Study focuses on Norwalk’s waterfront; public input wanted

Screenshot of a digital mapping survey posted by Utile.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Zoning department’s call for feedback about Norwalk’s waterfront has inspired robust criticisms and commentary.

Veterans Park needs an “all glass” restaurant, with a nearby boardwalk and chairs, one respondent said recently, echoing a trend depicting the park as underutilized. Another suggested the City could buy O&G property on Smith Street and turn it into a waterfront park. Many Norwalkers asked that the City complete the Harbor Loop Trail and improve the Norwalk River Valley Trail.

As for complaints, Wall Street area parking and sidewalks inspired a few. One respondent called Liberty Square shops “an embarrassment as a first blush from South Norwalk into East Norwalk.” Dogs have been disallowed in Oyster Shell Park, another said.

All have rolled in over the last month via the Norwalk Industrial Waterfront Land Use Study’s community mapping page. The results will help Utile, a Boston-based consulting firm, come up with new Zoning recommendations for Norwalk by developing “a balanced vision for the waterfront that has broad support, that isn’t just representing one stakeholder group or one vision,” Zoe Mueller, Utile’s project manager, explained to the study steering committee recently.

Utile began work here in 2020 as the winner of a $100,000 contract to conduct an industrial zones study. The waterfront area was broken out for separate scrutiny, so while the larger study has already produced recommendations, this one has just gotten underway.

“We’re mostly looking at the (areas) from the water’s edge to approximately the first public road in most cases,” Mueller said Nov. 16.

Ahead of the online mapping tool and other outreach efforts, Utile had already dipped into the pool of Norwalk opinions.

“Water quality and flood resiliency came up in just about every conversation we had,” Mueller said. “… Some of the specific things that came up was frequent flooding at high tide in the Water Street area.”

Utile has heard a desire for development guidelines to mitigate stormwater runoff and inspire best practices, and also “a desire for improved recreation hospitality network, in support of the marine commercial that exists already,” she said. This means “thinking about improved connections between the boating community and the sort of landside amenities that might support them,” trails and streetscapes to encourage pedestrian activities and “just create enjoyable and connected experience for visitors and local users alike.”

Also, “there’s sort of a an inherent disconnect between the east side and west side of the river. And so thinking about, are there any ways that we can sort of provide more fluidity between those the sort of the things that exist on either side of the river?”

Utile has also gotten an earful about “pinch points in the street network,” Mueller said. The firms analysts think “the waste transfer station and Public Works are both at capacity and either need to expand or sort of have some level of sort of reconfiguration within their internal sites to better optimize the space that they do have.”

While moving the wastewater treatment site is possible, “they are open to ways of incorporating public access, resiliency and waterfront boating amenities, as it’s sort of as long as it’s not interrupting their operation,” she said.

Dredging is also a topic, as “this is a very heavily used river … having easy access to the water is important,” she said. “…it has a significant financial cost, it has potential impacts for the oystering sort of industry. So this is, this is not an easy issue necessarily to get right.”

She said, “There’s a lot of speculation” about possible uses for Walk Bridge staging areas once the construction is done, and “there’s been a lot of discussion about sort of the tension between local versus regional economic impact.”

“There’s a lot of people who, you know, were very clearly anxious about whether we were proposing broad changes to the waterfront and wanted to see a clear commitment to preserving what’s here,” she said. “There were also people who really wanted to see, you know, a slightly different sort of celebration of the waterfront, something that sort of brings a more sort of visitor friendly character… so far our sense is that these things aren’t necessarily in conflict.”

It’s come through “pretty loud and clear” that folks think there’s a high demand for the services offered on Water Street and some property owners would like a “little bit more flexibility to sort of develop complementary aspects” to their businesses. That might be a small sandwich shop for their customers.

“It’s not that we are thinking about a dramatic sort of wholesale revisioning of that area of Norwalk, but more so thinking about are there ways in which the current zoning is limiting the businesses that are there, from developing a sort of a more vibrant version of what they’re already doing,” Mueller said.

Norwalk Harbor Management Commission Chairman John Romano offered feedback.

“Those areas should be expanded into more marine use, because I think a lot of the property owners, whether they bought it 20-30 years ago or inherited it … they’re looking for an exit strategy. So they they’ve been kind of remiss in the development of the existing properties to such as they are today,” he said, referring to owners “stalling” as they wait for “a big pay day.”

