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West Side Vs. Mill River park Debate spills over into public

August 27, 2018

STAMFORD - It’s the feet vs. wheels debate, and it will go another round Tuesday night — this time with residents weighing in.

All are invited to speak at a public hearing on planned repairs for the historic, but crumbling, West Main Street bridge - whether it should remain pedestrian-only as it has been for 16 years, or be shored up to again take cars over the Mill River.

On the feet-only side is the Mill River Collaborative, the nonprofit group that is remaking Mill River Park into a downtown greenway. The collaborative says car traffic over the bridge in the park will divide the greenway in two and ruin the natural oasis.

On the feet-and-wheels side are West Side residents and shop owners who say having a bridge for cars will open up their neighborhood to business and better link it to the thriving downtown.

The issue before the Board of Representatives is whether they should approve a $2 million contract with Wengell, McDonnell & Costello, a firm that has worked with city engineers for years to keep the 130-year-old bridge standing.

For that reason, and because WMC agreed to start work next summer - lessening the risk that a storm will wash the bridge away — city officials decided not to put the project out to bid. Another reason is that the collaborative, using a $2 million state grant it was awarded for park renovations, will pay for the work.

But the fast-tracked contract has problems, West Side resident Bonnie Kim Campbell said.

“There are many inconsistencies in it,” Campbell said. “The contract needs to be gone over and all the stakeholders have to be involved in the discussion. My hope is that the contract will fail and the city will start over and have honest discussions about seeking monies to fix that bridge for vehicles.”

Campbell said it can be rebuilt with separate lanes for biking and walking, which it had before the state Department of Transportation closed it to cars in 2002 for safety reasons.

Nick Samela, owner of Samela’s Barber Shop, a West Side business started by his father 60 years ago, said the bridge is a function of a larger problem.

“The bridge used to be part of Route 1, the part the city closed when they built Tresser Boulevard,” Samela said. “Route 1 is the Post Road, which goes from Maine to Florida, and Stamford cut it off. Let’s get Route 1 back on the map in Stamford. Let’s get the traffic flow going again.”

Colonists first built a bridge on that spot in the 1600s. The little metal bridge with decorative trusses, only 125 feet long, was built in 1888. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has been failing at an increasing rate for 20 years.

City engineers and Mayor David Martin’s administration have decided that accepting the collaborative’s $2 million and rebuilding the bridge quickly just for pedestrians is the best move.

Trio of plans

In an Aug. 22 memo to representatives, City Engineer Lou Casolo explained three possibilities for fixing the bridge. Both pedestrian-only plans would accommodate ambulances and police cars.

The original pedestrian-only plan is funded in part by two federal grants overseen by the state DOT, but would require city funding and a number of approvals. The earliest work could begin is 2021, Casolo wrote.

The work would include rehabilitating the bridge, center supports, abutments and walls, and moving the sidewalk and iron fence. It would preserve the historic trusses, but “this plan is no longer being advanced,” Casolo wrote, because the bridge supports are too far gone.

The second pedestrian-only plan relies solely on the collaborative’s $2 million, and is not subject to DOT approvals, so work could begin next year, Casolo wrote. Though the scope of work is smaller than the original plan, the historical elements would be preserved.

The third plan is for a vehicular bridge. It would require street realignment, which would change the length of the bridge and may make it impossible to preserve historic elements, Casolo wrote.

“Currently no funds have been secured for this option and a completion timeline is not available other than to say it will exceed that of the first and second plans … and certainly cost considerably more,” Casolo wrote.

The state likely would reimburse the city no more than 50 percent of the cost, estimated at $6 million to $8 million, Casolo wrote. To get that funding the city would have to reapply to the state, so he cannot estimate a start date, Casolo wrote. “Given the financial issues at the state, there is always some uncertainty regarding future reimbursement for capital projects,” he wrote - a reference to the ongoing budget crisis in Hartford.

It’s possible the DOT would consider emergency funding for the work, but that “is extremely unlikely to be successful” because it has been closed to cars for 16 years and traffic patterns are well established, Casolo wrote. Another reason is that other bridges cross the river close by - one on Tresser Boulevard and another on Broad Street.

Pluses and minuses

In an Aug. 6 memo, Transportation Bureau Chief Jim Travers provided representatives a list of pro’s and con’s for a vehicular bridge.

The pros include better access to Stillwater Avenue from downtown; a “community belief” that it will help businesses and increase jobs; and that it would spur “property owners to improve housing … make the West Side more desirable for developers, and attract new residents,” Travers wrote.

The cons include a more difficult walk to downtown because a vehicular bridge would create a five-way intersection; more traffic congestion on Smith Street, Stillwater Avenue and feeder streets; increased auto emissions and noise; and that it would eliminate “the longest section of uninterrupted pedestrian trail in downtown and dramatically change the character of Mill River Park by creating two sections” near the playground, putting children at risk, Travers wrote.

The public hearing before the board’s Operations Committee begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in legislative chambers, fourth floor, Stamford Government Center, 888 Washington Blvd.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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