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Norwalk promises sweeping improvements for Wall Street area

Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking James Travers explains the developing concepts for the Wall Street area, Friday on Belden Avenue. (Harold F. Cobin)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk officials met Friday to say major improvements are on the way for the Wall Street area, and promise that they will happen, as soon as possible.

Design on changes for the area around West and Belden Avenues is imminent, as the Department of Transportation, Mobility and Parking has selected Fuss & O’Neill, a civil and environmental engineering firm, to lead the efforts that will include “massive community engagement” to guide the concepts geared toward making the area pedestrian friendly and create a walkable downtown, Director of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking James Travers said. And even though a finished design isn’t expected for 12 to 18 months, TMP is already applying for grants to fund the work.

“We’re not going to talk about investments to Wall Street, we’re going to show you investments on Wall Street,” Travers said.

Video by Harold F. Cobin at end of story

In addition, Norwalk has already won a $1.5 million State grant to fund improvements on Wall Street, between Brook and Main Streets, said Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr. Construction is expected to start in May, and this is “phase one” of the work to come on the Wall Street corridor, “starting at the bottom of Mill Hill.” Work is expected to start in May.

West/Belden

“In 1955, a flood devastated this area, you know, so it’s been over 60 years that we’ve not really reclaimed it and we’re about to reclaim it and create something wonderful as a downtown,” Travers said.

The capital budget approved by the Common Council this spring included $350,000 for the West/Belden/Mott intersection.

“Mayor Rilling had the foresight to put in investment dollars into design for this intersection,” and as soon as the money was approved, TMP put out an RFP for a design firm, said Travers, who became TMP director in February after serving in a similar post in Stamford.

Five firms responded and a committee of four chose Fuss & O’Neill because the preliminary design the firm came up with “spoke to what we wanted,” and planned to do the largest area possible in phase one, Travers said. But, “what really made them win, is just really their commitment to community engagement…. they really talked about feet on the street, knocking on doors, meeting people where they are, hearing what’s going in developing that plan.”

The Council will need to approve Fuss & O’Neill as the design consultant, he said.

As for a “reimagined Wall Street,” Travers said, “We know what we want, it’s pretty clear. It’s one that is pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, really business friendly, and with a huge pedestrian component.”

Statistics show this is “one of the highest amongst the city for people driving a mile or less to their destination. So what we really know is that this could be a really huge walkable community. And that’s what really, really are looking forward to developing here.”

“Where I got my marching orders from the Mayor is that we’re not just going to develop a plan that’s going to sit on the shelf for 10 years, right? We’re going to build this,” he said. “… We believe that total investment is going to be about 13 to $15 million,” and Rilling is committing $1.7 million of American Rescue Plan funding to the project.

TMP is partnering with the Parking Authority to invest in the Yankee Doodle Garage and make it more welcoming, Travers said. “The investments that we’re making here are not only on Wall Street, but on the approaches to West Avenue, right? And then to Burnell (Boulevard), well, we’re looking to convert it back to two-way so that we have access to our garage.”

Some of the roads in the area were built for trolleys and Phase One would be “all the work on Belden” and would “normalize” the aged intersection of Wall, West and Belden Avenues, making accommodations for pedestrians and possibly creating a plaza out of the space that’s poorly used now, he said. Making Burnell a two-way street will ease traffic so construction to occur.

This would create a “gateway into Wall Street” with welcoming features, Travers said.

Phase Two would be investments on Wall Street and on the Burnell Street bridge. Phase Three would involve Isaacs and Commerce Streets.

“We have already written one grant application for $3.8 million to start the project,” Travers said. “…We’ve also written a $13 million grant to FEMA to actually do the whole entire project at once.”

Travel lanes would be narrowed, creating room for “walkable sidewalks” that would be at least 10 feet wide, allowing room for trees and outdoor dining space, he said. But it’s all about adjusting to business needs, making the area welcoming.

Travers said that wherever he’s worked, when a city makes investments into areas it becomes more attractive for commerce. “I think when we build it, they will come, right? Field of Dreams is my favorite movie.”

Common Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) comments on the developing concepts for the Wall Street area, Friday on Belden Avenue. (Harold F. Cobin)

The City approved updated plans for Wall Street Place, commonly called “POKO,” but real estate broker Jason Milligan has appealed the Zoning Commission approval. The City is also deep into other litigation with Milligan, who owns at least 40 properties in the Wall Street area.

The projects would build streetscape around POKO, now wrapped in Tyvek, and “make it a welcoming environment so that when that when that comes into place, you know, this will be done,” Travers said.

Changing Burnell Boulevard would take the pressure off River Street and it could occasionally be closed for street festivals, Travers said. A pedestrian bridge near Freese Park is possible.

“These ideas, I think are important because what they are is they show a growth that we haven’t had in this area,” Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) said. “And I’m very excited by it.”

Heuvelman said he and Travers stood in the traffic island at the Wall/West/Belden intersection for about an hour one day, watching people navigate and “the dangerous quality of getting through here with the slip lanes and the way the traffic was. And we talked about what those possibilities could be. And it’s exciting, because the thing about this is we want this to be an inviting area.”

