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Norwalk to focus on MLK Boulevard with ‘Corridor Initiative’

From left, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich), former State Rep. Bruce Morris and the Rev. Carl McCluster announce Martin Luther King Corridors Initiative, Monday in City Hall.

Updated, 9:19 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Nationwide, streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have been “deliberately” neglected and allowed to fester as crime-ridden areas, former State Rep. Bruce Morris said Monday.

Norwalk’s MLK Drive is one of three in Connecticut now targeted by an initiative authorized by legislation Morris helped craft to support finding a redevelopment strategy and drawing investment to lift area residents from poverty.

The bill passed by the State legislature says that it will “promote secured and unsecured lending in designated corridors in the state.”  The Department of Banking has provided $100,000 and two banks have pledged at least $50,000, Morris said Tuesday.  The launch was announced Jan. 18 in Middletown.

Once everything comes together, the plan and the right people, a quarter million dollars in funding could attract $30 million in investment, Morris said Tuesday.  “The final analysis can come up with a report that tells you where you can actually get the funding to make things happen.”

When King died, he was fighting for economic justice, Morris said at Monday’s Martin Luther King Day observance in City Hall.  Morris hopes that the Martin Luther King Corridor Initiative will include communities of color in development decisions from the beginning stages of planning to the end.

“At least 955 streets in the U.S. have been named for Martin Luther King, Jr.,” according to a pamphlet distributed at the event. “…Many of these corridors and adjacent areas may not always reflect the actualized dream of the leader who inspired the name. These corridors continue to recognize the legacy of Dr. King and therefore can act as focal points to motivate change in these communities.”

The Freedom Faith Collaborative worked with the State legislature, the Governor’s office and the Department of Banking during the 2017 legislative session to designate three “Martin Luther King Corridors,” in Connecticut, located in Norwalk, Middletown and New Britain, in hopes of spurring increased economic activity to the community’s benefit, the pamphlet states.

“It was a dream four years ago, a hope born on the wings of Sen. (Richard) Blumenthal’s words two years ago, brought forth because of the counsel of Congressman (Jim) Himes and then the hard work of then-Representative Morris and the partnership we had with Mayor (Harry) Rilling and the mayors of two other cities is now a reality,” the Rev. Carl McCluster said Monday on the Concert Hall stage. “We come here today to announce that Norwalk is the first city, of the three cities that have been selected and named, in the Department of Banking’s outlay of funds.”

“It’s because of Dan Malloy’s sacrifice that we ended up here at the end with the money we need to get it done.  When it gets done… Remember that Dan Malloy kept his word,” McCluster said.

“We will identify the existing conditions of each targeted King Corridor and interpret the best opportunities for strategic investment. Our approach will not only focus on a comprehensive needs assessment, but also a strategy that will create an environment for new investment,” a Freedom Faith Collaborative process summary states.

“It’s kind of like a needs assessment but it’s a different kind of needs assessment for the data, where the community is being involved in it and there’s a deliberate focus on educational outcomes, inclusive economic development outcomes,” Morris said Tuesday.  He added that “inclusive economic development” has been his “biggest issue” for the last few years, and he touted it during his 2017 mayoral run.

“It’s almost like taking the CNI (Choice Neighborhoods Initiative) strategy and focusing it down level to an area that has nothing to do with public housing,” he said. “But you have the same considerations, you would bring the same resources to bear.”

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2014 awarded Norwalk a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant in support of the Washington Village reconstruction. The grant money targets the entire neighborhood, not just the development itself, with job training, small business assistance and blight remediation, and funding for Ryan Park improvements.

“The final report will be more than a presentation of data and opining on trends,” the Freedom Faith Collaborative process summary states. “It will be a document that is catalytic. The information collected and organized will represent a comprehensive and objective assessment of both the positive and negative trends affecting these corridors, allowing an accurate view of today’s circumstance. These communities have the potential to be vibrant, diverse and healthy given the right mixture of thoughtful public, private and community leadership. This endeavor will provide a framework through which to ‘see’ these corridors and any potential revitalization opportunities.”
A Committee has been meeting in Rilling’s office every other week to develop ideas and strategies, Morris said.

Rilling did not reply to an email asking who’s on the Committee. Morris said District B Common Council members, faith leaders and business people are involved, as is ConnCAN, an education advocacy group.

“Whatever the deals are there will be social economic goals tied to whatever that development is” to make sure it benefits the community and connects education to economic development, in a “two generation strategy,” Morris said.  Children benefit when parents have jobs, he added.

