STAMFORD — The historic West Main Street bridge is turning out to be about much more than connecting one shore of the Mill River to the other.
It’s about an emerging downtown jewel, Mill River Park, home to the bridge and object of a $60 million renovation.
It’s about a concern among West Side residents that their working-class neighborhood is being left out of plans for a shining park and downtown.
It’s about an uneasiness among some city representatives that a fast-track, no-bid contract to fix the bridge is not a good way to go, and an anxiousness among others that it is a onetime opportunity to repair what has languished for 20 years.
Residents filled the seats and lined the walls at Tuesday night’s public hearing on a $2 million contract to rehabilitate the 1888 bridge as a walkway only, which it has been since the state closed it to cars 16 years ago because the supports are crumbling.
The importance of the bridge was evident from the attendance of others at the six-hour meeting — Mayor David Martin and members of his cabinet; neighborhood activists; a city attorney; the traffic chief, city engineer and planner; preservationists; and members of the Mill River Collaborative and Downtown Special Services District.
The hearing was before the board’s nine-member Operations Committee, but a dozen other representatives attended. Two committee members who are out of the country weighed in by writing letters that were read into the record.
At issue is whether the 125-foot bridge should be shored up to accommodate cars, as it once did, or remain pedestrian-only, as it has been since 2002. The collaborative obtained a $2 million grant it wants to give the city to rehabilitate the bridge for walkers only.
Martin’s administration supports the idea, saying it is good for Mill River Park because it will keep cars out of the greenway, and good for the West Side and downtown because it will create “walkability.”
Some West Siders disagreed.
Joyce Griffin said the city has failed them by neglecting the bridge for so long that engineers now say it can wash away in the next heavy rainstorm.
“When it was closed it forced (traffic) out to Tresser Boulevard from West Main Street,” cutting the neighborhood off from downtown, Griffin said. “The majority of you have never had a desire to walk across the bridge, and you won’t do so when it’s fixed. People from other areas of town want to dictate what takes place in our community.”
The bridge should accommodate walkers and drivers, resident Russell Davis said.
“It’s key to the development of the Stillwater corridor,” Davis said of Stillwater Avenue, a West Side thoroughfare. “We need to do everything in our power to make it a better bridge for pedestrians and for traffic flow.”
Others had a message for city officials — just fix it already.
“I am a pedestrian,” Sheila Williams Brown said. “I have been walking across the bridge for eight years. “I went to a … meeting when I was 65 years old and they told me the bridge would be (repaired) when I was 69. I’m almost 72 and nothing has been done.”
Preservationists favor the contract, saying it ensures restoration of the decorative trusses and other elements of the 130-year-old ironwork bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This antique bridge … is a remarkable object … and you can walk right up to it and touch it,” said Wes Haynes, a Stamford preservationist. “Bridges with this lenticular truss design are being resurrected all over the world.”
By more than two to one, speakers said the bridge should be for pedestrians only.
Quentin Phipps, a director at the Stamford Charter School for Excellence on Schuyler Avenue, said no one has contacted the pre-K to Grade 4 school about plans for the bridge.
A large number of students walk to school, Phipps said, and for their safety, “we are adamantly opposed to a vehicular bridge. … What other school in this city would have been left out of this conversation?”
Stamford resident David Kweskin read a letter from the UConn-Stamford campus director saying hundreds of students now living in a Washington Boulevard dorm need safe places to walk.
Vin Tufo, CEO of Charter Oak Communities, the city’s housing authority, said allowing cars on the West Main Street bridge won’t ease traffic, but the agency is working on intersection realignments and other projects to improve flow.
Shortly after midnight, however, the Operations Committee voted 6-1, with two members absent, to recommend that the Board of Representatives reject the bridge contract.
The vote followed intense questioning of city officials.
Representatives asked about the rush to accept the collaborative’s grant. It’s because the agency must notify the state Bond Commission of its plans for the money by late September if work is to begin next summer, as the contract says. If not the bridge, collaborative officials said they will use the money elsewhere in the park.
Representatives asked about other sources of funding. There are possibilities, Martin said, but none is guaranteed, and all will cost the city money and take several years.
Representatives’ biggest concern was with the design contract, which was amended at the last minute to expand the project so ambulances and police cars could cross the bridge. The price did not change, and they fear it will create cost overruns for Stamford taxpayers, representatives said.
They also don’t like that bids were waived to give the contract to Wengell, McDonnell & Costello, a firm that has worked with city engineers for years to shore up the bridge. Officials said they applied for the waiver because WMC knows the bridge, and using them saves time, reducing the risk that it will fall.
Rep. Bradley Michelson, R-1, a member of the Land Use Committee, which was to discuss the contract Wednesday night, said he was surprised at the Operations Committee vote. For years the bridge has looked like “the entrance to a prison,” with a chain-link fence and a “rickety” gangplank for pedestrians, he said.
Now the board has an offer of $2 million and won’t take it, Michelson said.
“Most of the people who spoke want a pedestrian bridge with emergency vehicle access. This board decides to ignore the public and a solution to this problem so we can politicize this? What are we thinking here?” Michelson said. “Are we running this city properly by putting this issue back on the table?”
But West Side activist Bonnie Kim Campbell said the contract “is messy.”
“It has many ambiguities,” she said. “Let’s stop talking behind each other’s backs. That park is not going to be what you want it to be if you have marginalized an entire neighborhood.”
The full Board of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the contract when it meets at 8 p.m. Sept. 4 on the fourth floor of the government center.