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Sustainable Streets lauds reponses to candidate Q&A

Letters to the editor. Send signed letters to Nancy@NancyOnNorwalk.com with a suggested headline.

In the upcoming election, growth is the #1 issue. People differ on what kind of growth they want to see, or how much, but everyone agrees we need to manage our growth intelligently.

Our group – Sustainable Streets Norwalk – was founded on the idea that Norwalk can continue to grow while ensuring environmental, societal, and fiscal sustainability by becoming less reliant on driving as a means of transportation. We work toward this future by advocating for walkability, bicycle transportation, public transportation, zoning reform, and urban greenery.

This year, we sent a questionnaire to each candidate for Mayor and Common Council to understand their stances on the issues we advocate for. We were impressed by the number of responses and the effort the candidates put into their answers. You can read the entire set of responses on our website; here we will highlight the answers and candidates that most align with our perspective on each issue.

Walkability

What strategies should the City employ to make Norwalk more walkable?

Perhaps the most obvious element of walkability is sidewalks – and you don’t have to look very far to find places in Norwalk that are missing a sidewalk. In his response, Mayor Harry Rilling pointed out that sidewalks “promote a healthier lifestyle through mobility and provide community connectivity, allowing neighbors to interact and engage with each other more easily, fostering a sense of unity and social cohesion.”

We credit Mayor Rilling and the current Common Council for their commitment to building sidewalks. in 2022, the City built almost eight miles of new sidewalk – the average in previous years was less than half that much. Additionally, under their leadership, the City’s department of Transportation, Mobility, and Parking (TMP) is working toward a citywide plan for “Complete Streets” – streets that accommodate all users, including pedestrians. We believe that pursuing Complete Streets will be foundational to Norwalk’s progress toward a more sustainable city.

Walkability also requires safe streets – and safe streets require good street design, widespread awareness, and consistent enforcement. We recognize Johan Lopez, who had the most comprehensive set of solutions to street safety: traffic calming, well-marked & well-lit crosswalks, vehicle speed awareness campaigns, and automatic red light enforcement.

Honorable mention goes to Jalin Sead, who pointed out an insightful connection between walkability and affordability: if you work in Norwalk but can’t afford to live here, you can’t walk to work. Read on to hear more about housing costs and what to do about them.

Bicycle Transportation

Do you ride a bicycle in Norwalk? Where do you most commonly ride?

Several candidates reported that they ride a bicycle in Norwalk, but only two that regularly ride for transportation: John Levin and Heather Dunn. John uses his bike to get virtually anywhere in town: gyms, bars, restaurants, meetings, tag sales, grocery stores. Heather commutes some days on her bike from Silvermine to her job at Norwalk High School – not a trivial journey! Melissa Murray also mentioned using her bike for transportation – she keeps a shopping basket on the back of her bike.

We don’t expect everyone in Norwalk to ride a bike for transportation – many of our streets are simply not safe enough for it yet. However, bicycles are an important part of a sustainable city, and having elected officials who regularly ride makes a huge difference when it comes to understanding the needs of cyclists in Norwalk and funding needed improvements to bicycle infrastructure.

Public Transportation

Do you take the bus in Norwalk? If so, when and where was the last time you did?

The humble bus is the workhorse of a car-light city. In order to build towards a sustainable future, it’s critical that our elected officials are familiar with Norwalk’s bus system – and to become familiar, there’s no substitute for actually riding the bus. Regrettably, only one of our twenty-six respondents reported that they regularly ride the bus in Norwalk: Erik Vitaglione, who uses it to commute from his home in East Norwalk to his job on Wall Street.

Greg Burnett and Melissa Murray reported having recently used the fixed-route Wheels bus and the on-demand Wheels2U service, respectively. Several other candidates did say they used it years ago, especially the ones who grew up in Norwalk. We also recognize Melissa Murray and Johan Lopez, who recently attended the Norwalk Transit District’s Passenger Advisory Commission meeting with us – and rode the Wheels 11 bus to get there!

We invite all current and prospective elected officials to try riding the bus more often. We’d love to help – if you want a ride-along buddy, email us at [email protected] and we’ll find a time to ride the bus with you!

What do you think the role of public transit should be in Norwalk?

Many candidates mentioned the role transit plays in providing mobility to residents with low incomes or no car, as well its role as an environmentally-friendly alternative to driving. Both of these are true and important – but we think transit has a bigger role to play in a sustainable Norwalk.