“{T)he education system in the underdeveloped economies is in its growing stage where studies are degree-oriented and less job-oriented. When it comes to knowledge, it is more theoretical than practical. People find it difficult to apply their learnings in the job and land up remaining unemployed,” the Freedom Faith Collaborative process summary states.

Morris and the Rev. Curtis Law stood near Roodner Court two decades ago and talked about how ideal it would be to attract businesses, including incubators, so that people could almost walk to work, he said.

“This could develop into an awful lot,” he said. “We are at the beginning stages. Ultimately, a professional company that would help in putting together all this data and research, looking at trends and what makes logical sense that government and private industry would invest in.”

Morris will be heading up the economic development piece statewide, Toni Williams of ConnCAN said Monday.

That’s an unpaid position, Morris said Tuesday.  He added that it’s “fantastic” that Himes is involved because even though this project is being done at the state level, “We may end up needing federal dollars as well.”

There hasn’t been a real plan for Norwalk’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, and Morris often hears noisy industry when he wakes up in his home two blocks over, he said.

“The kind of industry and residency, it doesn’t make sense right now,” Morris said. “(We will) begin to look at properties that are empty along the street. It looks like a typical MLK Boulevard where no one gave any thoughtfulness to how that strip (would be developed). That’s a state highway with access to 95. There’s a lot more that could have been thought of.”

“Unfortunately, the corridors named after King and the surrounding areas don’t always reflect the spirit of the icon that inspired them,” the Freedom Faith Collaborative process summary states. “Increasingly, people who believe in King say it is very easy to use Dr. King’s name on street signs while at the same time ignoring things like the crime rate, unemployment and the disinvestment that is apparent in these communities.”

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk to focus on MLK Boulevard with ‘Corridor Initiative’”

  1. Mike Mushak

    This is a good idea. I know this area well as I live and work here, and have been helping to improve the MLK corridor for many years since I moved there 20 years ago.

    The number one priority should be to slow speeding traffic and make the street safer for cars, trucks, cyclists, and pedestrians. A simple low-cost “Complete Streets” plan, just using paint to convert the street into a 3 lane layout with a shared turning lane in the middle and bike lanes on both sides, was designed by planning consultant Fitzgerald and Halliday in a 2014 study called the South Norwalk Bicycle Safety and Engineering Study. It would follow recommendations to increase Complete Streets solutions in the new Citywide Plan, and can be seen here on pages 10 and 11 on this link:

    https://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/View/9139/Bicycle-Safety-and-Engineering-Study-to-and-through-South-Norwalk?bidId=

    About 8 years ago, when I was the Norwalk Tree Advisory Commission’s Tree Liaison to South Norwalk, I worked with TAC member Rob Frazier and Paul Sotnik of DPW, to plant over 50 Oak and Zelkova trees in this corridor for both environmental and aesthetic benefits. They have made a big difference to improving our perception of this corridor as a stark industrial street, while helping to expand the tree canopy in South Norwalk.

    I also donated the landscape design to help screen the new 2nd Taxing District sub-station near the UPS center that included about 40 new Cherry and Arborvitae trees.

    I also donated the design and weekly maintenance of the gateway to this corridor, a pollinator-friendly wildflower meadow around the Civil War monument at MLK and Washington St, across from the Webster lot. It’s basically a mini public park enjoyed by our lower-income urban neighborhood, at no cost to the city.

    A big planning issue in this area is to balance industrial and residential uses in this area, as the area has along history as the city’s engine of job growth. Small contractors especially are recognized by many as the backbone of Norwalk’s economy, and this includes landscapers, home builders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, masons, roofers, window installers, kitchen installers, etc. These businesses often provide pathways for economic mobility for lower-income and lower-skilled workers. They all need legal places in the city to locate their businesses, and need to be part of the discussion in what is mostly a “Restricted Industrial” zone.

    As a resident and small business owner in this neighborhood, I applaud efforts to improve this area, and we can start by following the recommendations by the professional planner in the plan we already paid for and linked above, to make this corridor a safe and smart “Complete Streets” model for the city. It will cost little to install and yet provide so many benefits to our community and our city.

  2. jo bennett

    Thank you, Rep. Morris. This thoroughfare needs to live up to its noble namesake. Please keep us posted.

  3. Kathleen

    Great ideas, Mike, and thanks for your work.

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