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King duels Greene over Norwalk planning studies, sidewalks

Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Nora King, center, looks down from the Concert Hall stage recently, along with Linda Kruk and James White,
Norwalk Zoning Commissioner Nora King, center, looks down from the Concert Hall stage recently, along with Linda Kruk and James White,

Updated, 4 p.m., last comment from Nora King

NORWALK, Conn. – The tit for tat continues after a spat at last week’s Norwalk Zoning Commission meeting, as accusations fly about the attention – or lack thereof – given to expensive studies paid for by the city.

During a discussion about the last Waypointe development application during the meeting, Commissioner Nora King asked Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene if the “transit plan”-recommended width for sidewalks in the development was 15 feet. Greene said he didn’t know, but the Department of Public Works requirement is 7 feet.

“But there was a study that we did two years ago, as we continue to be rebuilding, recommendations for making sidewalks,” King said.

“I am not familiar with that,” Greene said.

In a Monday email to the commission, Greene said, “Sorry, but the staff cannot locate such a study. We have only found references to 7-10-ft. sidewalk designs. We have also checked with the DPW (the City Dept actually responsible for the sidewalk requirements) and they are not aware of a study requiring 15-ft sidewalks everywhere.”

That drew a sympathetic response from Michael O’Reilly: “When that question came up, I pictured The Avenues in NYC. Is there any 15 ft. sidewalk in Norwalk?”

King had a reply on Tuesday, in which she said the real issue is the lack of staff awareness of a traffic study that recommends reopening Crescent Street:

“1.) On page 45 in the 2012 Norwalk Connectivity Plan, which cost taxpayers $200,000, a specific recommendation is made to “improve/widen sidewalks” on Butler between Stepping Stones and West Ave.

“2.)  On page 57 in the 2012 Pedestrian and Bikeway Transportation Plan, which cost taxpayers $90,000, it shows the recommended cross section of sidewalks in “commercial and retail environments,” which should include Butler Street because it is zoned for mixed use, and because of its proximity to West Ave and Stepping Stones and the church with a future unknown use.  That cross section shows a recommended ‘buffer’ of 6 feet between the curb and the sidewalk, to hold trees, utilities, and snow storage, and an additional ‘setback’ zone to the building.  When added up, those elements including the actual 5-foot minimum ADA sidewalk, total between 12 and 15 feet between the curb and the building. We all know snow is rarely removed from sidewalks in Norwalk, and it just piles up and forces pedestrians to walk in the street. It’s a safety issue.

“Also, you stated in the meeting last week that you had ‘no authority’ to adopt or implement sidewalk standards. Where exactly is that policy written down? I couldn’t find it anywhere. In recent years, you made many budget requests, about $200,000 a year, for ‘sidewalk improvements.’ The Council approved that money. If Planning and Zoning is not responsible for sidewalks, why did you request all that money for all those years, and how was it all spent, and where?

“In other cities, the Planning and Zoning Department is responsible for all of the urban design that occurs, including sidewalk standards. Why is it so different in Norwalk?  And why, in 1987, was it the Planning and Zoning Department that was responsible for the original “Norwalk Business District Design Guidelines,” which have sidewalk standards included? You worked for the city then, and you must remember working on them. Why did that responsibility get shifted over the years away from the P and Z Department, where it should be and once was? Was it your own decision for the P and Z Dept. to not have that authority anymore when you became director of the department 25 years ago, and if it was, why?

“Finally, the sidewalk issue was minor compared to the fact that the commission and the applicant were unaware of the nearly half million dollars in studies that recommended re-opening Crescent Street and turning it into a major car/pedestrian/bicycle corridor as an alternative to West Avenue. AMEC based their traffic studies on the street remaining closed, which was always meant to be temporary, and yet you didn’t remind anyone of all these plans, and seemed to be unaware of them yourself. How can the commission make an informed decision to double the capacity of AMEC and increase the truck traffic in this neighborhood, when none of the future plans for the area and this street in particular were included in the process? Please explain what happened.