New development can bring increased economic opportunity and tax revenue to Norwalk. However, planning new development around driving induces more traffic on our already-congested streets. Car-oriented development also erodes that economic value – parking garages are expensive to build, take up valuable urban space, and bring in little to no tax revenue.

Public transit enables better alternatives: 1) plan development around transit and 2) invest in transit that serves existing and future development. If we can get our long-term plans for public transit and real estate development to work together, we can get the benefits of development without the downsides of more cars. This will bring more economic value, improve environmental sustainability, stave off worsening traffic, and improve mobility for residents with the least means – all at the same time.

Some of our candidates share this vision for a more transit-oriented future: Johan Lopez called out “investments in transit-oriented development” in his response. Melissa Murray made the important point that transit should be “more convenient for people to use than driving their cars.”  Jay Parisi suggested the idea of a Wall Street train station on the Danbury line. ConnDOT recently published a feasibility study that found lots of issues with it, but we have some ideas about how those issues can be addressed – stay tuned for more!

Streets

What should the City of Norwalk do to address traffic congestion?

Traffic congestion, at its core, is a geometry problem – when a road has more cars than it has space for, you get congestion. Thus, solutions that attempt to move cars more efficiently are not solving the core problem. Adding lanes to a road solves the geometry problem but creates a new one – as soon as the congestion dissipates, people who previously avoided driving decide to do so, adding cars back to the road and ultimately bringing back the congestion.

The only way to fundamentally solve traffic congestion is to address the demand side of the equation – why do so many of us want to put our cars on the same road at the same time? The answer lies in our land use patterns. Many of us have to leave our neighborhoods to run basic errands, which means driving to a shopping strip like Route 1 or Main Ave. When destinations like that are clustered onto a handful of roads away from where people live or work, it manufactures congestion.

The solution is to put destinations closer to where we live. Imagine neighborhood grocery stores, neighborhood schools, neighborhood cafes, neighborhood salons and barber shops and pharmacies and restaurants. Jenn McMurrer and Melissa Murray both mentioned this in their responses. Jenn said, “Especially here in East Norwalk, adding more businesses and a grocery store that you can walk or bike to would help.” Melissa suggested we “develop neighborhood markets like Cranbury Market so residents don’t have to leave their neighborhood for essentials.” In his response to the following question, Dajuan Wiggins also mentioned a grocery store on South Main Street – a neighborhood that would greatly benefit from one.

We also want to highlight Nora Niedzielski-Eichner and John Levin, who both mentioned kids getting to school. In Nora’s words, we should “encourage parents to let kids ride the bus or walk rather than getting dropped off. Fewer cars, healthy development of independence for kids.” Well said!

If you could redesign one street in Norwalk, which one would it be and how would you change it?

In responses from candidates, East Avenue was by far the most common answer. Respondents pointed out how it has lots of speeding, requires changing lanes often, gets backed up easily, and is not friendly to people walking or biking. A few candidates pointed out that both the City and the State are working on it, which is true; for example, in the 2023 capital budget, TMP was awarded $300K to study & redesign the section north of I-95. Based on the candidates’ responses, it seems we aren’t alone in hoping to see that project prioritized in the coming months.

When complete, TMP’s Complete Streets plan will guide City agencies in redesigning streets all around town. The Seaview Avenue project is the first one to come out of this initiative, and we’re excited about the concept – it includes a stretch of the Norwalk River Valley Trail (NRVT) running along Seaview in front of Veteran’s Park all the way to First Street.

If you want to lend your opinion on Complete Streets designs, TMP is running a survey right now – it asks about redesigns for West Ave and MLK Blvd and closes November 15th.

Redesigning and rebuilding streets is expensive – how would you ensure we can pay for solutions like the one you describe?

Many candidates correctly pointed out that much of the funding for infrastructure projects comes from state and federal sources. We want to highlight Nora Niedzielski-Eichner and Jenn McMurrer who both pointed out the necessity of having shovel-ready projects when applying for grants.

In order to have shovel-ready projects, though, we need qualified people to do the planning & design. For a variety of reasons (iteration speed, long-term cost savings, increased institutional knowledge), we’d like to see more of this work done in-house – but good employees aren’t cheap, and it’s tough to pay City employees with grant money. Thus, part of the infrastructure equation involves local funding – i.e., tax revenue.

In that light, we applaud Nora who mentioned “prioritiz[ing] projects that provide a return on our investment through increased tax revenues.” Honorable mention goes to Lisa Shanahan, who suggested earmarking all parking fees to go to transit and Complete Streets – great idea Lisa!

Land Use & Development

Housing – both buying and renting – has become dramatically more expensive in recent years. What should the City of Norwalk do to address high housing costs?

