NORWALK, Conn. — It’s possible that some of the $3 million awarded to Norwalk through the Martin Luther King Corridor Initiative will go to creating public WiFi for the area; an education hub might also be created in a city building.
Another idea is to camouflage the Ely Avenue chain link fence that keeps people away from the train tracks, to hide the garage that collects where it’s difficult to pick up because of Metro North rumbling through. You can bet on three murals going up in prominent locations and there may be community gardens.
These thoughts are in addition to the streetscape and sidewalk improvements officials emphasized at a recent press conference touting the $3 million in State funding for MLK Corridor improvements. “This is the beginning of a new era for South Norwalk,” Common Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) said.
Three Connecticut areas are targeted by the MLK initiative, including the large chunk of South Norwalk, a project authorized by legislation former State Rep. Bruce Morris helped craft to support finding a redevelopment strategy and drawing investment to lift residents from poverty.
Nationwide, streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have been “deliberately” neglected and allowed to fester as crime-ridden areas, Morris said in 2019. The bill passed by the State legislature says that it will “promote secured and unsecured lending in designated corridors in the state.” Morris said he hoped the initiative would include communities of color in development decisions from the beginning stages of planning to the end.
He didn’t return a Friday phone call.
Community leaders were indeed meeting regularly before COVID-19 hit, Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Vonashek, formerly Jessica Casey, explained recently to Council members. The City applied for the MLK initiative in 2017 and then there was “a little bit of a hiatus between 2017 and 2019,” she said. “But we created a steering committee. And we began meeting in January 2019.”
The group, led by the Rev. Richard Wesley Clarke and Mayor Harry Rilling, was ready to go to the State in March 2020, when everything shut down, she said. Steering Committee meetings ended but the effort continued with a residential façade improvement program launched in November.
The Redevelopment Agency had a façade program but it was targeted at “historical residential units that were owner occupied,” and Redevelopment’s geographic area doesn’t quite include all of the MLK area, she explained. Redevelopment “did a great job,” revamping their program to include the MLK Corridor, which extends well beyond Martin Luther King Drive, and including renter-occupied units.
“I think that that was one of the bigger challenges that we had with the neighborhood and with South Norwalk is that not, not all of the tenants are owners of the homes,” Vonashek said. “And so it may be really hard for the tenant to work with the owner of the home to put investment into that, that particular home, knowing that a tenant is living there.”
Thirteen applicants received funding and more than that, “more than double the amount of people” applied because they’d learned about it in the pre-COVID outreach sessions held to assess needs and desires in the MLK area, Vonashek said.
More than 100 people attended the meetings and submitted 200 comments, she said. Their feedback was loaded into the City’s GIS system so departments could see what the problems are.
During the year-long hiatus, City staff applied for grants and “ask the State for support, which relates to the $3 million,” Vonashek said. With that grant, “we have intentions to be able to offer a whole second wave or a second phase of this facade program … we want to open this up not only to residential improvement for residential building, but also commercial buildings and industrial buildings.”
They also sought money through City budgeting, leading to the façade program.
While the hoped-for “Bloomberg grant” didn’t come through, City staff instead requested and were granted $50,000 through the City’s budgeting process for three South Norwalk murals.
“We’ve been working to figure out how to share those designs and that artwork with not only the Art Commission, but the community as well, and how to, figuring out how to involve the community in being able to actually paint this work and be involved with the actual installation of this work,” Vonashek said.
A press release issued in March indicated that one painting would be agreed upon for installation this summer. Again, Vonashek is speaking of three paintings, naming Nathaniel Ely school, a Meadow Street wall at the end of South Main Street and the stair risers on the recently constructed staircase leading from MLK to Clay Street.
In August, Norwalk announced a Connectivity Initiative as a “huge step forward toward achieving universal (Internet) access” for Norwalk school children, with $315,000 from the Dalio Foundation in addition to other foundation funding and City money. Vonashek on May 7 said AT&T is very active near train stations and “it’d be really great to be able to partner with them on cell technology to be able to bring Wi Fi through the South Norwalk area.”
