Updated, 8:37 p.m., Comment from David Westmoreland clarifying the Historical Commission’s proposal for Crescent Street.
NORWALK, Conn. — There are now dueling traffic studies for The SoNo Collection.
While a traffic engineering company hired by the Norwalk Zoning Commission largely agrees with the traffic study done by General Growth Properties (GGP), making a few recommendations for additional improvements, traffic engineers in the service of Belpointe Capital are pushing to halve the truck traffic coming toward Waypointe and make road alterations that will, they say, make things move more smoothly, and return Crescent Street to the ownership of the city.
A document prepared by the Belpointe crew is “extremely misleading and inappropriate,” said John Plante of Langan Engineering, in the service of GGP, at last week’s Zoning Commission public hearing, in response.
Meanwhile, Zoning’s traffic analyst, WSP/Parsons Brinkerhoff, is making a number of suggestions.
Most are acceptable to GGP, Vahid Karimi and Stewart Gordon of Parsons Brinkerhoff said. That includes a traffic light at Reed Street and Cedar, which is now part of GGP’s application to Zoning, a transportation management plan and a traffic study six months after The SoNo Collection opens, Gordon said.
But additional guide signs on West Avenue and painted markings on the road are “under discussion,” as is the construction of a sidewalk on Reed Street between Cedar Street and West Avenue Karimi said.
GGP is sending some of its traffic up Reed Street, as northbound drivers exit Interstate 95 at exit 14. There is no sidewalk on Reed Street after Cedar Street, just a dirt path next to the road.
“The reason for having the discussion is to have the connectivity with the neighborhood. There is sidewalk between Cedar and Fairfield,” Karimi said.
Last item “under discussion” is battery backups for the traffic signal systems at two intersections in the general area, Karimi said. There are already battery backups at most of the signals, to make sure they run in the event of an emergency but Parsons Brinkerhoff is suggesting that two more get battery backups, he said.
Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank said those items could be made a condition of approval for GGP.
Commissioner Nate Sumpter went in another direction, asking questions about the traffic timing at Martin Luther King Drive and North Main Street where, he said, it seems like North Main drivers queue up while the MLK cars soar on.
“Today the West Avenue corridor, starting actually from MLK all the way up to Wall Street, is under a traffic coordination pattern,” Karami said.
There are traffic zones that release vehicles to other locations and five timing plans, including those pitched for peak hours and one for Saturdays, he said.
The plan is to change the system from “traffic responsive to traffic adaptive,” he said.
More plainly, “You basically adapt the timing of those traffic lights to the volume of traffic,” he said.
“When you have a rush of traffic coming from the interstate highway system, the traffic signal will be able to react to that, and give more green time,” Karami said. “… Having said that, a lot of the traffic signals on West Avenue and North Main Street or MLK will be impacted by, positively impacted, obviously, by implementing this technology. As you know, the city over the past 10 years has invested a lot of technology into the traffic signal system. Right now, the traffic operations center we have in the city is capable of monitoring, I would say, probably two thirds of the signals in the city… We are trying to advance it to the next phase of making it more of an adaptive system.”
“I have lived in Norwalk for more than 30 years,” Sumpter said. “It sounds good, what you are saying, but I haven’t seen it happen.”
Norwalk wants to stay Norwalk, but one thing it could take from New York City is the way cars move from one light to another without much trouble, Sumpter said.
“Yes,” Kamiri said. “The coordination from signal to signal is going to be an important part of this project.”
Coordination on what used to be Crescent Street was more of a concern to Belpointe Attorney John Knuff, who said he has only been involved in the matter for a day or so.
Belpointe developer Paxton Kinol could not make it, nor could Kinol’s traffic engineers, of Milone & MacBroom, Knuff said.
“My client has in the past and continues to support the approval of the SoNo Collection,” Knuff said, before criticizing GGP’s current plan for a one-lane service road behind the mall to connect to Crescent Street.
“Right now, under the proposed conditions, all traffic that will be traveling to and from central Norwalk and South Norwalk will have to travel on West Avenue. It seems to us that we are missing an opportunity to augment that connectivity, not only for pedestrians but also for vehicles, by utilizing Crescent and North Service leading to North Water Street,” Knuff said.