“We want to make Norwalk the most walkable community in Connecticut, right? And we’ll do it one neighborhood at a time,” Travers said.

Lower Wall

The Local Capital Improvement Program (LoCIP) grant will entirely fund lighting, decorative pavers, traffic and safety improvements, new sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements in approximately 650 linear feet west of Mill Hill, Carr said.

That will make that area inviting, Heuvelman said.

“There’ll be other pedestrian improvements for visibility, enhanced safety. And we’re very excited. Obviously, the area will be repaved,” Carr said. “But that’s almost the first phase of that, east of that Wall Street corridor.”

Carr said, “We applied for the grant, we were fortunate enough to get it from WestCOG. And we were able to put a design together now that narrows the travel lanes, widens the sidewalks; we put in a raised crosswalk and it makes it a lot more pedestrian friendly along with the historic streetlights.”

Updated 12:51 a.m. Oct. 31: Information added.

18 comments

Joseph Oliveri October 30, 2021 at 10:44 am

This seems like a total political stunt. An area that’s been a complete ghost town for decades is now going to get fixed three days before an election? Please no more!

Audrey Cozzarin October 30, 2021 at 12:24 pm

I’m so pleased to hear this good news, and know more about the plans to engage community and bring needed support for this interesting part of Norwalk poised for more vibrancy.

A big thank-you to city staff and officials for making Wall Street improvements a priority. It’s my hope that residents are enabled to participate in a collaborative process as a new model forward—and the city is flexible and open to allow for the shifts and efforts that naturally occur when a community is building something new.

tysen canevari October 30, 2021 at 1:47 pm

Harry makes a mistake at the debate and two days later there is a press conference to announce changes to wall street.LOL

Payton Turner October 30, 2021 at 2:23 pm

I so hope this happens. Historic downtown Norwalk is absolutely beautiful, and this kind of positive pedestrian-friendly development is exactly why I moved my business down there! It’s time to finish POKO and help the neighborhood. Spite litigation should be thrown out the window. It’s wasting taxpayer dollars and so much time that could be better spent supporting small businesses and the community around Wall Street.

Bobby Lamb October 30, 2021 at 5:28 pm

Joseph Oliveri – your comment is ridiculous. it says they started planning this over a year ago, got funding approved by the council last spring, did RFPs over the summer. This is not something that they came up with three days ago as a stunt.

Lisa Brinton October 31, 2021 at 7:03 am

Wall Street’s failure has nothing to do with the Flood of ‘55 or not having enough walkable sidewalks. It has everything to do with poor city management & a draconian Parking Authority. Also, how does a local govt. intentionally hurt an area – declaring parts of it a ‘slum’ for federal dollars at the same time raising property values & property taxes? Which is it? A federal slum or largest growing area? Norwalk officials have said both.

Aside from being an historic district, Wall Street has so much potential due to its largest concentration of small brick office/business space in Fairfield County. But, you can’t do anything with the Poko monstrosity sitting in the middle.

Poko was conceived in 2004 (stalled due to financing & a recession during the Moccia years.) It broke ground in 2015 & went bankrupt a year later.

City officials are incapable of managing large projects. Despite excuses to blame Milligan for Poko’s delays, the onus is on the city. Case in point the 95/7 parcel took 20 years & we ended up with a tax credited mall.

The trend of gobbling up small parcels of land to create larger parcels, including the so-called Poko fix – which now includes the Garden Cinema carries management & financial risks for a city the size of Norwalk. We don’t have the inhouse financial/market/real estate expertise to effectively manage. Neither does the RDA. Bigger is also not better. It can lead to bigger profit margins for developers or help them ‘grow’ out of a poorly structured financial deal in the first place, but the bigger the project, usually the bigger the risk.

As the project has dragged on, city officials have displayed their political patronage – bending over backwards for some developers (who make large campaign contributions to the state party or more locally) while waging vendetta lawsuits against others like Milligan – who owns half the buildings in the area. ALL litigation has been done with taxpayer money. Notwithstanding Milligan’s antics – he’s done more to clean up the area than anything the city has touched. Why does the city continue to wage war? Power & ego.

For businesses open in the area, or trying to (Byron’s Bakery) they are stifled with cumbersome permitting processes & bureaucracy.

Finally, other local businesses are choked by the Parking Authority, hurting business with draconian ticketing policies.

There has been a shroud a secrecy with the Poko project for the past decade. The key to fixing Wall Street is fixing Poko.

On behalf of taxpayers bearing the brunt of this area, I’d commission an unbiased third party legal review of the Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) & review the financial & land valuations associated with the properties to assess options.

When I ran for mayor two years ago, I said Citibank, who financed the original developer & now owns the defaulted project should have been forced to sell. I still think the land should be taken from Citibank, broken up & sold into smaller parcels to reduce risk & not have monolithic structures in the middle of an historic district. Instead taxpayers bailed the bank out by letting them sit on this project for 5 years and run down the clock & neighborhood.

