By Scott Kimmich
To the Editor:
NORWALK, Conn. – I was heartened to see HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) Secretary Donovan, Sen. Blumenthal, Gov. Malloy, and Congressman Himes standing in the Community Room of Washington Village and pledging millions to support “smart” redevelopment of Washington Village as part of HUD’s Choice Neighborhood plan to transform South Norwalk. What does smart redevelopment mean? And what does it mean when you are rebuilding in a flood plain?
The Choice Neighborhood program specifies that such a transformation would “create the conditions necessary for public and private reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods to offer the kinds of amenities and assets, including safety, good schools, and commercial activity, that are important to families’ choices about their community.”
Any program to achieve such conditions must come to grips with the fact of frequent flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has just issued new guidelines that raises possible storm sea level from 8 feet to 12 feet and the flood plain extends almost all the way to Main Street. In order to satisfy the Choice Neighborhood specifications, Norwalk must invest in flood control, which it has avoided for years, but which is necessary for the transformation to take place.
We can’t expect to have a choice neighborhood that is constantly flooding from lunar high tides, let alone storm surges. The current plan is to build living quarters 15 to 18.5 feet above sea level and park cars at street level, moving them when flooding threatens. Is this one of the amenities of a choice neighborhood? Remember, much flooding in the area is caused by back-up of storm sewers at high tides.
Unlike Norwalk, some communities develop and execute plans to control coastal flooding. Annapolis, Md. is planning to put valves on storm sewers to prevent tidal and storm back-up. The resultant dry streets and parking places will be an amenity of the kind we need on Water Street and other streets along our waterfront.
Annapolis also studied other means of mitigating the effect of tidal and storm surges, including temporary, easily installed flood walls with flood gates for side streets. These measures would greatly reduce flood damage during a significant storm like Sandy. (Water-filled berms might attenuate the effect of storms on the residences in Harbor View, and Shore Front Park.) Such mitigation costs money and right now Annapolis is hesitating to make the total investment, even though its exposure to coastal flooding is worse than ours.
Taxpayers in Norwalk have similar worries.
It would be a far better plan, without the need to worry about flood protection and mitigation, to move the whole project to the undeveloped 95/7 site. The problem, as one of the redevelopment planners told me, is that the land there is so much more expensive than the site in South Norwalk. But maybe that pricey land is cheaper than trying to mitigate flooding in South Norwalk. And maybe the project would kick-start the rest of 95/7 development. It’s worth looking at.
Some people, like Councilman Kimmel, warn that if Norwalk doesn’t build on the Housing Authority property, someone else will. “I’ll tell you frankly, if we were to build it in another place, in another decade you’d have luxury waterfront condos there. That’s what would happen,” he said. Right now, the waterfront is currently hundreds of yards away, but Mother Nature has been telling us that she agrees with Mr. Kimmel. Washington Village will soon be waterfront property, smart-built or not.
Using Mr. Kimmel’s argument, why wait? Let the Housing Authority sell its newly acquired land to those developers who are dying to build luxury waterfront condos, and use the proceeds to buy the land on which to rebuild Washington Village in the 95/7 area and everyone will be happy. Especially us taxpayers and the long-suffering residents of Washington Village.