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Norwalk Redevelopment Agency defends ‘heated staircase’

This artist's illustration shows a staircase planned in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program for Martin Luther King Drive.
This artist’s illustration shows a staircase planned in the Norwalk TOD (Transit Oriented Design) Pilot Program for Martin Luther King Drive.

NORWALK, Conn. – If the idea of a $246,000 “heated staircase” for South Norwalk makes you think “boondoggle,” Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan has a message for you.

“We’ve got a much bigger project than just the stairs,” Sheehan said.

Not only would the stairs be rebuilt to include a groove for bicycle wheels and a level platform in the middle to allow people to take a break, but the project includes work on Clay Street, the higher end of the staircase, and work on bottom level along Martin Luther King Drive, Sheehan and RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer said. The staircase would connect with the sidewalk on Clay Street and the drainage there would be improved, Sweitzer said. There would be a new guardrail on the Clay Street dead end and the landing pad on Martin Luther King Drive would be expanded, she said.

The Public Works Committee on Tuesday tabled the decision to award the $246,037 contract to Vaz Quality Works.

“I cannot fathom spending $250,000 to replace a perfectly good staircase with a perfectly good staircase that’s going to be heated,” Committee Chairman David McCarthy (R-District E) said, beginning the discussion by saying he would vote against it.

Committee members wanted to know how many people actually use the stairs. Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord didn’t know – on Friday he said he hadn’t expected that to become the key issue.

“I think a quarter of a million dollars got people’s attention for a set of stairs,” Alvord said.

Sweitzer said a study was done last summer to count people using the staircases on Martin Luther King Drive at Clay Street and Hamilton Street. Just in peak hours, on the evening of July 30 and the morning of July 31, 277 people used the stairs. Those people were evenly divided between the staircases, she said.

“Actually we were really surprised. I didn’t think that many people used those stairs,” Sweitzer said.

“We did the counts for the obvious reason that nobody was going into this project if it had no future. I think that we wanted to know for sure, number one, what was the current usage, and then what did we think could be possibly added on. It’s very seriously used,” Sweitzer said.

Funding for the project was approved in the capital budget process last year. While the design work and engineering is being paid for by state dollars, the $246,000 is on Norwalk’s tab.

The heated staircase accounts for $15,000 of that, DPW Engineer Mike Yeosock said in an email. That’s 6 percent of the project budget.

“The heating systems, while they may sound exotic to people in Norwalk, have been around forever,” Sweitzer said. “I mean, they have been used since the 1970s and they are used in places like New York City, where building owners don’t want to deal with their sidewalk issues for liability reasons, for manpower issues, so it’s just as easy to put a coil in them. It’s not expensive, as you can see, and if there’s no snow they don’t come on.”

Some have suggested that the city could throw salt on the stairs.

“Who is going to do that, and when?” Sweitzer asked.

Alvord said DPW doesn’t have the manpower to shovel steps. “When we are in a snowstorm all of our people are clearing roads,” Alvord said.

Salt would damage concrete, Sheehan said.

The city is liable for anyone using those stairs, which are difficult to walk up because they are too steep, he said.

Others have asked about compliance with the American Disabilities Act. Sheehan said there is another route available to get from Clay Street to MLK, basically by going around the block. “The city said that fulfilled the requirement, that there is an alternative,” he said.

Construction is expensive, they said. Just look at Cedar Street – it’s a small stretch of road and it cost nearly $2 million to do, they said.

Now factor in that the staircase must be built into ledge. “That’s the right of way that we have so that’s the right of way that we get to work with,” Sweitzer said.

The project budget includes $60,000 for lighting, while the actual staircase is $63,000.

“The city has gone for durability and a better look than just asphalt everywhere, and you pay for that,” Sweitzer said. “I am trying to remember, I do not know when these stairs were built but I am guessing it’s a good 45 years that we have gotten out of these stairs. So hopefully we’ll get another 45 or 50 years out of these stairs.”

It’s a lot more than replacing a staircase, they said.

“We are trying to increase usage of pedestrian access all around that community,” Sweitzer said.