As John Levin and Josh Goldstein pointed out in their answers, high housing costs are a product of supply and demand in the market. Many candidates mentioned “affordable housing,” a term that can mean many things. It often refers to voucher-subsidized renters or income-restricted housing, which can come through so-called “inclusionary zoning.” Both of these address the demand side of the equation. However, these solutions have the effect of driving up the cost of other housing on the market. We believe that more needs to be done to address the supply side, in order to put downward pressure on the entire market. In Josh’s words, “Everyone should be able to afford to live and work in Norwalk.”

How do we address the low supply of housing? A few candidates pointed out that this is a regional issue, not just a Norwalk issue. While this is correct, we don’t believe it means we should do nothing at the local level. Josh Goldstein insightfully noted that “smart transit-oriented development is one way to do it, but we need to push a lot of levers, not just one.” John Levin pointed out a few other levers for adding supply: relax constraints on ADUs in residential areas, allow for more high-rise construction in the urban core, and reduce or waive parking requirements for new construction. Extra credit to John for mentioning the Minneapolis 2040 plan as a model – it has been credited for making Minneapolis the first city where post-COVID inflation fell below 2%.

Additionally, we support “affordable housing” that addresses the supply side: public housing. While no candidate mentioned it explicitly, we would like to see the Norwalk Housing Authority take a more active role in constructing new housing in Norwalk.

What kind of development do you want to see more of in Norwalk? Where would you like to see it?

We recognize that planning and development decisions like this are overseen by the Planning & Zoning Commission, not the Common Council. However, the Common Council plays a role in appointing its members, as well as related decisions like funding City staff and infrastructure projects.

Many candidates had good ideas for new development; Jan Degenshein summed it up best: “Mixed-use development, mostly downtown and near train stations, where the density is greatest.”  Nora Niedzielski-Eichner mentioned “‘missing middle’ housing, including townhomes, duplexes and triplexes, ADUs, and low-rise apartment units.”

Urban Greenery

What should the City do to continue to create urban greenspace in Norwalk?

Acquiring land for parks & open space was a common answer – and we would like to see more of that. However, it’s an expensive and somewhat unpredictable strategy. Kudos to Jenn McMurrer for her work on a parks foundation, which she described in her response – that will help the City generate the funding needed to acquire parcels as they become available.

In the meantime, we can invest in greening up an often-overlooked part of our public realm – our streets. Street trees have an incredibly long list of benefits – they clean the air, absorb noise pollution, cool down our urban heat islands, slow down drivers, reduce road rage, foster walkability, mitigate flood risk by absorbing water, improve mental health of residents, and increase home and business values. As with anything, we have to get the details right – street trees that are poorly chosen, planted, or cared for can have negative effects like cracked sidewalks, streets cluttered with leaves and seeds, and exacerbated allergies. When done properly, though, street trees can provide many of the benefits of other greenspace without acquiring any new land.

We recognize Jan Degenshein for calling out street trees directly, as well as Lisa Shanahan, Barbara Smyth, and Jim Frayer for mentioning tree planting or the urban tree canopy.

Conclusion

We invite you to review the candidates’ responses in full as you make a plan to vote tomorrow.

Many thanks to the twenty-six candidates who responded to our questionnaire!

Sustainable Streets Norwalk

  • Tanner Thompson
  • Paul Fox
  • Ben Hanpeter
  • Emily Burnaman
  • Jack Pavia
  • Jeremy Leung
  • Anthony Lima

Comments

One response to “Sustainable Streets lauds reponses to candidate Q&A”

  1. David Muccigrosso

    One thing that kinda got left out: We should “Legalize Washington Street”.

    The plain fact is, it’s a combination of (1) illegal/extremely difficult and (2) not financially incentivized anymore to just build more buildings like there are on Washington Street: Mid-rise (3-5 floor) apartments of maybe only a few dozen units, with exclusively retail space at ground level. Buildings like where Match is.

    Instead, we build these big monstrosities with huge wrap-around parking lots, elevated entrances off the street, and they dedicate most of their ground-floor footprints to gaudy, unnecessary lobbies and amenities that EASILY could have gone on the second floor instead. Wherever they DO have retail space, it often sits vacant like at The Platform next to the SONO train station.

    This is no way to build a neighborhood.

    And there’s a reason why those buildings on Washington are mostly all still standing: BECAUSE IT WORKS, PEOPLE. It’s sustainable. It’s pleasant to live in. It’s not “too big to fail”. It doesn’t waste space. It produces wild amounts of tax revenue on net.

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