Speaking of ideas that could be funded by the State grant, Vonashek said, “In one sense, this, we’ve been successful in this in the broadband effort,” the Connectivity Initiaitive with Altice, and, “I do think that there’s a lot of work to do with public Wi Fi, but I’m really optimistic about it.”
There’s also talk of an education hub, maybe at 98 South Main St., or at a Norwalk Housing Authority building or the Smilow Life Center, she said.
“Again, this is something that we need to do a little bit of work on… I’m optimistic about this when we haven’t made as much progress as we have in some of the other areas,” she said. “But, you know, I think that people in the MLK corridor initiative committee are really committed to this and know that it’s the right thing to do for the community for the community.”
Public feedback indicated “concern with speed and crosswalks and lighting” but a subcommittee needs to get to work on those specifics, Vonashek said.
“That could be anything from ADA compliance and sidewalks to crosswalks and lighting, and I think it really is the safety piece,” she said. “Not only were we talking a little bit about the speed on MLK, and the ability to crossover between some of the neighborhood areas and the train station… and even some of the economic development areas down along Wilson Ave and MLK, but there’s also a lot of work that’s been done on Woodward with the sidewalks and … some of the neighborhoods where we don’t necessarily have sidewalks like we should have sidewalks. And so I think there’s a big focus here.”
She emphasized repeatedly that the Committee will be making the decisions.
“It’s going to be an effort where everyone has a voice at the table for the $3 million, but I would imagine that some of the funding will definitely go to Transportation, Mobility and Parking,” she said.
Residents want open space and green space, with much conversation about trees and request for fruit trees, she said. “Another topic was the playground cleanup,” and “really just the beautification of MLK corridor to clean up the medians and clean up the plantings.”
“I really think that the community would love to be able to see some community gardens and some open space, and even some, some urban parks, based on city owned land, and what and how we use that $3 million, again, will have to be divvied up,” she said. “But I do think that, that this is a really important effort that we should be putting forward.”
There’s a focus on neighborhood safety and beautification that’s been underway before the grant came in, with nearly 2,700 pounds of garbage removed between June 20 and Oct. 1, she said. “I think it just makes a huge difference in being able to get in there and clean up. But we talked a little bit about lighting and the importance of lighting in some of these areas, because these areas tend to be they tend to be frequent spots for dropping large items.”
Young, with a laugh, interrupted to say, “That’s not drop off. That’s dumping, just to be clear.”
“Trying to be polite,” Vonashek said, suggesting that lighting might curb the dumping.
Neighbors formed the Whistleville Neighborhood Association in 2019 and “a whole bunch of improvements” have ensued, Vonashek said. “…The community’s just really dedicated to being able to help make improvements in this area, and I’m excited for their passion and their, you know, their focus on the neighborhoods. We want to really be responsive to the community.”
Then there’s a project that’s been on the books for several years, planned improvements to the MLK staircase that goes up to Hamilton Avenue. This was previously approved for capital funding but the bids came in higher than was hoped, she said.
“We’ve been trying, I would say, for the last year and a half or so to figure out a funding pot to be able to support this reconstruction, that $700,000,” she said. “… I believe that this will be one of the priorities that does pop up, although we need to confirm that. And we’ll do that through the through the working with the subcommittees in the MLK Corridor Initiative.”
It’s damaged by age and helps connect residents to the train station, she said.
Covering the 500 feet of chain link fence on Ely Avenue “would help a lot with that neighborhood,” she said. It might be a public art initiative and would shield residents from train noise and garbage, creating a sense of place.
“So moving forward, we will be meeting in subgroups, as I mentioned numerous times, to discuss each of the recommendations,” Vonashek said. “Part of that is not only to talk about the recommendation, but also tease out a little bit more about how much money that particular effort requires and how we’re going to be funding that. We will be meeting as a larger group to discuss the priority recommendations and funding allocations, but, you know, depending on how we do that, we believe that the initiatives can begin in summer and fall.”
Artwork, staircase reconstruction, tree plantings, “we think that we can do those sooner rather than later,” she said. “And then some of them are a little bit more complex, right? The Education Center, some of them are a little bit more complex, the public WiFi, but you know, all at all, I’m really proud of the group. And I think that the community has really come forward on this.”