“It was way past the time where we need to take the approach that our directors and staff should be planning how this city looks and what is beneficial for the next generation. I am tired of our staff taking the approach that planning is driven by whatever development project someone wants the right to build. We need developers, builders and businesses who want to partner with us to reform our city zoning and planning.  What the city needs is great planning and design to bring us to be the ‘best’ city in Connecticut.”

King said Friday that Greene had not replied to the email.

Comments

15 responses to “King duels Greene over Norwalk planning studies, sidewalks”

  1. John Hamlin

    Nora King is on the right track. Let’s hope she gets some support from other zoning commissioners.

  2. jlightfield

    It’s great that the sidewalk issue is getting some attention again. Many people spent a significant amount of time on connectivity issues and sidewalks in the connectivity plan. What has happened since the final draft is what is referenced in the article, people on the boards and commissions change and the interest in following the next step on an issue wanes.
    .
    Nora raised the question about who changed the responsibility of sidewalk design, and the City Code states:
    .
    § 95-23
    Construction standards.
    .
    No newly constructed highway, road or street, together with any curbs and sidewalks adjacent thereto and the drainage systems, guardrails and street signs installed in conjunction therewith, shall be laid out, altered, enlarged, changed or constructed, except in conformance with the standards set forth in the City of Norwalk Department of Public Works Roadway Standards, dated May 1982, and Standard Specifications, dated April 1982, and Drainage Manual, dated May 1983, as approved and amended by the Public Works Committee of the Common Council.
    .
    B.
    Any street, highway or road or any curb or sidewalk adjacent thereto or any drainage system, guardrail or street sign installed in conjunction therewith that shall be in whole or in any part or manner laid out, altered, changed or constructed, other than in accordance with the standards set forth in this section, in the determination of the Director, shall not be accepted as a public street of the city.
    .
    It’s easy to look back now on this decision being inherently bad, there is no planning capacity in DPW to design improvements in sidewalks or pedestrian amenities. But the Common Council of the 1980s was making decisions based on whatever was going on at the time. Things have changed.
    .
    Today’s Common Council could easily change this ordinance and fund the development of updated sidewalk design. It could even adopt a complete street ordinance and start with a draft from SWRPA or RAP of what that looks like. The Council could even reference that it wants to adopt NACTO design standards and get us into the 21st century even quicker.
    .
    For those unfamiliar, NACTO’s (http://nacto.org/usdg/) urban design street standards has recently been adopted by CalTrans, in addition to Los Angeles. California, pretty much none for being a car culture icon, has embraced these standards because complete streets make for better communities. Norwalk can do the same.
    .
    Maybe it would help for the Common Council’s land use related committees to be staffed and advised by people actually in the land use planning departments instead of the current system where they ignore land use and the planning department. I’m looking at you planning committee.

  3. EveT

    We need more commissioners like Nora King.

  4. Casey Smith

    And why, in 1987, was it the Planning and Zoning Department that was responsible for the original “Norwalk Business District Design Guidelines,” which have sidewalk standards included? You worked for the city then, and you must remember working on them. Why did that responsibility get shifted over the years away from the P and Z Department, where it should be and once was?
    .
    @ Ms. King – Okay, Ms. King – without looking it up, can you tell me who was Mayor of Norwalk in 1987? Oh, and where were you employed in ’87, tell us in what capacity and list for us what projects you worked on during that employment in detail?
    .
    In the last 27 years, there’s been a lot of water over the dam and many changes in Norwalk. Some of those changes have been for good, others not so good. And during that period, Norwalk should have done at least two, if not three Master Plans. Once the new plan is adopted, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Ordinance changes like Ms. Lightfield cited also happen. Those, as I suppose you know, are done by a Committee and not by the Zoning Department. While it sounds awfully impressive to cross examine a department head about events that took place 27 years ago and demand that he remember the circumstances of something that was most likely insignificant in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t seem terribly realistic. Rather than baiting Mr. Greene, as enjoyable as it may be, how about moving forward and discussing the future plans? Or even how about just trying to reason out why DPW has jurisdiction because, oh, let’s just say…when roads are paved, sidewalk work is often involved and it can be included in the contract rather than doing a separate bid, or something like that?
    .
    Oh and in case you are wondering,…1987 saw a change of administration. It was the end of the Collins administration and the start of the Esposito administration. While I did know that before checking, you can be darn sure I checked my facts. Why not extend the same courtesy to Mr. Greene?

