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Norwalk Council looks to advance Wall Street design

Norwalk Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking James Travers speaks to the Common Council Planning Committee last week on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. – Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking James Travers has elaborated on the recently unveiled concepts for the Wall Street area.

“This is really, I think, an opportunity to transform a neighborhood, to do something that we know are best practices today and really make it someplace unique and special,” Travers said to Common Council members last week.

The Council is expected to approve a $350,000 contract with Fuss & O’Neill, a civil and environmental engineering firm, Tuesday. This would kick off a 12–18-month process of designing changes to the Wall Street/West Avenue area, including redesigning the intersection of Wall, West and Belden Avenues. Construction would take about the same length of time and the entire project would cost about $13 million, said Travers, who expressed confidence about getting grants to pay for most of it.

“I’ve had a fair amount of success with grants in my past,” Travers said. “I think that this story of, you know, of a downtown to the town of Norwalk, and reclaiming this – I think is it bodes well with many.”

Travers stressed that concepts would evolve in alignment with community input but spoke of making Burnell Boulevard a two-way street and rearranging Pulse Point, the bus terminal. He’s not a fan of back-in parking, personally, and doesn’t think the State would approve a roundabout at the awkward Wall/West/Belden convergence, which has its roots in trolley paths.

Funding for the design work stems from the 2012 Transportation Master Plan, which recommended considering “T-ing” Wall/West/Belden, Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Vonashek said.

In 2018, the Department of Public Works, under then-Director Bruce Chimento, sought a commitment to spend $1.2 million in 2019-20 for a roundabout at Wall Street/West Avenue/Belden Avenue. That wasn’t funded.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) “is not really keen on two lane roundabouts,” Travers said. “I don’t think that that would fall under their approval.”

A roundabout also wouldn’t be pedestrian friendly and if the intersection is “normalized,” then a “huge gateway with green space that the community can actually use” will be created, as opposed to the green space in the center of a roundabout, Travers said.

The 2019 Wall Street/West Avenue Neighborhood Plan emphasizes the importance of making the area pedestrian friendly and also calls for making Burnell Boulevard a two-way street. Regarding Pulse Point, it states, “This area should be upgraded to serve not only as a citywide bus transfer point, but also as a neighborhood serving amenity as well as an origin/destination for a direct transit link between the Wall Street-West Avenue neighborhood and the South Norwalk train station.”

Changing Burnell Boulevard will greatly improve circulation in the area and allow easy access to the Yankee Doodle Garage, Travers said Thursday, adding that facade improvements would make the garage more inviting to draw folks in.

Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) pointed out that there’s been talk of moving Pulse Point to the South Norwalk train station area.

Conversations with the Transit District have shown that “this pulse point really serves the community well here,” Travers said. However, “I firmly believe that that we should have a pulse point at the Transportation Center…. I think that when we have a variety of pulse points for the city, it serves the end user well.”

A “normalized” Burnell Boulevard Pulse Point would have buses parking parallel to the curb and “make it look less like a bus depot in the middle of a neighborhood and really looking like it’s, you know, it’s there to support ridership,” Travers said. While there are seven canopies on one side of the street now, three would be moved to the south side and riders would automatically know which direction buses would be going in.

Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) asked about the long-talked about Head of the Harbor North proposed mixed-use development and M.F. DiScala’s stated desire to build over the City parking lot between Main and High Streets.

“I think those conversations have been resurrected, not in, I wouldn’t say, in very a serious manner. But we’ve definitely heard inklings of developer looking at that site, again, for the Head of the Harbor,” Vonashek said.

With the economic incentives that have been approved recently and the proposed investments, “there’s definitely interest in being able to move that parcel,” she said.

Council member George Tsiranides (D-District D) pressed Travers for an opinion about back-in parking, which the City installed in 2019 in the Wall Street area.

“I don’t like the back-in parking,” Travers said. Instead, he’d prefer “widened sidewalks” to create activity on the street.

“We really need to create this, really, pedestrian gateway that’s through here, that’s much more focused on the environment there than the cars for quick hits,” Travers said. “…I think our investment into the Wall Street area will be pretty substantial.”

Kydes said it would be “fantastic” if TMP were able to get grant funding to revamp the area’s streets and sidewalks.

“I have never seen that type of funding come in for pretty much anything here in Norwalk,” Kydes said. “That would be that’d be a great achievement, James, if you can pull off.”

Travers said that he and Assistant Director for Transportation Services Garrett Bolella have written a Local Capital Improvement Program (LoCIP) grant application for $3.8 million and then a FEMA application for $13 million. The LoCIP money would fund phase one; the application has been “received favorably” by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG).

“They’re asking for some additional information before it moves forward to ConDOT but I think I feel pretty confident that  at least that one is a strong possibility,” Travers said. But if FEMA comes through, “We would forgo this one and probably look at a different project, but get FEMA to cover the whole entire cost and get all the improvements done at one time.”

11 comments

David Muccigrosso November 8, 2021 at 10:43 am

Why are we doing this? Whose interests does this actually serve?