“If you are living in this area, in order to get to SoNo you shouldn’t have to get into your car and drive. That’s what we’re trying to encourage,” Sheehan said. “You should be able on a nice evening, be able to go out and take a walk to SoNo and not have to worry that you’re taking your life into your hands because this is unsafe or it’s not well maintained, it’s not well lit and it’s just not a pleasant experience. I mean, it’s amazing the utilization that those staircases have in the condition that they are currently in. To my way of thinking that’s not a pleasant walk as it is today.”

Part of the problem at Tuesday’s meeting was that Alvord was the only person there to explain the project’s worth, and it’s not his project. His department is just responsible for the construction.

It’s not unusual that the department that designed the project wouldn’t be on hand for a discussion at the Public Works Committee, he said, explaining that he talked to Sheehan before the meeting and collected the information he thought the committee would need.

McCarthy has changed his tune from a stance he took on a previous issue. When Rowayton residents came to the Council to try to stop the work scheduled for Rowayton Avenue, he said that the work had already been approved, that the Council was just voting on a contract to do the work. The staircase project was vetted through the capital budget process, meaning it was evaluated by the Finance Department and reviewed by the Planning Commission for inclusion in the budget, which was then sent to the Council for approval. The Public Works Committee is just voting on the construction contract.

McCarthy declined to comment.

Norwalk Redevelopment 010915008

The existing staircase on Martin Luther King Drive. covered with salt although
The existing staircase on Martin Luther King Drive. covered with salt .

Comments

25 responses to “Norwalk Redevelopment Agency defends ‘heated staircase’”

  1. Suzanne

    All of these details could have easily been explained at the meeting had anyone from Redevelopment been there. Mr. Alvord obviously didn’t get enough information.

    There is more information in this article than what apparently was shared with the Committee.

    So, everyone who participated in this waste of time, i.e., fiasco, think back to elementary school when you had to give a project presentation. Your grade would have been a big fat fail (or something at least less than a passing grade) if you had shown up presenting a topic with less than the complete details.

    Stop wasting everyone’s time – the Committee and citizens of Norwalk deserve the facts from the very beginning – just like in elementary school.

  2. EveT

    Amazed they are unaware there are types of salt that don’t damage concrete.

  3. Bruce Kimmel

    Thank you for this story. I wish I had remembered more of the details about the staircase at Tuesday’s meeting. I would definitely have supported it. Generally, on an issue such as this, we expect the committee staff — in this case, Mr. Alvord — to be fully versed on the issue at hand, especially with that kind of price tag. I am sure someone from Redevelopment will be at the next DPW committee meeting.

  4. John Hamlin

    At least we would get something valuable for this expenditure, unlike many other Council expenditures, like the mosque avoidance price tag that was such a debacle.

  5. Mike Mushak

    I want to thank Tim Sheehan, Susan Sweitzer, and NON for “illuminating” this important subject for the public. I live in the neighborhood and know firsthand how important the condition and safety of those stairways are to hundreds of folks. In fact, it is definitely a “make or break” issue for some on whether or not to buy or rent a house here, since for many folks the ease and cost of commuting to work is as important as the quality of the school system in deciding where to live, especially if they do not have kids as many younger and older folks do not. Here are some more facts:

    The SoNo Train Station is the MOST expensive train station to park on the entire New Haven line, at $10/daily, and $90/monthly permit ($1,080/year). For many lower income folks, this is a huge chunk of their limited income and a factor on choosing where to live. Walking or riding a bike to the station to commute is an option to save money for many folks, and a factor for where they choose to live and for their quality of life.

    There are 681 monthly permits issued for the SoNo station, with a waiting list of 381, and an average waiting period of 12-18 months. This is from a 2013 SWRPA study using 2012 data: http://swrpa.org/Files/Transfer.aspx?pid=265. We know there are many folks who currently drive to the station from nearby areas, who would walk or ride a bike if the conditions were safer in all weather and all times of the year, (and if they had bike racks on the trains or safe bike lockers to lock their bikes in when they got to the station, another area for improvement). This would free up spaces at the station (and reduce waiting periods for permits) for folks from further away in Norwalk, thus the improvement of these stairways by encouraging more walking and biking would have a positive impact on the city beyond just the immediate area.

