a lot of cheering from the engineering department but I think it’s clear that it worked,” he said. “… That was a learning experience for everybody. We have a very good relationship now, I think, with DPW.”

Other task force members had questions about the mall itself, such as, what would the anchor stores be.

“We are in the process of finalizing anchor tenants and hope to be able to make an announcement fairly shortly. … We have relationships with every anchor in the country and are solely targeting the upper end of the anchors, and they are the ones that want to be here in this market,” Adams said.

Also, there were questioned about competing with the Stamford mall.

“We think we’ll actual bring in a slightly different set of retailers and many first to market, so that we will, again, complement and make the region a little healthier,” Adams said. “There is always competition between centers like ours, but we certainly think there is room for both in the market.”

Comments

20 responses to “GGP plans tunnel, bike connectivity, with its SoNo mall”

  1. Mike Mushak

    I have been informed that the empty land opposite the 95/7 site is likely owned by the state, but it is maintained by the 2nd Taxing District as a community service. This came up in the discussion last night about the possible need to gain a few extra feet of width for the tunnel idea and bike lanes.

    Also, to be clear, the use of 10 foot lanes on multi-lane urban arterials is recommended to improve safety in low-speed environments (below 40 mph, and the speed limit here is only 30 mph) by both federal and state standards (AASHTO, NACTO, FHA, and CTDOT), to improve safety by slowing average speeds. 12-foot lanes are used on interstate highways where the average speed is over 60 mph, and reducing lane width has been shown by FHA research to slow average speeds by 6.6 miles per hour, without increasing accident rates for vehicles. It has worked fine on Belden Ave and traffic is moving slower there by observation and experience.

    The most important statistic to remember is that the death rate of pedestrians hit by cars is 85% at 40 mph, half that or 40% at 30 mph, and only 5% if hit by a car going 20 mph. In urban walkable and bikable settings we obviously want to move traffic at slower speeds to increase safety for everyone, while maintaining capacity to keep traffic flowing. That is what reducing excessive land widths on West Ave will do, just as cities across the country are doing to improve safety for all users of their roads, including cars.

  2. Oldtimer

    The proposed tunnel is only for bikes, and it is strictly one-way ? The idea of convenient access is great, but sounds terribly expensive. What is the objection for a bike lane that follows the car lanes to the parking garage, or, at least, to the back of the project where they may get access without using the parking garage?

  3. Nancy

    I am not sure if the proposal includes bike lanes to the Wall Street neighborhood and the Downtown library, but with all the changes going on there, it will be one more step in creating a wonderful lifestyle center. If I were looking for a place to buy a home in Fairfield County, I would certainly take these Central Norwalk improvements into consideration. Well done.

  4. Mike Mushak

    Oldtimer, I can see how you may have misunderstood the intent of the tunnel, but it is definitely a CAR tunnel, and not for bikes although there likely would not be a restriction from bikes using that access if they wanted to. It is intended to be one way into the garage off of southbound West Ave, about 150 feet or so south of the intersection with the on and off ramps with Routes 95 and 7, answered by a two lane exit out of the garage onto West northbound roughly opposite the tunnel entrance.

    The tunnel would basically dip down into the street and then invisibly curve under the northbound lanes into the garage, all underground at that point. There is no objection at all to your idea about bike lane access to the garage, which is what we are currently discussing from North Water (aka Reed St.) and Crescent Street, if there is room of course.

    Your feedback would be welcome at any Bike/Walk Task Force meeting, on this or any other subject. We are encouraging public participation in all of our efforts to make Norwalk’s streets safer for all users, including pedestrians, bicycles, AND cars.

  5. The best vehicle is the bike!!!

  6. Mike Mushak

    Nancy, the Bike/Walk Task Force has proposed bike lanes on West Avenue up to the Library, and south to SoNo and the train station. You can certainly take all of those improvements into consideration when choosing where to live, just as so many others will do, and just as folks are doing in towns and cities all over the country.