  5. anon

    @Lightfield thank you for bringing calm reason into this discussion.

  6. Suzanne

    It is clear that, whatever the standards adopted, whatever back office improvements and procedures are updated, whatever plan is examined, whatever statue or regulation “on the books”, there are at least two department heads so saturated with politics, their ability to manage or even be politic with Council members supports a glaring lack of service to the community of Norwalk.
    *
    Just like the DOE, I think it is time to do a national search to replace these people with educated and trained individuals who are experienced in working with municipalities and know where their paycheck comes from. As a reference to some of the information that should be at the fingertips of such a candidate:
    *
    http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=23720
    *
    It would not be difficult given the breadth and depth of social media to advertise such a position at the salary and benefits level currently received by Mr. Greene and Mr. Alvord.

  7. Mike Mushak

    Great job, Nora King! It is shocking to see how millions of dollars worth of plans are not being followed at all when vitally important planning and zoning decisions are being made in Norwalk that directly affect businesses, residents, and our quality of life. The fact hat Mr. Greene was unaware of any of the studies is even more shocking. We are basically not following any plans at all in Norwalk (see related article today on NON about Mr. Greene’s disdain for our own Master Plan that he is paid $165,000 a year to implement, yet he thinks is useless.)
    .
    Norwalk’s planning process under Mike Greene has basically become a silly exercise of “whac-a-mole” where we react suddenly to applications without any sense of where the city is heading, defying all professional planning standards since we actually have no certified planners in our P and Z Department, absurd as that sounds.
    .
    The confusion over sidewalk standards from various departments, with Mike Greene just saying “it’s not my job” which is outrageous, are just an example of how broken our entire planning process is, as Jackie Lightfield points out so well in her comment above. The truth is DPW has very basic MINIMUM standards only in its guidelines, and defers on page 14 of the 1991 “Roadway Standards” to following OTHER “overall plans” for sidewalk width and paving materials in the quaintly described “historic areas” that are “subject to DPW approval”. These “other” plans would surely include the 1987 P and Z standards for Norwalk’s “historic” Business Districts, that exist but that Mike Greene says he has no authority over even though he is the Planning and Zoning Director and these ar his own department’s standards. We can assume the “historic areas” also refer to Redevelopment plans as well, which have their own sidewalk standards, and all the standards recommended in all of the expert plans Norwalk taxpayers have paid millions for but are routinely ignored as this article points out. In the vacuum of any responsible and professsional planning that Mike Greene has created in the dysfunctional P and Z Department, is it any surprise no one in City Hall seems to know what our sidewalks are supposed to look like and a simple question about all of our existing plans is met with an arrogant “that’s not my job” from our P and Z Director?
    .
    Mike Greene’s deliberate strategy of not having any professional plans or studies ever approved by the Common Council, if he can help it, is revealing as to his motivation: it means he basically doesn’t have to follow any of them if he and he alone doesn’t feel like it. It is shocking to see how Mr. Greene simply ignored all of the plans to reopen Crescent Street into a major car/pedestrian, bicycle corridor as Nora pointed out, when he advised AMEC and the Zoning Commission on the latest request to double AMEC’s capacity and have large trash-hauling trucks making wide turns all day long across two travel lanes and two sidewalks on the narrow Crescent Street. That’s right, let’s just increase the potential for serious conflicts and compromises on public safety on what is proposed to be a major car/pedestrian/bicycle route, across the street from a playground, children’s museum, and public park. Wow, only in Norwalk.
    .
    The applicant based their traffic study on the faulty assumption that Crescent St. would remain closed, without Mr. Greene apparently ever suggesting to them that these plans existed, since he didn’t know about them or just didn’t care. Why have plans at all? And why do we have a Planning and Zoning Director who doesn’t even bother to study or care about the millions of dollars of plans taxpayers have paid for to help direct our city into the future? It is unbelievable, but that’s where Norwalk finds itself in 2014, as a city without any real plans, and a clueless Planning and Zoning Director who is just “mailing it in” as he gets guaranteed raises every year with no performance reviews. In the private sector a poorly performing and under-qualified employee like Mr. Greene would have been fired long ago, yet in Norwalk we reward such gross incompetence with yet another raise, as our city continues to grow piecemeal with no coordinated plans in place, and Norwalk continues to be a case study in how NOT to plan a city.
    .
    The entire city should be outraged by this, Republican and Democrat and unaffiliated alike, and certainly all of our city leaders should be. What a horrible mess we find ourselves in, as decisions are being made about our future with no regard to how they will impact entire neighborhoods and businesses, quality of life, public safety, and our tax base and future property taxes.
    .
    If as Mike Greene loves to say, “it’s not my job”, then whose job is it to plan for our city’s future, if not the PLANNING and Zoning Director?

