NORWALK, Conn. – A proposal to put seven on-street parking spaces across from the Maritime Aquarium, just north of a busy SoNo intersection, will be debated at this week’s Norwalk Zoning Commission meeting.
Some commissioners said last week that the proposed road changes to North Water Street will make it more difficult for bicyclists, in direct opposition to the goal of the plan. Another protested the narrowing of the proposed sidewalk to be installed in front of the development under construction there. One said putting more parked vehicles there would, by necessity, mean more pedestrians on the street, which is the intention of the improvements.
Andrew White, an engineer with Tighe and Bond, said at Thursday’s Plan Review Committee meeting that North Water Street travel lanes north of the Metro North bridge would be narrowed from 11 feet wide to 10 feet wide, under the plan approved by the Department of Public Works. The proposed sidewalk in front of the development, now called SoNo Ironworks, would be reduced from the approved 16-foot width to a 13-foot width. Travel lanes in that area would then be 11 feet wide, with one row of on-street parking. Pedestrian bump-outs across from the aquarium parking lot’s driveways would prevent parking there.
SoNo Ironworks is being built in the location of what was the Norwalk Company building. Local activists tried to save the facade of that building, but it was demolished to make room for a wider sidewalk.
Norwalk Senior Planner Dorothy Wilson said that a 13-foot-wide sidewalk would still be wider than what was there before. She called the three-foot difference a “slight” reduction.
“When you placed that new building there it was to have that wider sidewalk,” Commissioner Nate Sumpter said. “It seems to me if you had a problem with it at that time. That would have been the time to have brought that forward, when we talked about the building and the size of the street. To do it now I don’t agree.”
Other planned improvements to the road include sidewalks under the MetroNorth bridge that would be flush with the road, to provide wider sidewalks but still allow trucks to go into a MetroNorth loading dock driveway there. Textured pavers, like the ones at the Marshall Street intersection just up the street, would be installed under the bridge to slow traffic down.
The entire idea, White said, is to make the roadway between Washington Street and Marshal street more pedestrian friendly in a Norwalk Redevelopment Agency project.
Sumpter wondered how making the travel lanes smaller north of the bridge could improve safety for cyclists.
White said it would slow drivers down.
“Personally, as a bicyclist, I would rather have a vehicle going slower through that 22-foot stretch now, as a 20-foot stretch, than having it go faster with a perceived wider lane,” he said.
“What does that have to do with the amount of space that you have?” Sumpter said. “… It sounds like it’s going to be a little more difficult for someone on a bicycle to have to share that same area with a car. Don’t you agree?”
“I would have to form an opinion,” White said. “I’m sorry I don’t have one at the moment.”
Commissioner Jim White agreed with Sumpter.
“I’m on that road quite a bit,” he said. “I don’t see anybody speeding. To me, that seems like that’s a tight space already.”
He went on to challenge the idea of the parking spaces just north of the intersection of North Water and Washington Street.
“Now you’re going to have motorists exiting vehicles,” he said. “I see that as a conflict with what you’re trying to achieve. … That’s a really busy stretch of road, now you’ll have seven cars stopping, backing up, and people getting out. I see that as a problem.”
That inspired RDA Executive Director Tim Sheehan to join the fray.
National studies and urban planners from across America say that pedestrians feel safer when there are parked cars between them and motorists, he said. There’s also an economic issue with a perceived lack of on street parking in SoNo, he said. DPW staff have been working with P&Z on the project and have signed off on it, he said. The last iteration of the plan called for a smaller roadway but DPW Director Hal Alvord added two feet to it, he said.
“The DPW staff, with all due respect, are the professionals with this as well as the engineers that we have hired to ultimately make the determination to what’s feasible with the roadway,” he said.
“I respectfully disagree with those findings,” White said. “Plus you’ve got the in and out of the cars. There’s a lot of queuing at that intersection right now and you’ve got seven additional cars that you have to deal with. You can get additional pedestrian protection by putting bollards on that sidewalk.”
Sumpter backed that up, but Commissioner Emily Wilson said she disagreed to an extent.
Washington Street has on-street parking, she said, and it works fine. It might be wider than the proposed version of North Water Street, but not that much wider, she said.
The goal is increasing foot traffic on North Water. “You’ll have pedestrians just because there are people parking there,” she said.
Sumpter and Jim White said there should be a public hearing on the matter, but they are not members of the Zoning Committee. The matter will therefore be discussed by the commissioners only at Wednesday’s Zoning Commission meeting, at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers.