At Monday night’s Representative Town Meeting was lengthy, starting at 7pm and finishing at 1:06am.
A final $465 million budget for the town was approved in a vote of 165 yes, 2 no, 4 abstentions.
A $49 million bonding resolution also passed 167 yes, 6 no, and 0 abstentions.
As anticipated, the biggest debate was over whether to cut $2.8 million in funding for intersection improvements on Greenwich Avenue, otherwise known as “the bump outs.”
The bump outs will be fully reimbursed by a grant from Western Connecticut Council of Governments, but some worried that there would be overruns.
Dozens of people signed up to speak. Debate on the topic was limited to an hour and each person was given two minutes.
In the end, 111 members opposed eliminating the $2.8 million for bump outs and 95 voted in favor of eliminating the money. Four people abstained.
The context of the bump out vote was the new vibe on the Avenue, which prior to the pandemic had upwards of 30 empty storefronts and many conversations about the transition in retail to online shopping. During the pandemic many New Yorkers relocated to Greenwich, bringing new faces to the Avenue, where street dining (inside nodes shaped from jersey barriers) took off. The Avenue is as vibrant as ever, bristling with pedestrians on nice days. The other factor impacting the Avenue was the elimination of police directing traffic at three intersections. Bump outs were proposed as a solution to improve pedestrian safety.
Critics of the bump outs Monday night called it everything from a vanity project to a costly mistake.
James Waters from district 12, who is a member of the Budget Overview Committee, spoke on support of the bump outs. He said opponents of the bump outs were playing partisan politics.
Waters said 108 emails were received from 87 people, telling a clear story.
“I did something simple. I counted emails and looked up voter registrations,” he said, adding that 75% of those urging a cut to the $2.8 for bump outs were registered Republicans. “By contrast, those urging us to keep the bump outs were an even mix of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.”
“Of the chief proponents of the cut, on many of the RTM committees, nearly 100% are registered Republicans, and 100% of those Republican proponents are current members of the local party elite,” Waters added. “It is clear as day, a small element of my own political party orchestrated a partisan effort to cut the bump outs.”
Michael Spilo, head of the RTM public works committee, said the town had a history of DPW proposing projects and withdrawing them after the townspeople opposed them.
For example, in 2018 a large traffic circle proposed by DPW for Sound Beach Ave by the Perrot Library was met with an outcry and was later withdrawn.
Spilo recalled how in 2014, when a commercial intersection was proposed by DPW to replace the unconventional one at North Street and Fairfield, residents objected and the project was withdrawn.
He said earlier this year DPW installed a bump out at Maple and Husted without informing residents, resulting in more accidents after the bump out was installed than before.
“Fortunately DPW has removed this intersection bump out,” he said. “This is direct experience that these sorts of designs have proven fallible.”
Spilo listed reasons to oppose the bump outs on the Avenue, which he said were “cookie cutter” and “reminiscent of a Sarasota Mall that is not in character with our historic downtown.”
He said the state of the existing bump outs at Fawcett Place and Grigg Street showed that the designs do not age gracefully.
“If we narrow the intersections, this will preclude police from returning, and we’ll wind up with traffic lights everywhere,” he warned. “And we have a parking situation that will be made worse if we put bump outs at all the intersections.”
James O’Brien from central Greenwich defended the bump outs.
“This proven, well designed proposal with bump outs and a raised intersection accomplishes slowing down drivers and making them more aware of pedestrians,” he said. “And it provides a shorter distance to cross and better sight lines for pedestrians.”
Lucia Jansen said her BOC had voted 7-5-0 against the bump out funding. She said the five votes in favor were from people new to town who deferred to town officials.
She said specifics remained unknown in terms of parking, traffic, the impact to the 8-30g projects, and most importantly the outdoor dining. She noted that in committee meetings it was stated that 60 parking spaces might be lost to accommodate outdoor dining.
“We did ask for specific data on safety; there wasn’t any,” Jansen said. “We were told to Google for plenty of information on bump outs. But all of us would agree our Avenue is very different from a wide avenue in California.”
Lastly, Jansen said it was unclear how many intersections were slated for improvements under the $2.8 million grant. She had been told it was for Fawcett Place and Grigg St, and Havemeyer and Arch, but the BET seemingly had only voted to approve the latter.