  8. jlightfield

    @Mushak, Mike I understand your frustration with so much of what should be relatively easy things to accomplish from a land use planning perspective. I get that you don’t like Mike Greene. Really. If we were playing blog-bingo as a drinking game you would cause a sea of intoxicated readers on your every posted comment. However I think your ire is misplaced. Staff does not set or initiate policy. I want you to reread that sentence a couple of times. Okay, maybe a million times. 🙂
    .
    The Common Council approves mayoral appointments to the planning and zoning commission. The Common Council approves department recommendations into the operating and capital budgets. The Common Council voted on approving and adopting plans They have often voted to fund a an or study, but by the time the plan or study is finished its a different set of council reps, and the ones that keep getting re-elected tend to be the ones that are less inclined to change the status quo. And thus we get a broken process that just repeats endlessly.
    .
    It can change though. And you are smart enough to see that you can’t have a planning committee of the common council divorced from the planning department. The council will never approve plans if it never sees them, and Norwalk’s land use planning shouldn’t be solely focused on the urban renewal parcels.
    .
    So take some of that passion and ire and direct it at the legislative body that actually ignores city-wide planning, never funds implantation plans, never looks at protecting and preserving neighborhoods etc. It would be a baby step in the right direction towards improving a very dysfunctional process.
    .

  9. dianelauricella

    Great article and discussion NON.
    *
    Yes indeed, there are several Committees of the Council that could and should weigh in a lot more about land use planning and policy. The Planning, Land Use and Building Management, Health Welfare and Public Safety, Public Works and even the Finance Committees should use their code-given influence to help shape the short- and long-term layout of Norwalk. Much of this takes political will, courage and due diligence.
    *
    For example, since the various Council Committees could have heavy influence on Department policy via “purse strings” including P & Z funding, why don’t they use their power to force an overhaul? They could if they had the political will. The same with the IT Department but I digress.
    *
    HOWEVER, Please people, do not give our Planning and Zoning department staff a “pass” about their responsibility to professionally advise these Council Committees, Mayor, Boards and Commissions about comprehensive, “modern” land use trends, reports and studies and look at land use regulations of other cities and states. They are being paid handsomely to do this.
    *
    For many many years, the Zoning Commission and other land use entities have been observed to rely VERY HEAVILY upon staff recommendation, rarely giving merit to global trends or citizen suggestions nor discussing the comprehensive effects of various city policies on land use.
    *
    When I have observed these bodies over the years, I rarely, if EVER, have seen the staff initiate a comprehensive discussion about existing reports or suggest that the City hire a neutral expert to augment staff capabilities about the more complex traffic and environmental matters, for example.
    *
    Most of the changes to the Zoning regulations have been done as the result of applicants coming in to tweak the regulations so that their site will fit, therefore a piecemeal, rather than comprehensive, approach has resulted.
    *
    *
    It is time for a professional,third party comprehensive review of any and all land use entities in the City. It should be comprehensive because there are many entities that affect each other.
    *
    This is necessary immediately as a special RFP and BET appropriation in order to regain credibility with the development community and especially the taxpayers that suffer when the City is managed in a piece-meal fashion.