    In calculating a cost/benefit ratio for this project, it is important to look at the positive impact on property values this project will have. We know many folks who have specifically chosen to live in our neighborhood of Golden Hill based on the proximity to the train station (it was a factor in my own decision to live here, not for commuting but for my frequent visits to NYC where I used to live, and still have many friends and activities we enjoy there.) In the morning and evening there is a steady stream of commuters who walk past our house, and we know and talk to many of them. We do know the safety and condition of these stairs is crucial for those looking to live here, especially in the early morning and evening dark periods which occur at peak times for half the year basically. For folks who are choosing where to live based on ease and cost of commuting, the condition and safety of these stairways may become a “make or break” factor in their decision. We know this firsthand from folks we have talked to.

    As the article points out, the heating of the stairs is a minor part of the budget, only $15,000 or 6% of the project, and that amenity will pay for itself quickly in the DPW crew time it will save clearing the stairs, which very often is not right away after a storm. Also, the delay in clearing ice and snow creates great liability to the city on these heavily-used stairs(one lawsuit from a bad fall with permanent injury or death can cost taxpayers millions since the city is self-insured). It will also free up crews to clear other city-owned sidewalks which are often neglected, and save the stairways from deterioration from the heavy salt required which corrodes concrete and pollutes the Sound when it is washed into storm drains.

    Conclusion: the improvements to these stairways are much needed to improve the lives of hundreds of Norwalkers to improve safety, affordability of commuting, improve quality of life, and help ease congestion at the crowded SoNo Train Station with its 12-18 month waiting list for parking spaces. The improvements will basically pay for themselves in decreased crew time to clear ice and snow, and improved property values.

    Smart cities invest in their infrastructure for exactly these reasons. It is astounding that concept was lost on our Public Works Committee Chair Dave McCarthy on this project. That is exactly why I strongly support footpath and bike lane improvements in the Chair’s own district of Rowayton, improvements which have not been happening as fast as they should be in the minds of many of his constituents.

    As Co-Chair of the Norwalk Bike/Walk Task Force, I invite Mr. McCarthy to come to a Bike/Walk Task Force meeting as soon as next month (I’ll follow up with an email to him and John Igneri, the other Councilman from his district), to discuss footpath and bike lane improvements that have been promised to the public in Rowayton for years. Just this year in fact we heard promises from Mr. McCarthy that bike lane and footpath extensions along Rowayton Ave to improve safety for Rowayton commuters and families would be included in the Rowayton Ave. Station project, which we have not seen yet. We would love to help get the ball rolling on those, and advocate for these improvements the same as we are advocating for these kinds of public safety projects all over the city, including these much-needed stairway improvements.

  6. Piberman

    Before spending “chump change” for a staircase our City officials ought hire a recognized major league consultant to advise on the really important issue of the Diwntown Mall supported by former Mayor Moccia and Rep. Cafero.

  7. jlightfield

    I think Nancy’s photo shows the higher need for a sidewalk along MLK. Coupled with maintaining the overgrown “landscaping” that ends up as a trash collector and impedes pedestrians.

  8. Peter Torrano

    Nancy and Mark,

    Not sure why you worded your reference to David McCarthy as “changing his tune from a stance he took with a previous issue’ when it appears you are comparing apples to oranges.

    The Rowayton Avenue project was approved by the entire council several times, after reviewing the details of the project, also several times. It was then reviewed at the committee level at least three times from 2009 through 2014, and was funded entirely by the state and federal government after being requested by the community and having been fully vetted. As it has turned out, the project was a good idea and seems to be working quite well doing what it was billed to do.

    The stairs, on the other hand, were simply in a line on the capital budget that said ‘transit oriented development” for $350,000. It had literally never been heard about before, and that is why the committee, not just David were taken aback when this item came up.

    Not exactly the same scenario.

    Mike Mushak has come out in favor of the project in line with his standing on the bike task force. But for him to say that David has promised something having to do with bike lanes not being completed, well, it happens to be January. Not a recommended month for painting anything outside. Nor was November or December. it will get done, when time allows.

