Board of Reps Contention ends in compromise
STAMFORD — After deliberations that amounted to nine hours, and twice went late into the night, the Board of Representatives approved a contract to fix the historic, dilapidated West Main Street bridge.
The vote Tuesday night was 21-19.
The debate, which goes back nearly two decades, was marked by dissonance - car bridge vs. walk bridge; downtown vs. West Side; preserving history vs. building new; moving quickly to restore the failing bridge vs. holding off to pursue funds for a rebuild.
But contention ended in compromise, and the board approved a $2 million contract that pauses after the first phase, in which the contractor - for a maximum of $98,000 - will have 100 days to evaluate the 1888 bridge and estimate the cost of repairing it to preserve its historic character and accommodate pedestrians and light emergency vehicles.
If city officials approve the estimate, the contractor, Wengell, McDonnell & Costello, will move on to the second phase and complete the design for no more than $457,300. After that, construction will go out for bids and the work is to be finished in two years.
Despite the deal, both sides felt let down.
“I’m happy with the outcome. I’m disappointed with the debate,” said Arthur Selkowitz, chairman of the Mill River Collaborative, the nonprofit group that is working with the city on a multimillion-dollar renovation of Mill River Park, which sits between downtown and the West Side. “We were trying to help.”
The 130-year-old bridge, one of the few vestiges of city history left downtown, is in the park, and the collaborative offered city government a $2 million grant it received from the state if the city will repair it for pedestrians only, in keeping with the character of the greenway being created through central Stamford. The group also wants to preserve the rare bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mayor David Martin’s administration agreed, saying there is little other money available to fix the bridge, which the city engineer said could wash away in the next storm.
But little consideration was given to an old promise to the West Side that car traffic on the 125-foot iron bridge would return, said Rep. Rodney Pratt, D-9.
“I’m very disappointed,” Pratt said. “The West Side was cheated out of a choice. It was walking bridge or no bridge.”
Cars crossed the bridge between the neighborhoods until 16 years ago, when state transportation officials determined it was unsafe for traffic. During that time, the downtown underwent a significant revitalization. The West Side is seeking to do the same.
Pratt said that, before Tuesday’s vote, collaborative and administration officials lobbied city representatives to support the pedestrian-only contract. There was no pressure for a vehicle bridge, which would bring traffic to the small businesses along Stillwater Avenue and up into the West Side, Pratt said.
“If this were North Stamford and we had lawyers to represent us, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said, a reference to a successful fight by North Stamford residents to block a large fitness complex.
Hours of debate, an extended public hearing, and multiple petitions convinced representatives they should push for contract revisions that would contain costs, give the city an opt-out, and allow for ambulances and police cars to use the bridge during emergencies.
But representatives didn’t get the revised contract until hours before the meeting, Pratt said.
“There was no time to read it,” he said. “I don’t know how you do city business like this.”
During Tuesday’s 3 ½-hour meeting in the board’s legislative chambers, the air conditioning not working, residents reflected the division on the board. At 10:45 p.m., they were fanning themselves with signs reading, “No to the contract.” Others held posters that said, “Keep the West Main Street bridge safe for walkers,” and “We support a pedestrian bridge.”
Representatives went around and around, as they did during a six-hour committee meeting last week.
Rep. Eric Morson, D-13, said his concern is that the bridge’s “rate of decay is increasing exponentially.”
“We need to move forward now,” Morson said. “If there’s a disaster, we’ll never be able to justify not taking action.”
Rep. Charles Pia Jr., R-18, said the failure to reach consensus has created years of inaction.
“We can’t be obstructive. Perfect will never happen … we’re never going to get total agreement,” Pia said. “We have to get the project done before there is no project to be had” because the bridge could collapse.
But Rep. Marion McGarry, D-12, questioned the rush to action.
“I think the real reason is that (some) don’t want the West Side to come downtown,” McGarry said. “The rich are building a park and they are trying to keep black and Latino people from coming downtown.”
Park not dark
Rep. David Watkins, R-1, said Mill River “is not a dark entity.”
“It’s a city park that is used increasingly by our residents,” Watkins said.
Rep. Bradley Michelson, R-1, said it’s time for the debate to end.
“We need a functioning bridge. It’s unsafe,” Michelson said. “Let’s be the board that finally gets this done.”
They did. But feelings remain.
“The whole debate was unfortunate because we all want the same thing - an improved connection between downtown and the West Side,” Selkowitz said. “We are a forward-thinking city, and forward-thinking cities are looking to convert car streets to pedestrian streets because it helps business.”
The collaborative has raised $22 million in private donations and $6 million in grants for the renovation, he said. The city provides a third of the park’s operating budget each year, most recently $640,000, he said. The collaborative also gets 50 percent of the incremental tax increases that result when the value of properties surrounding the park are enhanced by development or renovations.
He notified the state Bond Commission Wednesday that the collaborative will spend the grant on restoring the bridge for pedestrian use, Selkowitz said.
Pratt said he has to accept it.
“I think it’s a shame, but I can take a punch. I’m not going to wither away,” he said.
He will work with Transportation Bureau Chief Jim Travers on ideas for improving Mill River Street, Smith Street and West Side intersections, Pratt said.
“I’m optimistic,” he said.