Wildflower meadow is a gift to Norwalk, should be an example

By Mike Mushak, Tulip Tree Design

NORWALK, Conn. – This is an open letter to the Common Council, Mayor Moccia and other city officials.

You will all be happy to know, I’m sure, that I spent yesterday with my crew, trimming the temporary “wildflower” traffic medians on West Avenue between Mathews Park and Walgreen’s, and picking up the weeks of accumulated trash.

This follows on the heels of a letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Hour (copied below) complaining about them. I do not know the writer; I agree with him that the medians looked poor at times, but no taxpayer funds were spent on the wildflowers or maintenance of these beds since they were installed. It is all work that has been donated by me over the last two years to fill the vacuum as the city has not installed permanent landscaping since the medians were built.

Of course, I did expect the city to occasionally pick up trash, but that never happened. I did it as often as I could, usually every few weeks.

The excellent plans presented last week by Redevelopment to install permanent trees, shrubs, and ground covers on these islands is a positive step. I support those plans, and will gladly see the meadow replaced with these new plantings. However, maintenance will need to be intense, and scheduled weekly, in order for them to function as effective symbols of Norwalk’s renaissance, and to help increase our tax base by attracting new residents and businesses.

This wildflower meadow on West Avenue was installed by Mike Mushak at no cost to the city of Norwalk. Mushak also does maintenance on the bed. (Contributed photo)

The temporary meadows were meant as an artistic expression of nature in the city, and reflects SoNo’s artistic and “green” vibe. I live and work in SoNo, and have spent 10 years donating gardens and landscapes to the city, at my own cost, including numerous adopt-a-spots – at the gateways of Exit 14 northbound, at the corner of Cedar and Connecticut Avenue (currently dismantled for highway widening), MLK and Washington (the Civil War Statue), many of the gardens of Mathews Park (including surrounding the Lockwood Mathews Museum and Contemporary Printmaking), and restoration efforts at city-owned cemeteries including Pine Island and Mill Hill. I have also, over many years with Hal Alvord’s help and support through the Tree Advisory Committee, helped locate and plant over 75 new city-funded street trees in SoNo. See the community page on my website at http://tuliptreesitedesign.com/index.html for other work.

I do agree with Mr. Willis that some of the wildflowers failed to produce, although only on the median in front of 95/7. That was due to an unusual 6-week dry period last spring soon after sowing, which killed off the seedlings: He’s absolutely right, it was a failure, and it looked bad for several months last summer. I apologize to everyone in the city for having misjudged the normal wet spring weather pattern last year. In fact, no season is typical anymore, and the extreme weather certainly is creating many burdens for everyone, including most recently with Sandy.

The “do not mow” sign on that 95/7 median was removed months ago, and I trimmed that island at that time, and did again yesterday.

The other median between the bridges closer to Exit 15 and Mathews Park did get established quite well, as it was sown a season earlier, and was enjoyed by many last year. In contrast to Mr. Willis’s letter – in which he said not a single bouquet could have been created from the flowers – the photos will show that indeed, not just one bouquet, but thousands could have been created with the abundant flowers that grew in that island all spring, summer, and fall of this year. It is a native New England meadow, and although I agree it looks weedy at times, it does flush in and out of periods of intense bloom, as all natural meadows do.

I was at a charity event in New Canaan last summer, and someone who lives there mentioned the beautiful wildflowers in the West Avenue median. They had noticed when they went to Stepping Stones, and “what a great idea that was, and how progressive Norwalk was!” I fessed up as the guilty party, and explained how I had been studying and planting natural landscapes for most of my 30-year career as landscape architect on large projects from coast to coast, first as a landscape architect with one of the largest engineering firms in the country, and then on my own for the last 20 years. I also explained how I had spent time at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and that this median was just an expression of that philosophy that has spread around the world from her efforts beautifying the highways of Texas and then the entire United States.

Connecticut is still catching up (as I found out by discussing things with CDOT), but neighboring New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all have progressive-minded DOTs that promote lower maintenance wildflower plantings along the highways and in the medians. You can see them as you drive through those states.

Other changes along that stretch of West Avenue were approved by the Common Council in March as part of the $200K Connectivity Study, although news that they have been altered for the worse by some city staff by eliminating the approved dedicated bike lanes in exchange for more car traffic is certainly not welcome news. Many design professionals and community activists (including me) in Norwalk support “Complete Streets” and livable cities, and understand and are witnessing the many efforts in the surrounding cities here in Connecticut and around the country to attract the 18- to 34-year old demographic (as well as retirees and empty nesters). These people want to live somewhere that they do not have to use their car or even own one. There are also creative business and arts establishments who seek out vibrant bike- and pedestrian-friendly urban environments.

It is a matter of economic survival for Norwalk as well as a quality-of-life issue for our residents and businesses. It is time to listen to the national experts who the taxpayers are paying dearly for (including an intense public process where any stakeholder can participate), and yet who are repeatedly ignored by some important decision-makers in City Hall.