    We also are proposing improvements on Wall Street with a combination of bike lanes and sharrows (where width is constricted), which are all part of the proposed city-wide system that will be put up on the city website for public feedback sometime in the next month.

    The Comprehensive City-wide Bike Plan also includes the 3 regional bike/ped routes that bisect Norwalk as well as the local ones, including the 26-mile Norwalk River Valley Trail to Danbury, the 37-mile Merritt Parkway Trail from Greenwich to Stratford, and the 2,900 mile East Coast Greenway from Key West to Canada.

    The vision of Norwalk becoming a much safer bike- and pedestrian-friendly city, supported by millions of dollars of professional plans and studies, national trends, demographic changes, and the efforts of so many dedicated city staff, volunteers, residents, and businesses, is becoming a reality.

  7. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    This most recent discussion, centered once again on resolving serious traffic issues that will be raised by construction of the 95/7 mall seem to depend on attempting to turn Norwalk into Montreal, Canada’s bicycle city. The big difference, apart from the comparative size differential between Montreal and Norwalk, is that Montreal has been planned to accommodate cyclists throughout the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, all sorts of support is in place to service these athletic Canadians, and there is at least one annual events in which thousands of cyclists literally fill the streets.

    It stretches the imagination that Norwalk could or would wish to mimic Montreal. On a small scale, that seem to be what PPG proposes—at least as a solution to encourage Norwalkers and visitors to get to the mall through some already difficult traffic bottlenecks around the proposed site, as clearly admitted at this meeting.

    Beyond those practical limitations, it blows the mind to believe that potential mall shoppers anywhere would wish to shop by bicycle. Outside of the problems with cyclers’ traffic safety, the predictable issue of bicycle theft, the difficulty for the shopper of pedaling purchased items back home in a pannier, the age and fitness limitations of biking as a way to get to shopping, and more, it appears that no one has observed the shopping habits of women. They don’t go shopping by bicycle. Has anyone seen bike racks at the Stamford Mall or the Trumbull Mall?

    If by some measure, it develops that Fairfield County ladies do become shoppers by bike, how will they carry their purchases home? In an earlier discussion about these issues, PPG had even suggested that shoppers could store their purchases in lockers and then come back to pick them up at a later time—necessarily by car. This is double-dip shopping and pure fantasy.

    If pointing out these issues is negativity, I would counter that although PPG has made notable if misdirected efforts to make their shoe fit Norwalk, their mall is not the crystal slipper. Many citizens of this town feel the strained effort to fit yet another mall into an area already over-supplied with Big Box retail will not get PPG’s Cinderella to the ball. With wage increases effectively frozen by economic conditions for potential mall shoppers, all the obvious traffic issues this current report highlights, and what appears as a misunderstanding of how average citizens shop and how they travel to their shopping all suggest that the concept of a mall for the 95/7 property belongs somewhere else than in this town.

  8. Tim D

    This all seems like a clever ploy by the GGP people to sell this disaster of an idea to the Norwalk public. No one shops at the mall on a bike – not on a motorbike, bicycle or unicycle. So, you sell this idea to the people on Bike Task force for one and have them get on board and push your idea. Mr. Mushak your being used. Just like NCC as another selling point.

    You can’t drive from the old city hall towards West ave now as it is. It’s going to be a boondoggle if this mall goes in.

    DON’T BE FOOLED.

  9. Jason White

    I would love to see a trolley similar to the one in Stamford that would run between the Merritt 7 train station and south Norwalk. I have coworkers who live in Stamford and they use it to commute to work during the week and on weekends to go to dinner and not having to worry about drinking and then driving. I use it on cold days to go from train station to work.

    Has anyone looked into this?

  10. Mike Mushak

    Rod, you really are negative, and dare I say sexist in your comments. “Ladies” certainly ride bikes, and believe it or not they even shop while using them! You can easily carry bags on a bike with the right equipment and accessories. Folks do it all the time.