Seems like a lot of money just to make it look like something’s vaguely being done about something a lot of people have complained about. But none of it questions the fundamental assumptions about what’s wrong with the development strategy for the neighborhood.

These big projects keep failing because there’s too many ways for them to go wrong. We’re just going to end up with an expensively facelifted ghost town instead of a decrepit and declining ghost town.

This shouldn’t be that hard. Clean up blighted lots. Crack down on absentee landowners. Streamline the regulatory process so we don’t have absurdities like the bakery situation, and businesses can actually capitalize on opportunities before they evaporate. End the stupid vendetta with Milligan, the one major landowner who’s trying to do right by the neighborhood and not sucking it out into some faceless national bank’s pockets. Give the buildings themselves some facelifts. Run a power washer over the place, fer chrissakes. Pull up the weeds in the sidewalks more than once a year/never. Kill that heinous contract with NPA; if Harry hadn’t tied up the Tyvek Temple for so many damned years, MAYBE we wouldn’t NEED to police parking so badly.

If you STILL want to waste a lot of money on an infrastructure project, then the single best thing we could do is make Belden a better cutoff between Main and West, so we don’t have so much traffic on Wall and we can add some traffic calming to Wall like we have on Washington (and which works REALLY well for SoNo). Both intersections at each end of Belden really suck, and those train tracks are an atrocity on people’s suspensions.

This isn’t that hard. You just need to not be stuck in Harry’s corrupt mindset or always obsessing about some made-up CRT nonsense on the BOE.

piberman November 8, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Will these modest outlays really encourage major firms to bring good jobs to our shabby Downtown ? No City interest in encouraging office buildings Downtown. CT’s only City without office buildings.

Will the modest outlays help bring good jobs to 10% of our population living at the Poverty level?
Or is low pay low tax Big Box the best we can do ?

Jason Milligan November 8, 2021 at 2:49 pm

This is a good start. It is the types of things “government” should be focused on. Let’s hope that Jim Travers & Jessica “Casey” Vonashek can get some things done.

These improvements alone will not fix Wall Street. Common sense tweaks to the rules and eliminating or at least reigning in the Redevelopment Agency should be the top priority.

Better rules could happen quickly and the impact would be immediate. I have a half dozen projects including a hotel and a building for my corporate headquarters planned for Wall Street that are all stymied because of stupid rules!

Michael McGuire November 8, 2021 at 6:41 pm

Interesting that the prospect of a Wall Street Train Station is, yet again, apparently not on the radar. The 1/2 mile radius around the potential Wall Street station site is the 3rd largest Central Business District in Fairfield County, only being bested by Stamford and Bridgeport. Consider that its proximity to the Pulse Point creates an inter-model transportation hub, right at the junction of Rt 7 and Interstate 95.

The Wall Street area is the largest concentration of small office space in Fairfield County. Last I checked, it is small business that is the key job creator, not big business…particularly in CT. The RDA’s decades long gentrification of SoNo chased out a lot of small business. Wall Street has entire large buildings that are empty and ready to accept commercial users.

CT Rails once required over a 1,000 new housing units would need to be built in that 1/2 mile radius for them to consider a Wall Street Station. We have had far more than a 1,000 units built in this area over the past decade.

True Covid-19 has changed the dynamics of the NY Metro market, but cures are found and life goes on. But what remains indisputable is the fact the commerce and vitality locate around train stations.

I think Mr. Travers plan will will help, but really only if the real issues of parking, POKO, and permitting are addressed AND if our elected representatives take the train prospect seriously.

Isn’t there a $250K study being done on this now?

piberman November 8, 2021 at 8:49 pm

Norwalk’s leaders over many decades have no major problems with our transient community composed of half a dozen leafy suburbs surrounding a depressed low income Downtown with a persistent 10% poverty rate. No other City in CT has this peculiar configuration – a “City” without office buildings, without major private employers and a persistent shabby Downtown suitable for apartment buildings. The difference with Stamford is astonishing. Yet Stamford was not many decades ago similar to Norwalk and also had severely depressed Downtown. Now its CT’s only real modern City with national and international major firms offering good jobs. Has a major University. Norwalk remains CT’s only City w/o a 4 yr college.

No amount of consultants hired by City Hall will fundamentally change our shabby Downtown into a vibrant City center with office buildings, ample good jobs, attractive to visitors, workers, and residents, etc. Unless and its a “big if” City officials are willing to follow the Stamford example and use eminent domain to recast our Downtown. And build a new City Hall right in the middle of a new Downtown.

Without become a “real City” with a “real Downtown offering good jobs” Norwalk will continue to have a large portion of its citizens living at Poverty wages. Big Box jobs don’t lift most families out of poverty levels. And without a “real City” our kids will continue to leave Norwalk and not come back here to raise families. And most of us will retire elsewhere.

Those familiar with the economics of urban development will find nothing new in the above. Standard textbook stuff. Economic growth the world over takes place primarily in cities. Most of the world’s population live in cities. China has over a 100 new cities with a million or more.

