Norwalk Zoning Commission approves Washington Village

A model of the development proposed to replace Norwalk’s Washington Village.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Zoning Commissioners unanimously approved the proposed Washington Village redevelopment Wednesday, noting that expensive infrastructure improvements would need to be made if the project gets funding.

Norwalk will need to raise the grade at the intersection of Raymond and Day Streets and extend Day Street as a one-way street if Trinity Financial is successful in getting the money it needs for the project, which has been developed in conjunction with the Norwalk Housing Authority. The street improvements are required because the project will be built in a flood plain.

Commissioner Mike Mushak was the only one to comment extensively before the vote, which followed a public hearing in December.

Mushak said the project fulfills the concepts of flood resilient design.

“In flood zones where land is valuable and you are in an urban environment, you can’t just stop development in a flood zone,” he said, explaining his reasons for voting for what has been for some people a controversial project.

Trinity is seeking a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The project would be built in three phases, which would expand over five to 10 years. The total transformation plan will cost well over an estimated $100 million.

Washington Village residents are expected to move into Phase I. Their current homes would then be demolished to make room for Phases II and III.

Zoning Commissioners Linda Kruk and Joe Santo were not present for the vote.


8 responses to “Norwalk Zoning Commission approves Washington Village”

  1. Suzanne

    Get out the sand bags. Building in a flood plain is a fool’s errand. Surely Norwalk can do better – a design eliminating this issue as a problem was proposed by many. Why stick with this high risk, “flood resilient” (which is like saying “earthquake proof” building in my view) plan when a good design would remove the obstacle? I am not sure I buy into this quite yet but global warming is a concept that does not seem to be changing and is expected to raise the levels of the adjacent water to which this project will be subjected. The remediation that I have read and was proposed: to move the cars from the flood zone level to the parking lot at the Maritime Center does not account for the individuals who must then return to their imminently flooded properties. A detail but something to consider nonetheless. Politics has trumped good sense.

  2. Mike Mushak

    Suzanne, the project is being built with units 2 feet higher than required by FEMA, so above the 100-year (or one-percent chance of a flood in any given year)flood plain. Ironically, the alternate location some folks were promoting for Washington Village, the Webster Lot on MLK, is also in a flood plain, although that is a .2 percent area, so less of a chance, but still in a flood plain. We can’t just stop all economic development in flood plains, especially in dense urban environments like South Norwalk.
    It is economically unsustainable to abandon all building in a flood zone, especially in cities, so what professional planners are adopting all over the country, and which this project utilized, are “flood-resilient urban design principles.” These protect property by elevating housing units and utilities high above the flood zone to prevent property damage, with parking below made of waterproof materials, which allows a quick recovery after a storm with just a cleanup of muck and debris, but little damage. The car owners will be warned well ahead of time of a hurricane or major storm by the management company and the authorities, who will then move their cars to designated parking lots out of harms way.
    These flood relient principles are being implemented all over the country to still allow vital development in flood plains, much like ancient societies dealt with annual floods on nutrient-rich flood plains by building their homes on stilts. I know thats a stretch, but conceptually it is the same, as humans have to adapt to their environments using their heads to solve the problems, and not their emotions by just running away screaming in a panic every time a flood happens. Look, a week after Irene we still had the Oyster Fest in Vets Park, and although it was muddy from the park being under water, we still made it happened. We are not totally helpless to the storms.
    I feel very strongly that beachfront homes on barrier islands are a waste and need to stop, as taxpayers are sick of paying for their foolish desires, but in a city like Norwalk, with a struggling tax base and huge areas in flood plains, it is simply unrealistic to think we can just abandon entire neighborhoods that can become parks.
    This is not the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans which is below sea level and subject to levee breaches, which I agree needs to be looked at as a potential area to abandon to the sea. I was just there and it is heartbreaking, although folks are hanging on and rebuilding anyway, and sometimes with very smart buildings that adhere to the flood resilient model of raised houses and parking under liek Washington Village uses. But that is a different issue.
    If we were to retreat from the sea in Norwalk with all development, most of SoNo, Wall St., and half of East Norwalk would just disappear and Norwalk would collapse. This will never happen, because new models of building using resilient principles like Washington Village uses will still allow folks to live in risky areas but maintain confidence that their homes will be safe in a storm.
    If it is a major hurricane, all bets are off no matter where you live in Norwalk, as we found out on Golden Hill when many of our roofs and siding got damaged in Sandy even though we were blocks away from flooding.

  3. spanner

    I agree Mike your push is great for this project.Has Storm doors and flood gates been planned for those still sitting in the flood zone.During one of the last storms water wasn’t coming out of shorefront park onto water st it was coming from Woodward ave and south main st down Burritt and Raymond onto water st and shorefront park.Will this upgrade trap water on South main st given those who have had water in the past have more water with what has been explained as a island?

    Your comments on what the Washington Village residents were encountering mold and etc was correct no one else seems to get it.What about the hundreds of gallons of fuel from the boat yards that also washed onto the Village property and was never remediated.It would seem at this point special drains to collect fuel may be in order as well for the new complex I doubt the boats are leaving anytime soon.Strong odors of fuel in those storm drains are always checked by the DEEP but sources only from Meadow st in the past have been found if that helps explain my concern. we build a clean complex and we should keep it that way.The old landfills that surround the Village was also a concern years ago I trust that papeerwork hasn’t been lost.