    Last thing, I called David about this and asked why he did not comment. Turns out that you did not ask about this particular issue, and he and I can only assume that when he had asked that you no longer contact him about a few months ago, that you made it sound like it was just now that he would not comment. I know there is hard feelings between you and David, but it does sound like you just kind of took a shot at him.

  9. @Peter Torrano,

    On Nov. 13, David McCarthy said, “Please don’t email or call me. If you wish to write ‘McCarthy declined to comment’ in every story going forward, I shall not complain.”

  10. Bill Dunne

    Nancy Nancy Nancy… You really need to get over your little vendettas. I nearly pulled a muscle doing a double-take on your penultimate paragraph. No one would have imagined that the stairway project over near the , supposedly the subject of this “news” report, had anything to do with the Rowayton Ave railroad bridge. So it must have been a strain for you to conjure up such a connection, or maybe somebody (Mushak comes to mind here) helped you with that. In any case — in one very slick sentence — you got your shot in at McCarthy but you also seriously mangled the history of the Rowayton bridge project.

    That project, funded entirely through federal and state programs, had been in the works for ten years, with multiple reviews and public hearings along the way. Of course, like virtually any public works projects , it had its detractors (in this case just a very vocal few), but now that it has been completed, anyone seeing the result would probably be amazed that anyone could have had an objection.

  11. Bill,

    I find your phrase, “little vendettas,” patronizing and condescending, as well as just plain wrong. I do not have “vendettas.”

    I connected the stairway to Rowayton Avenue because after the meeting I did some research, because I’ve heard of this project, and found that it was in the capital budget. It became obvious that the Public Works Committee was approving a contract for a previously approved project. That sounded familiar as well, and I remembered the Rowayton Avenue comments.

    No one helped me. I may be female but I am capable of independent thought.

    I have not mangled the Rowayton Avenue project. I am aware of all the approvals it went through, and the article does not say that was the only reason Mr. McCarthy gave in supporting it. He did say during the controversy that it had been approved, and the construction contract was just a formality.

    He voted for the capital budget that included the stairway project. I assume the list of projects is in the background material – Council members typically ask questions about a few items on the list, so I know there is one.

    I can still find the list on the city’s website.

    The Finance Department vets the capital budget. Department heads meet with Mr. Hamilton (and presumably Mr. Barron) and explain their requests. This staircase, and other Transit Oriented Development projects, was number one on Redevelopment’s list. They think it’s important, and it was approved.

    In the two years that I have been closely watching Norwalk government I have never seen a project that was approved in the capital budget process run into second thoughts when it comes time for funding through the Council.

    I think that as chairman of the committee Mr. McCarthy might have done a little research before announcing to the committee members that he was voting against the “heated staircase.” Surely a better opinion of the Redevelopment Agency is in order? Do we really think that these experienced professionals would bring something so frivolous to the table? This deserved to be called to the taxpayers’ attention.

    Jerry Petrini suggested tabling it to get more information. An example of wise leadership.

    As previously reported on this website, Rowayton residents that I spoke to think the lowering of Rowayton Avenue was a waste of money. They did not offer any opinion about the road itself. I’ve heard a few people say that the walls are too high, but the major opinion expressed is, “Where did the money go? I don’t see it.” Nuanced within that is the idea that government does dumb things – once the train gets rolling it’s on its way, no getting it off the track. They do not think that it was worth the money and they are frustrated.

    I have been told that it is now difficult to pull out of the side road, and people are driving faster.
    I haven’t heard anyone say anything like, “Well that was a pain in the neck but the road is much nicer now.”

  12. Mike Mushak

    Bill Dunne lecturing Nancy on “vendettas” is awesome.

    I vouch for Nancy’s statement denying that I “helped” her write this story. She asked me for a comment which actually didn’t make it into the article, but Rowayton Ave was not part of my comment, nor was Dave McCarthy. I spoke about the public safety benefits of the project.

    I thought Nancy’s comparison to Rowayton Ave in terms of budget process was accurate.

    And if Bill Dunne wants to insist that the complete removal of the original safe safe sight lines on Rowayton Avenue by massive overscale retaining walls that now completely block views for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, that has sped up traffic, and that cost taxpayers $3 million to accomplish, is being welcomed as “amazing” by the public, I have to say I agree. We are all truly amazed.