    Take a train into NYC some day and watch the cyclists that ride by on almost every street and avenue these days, carrying everything from new clothing bags, groceries, schoolbooks, and laundry to pets and houseplants. If you can pick it up, you can pretty much carry it on a bike. With a viable bike/share program and safe bike lanes and trails in place, there will be plenty of folks who will hop on a bike share up on Wall Street or at Avalon, or at the SoNo train station, and decide to go shopping at the mall, where they can return by another bike share, or taxi, or meet a friend for lunch. It’s all about increasing options, and our quality of life at the same time.

    As to your other point, Montreal is certainly not Canada’s only bike-friendly city as you describe. Just about EVERY city in Canada is bike-friendly at this point, large and small. We have ridden bikes in Vancouver, Toronto, and Quebec, so we know what they have.

    And many American cities ar enow bike-friendly, many that we have visited over the years, including just last week when we rented bikes or used bike-share programs on the extensive bike lane systems in Little Rock Ark., Chattanooga TN, and Charlotte NC, as well as saw them in many other cities we visited on a 2500 mile car trip from TX. Other cities we toured in the cold rain and so didn’t explore by bike, but that had bike lanes and sharrows on many of their streets were Memphis, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Raleigh.

    We did a Rust Belt Tour last year and discovered extensive networks of bike lanes and trails in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, Louisville KY, Lexington KY, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. It wasn’t just big cities either, but lots of smaller ones too.

    All of these cities have the same challenges as Norwalk does with narrower streets and historic infrastructure, yet they reinvented themselves to attract new residents and businesses and encourage healthier lifestyles and help reduce traffic and air pollution at the same time.

    To somehow pretend that Norwalk is going to buck all these national trends and stay stuck in the 20th century when it comes to alternative transportation is silly, and myopic. We have a small dense urban center that SHOULD be fully walkable and bikable, and extensive leafy areas surrounding it that will be easy to knit together with a modern safe bike lane system that will be inexpensive to install, and will generate enormous quality of life and economic benefits.

    No one is pretending that hordes of shoppers will arrive by bike instead of cars, but that option for the folks who do choose to ride a bike there should absolutely be planned for. Certainly there will be plenty of the estimated 2,500 employees who will want to bike to work at the mall. And don’t rule out the strong lure a bike/share program will have for folks who want to visit the mall and then take a bike tour of our historic seaport city with their friends or family, once they find out all of the attractions there are to see in the displays that will be located inside the mall.

    Of course, this all assumes the mall will get approved and built.

  11. Michael McGuire

    @ RLF – just providing some “hard and fast” market facts – Norwalk and the larger Stamford- Norwalk MSA are not over-retailed. In fact its just the opposite.

    The road widening and road improvements on West Ave, North Water, I-95 and Route 7 interchange were developed to accommodate the traffic for a development of 1.1 million square feet.

    Real Estate development is a numbers game plain and simple. If the numbers don’t add up you don’t do it. That’s why the current LDA with 600K SF of office is not feasible….the numbers did not add up. Hence the logical shift to a “slipper” that fits.

  12. Mike Mushak

    Jason White, a trolley or “circulator” is planned. This is a line from the article:

    “Adams talked about the trolley-like circulator that GGP plans to create. There would be a ride available every 10 to 12 minutes, with big screens letting people know when a trolley would arrive next.”

    The route that trolley takes has not been worked out, but certainly would include the SoNo Train Station and Wall Street at either end of the 2-mile long “downtown corridor.” I do not know whether or not another route up to Merritt 7 is planned, but it makes complete sense to have some enhanced transit connection to there as you suggested.

