DOT wants to hear from rail riders on plan for Stamford station garage
STAMFORD — The last time the state Department of Transportation had a plan to rebuild the long-crumbling train station garage, things didn’t go well.
The agency partnered with private developers to plan a profit-making complex of office, residential, retail and hotel space on the garage site and move parking away from the station.
Train riders lambasted the idea, saying the DOT cared more about making money than serving the commuting public. That was 2013. By 2016, the development deal was dead.
Now - thanks to the state Bond Commission’s recent approval of $60 million for a new garage - another plan is forming. This time there is no need for it to be proprietary, as there was with the agency’s private partners five years ago, when commuters railed at being left out.
“There was never a deal with the other project, so we couldn’t have a public process,” said James Redeker, commissioner of the DOT. “We did not have a concept. We had nothing. Our plan was always to have an elaborate public process, but it never got to that.”
Not so now, Redeker said.
“The public will be part of the process,” he said. “That’s our commitment.”
He met with Mayor David Martin last week, and DOT officials will attend two meetings this month in Stamford to hear riders’ ideas about the plan, which is to construct a 960-space garage on the state-owned surface lot at South State Street and Washington Boulevard, with elevated walkways to the station.
The site is a block from the train station; the old garage on Station Place is directly across the street.
Martin said Redeker shared early details of the plan.
“Certain elements are very attractive, and others I’m not yet convinced about,” the mayor said. “One of the things I’m concerned about is the aesthetics. How we will provide input into that, I don’t know. I reserve judgment because I have some concerns.”
Longtime commuter advocate Jim Cameron, a Hearst Connecticut Media transportation columnist, said Redeker told him the DOT was thinking about a 10-story garage but revised it to eight stories after meeting with Martin. So far the plan includes two walkways over Washington Boulevard - one to the station and one to the New York-bound platforms, he said.
“One of the connectors is 300 feet, which is more than the 25 feet that’s there now, but not bad,” Cameron said. “There will be space for several hundred bicycles, and it will have access to the Mill River greenway.”
Like Martin, Cameron said he’s waiting to hear more.
“I can see the wisdom of putting it on South State Street. It’s not as convenient as replacing the garage where it is now, but if they do the new garage properly, it may be acceptable,” Cameron said.
But the last proposal — which kept commuters guessing for three years while the DOT negotiated with developers and concrete dropped from the ceilings of the old garage — left a bad feeling, said Stamford resident Jeffrey Maron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.
“I am curious about whether these meetings will be sessions for the DOT to listen to what it is the public wants and needs from the facility, or merely an opportunity to tell the taxpayers and commuters what they will be doing — regardless of input from those who actually use the facility,” Maron said. “Today the facility is extremely convenient and hugely valuable, and an asset to our community. Can the DOT replicate that at the new site?”
The Metro-North rail line is key to the city’s success, transporting residents to jobs in New York and out-of-town workers to companies in Stamford.
The old 750-space garage is so defective in design and construction that it began to fail as soon as it was built in 1987.
“It has to come down,” Redeker said. “We will continue to spend money to make sure the two levels now in use remain usable.”
Maintenance also is needed on the 1,200-space addition, built in 2003, but it is structurally sound, Redeker said. Commuters report water cascading down the walls and dripping from the ceilings when it rains.
Building the new garage a block away will improve traffic flow on congested Station Place, Redeker said. The DOT, which will design 30 percent of the project after gathering public comment, has not determined the final cost, but it likely will be covered by the $60 million plus $35 million allocated by the state several years ago. It includes a new garage and walkways and demolition of the old garage, Redeker said.
The DOT expects to bid the remaining design work and construction in early 2019, he said. Building it should take two years.
There are no plans yet for the Station Place site, Redeker said.
James Gildea, chairman of the commuter council, reiterated riders’ concerns.
“Last time the council was an afterthought. Hearing the presentation on the front end is somewhat of a hopeful sign — a recognition from the DOT that they have to involve the city of Stamford and the public,” Gildea said.