Norwalk Council members unimpressed by South Norwalk staircase project

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency
This artist’s illustration shows a staircase planned in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program for Martin Luther King Drive.
This artist's illustration shows a staircase planned in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program for Martin Luther King Drive.
This artist’s illustration shows a staircase planned to replace the one going from Martin Luther King Drive to Clay Street. It’s part of the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program.

NORWALK, Conn. – A planned South Norwalk upgrade for pedestrians was pooh-poohed Tuesday by Common Council members, who balked at a $271,000 price tag for a project that included a heated staircase, saying the city has serious problems for which there is no funding.

Members of the Public Works Committee said they didn’t have enough information to go on in considering the plan developed by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, and tabled the vote on a contract to rebuild the staircase that goes from Martin Luther King Drive to Clay Street.

Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said he didn’t know the justification for the project and there was no one present from the Redevelopment Agency.

“I cannot fathom spending $250,000 to replace a perfectly good staircase with a perfectly good staircase that’s going to be heated,” Public Works Committee Chairman David McCarthy (R-District E) said.

The staircase is one of two designs laid out in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program developed by CDM Smith, Sasaki Associates and Fitzgerald & Halliday. The other, more elaborate, concept would connect Martin Luther King Drive with Hamilton Avenue. The city does not have funding to do both, Alvord said.

An artists conception
An artists conception of a staircase linking Hamilton Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, as shown in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program.

The project was authorized in the 2014-15 capital budget, which Council members approved.

“The TOD Master Plan identified designed shared use of South Norwalk streets for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists as an immediate need,” the capital budget request states. “The implementation of a program of ‘complete’ streets is a high priority for both Federal and State investment. These improvements serve a significant and growing neighborhood population to access the South Norwalk station and the mixed-income population demographic that the City is seeking to attract.”

Alvord said funding is coming from the Department of Economic Development. Two items were up for a vote Tuesday; a $246,037 contract with Vaz Quality Works to do the work and an authorization for up to $24,604 in change orders on the contract with Vaz.

“Their challenge is they’re not lighted,” Alvord said of the current staircase. “From time to time you have people drinking alcohol camped out on the steps. They are very steep. They become ice covered in the winter time.”

Fullscreen capture 182015 123547 AM
The current staircases, as shown in the 2010 Milone & MacBroom Existing Conditions Evaluation Report.

The new stairway would have temperature and precipitation sensors that would automatically trigger a snow melting system. It would also have a trough up the middle for bicycle wheels, so a cyclist could easily roll a bike up the steps.

Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked if anyone had ever been injured on the steps, and what condition they are in. “If a half a dozen people would use it if it was heated then I have a little bit of a problem,” he said.

Alvord said there is “some deterioration to the concrete,” and “I don’t know that there’s been anybody injured on the stairs, I don’t have the numbers for that, but I didn’t develop the justification for the project. We put the bid package together, oversaw the design.”

McCarthy, who qualified his remarks by saying he is usually strongly in favor of TOD projects, said he drives by the staircases on his way home and, “From a driving-by perspective it seems they are reasonably lit and reasonably constructed.” He said he sees a “handful of people” cycling, and certainly people using the stairs.

In November 2013, Redevelopment held a public meeting on the TOD plan. David Sousa of CDM Smith said his firm did a pedestrian count on the staircases about two months earlier.

“We were surprised with the number of pedestrians actually using the staircases, mostly, of course, during the morning rush hour or during the afternoon rush hour, people heading to the train station,” he said. “But even people that have children that are walking down to Washington for shopping or go to the libraries, it’s a pretty popular shortcut to go from point A to point B.”

The staircases as they exist now are vital, but they are not welcoming, Souza said.

“The June 2009 South Norwalk Railroad Station Intermodal Facility Study indicated that the stairways were in substandard condition and recommended a rehabilitation and reconstruction of the facilities. A field visit confirmed the condition of the stairways,” the 2010 Milone & MacBroom Existing Conditions Evaluation Report states.

Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) suggested tabling the motion so the committee could get someone in to explain why the money should be spent. “I didn’t know what this was all about because this backup on here doesn’t really specify what is going on,” Petrini said.