    In fact, part of the $200,000 2012 Connectivity Study, which did not anticipate the mall but did plan for a huge project at 95/7 regardless, were recommendations for “enhanced transit” (on pages ES-15 and ES-16, and 28-30). The study is here: http://www.connectnorwalk.com/wp-content/uploads/ConnectivityMasterplan.pdf

    This enhanced transit includes rerouting existing bus routes like the Coastal Link to pass by 95/7, and to supplement existing fixed-route bus service along West Avenue with a new smaller shuttle from the SoNo train station to Norwalk Hospital, which is Norwalk’s largest employer. This would also pass by 95/7 and provide yet another transit link to the mall. All of these transit options would help to limit traffic as they would offer options for employees and shoppers to avoid driving, and as more TOD housing projects get built along the New Haven line corridor, this tendency will only increase over time.

  13. Nancy

    As a matter of fact, my husband and I visited family in the Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston last summer. The town is known for its many bike paths and lanes. It is also anchored by a shopping mall situated along Interstate 45. On a lovely Sunny Saturday, we rode two bicycles 5 miles from the home we were visiting to the mall and stopped for lunch in a restaurant there. It was terrific. I imagine the naysayers of proposed mall and bike paths haven’t shopped or ridden a bike in some time. Believe it or not, ladies DO ride bikes to the malls. Go figure.

  14. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Mike: As a matter of fact, my wife and I have biked from Burlington, VT to Montreal, so we have some pedaling experience to support my comments. Additionally, most of those bikers you see dodging traffic through Manhattan are delivery and/messenger people–not Bloomingdale shoppers (where are the Bloomies bike racks?). Shoppers in New York take subways or buses or taxis or have their purchases delivered, if they live on the island. Otherwise, they use Amazon or any of the scores of mail order sources and their slick catalogs.

    With all due respect, I must ask if you have done any surveys to see if there is even room on our crowded streets for a city-wide network of bike paths?

    In any case, the bicycle question is the least of the reservations some of us have about having a mall plunked down in Norwalk. Most of the caveats have already been discussed ad nauseum. Why are you focusing on bicycles now? It will take more than bicycle paths to send Cindy to the Ball.

  15. Jason White

    Mike- thanks, I missed that in the article.

    I would be more likely to go to sono to have dinner if i didn’t have to drive home after a few glasses of wine, plus, it would give the residents of sono access to an “actual” grocery store (stop and shop).

    To me, it seems a no brainer to link both areas. There are a ton of condos in the area near Merritt 7, as well as apartments. Here’s hoping someone can convince them to extend it.

  16. Mike Mushak

    Rod, yes, to answer your question, I have measured the streets, and have worked on a city wide plan with other volunteers and with the help of city staff (and combined the nearly million dollars of plans and studies that recommended bike lanes in separate parts of the city, but were never combined) that just saved Norwalk taxpayers $200,000, which was the estimate a plan like this would have cost if done by a private consultant a few years ago. That plan will be up on the city website for public feedback in the near future.

    And you are the one that brought up a comparison to Montreal, not me. Oh, and there are plenty of bike racks around Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and lots of bike lanes too.

    Jason, that is a terrific suggestion. Merritt 7 is as dense as a city, without the infrastructure, except a transit stop which is great. Just crossing the speeding traffic on Main Ave by foot is not always easy! A spur of the NRVT is planned to go right through there, so thats good news. I also worked on adding sidewalks when I was on zoning, up to the new project on the top of Oakwood. I recall how shocked the developer’s lawyer was when I suggested there might be folks who would want to walk from there to the restaurants and train. She said it was too far and they would drive. Its a 5 to 10 minute walk for crying out loud! How ridiculous to her that anyone would want to actually walk a few blocks! I forgive her as she is a really good lawyer, lol.

  17. Jason White

    Mike I live at rolling ridge and walk to Merritt 7 station when weather is bad (shh i cut thru winnipauk to get to lidemographic Many of my neighbors do the same. So putting a trolley stop at bottom of ward or linden would be fantastic. Imagine getting the cars from the three condo complexes off the roads to south Norwalk train station off the road during rush hour.