We run the risk of building thousands of new apartment units and commercial spaces in the next few years where no one may want to live or work, similar to how the Wall Street area has failed as a downtown because of decades of poor planning decisions (and hundreds of millions of taxpayer investment).

We would be fools to repeat those failures, and build our way into an urban ghost town as we have already proven we can do. Choosing sharrows over dedicated bike lanes, and a dangerous suburban 4-lane speedway over the recommended and approved slower and safer 3-lane urban Complete Streets solution (center shared turning lane) is an easy cop-out and a very bad decision for West Avenue. Stay tuned for more intense debate on that subject soon.

Thank you for your time, and enjoy the photos of the wildflowers I sent along. I hope they are a symbol of an exciting and vibrant street life returning to Norwalk once again along West Avenue with all of the new improvements.

Mike Mushak


This is the letter to the Hour on Dec. 4, 2012 (which I found more truthful than offensive, and short on facts):

To the Editor:

In a recent article printed on Dec. 2, 2012 concerning beautifying West Ave here are my thoughts specifically on the “Wild Flowers” and the sign that states “Do Not Mow”.

I don’t know who is responsible for this but it is not at all attractive no matter how you look at it and in no way represents beauty. Last year it looked like no more than a bunch of weeds and my thoughts were that this year would be better after all of the flowers were in full bloom. Well next year has come and is almost gone and it is still nothing but weeds! There are not enough flowers to make one bouquet in the entire stretch!!

I travel West Ave frequently and this unsightly display deeply disturbs me. As far as the sign that states Do Not Mow, I say bring in the mowers and get rid of this atrocity and waste no more tax payers money. If this is the Gateway into South Norwalk, we can do better than this.

Vasco Willis



8 responses to “Wildflower meadow is a gift to Norwalk, should be an example”

  1. Norwalk Spectator

    Thank you, Mike.

    I’ll admit I wondered about the second traffic island myself, but I did ask Hal Alvord, who quickly gave me a run down on what happened. I honestly thought the little colored flags that were there at one point were an art installation.

    Actually, I’m fine with medians that have wild flowers rather than trees or shrubs. I’ve seen the wildflower fields in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and others states. The things I’ve come to dislike are the tall decorative grasses on Adopt-A-Spots and traffic islands. To me, they interfere with sight lines. But that’s an issue for another day.

    Once again, from at least one appreciative resident, thank you Mike.

    1. Mike Mushak

      Spectator, thank you as well. The wildflowers were never meant to be permanent anyway, just a temporary distraction. See my comment to oldtimer below for more detail on that. The marker flags were an art piece, put in by me for the SoNo ArtsFest in August, in response to someone in City Hall asking if i could put in more color in the islands. Knowing the flowers had failed from the wacky weather in the spring, I knew relying on the plants was stupid, so I brought in color with all the flags. It lasted a month (was gone by Labor Day and the Oyster Festival), and got much comment, which is the point of public art, but I know it offended some. Can’t please everyone, and would they have preferred looking at just trash and weeds? I have to admit I was being a bit of a rebel by that point, because I was miffed with the city over the entire West Ave project based on the following: 1) the two year delay in opening of underpass because of paperwork snafu in City Hall, creating huge burden for SoNo businesses who were depending on it to open as they needed all the help they could get in the recession; 2) lost opportunity for bike lanes if city had been more forceful with the state which designed it (Stamford got bike lanes on their Transitway years earlier by simply asking for them), and even though I appreciate the 7 lane monstrosity for vehicle flow, since I use it every day, it is deadly for pedestrian crossing and bikes, and would have been easy to fit in bike lanes with narrower travel lanes and a slightly narrower median. Not to mention Jodi Rell’s 2009 Complete Streets Bill that requires any projects in CT that get state funding to have bike and ped-friendly facilities. Everwhere but Norwalk I guess. Major lost opportunity here, but one that can be fixed with a new administration and staff someday. 3) major screw-ups in ordering the right traffic signal poles(tops didn’t match the bottoms) causing at least a year delay, 4) pole bases poorly positioned blocking new sidewalks hindering ped. and bike flow (since there are no bikelanes, bikes ride on sidewalk, which of course is illegal but its better than dying out in the 7 lane speedway), also hinders wheelchairs which lo and behold, many folks do use to get around in Norwalk, 5) no sidewalk on Reed St hill near Walgreens, where one is desperately needed (see well worn footpath through piles of trash, at gateway to Norwalk. Nice. 6) Expensive curb cuts to nowhere near Mathews park, obviously a mistake, which were then removed and patched. 7) bad paving job which was bumpy from day one, cost the city big bucks 8) poor and dangerous signal design at Mathews Park entrance, causing near head on collisions almost every light cycle, but which city insists is safe in official response, yet any 6 year old could see is freaky coming out of Stepping Stones in the back of the minivan. Watch the intersection at a busy time and report back. I could go on, but the point is, the project was bungled from the start, and is full of serious design flaws. Keystone Cops comes to mind. All I can say is Houston, we have a problem! Humor helps, as do wildflowers, and a thousand marker flags to make folks think they may actually be in a creative city full of artists, and bicyclists, and pedestrians, who are desperate for respect and responsible leadership.