“I think you’re making a really good point, which is ‘are there regulatory tools through zoning … that would encourage these complimentary uses, but without creating the development value payday, that would incentivize all those owners to cash out and get out of there?’” Tim Love of Utile said.

He said, “policy, including land use policy, is what cities do to keep the market from doing what it actually wants to do.”

Utile expects to have its first public meeting in January, Mueller said. There are “physical boards in City Hall as well as some of the libraries and senior centers,” encouraging feedback.

The firm has reached out to neighborhood associations, church groups and community-focused nonprofits, Norwalk Senior Planner Laura Kenny said. The survey has also been advertised on social media.

On Nov. 18, Kenny said the digital mapping page had generated “62 comments from 30 different stakeholders. A total of 679 individuals had viewed the map, and the map had been viewed 1,812 times (so it’s likely a few of the users viewed the map more than once).”

At that point, a comment stating, ““The Maritime Aquarium should provide public access to the waterfront in the form of a boardwalk,” had 38 likes and no dislikes.

More recently, a respondent garnered 35 likes by writing, “The ‘oil’ barrels that were sunk {in the river} many years ago should be removed.”

An inaccessible plot of land adjacent to Wall Street where it passes over the Norwalk River “should connect under the bridge to the Freese park,” one writer said. “It should also connect to the Harbor Look Trail, especially since there is a bridge behind 3-5 Wall Street that should not be fenced off since CT State code says that a private property owner can not own the air rights over water. Klondike park should be landscaped and maintained.”

That comment got 24 likes.

A writer has a scant five likes with an assertion that Head of the Harbor South is too close to the water’s edge.

“The EPA recommends a minimum of 100 foot setback. In order to help improve water quality in the Harbor (remember the inner Harbor got an “F” on water quality from Save the Sound last year) we need to restore the shoreline where we can. New construction should be set back 100 feet minimum from the water and be required to restore a living shoreline,” the writer said.

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said the study has already inspired “good discussion.”

“I think it’s going to be a a good exercise because, for myself, I’m learning a lot about the businesses and the interactions of the different users in the harbor,” he said. “So I think, who knows, there may not be like a ‘aha’ moment in the plan. But I think it’s going to be a very informative plan on how this actually functions within the city.”

Correction, 5 a.m. Friday: Laura Kenny is a City employee.


John O'Neill November 30, 2021 at 9:35 am

Before we discuss Waterfront let’s discuss potential zoning disaster on Richards Avenue in West Norwalk — Someone is looking to build an 18,000
square foot building on a 1 acre lot in a residential neighborhood. Over the past 10 years our elected leaders seem to be more interested in planting trees than tightening up zoning laws. We have no one but ourselves to blame. After all, we elected these enlightened (but not in my backyard) people. We need to be smarter BEFORE election day.

George November 30, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Why would anyone develop anything under the height of the hospital?

Think about all the flooded properties from the raising seas. The beach and Vets Park are under water and homes on Pine Hill now have boat docks.

I’ve been reading about this for 20 years. The massive flooding of properties should happen any day now. Come on Climate Change,do your thing.

Shari Brennan December 1, 2021 at 2:40 am

An all glass restaurant? Hope person that suggested this was joking. Park should be utilized as a park and open space. A place to play ball, boat or relax along the water. Excess development would also disturb the waterfowl and marsh. The last thing we need is another restaurant in the area. SONO is fortunate to have a beautiful open area, such as Vets Park.

Jeff DeWitt December 2, 2021 at 6:36 am

The answer could lie in the name – Veterans. The City of Norwalk is funding a monument to honor all Norwalk residents who are recipients of the Purple Heart Medal. That monument will be unveiled in Spring 2022. More projects like that are in the concept stage. The brick sidewalk that starts on Seaview Avenue near the sculpture “Denial of War” is a perfect setting to honor those from Norwalk who served in all wars. Another possibility could be a “Norwalk Military Museum” in the park. Norwalk has a long history of military service going all the way back to “The Battle of the Rocks”. A professionally curated museum that honors that history would be a great asset for the city and its residents.

Jeff DeWitt
Chairman, Advisory-Military & Veterans Liaison Committee
City of Norwalk

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