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SoNo Comeback Task Force reports on its brainstorming, skewers Parking Authority

NORWALK, Conn. – Maybe about a year from now the West Avenue corridor will have been transformed in the area of Heritage Wall, with woven metal reflecting the culture of Norwalk.

That tidbit is just one sample of the eclectic news coming out of the recent SoNo Comeback Task Force meeting – most of it hopeful.

While there were negative comments about the Norwalk Parking Authority, task force Chairman Bill Collins saw a glimmer of hope in the potential appointment of Norwalk Redevelopment Agency (RDA) Director Tim Sheehan to the authority as a non-voting member. An application to form a SoNo Special Services District should be submitted within three months, Kim Morque said. RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer said an artist has been selected to do an installation on the wall beneath the Route 7 connector at the intersection of Interstate 95.

A call for artists for the West Avenue project netted 140 applicants, Sweitzer said.

“We have come to an agreement with an artist,” she said. “He is actually out of New York. We will probably be preparing a press release and a presentation on his work style fairly soon and start to contract with him before the actual art work on that wall. We propose to have the installation by the end of next summer.”

The public art project, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program, with matching funds from the RDA and the city, has a budget of $100,000 with the goal of creating a hospitable corridor under the highway where dull grey concrete blocks now catch the eye along one side of West Avenue.

Sweitzer declined to name the artist selected but said he teaches at a New York art school and has done work in New Haven as well as in other states.

“He works in a medium that is primarily metal – colored metal – and he weaves in various different sayings as well in various different language,” she said. “So he has to work very closely with the public to get those languages and get those sayings so that he can then start to integrate them into his art work. So he is probably going to be in a studio in Norwalk a lot of his time.”

That means the mystery artist will spend the winter collecting sayings in different languages from Norwalkers, begin fabricating the metal next spring and then install it by fall, she said.

Perfect for next to Heritage Wall, Collins said.

“That’s what we thought,” Sweitzer said.

“The biggest challenge is DOT; they own the wall. It’s a challenge, it’s not an obstacle,” Sweitzer said.

Collins said the Maritime Aquarium had used Photoshop to come up with an image, shown above, to illustrate the general concept of putting a promotional mural on the North Water Street railroad trestle to show tourists what they might do in the area.

Architect Bruce Beinfield threw in more than two cents on that one.

“The trestle itself is a pretty cool architectural element. I think that the idea of branding SoNo on both sides of that trestle is great, but maybe instead of being a full banner across, maybe it could be applied in such a way that the structure itself still bleeds through because that is a lot of what SoNo is still about in terms of underlying character, the way the train trestle winds through this part of the city,” Beinfield said.

SoNo restaurants are being recruited into a composting program under the umbrella of the SoNo Special Services District (SSD), Morque said. The application for an SSD is “pretty well advanced” and should be submitted to the city within 60 to 90 days, he said.

The new SoNo sign under the railroad trestle on Washington Street is a hit, Collins said.

“It is establishing a track record on social media sites. They take selfies in front of the sign,” Sweitzer said.

Landscaper Eric Rains has drawn up plans to make the Norwalk Police station look more appealing, and an architect has volunteered to do the same with the building itself, Collins said. “That still leaves a lot of the corridor that is not being attended to, but we’re trying we’re trying in that corridor anyway. Hopefully by next meeting we’ll have something to show you,” Collins said.

The former mayor also offered an update on the idea to project images onto the side of 50 Washington St., recalling a meeting held about two months ago.

“It was a very exciting meeting because we moved fairly swiftly from the idea of projecting scenes onto the front of the building to the idea of having a big screen, a TV screen, on the upper part of the building. You can show things all day long,” Collins said.

That was a good news/bad news scenario – the woman who represented the new owner of that building, Mike Oz, has since moved on to a new job in Texas, he said.

“We have not made headway since,” Collins said. “That’s the way it is with a task force.”

The hoped-for “big, big, big” television screen would face the Webster Street lot and be visible from I-95, Collins said, explaining that this would harken back to an electronic message board that was on the building back when it was new.

Collins said Oz is considering taking the facing off that part of the building, redoing it and putting in larger windows.

Stephanie Pelletier said the foundation for The Pearl at 99 Washington St. should be in within six weeks, “with framing before the snow flies.” Work will continue through the winter with a projected opening date in June. The valet service that developers had been promised is already in operation, she said.

Reports of a task force success were tainted by complaints.

Steven Goff of Red Parlor Records said his four-Sunday Sono Summer Music Series was “pretty successful” in spite of “a lot of obstacles,” as some people came up from Queens or down from Massachusetts to hear the jazz and blues performers. Residents of Ironworks cheered and applauded from their balconies and the same people came back weekend after weekend, he said.