    The way the old police station was taken down finding contamination before the tear down began would of been a smart thing to do,has the plans to tear down the old Village in a school bus stop area filled with residential homes been also addressed,not asking you if your responsible asking you because you care for us all and seem to get the point accross professionally.

    Thanks Mike

  4. spanner

    @ Suzanne core samples of Vets park were never made public as a landfill itself there may be hidden dangers that exist there using that as an example may be a bad idea until that whole subject has been put to rest by Environmental experts.Vets park has never been a textbook example until then I would use caution until all the facts are in or at least talked about.It may be ok to build on the coast but like most areas along the coast they were backfilled years ago to claim land and what they used for backfill and what they covered was never an issue.Years later it should be a concern what we know now is not what we knew back then when it comes to contaminants.

    Considering South Norwalk has many areas of concern where massive amounts of contamination had been found in the past this line of caution should be used in and around Washington Village.

    Take Washinton st in South Norwalk for example a pump truck comes all the time to pump out manholes of what?The same with West ave by the old landfills and car dealerships its not just water is it?The next question is who pays for it?

    Its always prudent to make sure its all cleaned up the first time you otherwise spend more after construction ends thats textbook history.

  5. Suzanne

    Mike, I hope those are the revised 100 year flood standards. They are happening far more frequently than most building standards in CT comply. “Flood resilient” is not flood proof and the projected data for water level increases not counting surges depending upon whose data you are looking at is alarming. There are many areas from which I come built in flood plains and here is what happens: years of flood free living, the one (of many) BIG floods, irreparable damage, tons of FEMA funds to rebuild and a re-boot with those funds to build all over again. While utilities and houses maybe higher, two feet above the 100 year flood range as you describe, I am still skeptical at this development’s actual resilience when the water and what comes with it surges into it. Norwalk will do what it is going to do anyway regarding development, I reservedly trust your judgement about the wisdom of this project. I have never said it was not needed. I have questioned and I think rightfully why it must be put in the location proposed. (Especially when huge areas of land proposed for mixed use development stands empty for years – an ongoing frustration.)

  6. spanner

    I simply question will this make it worse for those who have flooding during regular storms.Why not make the area safer for those who are not moving to higher ground.There seems to be a non responsive part to what about the regular flooding now and why hasn’t that been addressed?Seems like double talk at this point for those who will watch the water rise during the next high tide.The city wants housing we want flooding addressed what part of that is unreasonable?You don’t need a large storm to produce floods in South Norwalk its the level of the tide that now does it.

  7. Debora

    I am curious whether anyone has addressed the flooding into adjacent areas that was raised by the friends of Ryan Park.

  8. Mike Mushak

    Debora, Spanner, and Suzanne, you all bring up very valid points. The sequence of events needed for HUD funding and other reasons required approval of the project before detailed engineering studies could be invested in by the city. Otherwise the city could have been left holding the bill for the expensive studies that are needed. We are short on engineering staff as it is in City Hall, so the months of work required was not just feasible now. The project cannot be finished without the engineering improvements being completed, and funding for those will be dtermeined when the studies are done and cost estimates are in, and will be a combination of private and public sources including federal grants. That discussion of funding ofteh public improvements will be public as I made sure that was to be subject to Zoning Commission approval, which was omitted in the resolution originally. So here’s what will happen, from my perspective.

    Existing flooding issues along Water St will be dealt with in a new comprehensive study. Floodgates have already been recommended to keep harbor water from rushing up through storm drains and frankly should have been installed years ago, but never were. Those floodgates are for tidal flooding mostly, as any water rushing over land in a major storm surge is impossible to control short of levees, and that would mean a levee costing billions as it would have to encircle half of South Norwalk and impact hundreds of waterfront properties, as well as destroy fragile habitat. Not happening.
    The floodgates aside, there will be engineering studies dealing with the entire area including Ryan Park, where many have concerns. The engineers will have to figure out a way to control flooding there, as they would never certify any plans that made the problem worse by trapping water in the park. There are checks and balances in the system as HUD approval and the zoning permit and CO’s will not be finalized until these issues are solved, and installed. It is in the developer’s and the city’s best interest to make sure these issues are resolved properly in the beginning, as no one wants future expensive fixes to jeopardize the success of the project or the neighborhood. Frankly, the whole idea that this project will make flooding worse elsewhere will be limited by the fact that engineers who work on this are licensed by the state, and I doubt they would jeopardize their licenses or their firms’ reputation by not addressing all of teh impacts of their decisions.
    Spanner’s concern that raising the street by a foot or so for about 2 blocks will cause more flooding elsewhere in SoNo is tempered by a review of the proportion of the areas we are talking about. No one is talking about raising acres and acres of land that would have an impact on the hundreds of acres of existing flood plain, such as what happens along the Mississippi when miles of levee-protected areas divert flood water into other areas. We are talking about raising a couple hundred feet of street by a foot or so, in a flood plain that is over a mile long from Washington St to Harborview, and that stretches for many blocks inland. The area impacted is perhaps in the hundredths of one percent,not a significant impact on such a huge area where water will just flow where it needs to fill low areas first. I am not an engineer but I speak from common sense and a landscape architect’s knowledge of stormwater flow across land.
    I know this explanation will not satisfy some who were dead set against this project no matter what the explanations, but it does explains more of the process I hope. It was economically unfeasible to move this project anywhere else based on land costs, it fits in with multiple studies for mixed-income housing in this transit-oriented area, and it replaces the oldest and most dilapidated housing project in CT where residents are currently living in substandard and unhealthy conditions.

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