Crescent Street is the topic of much conversation. The city gave it to Spinnaker Real Estate Partners Years ago in hopes of getting the 95/7 development off the ground, but Spinnaker sold its land to GGP in 2013 without ever developing anything on the site except a ground-breaking timed for an election.
GGP has planned its loading docks for the back end of the mall, with truck traffic using what it calls the North Service Road. Five to six tractor trailers are expected per week, with 60 smaller trucks, like those used by UPS.
Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland, saying he is deeply concerned about the loss of Crescent Street as an alternative to West Avenue in an emergency, has negotiated a possible deal with GGP, making the road two-way and giving the public access to the back end of the mall. Unfortunately, the Pine Island Cemetery is a factor, as this would involve possibly paving over unmarked graves or having them carefully exhumed by a state archaeologist.
This arrangement has not been approved by the Historical Commission, and the plan before Zoning is for Crescent Street to be one-way at the cemetery with no public access beyond the city-owned part of Crescent.
GGP Senior Planner Doug Adams, at a recent Historical Commission meeting, said GGP is open to making its North Service Road open to the public for two-way traffic, but DPW objects to allowing cars to exit onto North Water Street. The sight line is not good for a left turn onto North Water, he said.
Therefore, Westmoreland had agreed to a proposal for consideration, with a two-way road leading to a mall entrance, saying that South Norwalk could still use the road as an exit road during an emergency, and Norwalkers would have a back entrance to the mall.
“Cars leaving South Norwalk on North Water headed towards West Ave, will be able to turn right onto Crescent Street and go north to Butler,” Westmoreland wrote in a Tuesday email. “Additionally, because they are going to now put in a four way stop at Crescent and North Water, DPW may allow cars to go all the way south on Crescent, past the proposed garage entrance, to North Water and turn right or left onto North Water, making Crescent fully two way between Butler and North Water.”
While GGP was planning to have trucks enter its mall from Butler Street – where Waypointe is – the Department of Public Works recently came up with another scenario, where trucks would enter the mall via North Water Street and exit via Butler, in what has been referred to as a loop.
“Frankly to us it seems to make more sense for them to leave via North Water Street and then come in on Butler,” Knuff said. “We have heard testimony that the reason for that is because of the turning radii. Frankly, we haven’t had the opportunity to examine what the turning radii are that lead to that movement, Again, we think it makes more sense for them to reverse that course of action, nevertheless we are appreciative that they have agreed to split the truck trips, ins and outs, between North Water Street and Butler Street.”
If the trucks instead use the loop idea, “Now you are going to have trucks sitting, frankly, in front of my client’s development on Butler, waiting to make a left onto West Avenue. So it seems appropriate that an additional lane would be created and this is our second request,” Knuff said.
This is explained in a letter Knuff wrote to the Commission:
“GGP should acquire an easement for and construct a second left turn lane off of Butler Street onto West Avenue. My clients are willing to assist GGP and the city in negotiating with the owner of the land on the north side of Butler Street for such an easement or property acquisition… the portion of the Mall ring road located on the east side of the Mall and identified as ‘North Service Drive (Private)’ as well as the entirety of Crescent Street from the Mall to Butler Street be made a public street.”
Plante, on GGP’s behalf, took exception to much of this.
“When Waypointe was conceived and approved their traffic analysis included 95/7,” he said. “This site was developed with similar square footage, etc., and that was accounted for and understood to be in and around when Waypointe was conceived and approved.”
Multiple traffic analysts have said that the Butler Street intersection is operating at an acceptable level, and will continue to do so, he said.
Not only that, but a chart prepared by Milone & MacBroom for Belpointe showing the number of vehicles coming and going from the proposed mall is “extremely misleading and inappropriate,” Plante said.
The trip generation document calculates traffic from GGP’s two parcels as separate entities, rather than combining them into one mall. Plante said that was not done according to traffic industry standards, which he said call for merging the properties into one shopping center.
The traffic analyses by Zoning’s reviewer, Parsons Brinkerhoff, the Redevelopment Agency’s traffic reviewer and the Connecticut Department of Transportation all used the industry standard, he said, calling Waypointe’s trip generation document a “very inappropriate” report that created an “unrealistically high trip generation.”
The Zoning Commission is continuing its review of GGP’s application to build The SoNo Collection, with its next hearing date scheduled for May 18. GGP has said is needs Zoning approval in May to reach its planned October 2018 opening.