  2. oldtimer

    Having seen a lot of emergency vehicles struggle to get through traffic i wonder if those islands are going to make that job even more difficult. The wildflowers are lovely when they bloom. The rest of the time, the islands look neglected. Are there other varieties that might extend the time something is blooming ?

    1. Mike Mushak

      Good comments oldtimer. First, the wildflowers were just meant as a temporary “art” display, what I call guerrilla gardening, since the city had left the islands as muddy trash strewn strips after construction, and I knew from past experience and comments made that the city had no immediate plans for them for several years, and would probably not maintain them the way they need to be, which is every week. Just look at the other medians down West Ave, which are weed choked and full of trash most of the time. I figured what the heck, lets just put some flowers in and see what happens, and anything was better than what was there. Wildflowers are always dead in the winter, so there really is no way to improve on that, although some folks including me do see the dried seedheads as attractive, like a dried flower arrangement. Appreciating the natural landscape is an acquired taste and folks usually do catch on eventually, when they understand the cycle of nature and its benefits (the seedheads are in all shapes and sizes,feed overwintering songbirds and supply fresh seed for the following year, and then the meadows are usually mowed down short in March before new growth starts.) The new permanent plantings as proposed by Redevelopment will be more 4- season, and resemble the traffic islands in the Webster Parking Lot which always look good (maintained by the Parking Authority.). I welcome the new look. Of course we can only hope the city will maintain them properly, which they promise they will do, because if they end up being neglected, they will look worse than if nothing was done to begin with. As far as the emergency vehicles, great question. Studies show the safer “Complete Streets” 3-lane design with dedicated bike lanes, to run from Mathews Park to Wall Street, and presented by the Connectivity consultant and approved by the Common Council in March(which cost taxpayers $200k btw), has a faster emergency response time because the center shared turn lane becomes a de facto emergency lane. Also, studies show the 3-lane solution moves a higher volume of traffic at slower speeds, exactly what you want in a pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban environment, because of less backup from folks making often quick turns on a 4 lane road and speedway conditions that all those passing options encourage (see East Ave near City Hall, and the high average speed, frustrating and dangerous lane changes around cars making multiple and often sudden left turns, and frequent accidents). Unfortunately, someone in City Hall, we don’t know who yet, has the obsolete idea that street design should favor higher speed roads and more car lanes, just like East Ave., and they rejected that modern and safer 3 lane version for West Avewhich progressive cities across the country are installing.. Also, the city’s preferred plan includes unnecessary medians that are pretty as proposed but take away all options for future changes, including future bike lanes which now the city apparently has a pathological fear of, even though other cities around us and around the country are installing hundreds of miles of them as we speak. We are falling years behind, and the implications may be disastrous for our economy and for our quality of life, just as all of the other planning mistakes we have made in this city have been. The urban planning system in Norwalk, including street design, is absurdly dysfunctional and highly politicized for many reasons I won’t get into here, but which many of us who are forced to observe this absurdity know would be easy to fix with new leadership and new staff in key positions. How’s that for a reply?

  3. Oldtimer

    Probably as good as can be expected. thank you. It is a shame some of our big decision makers don’t get out more. That 3rd lane, or in some places 5th lane solution, is widely used in other communities and seems to work well. Probably doesn’t cost as much as medians, either. After some of these people retire and move out of Norwalk because nobody can afford to retire here, they will see for themselves and wonder why nobody like you ever told them about 3rd lanes.

    1. Mike Mushak

      Well, oldtimer, we are trying, but anyone who contradicts the current administration and its decisions is labelled a troublemaker, ridiculed, and treated to retaliatory actions. You can see it clearly on the Council floor. Very sad, and needs to end soon. Your other point about retirees, is that the unmanaged and sometimes incompetent department heads who are making these bad decisions are making 6 figure salaries, get 6-8 weeks paid vacation a year, generous pensions, and don’t even live in Norwalk, and could care less about the future of this city, except for one I know of who is worth every penny. They will take their piles of money from Norwalk taxpayers and run away as soon as it is convenient for them, screwing all of us. It is corruption of process, and corruption of spirit. This is no way to run a city, yet we allow it year after year, and for that we are all guilty for not demanding immediate change and accountability.

  4. Oldtimer

    Haven’t seen it said better. Your “except for one I know of who is worth every penny” line fascinates me. I would love to know who hold in such high regard.
    I look hard for honesty in public figures and have my own short list that I hesitate to talk much about, without solid evidence. There are plenty of really good people working for the City, but there are too many who are not that good. Most reveal themselves, trying to prove they are smarter and/or more powerful than the rest of us, or sometimes just greedy.

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