Wildflower meadow is a gift to Norwalk, should be an example

By Mike Mushak, Tulip Tree Design

NORWALK, Conn. – This is an open letter to the Common Council, Mayor Moccia and other city officials.

You will all be happy to know, I’m sure, that I spent yesterday with my crew, trimming the temporary “wildflower” traffic medians on West Avenue between Mathews Park and Walgreen’s, and picking up the weeks of accumulated trash.

This follows on the heels of a letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Hour (copied below) complaining about them. I do not know the writer; I agree with him that the medians looked poor at times, but no taxpayer funds were spent on the wildflowers or maintenance of these beds since they were installed. It is all work that has been donated by me over the last two years to fill the vacuum as the city has not installed permanent landscaping since the medians were built.

Of course, I did expect the city to occasionally pick up trash, but that never happened. I did it as often as I could, usually every few weeks.

The excellent plans presented last week by Redevelopment to install permanent trees, shrubs, and ground covers on these islands is a positive step. I support those plans, and will gladly see the meadow replaced with these new plantings. However, maintenance will need to be intense, and scheduled weekly, in order for them to function as effective symbols of Norwalk’s renaissance, and to help increase our tax base by attracting new residents and businesses.

This wildflower meadow on West Avenue was installed by Mike Mushak at no cost to the city of Norwalk. Mushak also does maintenance on the bed. (Contributed photo)

The temporary meadows were meant as an artistic expression of nature in the city, and reflects SoNo’s artistic and “green” vibe. I live and work in SoNo, and have spent 10 years donating gardens and landscapes to the city, at my own cost, including numerous adopt-a-spots – at the gateways of Exit 14 northbound, at the corner of Cedar and Connecticut Avenue (currently dismantled for highway widening), MLK and Washington (the Civil War Statue), many of the gardens of Mathews Park (including surrounding the Lockwood Mathews Museum and Contemporary Printmaking), and restoration efforts at city-owned cemeteries including Pine Island and Mill Hill. I have also, over many years with Hal Alvord’s help and support through the Tree Advisory Committee, helped locate and plant over 75 new city-funded street trees in SoNo. See the community page on my website at http://tuliptreesitedesign.com/index.html for other work.

I do agree with Mr. Willis that some of the wildflowers failed to produce, although only on the median in front of 95/7. That was due to an unusual 6-week dry period last spring soon after sowing, which killed off the seedlings: He’s absolutely right, it was a failure, and it looked bad for several months last summer. I apologize to everyone in the city for having misjudged the normal wet spring weather pattern last year. In fact, no season is typical anymore, and the extreme weather certainly is creating many burdens for everyone, including most recently with Sandy.

The “do not mow” sign on that 95/7 median was removed months ago, and I trimmed that island at that time, and did again yesterday.

The other median between the bridges closer to Exit 15 and Mathews Park did get established quite well, as it was sown a season earlier, and was enjoyed by many last year. In contrast to Mr. Willis’s letter – in which he said not a single bouquet could have been created from the flowers – the photos will show that indeed, not just one bouquet, but thousands could have been created with the abundant flowers that grew in that island all spring, summer, and fall of this year. It is a native New England meadow, and although I agree it looks weedy at times, it does flush in and out of periods of intense bloom, as all natural meadows do.

I was at a charity event in New Canaan last summer, and someone who lives there mentioned the beautiful wildflowers in the West Avenue median. They had noticed when they went to Stepping Stones, and “what a great idea that was, and how progressive Norwalk was!” I fessed up as the guilty party, and explained how I had been studying and planting natural landscapes for most of my 30-year career as landscape architect on large projects from coast to coast, first as a landscape architect with one of the largest engineering firms in the country, and then on my own for the last 20 years. I also explained how I had spent time at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and that this median was just an expression of that philosophy that has spread around the world from her efforts beautifying the highways of Texas and then the entire United States.

Connecticut is still catching up (as I found out by discussing things with CDOT), but neighboring New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all have progressive-minded DOTs that promote lower maintenance wildflower plantings along the highways and in the medians. You can see them as you drive through those states.

Other changes along that stretch of West Avenue were approved by the Common Council in March as part of the $200K Connectivity Study, although news that they have been altered for the worse by some city staff by eliminating the approved dedicated bike lanes in exchange for more car traffic is certainly not welcome news. Many design professionals and community activists (including me) in Norwalk support “Complete Streets” and livable cities, and understand and are witnessing the many efforts in the surrounding cities here in Connecticut and around the country to attract the 18- to 34-year old demographic (as well as retirees and empty nesters). These people want to live somewhere that they do not have to use their car or even own one. There are also creative business and arts establishments who seek out vibrant bike- and pedestrian-friendly urban environments.

It is a matter of economic survival for Norwalk as well as a quality-of-life issue for our residents and businesses. It is time to listen to the national experts who the taxpayers are paying dearly for (including an intense public process where any stakeholder can participate), and yet who are repeatedly ignored by some important decision-makers in City Hall.

We run the risk of building thousands of new apartment units and commercial spaces in the next few years where no one may want to live or work, similar to how the Wall Street area has failed as a downtown because of decades of poor planning decisions (and hundreds of millions of taxpayer investment).

We would be fools to repeat those failures, and build our way into an urban ghost town as we have already proven we can do. Choosing sharrows over dedicated bike lanes, and a dangerous suburban 4-lane speedway over the recommended and approved slower and safer 3-lane urban Complete Streets solution (center shared turning lane) is an easy cop-out and a very bad decision for West Avenue. Stay tuned for more intense debate on that subject soon.

Thank you for your time, and enjoy the photos of the wildflowers I sent along. I hope they are a symbol of an exciting and vibrant street life returning to Norwalk once again along West Avenue with all of the new improvements.

Mike Mushak


This is the letter to the Hour on Dec. 4, 2012 (which I found more truthful than offensive, and short on facts):

To the Editor:

In a recent article printed on Dec. 2, 2012 concerning beautifying West Ave here are my thoughts specifically on the “Wild Flowers” and the sign that states “Do Not Mow”.

I don’t know who is responsible for this but it is not at all attractive no matter how you look at it and in no way represents beauty. Last year it looked like no more than a bunch of weeds and my thoughts were that this year would be better after all of the flowers were in full bloom. Well next year has come and is almost gone and it is still nothing but weeds! There are not enough flowers to make one bouquet in the entire stretch!!

I travel West Ave frequently and this unsightly display deeply disturbs me. As far as the sign that states Do Not Mow, I say bring in the mowers and get rid of this atrocity and waste no more tax payers money. If this is the Gateway into South Norwalk, we can do better than this.

Vasco Willis



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