So why bother changing Norwalk into a “real City” ? Because it will enable lower incomes and newcomers to secure the American Dream with access to good jobs, a college education and make us really proud of our City. Downtown Stamford pulses with life and people. Why can’t we have a real Downtown too ?

PIBerman is a Board member of FEI’s CT Chapter – the nation’s organization of large firm public corporation CFO’s.

Diane Keefe November 8, 2021 at 9:00 pm

I like Michael McGuire’s train station idea. The Wall street area is too isolated from SoNo as it is. I would strongly encourage separated bike lines to be built if the goal is traffic calming and pedestrian friendly infrastructure. It makes a big difference to have train and bike access with safety of the residents the biggest concern.

Tony P November 9, 2021 at 9:18 am

Love the hotel idea – adds people to the area w/o adding kids to the schools. And the train station is a complete no brainer, and a game changer for the area. McGuire et al have already done the work for the city – all the city needs to do is push for it.

Georgie P. November 9, 2021 at 2:43 pm

Norwalk – you had your opportunity to vote out the Democrats. As did Connecticut as a whole. You failed to do so. Live with the consequences.

V. November 10, 2021 at 10:55 am

High on the list for this project is to clear-cut the mature trees in the “leafy plaza” next to the parking garage to widen and pave a two-way street (this was described by the Middletown Press on October 30). The city has already cut down the trees along the Norwalk River Valley Trail and along the Merritt Parkway. Trees are essential to maintaining livable climates. They absorb carbon. They emit oxygen. They provide shade and are the habitats for animals. Paving leads to flooding as we know, horrifically, from Hurricane Ida. If Norwalk wants, as it claims in other contexts, to have “tree canopies,” then cutting down these beautiful healthy trees should NOT be part of this agenda. Norwalk needs to take climate change into account. Now.

David Muccigrosso November 10, 2021 at 3:25 pm

@Diane: It’s 95 that divides SoNo and Downtown, not the lack of transit.

The land the mall sits on would have been a natural place to develop a “connecting” neighborhood – call it “North SoNo” (lol) – to infill with several blocks of housing and parking within walking distance of each core, and zoned for business storefronts along West Main.

I’d also tear down the YMCA and start infilling it.

Instead we got that monstrosity of a mall.

Vara Neverow November 11, 2021 at 5:48 pm

Nancy on Norwalk reported on August 9, 2021 that the city of Norwalk is taking a “more enlightened approach to tree canopy” (https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalk-seeks-more-enlightened-approach-to-tree-canopy/). In that article, Norwalk Tree Warden Chris Torre states “We don’t take trees down unnecessarily.”

“Unnecessarily” is a very problematic word. Norwalk just cut down a beautiful mature tree on October 13, 2021 at the intersection of East Wall Street and East Avenue and will be paving the small garden areas there to install huge unnecessary traffic lights and obstruct the beautiful views of Mill Hill and the Green with these poles. The same city that is advocating for maintenance of the tree canopy has allowed (or not noticed? or gave permits for cutting down?) a large mature tree on Lockwood Lane and (just a few days ago) two huge trees on Clearview Avenue. And the city never seems to add trees, encourage neighborhoods to invest in trees, or even replace trees that have been cut down.

As an article in the Middletown Press, published October 30, states that: “City officials on Friday unveiled a vision for a new gateway to the Wall Street Historical District, replacing a leafy island plaza that separates entry and exit routes for vehicles with a single roadway, flanked by walkways that are wider than the ones that exist now.” See https://www.middletownpress.com/business/article/Norwalk-unveils-proposed-new-gateway-to-Wall-16577272.php. As is evident in that article, Norwalk’s entire plan for “improving” Wall Street seems to be about accommodating cars and installing more concrete and creating a maze of road construction that will benefit companies but not the residents of the city as climate change escalates.

The most devastating aspect of the plan is to continue to destroy mature trees in a city that has also already clear-cut the Norwalk section of the Merritt Parkway for the benefit of cars and the Norwalk River Valley Trail (with very tragic consequences for trail goers who now can inhale exhaust fumes without any protection after the mature trees along Riverside Avenue were cut down and the animals who previously relied on those trees were displaced). The reports of bears, coyotes, deer, and other animals in backyards can be directly traced to the clear-cutting of wooded areas in order to build housing or storage units or parking lots. It’s simple science that these animals co-exist with humans and need shelter and food sources and are themselves essential to nature, but science seemingly isn’t a factor in Norwalk’s current plans for the city.

Again, it’s simple science with regard to maintaining and adding trees: Mature trees absorb carbon and produce oxygen thus reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to a rapidly heating planet. They provide shade in the summer and are the habitats for living creatures all year round. But rather than doing anything that would actually improve both the beauty of the Wall Street area—by planting more trees and creating more leafy islands to reduce carbon emissions, create shade, and prevent flooding—those who govern Norwalk are working hard to escalate climate change, displace animals, and facilitate more flooding damage as hurricanes and storms become more violent.

It is truly hypocritical for this city to claim that tree canopies matter at this moment. However, I will continue to hope that the ideas that have been presented can be recalibrated to address climate change rather than facilitating the further destruction of trees in Norwalk.

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