    As I said, I look forward to working with Dave McCarthy on improving safety around the station and all over his district with new bike lanes, sharrows, and footpaths, as recommended in the Norwalk 2012 Pedestrian and Bikeway Plan.

  13. Scott

    The comments here seem to be more about sour grapes in regards to the Rowayton Ave. project. What’s at hand is the significant capital expendature for what looks like a very nice set of stairs. Yes the old stairs are structurally sound but they are definitely a liability in our litigious society. DPW has made some operational changes that are getting sidewalks that don’t abut private property cleared and salted much sooner than they used to (yes management I am giving you complements). The stairs can survive the way they are for the foreseeable future. If this were in conjunction with a larger improvement project there would be no opposition. Has anyone talked to the residents on Clay St. and Gibson St.? It is possible that a beautiful set of new stairs will encourage more commuter parking on side streets that are already crowded with cars from multi-apartment houses. It is already a regular occurance that the DPW plow truck can’t maneuver those two streets. So in reality just how many people will these expensive stairs benefit? By the way I feel the same way about the new sports fields at Nathan Hale. In regards to the Rowayton Ave. project it used to be my turn around point for my plow route and the sight lines are significantly improved. Was it worth that much? Good question. I am personally notoriously frugal. And whether it was federal or local money, it was pointed out to me in reference to police overtime that we all indirectly pay.

  14. Mike Mushak

    Scott, has the Parking Authority ever looked into resident parking permits here, or on Seaview Ave, or in downtown Rowayton, or near the Community College, or anywhere else in Norwalk it would make sense to have them, just as almost every other city in America has to protect parking for neighborhood residents? If not, why?

    Or have you ever requested the Traffic Authority look at making parking on one side of the street only on Clay or Hamilton in winter months if snow removal is such an issue for you in those locations? I am sure your feedback would be appreciated by the Traffic Authority and Parking Authority.

    This project is part of a larger project to improve pedestrian and bike access to the train station just as the article describes.

    We are fully aware that the people who use the stairways now are from the entire area of Norwalk within walking distance of the station, for many blocks in every direction as a look at a map and observations in the morning and evening reveals, well up into the dense neighborhoods of condo complexes and apartment buildings off of Taylor and Flax Hill, and this will surely increase if safety improvements are made. These folks pay property taxes too, and in fact quite a bit more after the last 2 revals increased condo taxes quite a bit.

    This is all about improving public safety and increasing walking and biking, and reducing driving and parking at the station that add to the garage congestion and peak traffic, as well as reducing long waiting lists of 12-18 months for parking permits at the station.

    It is, in essence, about solving several problems at the same time with just one project . That’s what smart cities do.

  15. Scott

    Don’t be fooled, this neighborhood is probably 90% rentals with insufficient off street parking and I’m sure a few illegal apartments, so the taxpayer benefit is moot. But has anyone asked the neighborhood what they want. Maybe a “pedestrian” count needs to be done similar to a traffic count done for road improvements so a better picture can be had as to how many this project would benefit in order to be sure it would be money well spent.

  16. Mike Mushak

    Scott, one survey was done, and it’s mentioned in the article. Hundreds of people use them. We see lots of them walking past our house every morning and evening, and you can also see them walking up Lowe, Flax Hill, and Taylor every day. They are not invisible, and they vote.

    Your statement that over 90% of the folks that live in the neighborhood are renters and don’t pay taxes is wrong on two counts.

    First, your numbers are flipped completely, by my estimation. Over 90% of the single and two-family houses in our neighborhood are owner occupied. The hundreds of condo units within a few blocks of these stairways are also mostly owner occupied, based on our own knowledge of folks we know who live in them. These complexes are stable and well-managed, and include Ben Franklin Gardens, Highpoint, Harbour Heights, Copper Beech, Eagles Nest, Parkview, Flax Hill Condominiums, Victoria Lane, Hamilton Heights, Islandview, South Point Manor, etc. representing hundreds of condo units.