But, “There were several stumbling blocks which I think were brought about by lack of cooperation from various city agencies. It almost amounted to them trying to make sure this didn’t happen. It was kind of an unfortunate circumstance. I think it could happen with a lot more success in the future if those types of things were addressed,” Goff said.

The Parking Authority “sabotaged a good degree of the success it could have had” by not providing four parking spaces in the lot in front of the aquarium, as it had promised, he said.

“Aside from running my own business and doing this as a volunteer, I think I had about 16 visits to City Hall in order to do this, which was massively inconvenient for me,” Goff said.

He also fingered the Parks and Recreation Department as being a problem.

“I like his story because it tells first-hand graphically what we are up against trying to make some major changes in South Norwalk,” Collins said. “There are institutional roadblocks to almost anything we want to do. Steve, amazingly, I can’t believe he pulled it off, he overcame that and put on these concerts and made a lot of people happy. You know, about the single best thing that the task force has been able to pull off.”

Goff said he’d be “happy to do it in the future as long as it doesn’t involve dealing with these agencies.”

“I think that the city of Norwalk seems to have a great opportunity to become a day trip destination for the tri-state area. Unfortunately it’s not really being realized,” said Goff, who moved here about four years ago. “I think people would certainly be happy to come to Norwalk if we gave them a good reason and a good experience when they got here.”

Reached Friday, Kathryn Hebert, Norwalk’s staff person for the Parking Authority, said she had “no idea” there had been any problems for Goff before hearing about it from a reporter. The promised parking spaces had been marked off the night before each of the concerts, she said, and she had not heard anything from Goff that indicated there were any problems.

Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae was not available for a comment. Mayor Harry Rilling did not respond to requests for comment.

Sweitzer said Thursday that Tuesday’s meeting was the first she had heard of Goff having problems.

“I think he was frustrated by our processes,” Sweitzer said. “He is used to working in the private sector where everybody just does what they want to do and he was not accustomed, I don’t think, to having to go through the procedures of using public spaces. … I don’t think he was mistreated in any way.”

Last but not least, Collins had comments Tuesday about the Parking Authority.

“The mayor did take advantage of the term expiration of one of the members of the Parking Authority and appointed a guy to fill in the slot. There are however, five members of the Parking Authority and they have five-year terms. So we’ve got one now,” Collins said.

The next term up on the Parking Authority is that of Chris Bakes in March 2015.

Collins said there are two ex-officio members of the Parking Authority. One is Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord and the other is Mayor Harry Rilling.

“We are toying with at least trying to get the mayor’s seat into the hands of someone who can be there a lot,” Collins said, indicating that Sheehan is lined up to take over as one of the two non-voting members. “But the Parking Authority didn’t meet last month and it remains as much a problem as it ever was as far as I can tell.”

4 comments

Bryan Meek September 22, 2014 at 11:37 am

Instead of political conquest of the Parking Authority, maybe the former mayor should actually come up with solutions to the problems he percieves and let someone know what those are.
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10 months into this task force and I have yet to hear or see any real ideas other than decorating the district and getting SNEW to replace some lightbulbs.
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That is good and all, but if you are going to really change the Parking Authority, it must be done by ordinance. Not by political appointments or taking cheap shots in the local press at the volunteers and dedicated staff, who are working within the framework of our laws. Laws, by the way, that were implemented under Mayor Alex Knopp to his credit.
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Changing the NPA will require real solutions and ideas to manage the city’s $10 million indebtedness on the parking garages and other assets. The city is obliged to pay $1 million a year on this debt for the next 15 years or so. It will require absorbtion of all or some portion of the $4 million in annual expense to operate the system if you are going to give free parking. That will mean property tax increases on citizens who may or may not frequent SONO.
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Currently tax payers do not have any direct burden or obligation and these have been adequately managed by the NPA for the last six years. During which time, I saw two of the aforementioned show up to meetings only once to find out what was going on. The NPA is making good progress and is always striving to improve itself. It can always use positive feedback from active participants, but arm chair quarterbacking brings very little value and hope and change is not a strategy.

Casey Smith September 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Speaking of the railroad trestle by the Maritime, it would be really nice if the new paving had extended underneath the trestle so one can actually drive under it without wrestling with pot holes and uneven asphalt. I know that slows cars down and prevents speeding, but it also speaks of poor maintenance.

anon September 22, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Good idea. Signage is good but the railroad trestle does have a last century charm that shouldn’t be totally obscured.

Dawn September 23, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Why go to New York for an artist or anything.
Doesn’t Norwalk have and artist who could do the murals.
I should not have to say it but….
KEEP IT LOCAL PEOPLE!!!!!

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