The vote was unanimous.

“I do feel there’s no need to rebuild it but there’s a need for lights. Why not just add lights without having to spend $250,000?” Common Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said.

“I have a hard time looking at somebody who lives where there’s flooding or something and telling them we’re building a heated staircase,” McCarthy said.

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan did not reply to a Wednesday email requesting comment.

The Agency’s capital budget request specifies what would happen if the project were deferred, or not funded.

“Pedestrians would continue to use access ways that are not safe and convenient or would choose to drive to the SoNo station,” the request states. “The South Norwalk Station neighborhood would not be considered as walkable and/or bike friendly by the very population the City is seeking to attract. It would also be an indicator that the City is not prepared to implement TOD Master Plan recommendations.”

Fullscreen capture 172015 105502 PM
A diagram of the proposed Clay Street staircase, as shown in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program .


18 responses to “Norwalk Council members unimpressed by South Norwalk staircase project”

  1. Mike Mushak

    It is disappointing no one was there from Redevelopment to explain the project. Were they contacted by the Chair or Committee staff that this would be on the agenda? (This is common in Norwalk that one department doesn’t know what the other one is doing.) Or did someone from RDA suddenly take ill? Either way, there was over a year of work by city staff and the consultant put into this project, and it should have been presented better.

    I attended a couple of public meetings about this about a year ago, and recall that there was a state grant to the RDA to improve connections between the SoNo train station and the surrounding dense neighborhood along Flax Hill where there are hundreds of condo units and multi-family buildings, with hundreds of commuters who heavily use the stairways mostly in the early morning and evening. The stairways are currently in poor shape, very steep, poorly lit, and unsafe, and this project was intended to fix that.

    The project is also about encouraging walking and reducing car use to the busy SoNo train hub (and freeing up some of the limited and highly coveted parking spaces at the station for commuters from further away), on a heavily used corridor between a major transit hub and a nearby dense walkable neighborhood.

    The comments from some of the Common Council members were disappointing since they did not seem to understand the location or need (there is no flooding along Flax Hill, as it is literally on a hill like the name says, and flooding in other areas of the city is being addressed by DPW), but I am sure the RDA staff will be able to present it to them next month and address concerns about the details and safety benefits.

  2. EveT

    The existing stairs should not become ice covered in winter if the city would salt them. And they would be more “welcoming” if the city did a better job of trimming vegetation overgrowth around them.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    I have no problem with the necessity of improving those stairs. But I have to admit that the price tag, $271,000, is a cause for concern. Can’t quite figure that out.

  4. Ryan

    A 271,000.00 for stairs.

  5. Mary

    Heated stairs? Well, if they operate properly and don’t break down they should pay for themselves in a few seasons in saved manpower. Both stairways are in poor condition. What about ramps for disabled access? If there are grants that can assist in the funding and there should be for disabled access than the project should be considered. Most important improvements that should be included are lighting, preferably solar LED’s, and cameras. Yes the grade is steep which makes proper lighting an important safety requirement, as are cameras connected to 911 dispatch. Far as injuries and lawsuits, do recall, one pedestrian being hit by a car at the bottom of one of the staircases, not many years ago. There have been numerous incidents of police activity, as the stairways are routes used in crimes. Like the shoot out on the Taylor Ave stairways few summers ago. Which also do not have proper lighting nor cameras.

  6. Don’t Panic

    From July of 2014:

    Norwalk council gives $3.1 million Nathan Hale expenditure a green light

    In the Comments, Mark Chapman responds to a query, noting: According to a purchasing department document detailing the bids I located online, the lighting portion of the $3.1M is $340,387.

    So, the CC will drop over $340k of property taxes for lights for one school field used by a handful of students, but won’t commit a similar amount of DED money on upgrading a staircase to make it safe for thousands of residents and compliant with complete streets.

    *head scratching*

  7. Gordon Tully

    So let’s see if I get this: the CC is perfectly happy to spend $2.8 million on a useless road project, but is caviling about spending a 10th that amount on badly needed improvements for pedestrians.