  10. peter parker

    Nora King you go!! She is on the ball and right on with this. Go get em Nora! It’s high time they are held accountable for their actions and/or inactions.

  11. Mike Mushak

    Jackie, I agree with much of what you say but not everything for sure, and you are 100% wrong in one major regard about my opinion about staff. I am well aware of the shortcomings of the Common Council and their role in planning, but your judgement of the situation is clouded by your obsession with the Planing Committee, and are excusing what is inexcusable behavior on behalf of Mike Greene and staff. I could go on with umpteen more examples that you will ignore no doubt in your rebuttal, so let me cut to the chase. Mike Greene has turned the entire system on its head, and he is the one that controls policy instead of the commissions and the public or the countless millions of dollars of studies he ignores with impunity.
    .
    Greene, along with the help of other staff, use skillful manipulation of the commissions that I have seen in action, including providing bogus data to support their positions to mostly do nothing to improve the broken code. This is staff driving policy, not anyone else, and that is the root of the problem. You know exactly what I am talking about as you hit it head on all the time when you were Zoning Chair and complained about it all the time (how many years and countless hours of meetings did it take you to reform our sign ordinance for example, and it is still the same ridiculous obsolete code for the most part except for electronic signs have been banned.)
    .
    I am sure you haven’t forgotten how difficult Mike Greene made it to change any zoning regulations, and how surprised you were in 2010 when you found out it had taken 6 frustrating years for the Golden Hill Village District to get enacted mostly because Greene sat on it and did nothing for years, and kept you completely in the dark about it while you were Zoning Chair most of that time. You knew nothing about it, which wasn’t your fault, since it was Greene deliberately manipulating the commission and the entire system.
    .
    Let’s conclude that clearly it is the staff controlling the policy, not the public or any commission, period. Read that once, or maybe a million times! 🙂

  12. jlightfield

    @mushak I’m so glad you brought up the overhaul of the sign regulations. This is a perfect example of how the process works.
    .
    The chair (that would be me) wanted to rewrite our sign regulations.
    .
    Staff (Mike Greene) suggested that it was complicated, the public was all over the place on signs and it would be difficult to start since the commission was also all over the place on the issue.
    .
    I really thought we’d find common ground and improve the regulations. Alas commissioners were in fact all over the place. Some wanted to ban all electronic signs outright. Big debate there. Others objected to neon signs. There was support for wooden only signs in historic districts. There wasn’t support for commercial signs in west Norwalk at Oak Hills. Some wanted smaller signs. Some wanted signs that were proportionate to the building facade. (Okay that was me.) There was a debate on what the frieze of a commercial building was. And at what height. There was a discussion on ground signs. On whether companies could put logos atop office towers. If they could be lit, if letters and logotypes counted in square area coverage. I’m sure you remember that while we were working on this we also were reducing parking requirements, getting rid of fee in lieu and seating the appeal of the Wilson point appeal of our denial of what constituted traffic impact on a residential neighborhood with a commercial club in it.
    .
    In the end I couldn’t get 3 other commission members to agree on any specific direction. So a few minor tweaks happened and that was it.
    .
    My take-away from this example supports the process of policy being set by the commission, not staff. You may want to continue to argue otherwise. That’s the point where we agree to disagree.