    Second, renters also pay property taxes, except through their rent. They also vote. They are also real people too!

    Bottom line, there are literally thousands (5,000 is not a stretch) of residents, a majority of whom are owner occupiers, who live in hundreds of condo’s, apartment buildings, multi-families, and one and two family residences within a 10 minute walk (half mile) of these two staircases on Hamilton and Clay Streets, that are their shortcuts to the train station. These folks who live in the dense B, C, and D Residence zones also are well-engaged and vote, and they will not forget who paid attention to their concerns for safety and convenience, and those who thought they were just so much chopped liver whose concerns should be ignored even though they pay property taxes just like everybody else in the city.

  17. Scott

    So a true physical count was performed?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ Scott

      It’s the eighth paragraph:

      Sweitzer said a study was done last summer to count people using the staircases on Martin Luther King Drive at Clay Street and Hamilton Street. Just in peak hours, on the evening of July 30 and the morning of July 31, 277 people used the stairs. Those people were evenly divided between the staircases, she said.

      “Actually we were really surprised. I didn’t think that many people used those stairs,” Sweitzer said.

  18. Kathleen Montgomery

    Scott, it’s in the article as Mike pointed out and there for all to read.

  19. Scott

    Thank you, sloppy reading on my part. I am surprised at the numbers. It must be strictly at peak hours and then drop off significantly because I’ve worked in the vicinity of Clay many times and volumes were minimal. So my apologies. Sometimes we’re so anxious to jump into the fray that we aren’t thorough.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ Scott

      Happens all the time. We all do it. Sometimes though, with some folks, I wonder if they read beyond the headline! 🙂

  20. Norewalk Lifer

    The misconceptions in the comments section leave me wondering how these people can be considered for positions of authority and leadership, I would believe that Ms. Chapman’s statement that Mr. McCarthy asked he not be contacted for comment, and no comment would be a suitable insert into any article, seems to me that Mr.McCarthy has grown unreasonably self important in his position, not unlike many in corporate positions.

    But the “circle the wagons” mentality of those who commented, including Mr. Dunne, who appears to have come down from Mount Disinformation, to make this a “coaching” moment for the writer, it’s amusing but not taken seriously, all gravitas is gone when this happens.

    And Mr. Torrano, I’ve seen your comments about others here, and now you defend a non-defensible situation; I wonder if Mr.McCarthy volunteered to you he requested a “no contact” zone? not unlike Mr. Virgulak a while back without the hand gestures.

    So in closing, if you do not want to be ask illuminating questions about public behavior, then there is only one solution:

    Keep all behavior private.

    On another note, the individuals who commented on the Rowayton finished project are correct; you do see a lot of speeding under that underpass.

    It’s lovely to look at, but I wonder, why did this require all that money? of course, the carved stone is perfectly beautiful, I am sure it’s a blessing to those who use the Rowayton train station.

    Now, all those who travel across MLK on their way to the Norwalk Train station (yes, our younger citizens do something those that are “long in the tooth” do not do; they walk!!!! how refreshing, I believe they deserve a safe passage.

    So, Norwalk, instead of building a wonderful museum for our firefighters, maybe we can cough up a few dollars and make those stairs safe?

    Afterall, walking is good for the heart muscle.

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  21. Norewalk Lifer

    One final note: I find it “ironic” that those who run on tickets conjuring up “smaller government” lean or actually scurry behind federal and state “studies” about the Rowayton bridge.

    I think it was Margaret Thatcher who once said “One cannot run with the hounds and ride with the horses”.

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  22. Mike Mushak

    Scott, I have profound respect for you after your comment. You are an inspiration even if you like to argue with me! Your perspective from “inside” the system is important and we need that.

    Norwalk Lifer, thank you for your insightful comments. Your last comment reminds me of the famous Tea Party rallies with signs that said “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

    The irony of America these days is that the so -called anti-big government red states mostly in the south and west are also the biggest recipients of government assistance and “earmarks”. Go figure.

  23. Scott

    Thank you Mr. Mushak. I enjoy healthy debate. Let me clear though, I am not at all against this improvement. I believe the stairs would be beautiful. It is a question of the right time and place to spend this sum of money.

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