    I admire the younger generation, who as I did a decade ago, maintain the hope that Norwalk will learn how to build a city for people as well as automobiles. Alas, I have given up hope.

  8. John Hamlin

    It is hard not to give up hope when every week there’s another example of the insanity at work in governing this city. This project should have been embraced. The examples cited above, plus the money needlessly spent on the mosque avoidance “solution”, the amounts spent on lights for school playing fields (in the face of neighbors’ objections and when the needs are in the classroom) — time and time again the fiscal choices of this City are an embarrassment. Can’t Norwalk get anything right?

  9. Suzanne

    The last three comments are so right. I don’t understand why these stairs couldn’t be modified so that DPW could ensure good traction during icy conditions and the entire project could not embrace ADA standards.

    I am glad Don’t Panic provided a specific example as well as Mr. Tully and Mr. Hamlin. Taxpayers need to see where their money is going as well as the Council choices. Way finding is essential to linking neighborhoods to transportation.

    That this wasn’t perceived by the Common Council is almost comical if it weren’t so needless, mindless and lacking in perspective.

  10. Nora King

    This is a much used area and supports connectivity. This will connect an area that will use it and uses public transportation. It will also clean up that entire area.

    Hal Alvord should not be designing or planning our city. Redevelopment is behind this project and it makes sense for improvement to this area.

    I have to laugh – we waste $2.8 million on a bridge project that didn’t improve the sight lines but when we want to support walking and transit goals DPW shuts it down. What is wrong with that? David McCarthy and Hal Alvord support a project that supports increasing vehicular traffic in a quiet neighborhood but when we want to support walking and transit goals for commuters Hal wants to shut it down.

  11. Mike Mushak

    Good comments here. As far as ADA compliance goes, we should ALWAYS strive for that where “technically feasible,” as the law states. But in places where compliance is “technically infeasible” the law allows exceptions. The steep streets of San Francisco or Pittsburgh come to mind. In the case of both stairways discussed here, they are both located at the bottom of steep streets (Hamilton and Clay) that far exceed ADA slopes of 5%.

    It would be impossible, or “technically infeasible” which means the same thing, to reduce the slope of these historic residential streets lined with existing multi-families and driveways. It would also cost millions to install 12% ADA ramps with railings up the side of the steep slopes, to only have the hurdle of the steep streets to navigate with a wheelchair where no railings or ramps will ever be installed on existing sidewalks.

    It is unfortunate that we cannot create full accessibility in areas where geography makes it impossible, which is why the ADA law makes specific exceptions in cases like this. For the majority of able-bodied users, this project will improve safety and increase usage based on the results of the consultants’ study.

    For physically challenged folks, there will still be a need to seek alternate routes around the steep streets as they do now, and as they have to do in any hilly area in the country that is simply “technically infeasible” to create 5% maximum slopes on existing sidewalks and streets. This is the reality the ADA law and physically challenged folks deal with every day.

    On a recent visit to the civil rights museum in Little Rock Arkansas at Central High School, I was struck by this statement (paraphrased as I don’t write it down) under the ADA section where the history of disability rights were discussed (I have a wheelchair-bound sister and have been a lifelong ADA advocate):

    “The disabled community is the only minority that anyone can join easily in an instant, through an accident, disease, or assault.”

    Sadly, even with the powerful ADA law in effect, we cannot make every improvement in a hilly area ADA compliant as it would mean spending millions and literally taking property to add switchback ramps alongside steep streets, a clearly “infeasible” situation in the eyes of the law. That is the issue with these two staircases which is why they would be exempt from ADA requirements.

  12. Mike Mushak

    Correction: I meant to say 1:12 sloped ramps, not 12%, in my comment above. I was typing fast and that just got past my internal edit button which we all know doesn’t always work. Handicap ramps have a maximum slope of 8.33 percent, which is one inch rise for every 12 inches of length. However, the maximum slope allowed by ADA before railings and landings are required is 5% as I mentioned, which is mostly exceeded on both Clay and Hamilton Streets leading down to the two stairway locations. This article was just about the project replacing the one stairway at Clay Street for now.

