NORWALK, Conn. – With five months till the opening of the SoNo Collection, a citywide initiative to guide visitors to and from the mall and other local attractions has yet to find its way out of Committee. Former Mayor Bill Collins says that could leave out-of-town shoppers lost, and create problems for Norwalk residents.
“Maybe several people have dropped the ball. With the imminent opening of the mall, somebody better pick up that ball and run with it,” Collins said.
Three years ago the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency authorized a study known as the “Wayfinding Program Message Schedule” at a cost of $48,900 for the initial phase, to be done by design firm Merje. Common Council members twice refused to move the initiative forward, Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan told Collins recently.
“The serious question is what is happening to the Wayfinding Study (many thousands of $ later) which would tell folks coming to town from various directions how to get to various things and how to get back out of town,” Collins wrote Saturday.
Others don’t appear to share Collins’ concern about the mall opening without signage to direct people. Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan said wayfinding is a city-wide initiative rather than a mall-centric one, and people are used to digital navigation aids. The SoNo Collection will have signs posted to nearby facilities, and there will be signs guiding motorists to the mall and other attractions at highway off-ramps.
Council members refuse ideas; a delay due to reorg?
Collins mentioned the study at the May 14 Norwalk Redevelopment Agency meeting, saying he’d been told its implementation would coincide with the opening of the mall. “So far, I haven’t seen anything about going out to bid on implementation or seen anything in minutes or newspaper reports or anything,” he said.
Sheehan said that following the reorganization of city departments, wayfinding is no longer a Redevelopment Agency issue; it falls under the jurisdiction of the Pedestrian and Transportation Department overseen by Jessica Casey, who began work in January as Norwalk’s Chief of Economic and Community Development.
“She wants to implement some form of a wayfinding program… The whole issue of implementing wayfinding has gone to the Planning Committee of the Common Council twice and has failed to advance to the Common Council,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan agreed with Collins that the Redevelopment Agency felt the study results were “adequate” to send to the Council, but without Council approval, no request for capital funding could be made to implement the plans.
“We may have a surplus of stop signs in this government. I’m not sure,” Collins replied, in jest.
“Or parking signs,” Sheehan said.
Collins said there is much detail in the Merje plan, which would take time to implement and would require coordination with the state, since Route 1 and Route 136 are state highways.
“If you are a stranger from Waterbury… what do you know about downtown Norwalk? That’s like me in Waterbury: Hello?” Collins said. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done and it’s pretty well laid out in that report but it requires organization, scheduling, hiring contractors, things like that, that we haven’t done any of.”
In a May 16 email, Morgan stressed that wayfinding is in the works for the entire city, “not specifically for the mall or tied to the mall opening in October,” and called the Planning Committee’s dissatisfaction with previous submissions “a great opportunity to revisit what appropriate wayfinding for the city should look like for those who live, work, and visit Norwalk.”
He also noted that with more people using mobile apps and GPS to get around, the city needs to work with these providers “to ensure they are directing shoppers and visitors to the appropriate routes.”
State plans signs on Route 7
Anyone headed to the mall via Route 7 will see a sign to help them find their way, according to Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) Director of Communications Judd Everhart.
A large attraction sign will be posted on Route 7 southbound between the Exit 1 off- and on- ramps and a smaller one on the South Norwalk off-ramp will direct drivers to the proper lane, Everhart said. These signs will cost approximately $25,000 and are expected to be ready by Oct. 10.
Casey promises action
Wayfinding is “really important” and there’s been a lot of talk of it recently, Casey said at the May 16 Parking Authority meeting.
“I think wayfinding is difficult in all of the cities that I have worked in, wayfinding is actually an extremely difficult thing to get (agreement) on and actually implement. But it’s extremely important and we need to take that on,” she said.
Parking Authority Chairman Dick Brescia agreed and suggested a joint meeting of the Parking Authority, the Redevelopment Agency and the Council Planning Committee, after the Parking Authority finalizes its strategic plan.
Wayfinding and branding play into each other now, Casey said.
“It’s not just signs anymore, there’s digital signs that can be really effective showcasing businesses,” she said.
The right signs can also slow traffic or improve its flow, and guide pedestrians, she added.
Planning and Zoning approved a SoNo Collection sign plan, that, in Collins words, “points drivers to various attractions when they leave the mall.”
State plans are telling people how to get off the limited access highway, Collins said Saturday, asking what happened to the wayfinding study.
Getting bogged down in the Council Planning Committee is the same thing as getting bogged down in the Redevelopment Agency because the same staff members are involved, Collins said. “Still no clue how to get from SoNo to NoNo or vice versa, or how to get to the train station from anywhere or vice versa. Aquarium? Forget it. East Norwalk? Maybe it’s a different town.”