  13. Mike Mushak

    Jackie, you forgot that Greene did not want the sign ordinance changed, and he succeeded. You were taken for a fool by Greene, despite your good intentions. That is why performance reviews of Greene stopped in 2006, when you became chair, because you said Greene never reminded you that was your responsibility. Why would he ever want you to review his performance even though that was done annually up until 2005? He’s no fool, and he played you well, just as he played every other chair and commissioner to his liking. He’s a master at it. Most recently, he stopped any progress on parking reform (he loves the control as it allows him and his staff to control businesses and retaliate at will over draconian parking requirements) when he simply didn’t appear at the 6th Taxing District who had met to change parking requirements in Rowayton, because Greene doesn’t want them. And his controllees Emily Wilson and Joe Santo followed lockstep behind Greene and stopped any changes on parking requirements as well. Empty storefronts continue to plague Rowayton, and huge over-scale single family homes are replacing businesses in what was once a vibrant waterfront district. Rowayton is being ruined by Greene’s policies, while you sit here and argue that it is the Common Council and Commission that should control the policy. Right.
    .
    That is also how Greene controls Agstrom on the Planning Commission, who is clueless about what his responsibilities are. The Planning Commission is supposed to coordinate all the planning in the city, according to the city website and charter. However, the PC has completely ignored its responsibilities for years, as that would interfere with Greene’s control over the planning process. Heaven forbid the PC should have a say in the planning of the city and interfere with Greene’s warped vision of he wants Norwalk to be, which is a 70’s era car-oriented suburb with big box stores everywhere, and no clue how to make vibrant downtowns happen.

    .
    You also ignored in your comment the example I brought up of staff controlling the process instead of he commission, which was the Golden Hill Village District that I mentioned, which Greene kept a secret from you for 6 years even though you were the Zoning Chair most of that time. I recall your exact reaction, which was shock, when the Golden Hill Association showed up with a video showing how they had asked for this in 2004, and here it was in 2010 and it was finally before the commission. Even though you were Chair, Greene worked with anti-Village District GOP members on the commission in keeping you in the dark about it. You had never even heard of it until it came forward in 2010, after much pressure and begging from the GHA and politicians we had to engage to force Greene to bring it forward. Green didn’t want it, and neither did a few GOP members as they are simply against smart planning in any form (you, know, that quaint pesky “government is the problem” thing leftover from the Reagan era), Even though you were Chair, Greene almost managed to keep the Golden Hill Village District from happening. Compare Norwalk’s 6 years to make that 2 block change happen to Stamford’s 18 months to rezone the entire 12 block Stamford Hospital area into a new Village District.
    .
    Yes, Greene controls the process, and controls the commissions. We can be guaranteed that there will be token changes made to pretend reform is happening, and keep everyone happy with minimal tidbits thrown out, when the entire dysfunctional system Greene has created over decades needs an overhaul, with new staff changes with real professionals instead of bureaucrats and volunteers with no professional planning experience and no clue what is happening in other cities across the country ruining Norwalk’s future. Only in Norwalk do we allow the insane to run the asylum, when it comes to our planning process.

  14. John Levin

    Great job, Nora King! We need more commissioners like Nora King.

  15. jlightfield

    @mushak you can misconstrue events all you want but that doesn’t change the fundamental process of how the zoning commission actually functions. In the end it is only as good as the people who serve on it,sometimes with good leadership that results in negotiations and compromise and sometimes with bad leadership that exposes the city to lawsuits and acrimony.
    .
    You have brought forward many good ideas in the past and some of them helped shape zoning code. You should be proud of those accomplishments. You should also continue to contribute towards policy that you believe in. But as with most things in government, the best ideas don’t always get the attention they deserve for many reasons. That doesn’t make every instance a conspiracy, it simply is the result of timing, opportunity and resources all of which are often beyond any one persons control.

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