Let the market dictate what happens not a bunch of bankers & govt. officials trying to cover up mistakes, while the ‘new’ developer gets a sweetheart (15 year tax deal) on the backs of Norwalkers.

I’d also conduct a financial audit of the Parking Authority to better understand their budget & review their strategic plan because they’re hurting small businesses in the area.

All this sidewalk hoopla is nothing more than a campaign stunt.

Mitch Adis October 31, 2021 at 10:36 am

What a blatant stunt. Harry gets called out for doing nothing on Wall Street for 8 years. All of a sudden there is a press conference announcing a plan? Are you kidding!?! On November 3 those plans will get put back in the drawer and they will continue to waste time suing those who are actually doing something.

Vote anybody BUT Rilling.

Joseph Oliveri October 31, 2021 at 1:03 pm

Bobby Lamb – so what position in City Hall do you hold? Guarantee you won’t say who you really are.

DryAsABone October 31, 2021 at 1:29 pm

“I think when we build it, they will come, right? Field of Dreams is my favorite movie.”

While he is making more money in Norwalk, I consider his “work” in Stamford a failure.
As for the quoted line,above, Norwalk allowed SoNo Mall to be built…and nobody is showing up.

Jason Milligan November 1, 2021 at 7:06 am

Actions speak louder than words, plans, studies, RFP’s.

This type of infrastructure is the job of government. I hope they do some of it.

Wider sidewalks, better intersection at the Top of Wall Street, making River Street a pedestrian plaza, new lampposts are all good ideas.

Hiring another expensive firm to do more research and outreach sounds all to familiar. We have enough plans and studies to paper over all the Tyvek on the temple.

We need action not words.

David Muccigrosso November 1, 2021 at 10:45 am

Prestige projects like the mall and POKO are what a healthy and growing city do to capitalize on their growth.

Not what a dying city does to revitalize.

This never works. Stadiums, entertainment hotspots, whatever it is… never works.

Capstones vs. cornerstones.

The cornerstone of Washington Street is its vitality in small lots. Businesses are allowed to experiment and fail. There’s enough to do within walking distance, and crossing the street is not making a gamble with your life.

The single biggest improvement that could be made to Wall Street is to slow it down, and slow Main down. Quit messing with businesses. Quit trying to make it ALL happen ALL at once.

When you rely a big project, everything has to go right, or the whole thing fails. When you rely on a bunch of little projects, some of them can fail, and the rest will be OK. I’ve seen dozens of businesses fail on Washington in the past few years, and the neighborhood is still OK – in fact, it’s coming back to life.

Harry’s a convenient focus, but he’s not the whole problem. This whole complacent machine got us here.

Michael McGuire November 1, 2021 at 11:58 am

I appreciate the efforts and interest to “improve” downtown Norwalk. And what Mr. Travers is talking about does seem appealing and certainly would be a benefit. These improvements would dovetail nicely with truly remarkable renaissance of this area over the past decade which has seen virtually every building in the area purchased, upgraded, and re-tenanted.

However, attracting business to this area is not the problem. I have been here for 20 years now and can attest to that. The problem is retaining businesses. Or perhaps said another way, what is hindering businesses once they arrive on Wall Street?
That question has been clearly addressed by the local businesses and is twofold.

One – revise the current draconian parking policies initiated by the Norwalk Parking Authority and by default the Common Council.
The comment about the residents parking on the street was from 2015. It’s six years later, the needs are different, and we need the NPA to work with us, not against us as has been their MO since parking fees were instituted. Bottom line, the NPA kills business and needs to amend it ways.

Clearly, the business community of the Wall Street area has let the administration know about the damage being caused by the NPA predatory parking practices. But nothing seems to be done about it. This is why Chris Morales is running for the Common Council and his main theme is to ‘give the people a voice’. As the above demonstrates, the people here are not heard. Chris is a smart, hard working young man who lives here as a property owner and business owner. He understands the issues.

Two – Fix the POKO problem. The City is 50% of the problem. Yet the City keeps harping on its need to protect City assets. I get that, but the City does not seem to understand that every business and resident and property owner in the Wall Street area is a CITY ASSET as well. Just because the City is having an issue with Milligan does not mean we are precluded from representation.

Again, Chris Morales understands that.

If you are a District A resident, please support quick, easy policy changes that will dramatically impact our downtown for the positive. You can make that happen by voting in Chris Morales as your CC rep.

Erica Kipp November 1, 2021 at 1:18 pm

I heard the City got this grant quite some time ago, plus I asked two council members last month about any hope of revitalizing the Wall Street area and was told to email someone named Jessica. How about a little transparency?

Stuart Garrelick November 1, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Building beautiful surroundings around an eyesore of a dump does not solve a problem.
The money spent would have been much better used to hire an arbitrator to resolve the Milligan-city stalemate. Either find a way to obtain his property by eminent domain or work with him to resolve the problems inherent in never ending lawsuits.
That should be step 1 but an entire presentation was made without mentioning Mr. Milligan until a spectator raised the issue. If I knew his name he would have my vote tomorrow.

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