  13. Suzanne

    Mike, looking at the survey drawing above upon which has imposed upon it the plan for the steps, it appears that there is plenty of room for a curved ramp at 8% on the left side. There doesn’t seem to be any intrusion and although the curves and necessary platforms along the way would need to be fairly wide, this construction would seem less that “millions of dollars.” The only element I can’t translate is “GUY”. Do you know what that is?

  14. Mike Mushak

    Suzanne, that was just some “guy” who was standing there when they did the survey. Just kidding (landscape architect humor you should appreciate). Seriously, that is a guy wire for the utility pole that is to the right of the stairs. My point about the “millions” was that it would have to include the entire block to be effective, although I agree it didn’t read that way. ADA law is not cost-related, but “feasible”-related, and my point is that it is “infeasible” to only add ADA access on the steep slope where the stairs are when the entire block above the stairs is a very steep slope that far exceeds ADA 5% maximum, and it is clearly infeasible to think there will be switchbacks all the way up to Flax Hill and beyond. Go look at the site and you can see what I mean.

    Any design that encourages use of that particular steep street by wheelchairs is in fact creating a dangerous situation since the street can never be made safe with compliant switchback ramps unless you take away all the front yards and driveways and even structures perhaps. In fact, the entire neighborhood has steep hills that exceed ADA compliance, including on Flax Hill, Couch, Hillside, Fairfield, Golden Hill St., etc., which will never be made safe to transverse according to the ADA requirements in terms of slope, beyond adding required ramped curb cuts at all corners as sidewalk improvements are made. That clearly falls under “technically infeasible” according to the ADA law. The lack of wheelchair ramps does not preclude the use of other ADA techniques however, such as “tactile paving” or raised bumps for sight-impaired, for instance, and handicap ramps at all curb cuts which I mentioned which are safer for everyone including wheelchairs.

  15. Mary

    Well, it was just a suggestion Mike, however infeasible access ramps may actually be in practice. Thanks for sharing the details on the requirements.

  16. Mike Mushak

    Suzanne, I forgot to mention one other detail. You mention that there is room for a “curved ramp” on the side of the stairway, and I just want to make sure you know how long that ramp would have to be. With a roughly 16 foot height difference, you would need a minimum of 192 feet of ramp at a 1:12 slope (that’s a maximum slope and gentler slopes are often recommended), with a 5 foot flat landing required every 30 feet, so add 6 additional landings or 30 feet, for a total ramp length of 222 feet. This could fit in many different even numbered increments of switchbacks (so you return to the same alignment at top and bottom), such as 2 at 111 feet, 4 at 55.5 feet, or 6 at 37 feet. You don’t have room for any more switchbacks as each one requires roughly 5 feet minimum plus retaining wall width, and the slope is only so wide to begin with. perhaps 30 feet perhaps (thats just a guess without having any drawings).

    As you can see, the scale of this structure requiring 222 feet of ramp and numerous switchbacks is quite large to span 16 vertical feet. I did these calculations quickly and do not vouch for their accuracy, but did them only for discussion sake. There are other factors involved like required landings at each switchback besides every 30 feet for instance that I did not include. Again, the street above is much steeper than ADA allows and will not be altered, so you will be basically encouraging the use of a dangerous street if you add wheelchair ramps at this location.

  17. Mike Mushak

    No problem Mary! You know I am all about ADA where “feasible”.

    I can’t tell you the number of lessons our family has learned about accessibility having my sister in a wheelchair for the last 40 years after a tragic car accident left her both physically and mentally disabled. . It affects everything we do together, including where to eat, shop, and vacation. Our home was made fully accessible back in the 1970’s after her accident, long before the ADA law, and we have seen our entire society shift in our lifetime since then.

    It is a remarkable achievement by disability rights activists and one of George Bush senior’s greatest accomplishments when he signed the ADA into law in 1990. I visited the Bush Library at Texas A and M last year (I love presidential libraries) and the ADA was a big part of the exhibit, including an actual wheelchair obstacle course right inside the building! I was just at the Clinton Library in Little Rock last week, but thats another story altogether!

  18. Suzanne

    My grading and drainage skills are definitely rusty!

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