    The demographics of my complex has changed to a 20-30 professionals. They would take full advantage of a trolley in the evening on weekends.

    Ahhh if only

  18. concerned student

    Why would women ride a bike to a shopping mall?
    Women and young girls put on make-up and dress up to go to the mall.
    Women shop last minute for an item to be worn that night so delivering packages would be ruled out.
    Ladies would you honestly ride a bike to the mall to shop please be honest I’m just curious!

  19. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Mike: In doing a little research on the statistics of biking in big cities, I ran across this article you might find interesting. It may both buttress and dismantle some of your argument on this subject, depending on how and who reads it:

    http://www.theguardian.com/cities/bike-blog/2014/mar/04/cycling-cities-search-bike-friendly-metropolis

    There are enough statistics in it to satisfy people like Michael McGuire, who must be a statistician.

    What I get from it is that biking is a fact of life for all types and ages and activities of people in Western Europe (especially in Denmark where biking five miles a day is not even considered “exercise”). But this is not at all reflected in the United States. Here is one statement from the article that suggests why:

    “researchers who have studied the particular needs of certain groups of cyclists – such as women, children, elderly people and parents transporting children – point out that many of these riders cannot operate as a vehicle as confidently as, say, a fit young man on a racing or touring bike.”

    Though it would be wonderful if Norwalk became a bicycling city, the chances of that happening appear (to me) to be miniscule. If you can achieve that, one would have to give another look at
    the addition of your mall in a way that would be appropriate to a biking city.

    Incidentally, the article also singles out Montreal as “Canada’s Biking City”.

  20. Mike Mushak

    Rod, thank you for the link and healthy debate. This is good. Your link actually makes my point well, so thanks. National standards and research by AASHTO and NACTO, the two official transportation standard organizations that all state and local DOT’s follow, have made a sea change in the last few years about bike safety. They ALL agree that separated bike lanes are safer than sharrows on busy streets, if there is room of course, and the “vehicular riding” mentioned in the article is no longer even considered in bike standards.

    I have to love the bike lane opponents who do a Google search in their zeal to oppose any bike lanes at all, and they always seem to come up with the “vehicular cyclist” advocate named John Forester, who wrote a book 20 years ago (that is now thoroughly debunked by transportation experts and most smart cyclists) where he said ther should be no bike lanes at all and that bikes should ride right in the middle of traffic. That is all well and good if you are an expert and athletic and risk-taking adrenaline junkie, but not if you are the average bicycle rider who commutes or exercises on weekends or rides for pleasure. John Forester’s ideas gave some ammunition for bike lane opponents in the 1990’s, but it didn’t take long for most cyclists and safety experts to see his ideas were dangerous and not practical for most of the public.

    But that doesn’t stop the occasional biking opponent to wave the old book around and pretend that they found the Holy Grail to oppose bike lanes, that they found on the internets late at night. It’s quaint actually. All DOT’s around the country including our own CT DOT promotes the idea of separated bike lanes, and other infrastructure that separates bikes from cars in their own lanes.

    My argument all along about Norwalk is that almost every garage and shed and condo storage unit has a dusty bike or two or three just sitting there unused, because our infrastructure is not in place. Just as research all over the country has shown, cycling rates increase as the infrastructure is put in. That was the conclusion of a SWRPA study done in 2011, that recommended all the cities in Fairfield County including Norwalk install abundant bike lanes and bike racks to encourage cycling. Just as every other city in America is doing as we speak. That is also what nearly a million dollars of expert plans and studies conducted by planning firms with national reputations also determined. So don’t take my word for it.

    Why should we be any different than every other smart city in the country? I know we are the hole in the donut but does that mean we always have to act like we have holes in our heads? I joke, but think about it. We don’t even have a real live certified urban planner in City Hall, in 2015! And our Planning Commission thinks their responsibility to “plan and coordinate all development in the city” as described on the city website and in the City Charter is not really their job to do. Seriously, I am not kidding.

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