Brooks Harris said his finance committee had voted to cut the funding.
“When we get a grant, it’s for a specific amount. If there’s overage we pay for it ourselves,” Harris warned. “We saw this with Eastern Greenwich Civic Center, where we had no choice but to vote for over $4 million in extra money because of cost overruns.”
Louisa Stone, a 20-year member of the RTM, 20-year member of P&Z commission and past president of the Land Trust, spoke against the bump outs.
She said that despite having voted for the Elm Street bump out last year, the measure of its success hinged not on engineering, but on human behavior.
“I’m one of the people these bump outs are supposed to help, and I voted for the Elm Street bump out. This isn’t an engineering problem. It’s a people problem. It’s not about distance between corners, but of human behavior.”
Stone said a town survey of public opinion on bump outs came up 50-50.
“In my family if we had a split, we didn’t do something,” she said. “It’s a good way not to make costly mistakes.”
“This plan would widen Arch Street and take out a stretch of lawn in the front yard of the Havemeyer building where Beech Trees and Colonel Bolling’s monument mark the end of World War I,” she continued. “The loss of lawn and probable damage to those trees would be permanent and irreversible.”
Bill Lewis, who referred to the bump outs as a vanity project, said they did nothing for safety.
Lewis said cars are slowed by stop signs, not bump outs and that the promise of additional parking spaces adjacent to the Avenue to offset lost parking spaces was “one big canard,” because if they were a good idea they’d already have been done.
“If they’re a good idea, give them to us but spare us the bump outs,” Lewis said.
Janet McMahon reminded the RTM that two years earlier they had voted to cut the funding for three police officers for traffic duty at the intersections, and in 2021 they defeated a SOMR to restore funding for police to direct traffic.
“Traffic cops are never coming back to the Avenue,” McMahon said. “We can all agree that Greenwich Avenue has been getting increasingly busy and unsafe for pedestrians and drivers alike, but imagine if you are sight or mobility challenged, that factor increases in multiples as does our town’s liability and exposure.”
Beth MacGillivray, who is the new chair of the RTC introduced herself as a mother of four and member of RTM district 7, warned against the permanent changes. She said there were inadequate research or data.
She said the argument that the bump outs would beautify the Avenue didn’t make sense given the eyesores of jersey barriers for outdoor dining. She also said DPW had never given an explicit tally of how many parking spots on the Avenue would be lost.
“Lastly, we are really ready to take on this project without any clarification of the length of time that the lower part of Greenwich Avenue will be under construction?” she asked. “We’re moving Arch Street over 30 feet up hill at a steeper grade. The merchants complained when the lower half was cordoned off last year for dining and pedestrians only. They saw their business decline. Are they ready for the traffic jams or the shut downs for construction? For how long?”
Christina Volkwein from district 2, who is a member of the Land Use committee, said on Feb 2 this year, town officials submitted the application for the grant to the state. She said the application asked if there was public support or opposition to the project.
“They stated, and I quote, ‘There was no significant public opposition to the project,'” she said.
But Volkwein noted that on May 2, at the Land Use committee meeting, the same officials reported that anecdotally the survey results were split 50-50, for and against. Volkwein said 50% opposed was not insignificant.
Steph Cowie said she lost the use of her legs four years earlier and had learned to adapt and event got her driver’s license again.
“My early solo trips to the Avenue felt like a scary ride at Six Flags,” she said. “The existing old curb cuts are not ADA compliant and ADA parking is non existent. So I had to be creative, utilize an end spot and hope for the best.”
“Our town is not ready for people like me. The improved Elm Street intersection may seem unconventional and different to some, but to me it’s more than just an intersection, and certainly nothing to do with vanity. This is a huge win in the independence column, and is ADA compliant.”
“For someone to view the safety of people like me as a cost to be cut is insulting and demeaning,” Cowie added.
Dan Quigley, a downtown resident, spoke in favor of the intersection improvements, describing Greenwich Avenue as a living organism.
He noted the Avenue had evolved from a dirt road with horses and buggies to a trolley route, and from a two way street with parallel parking to a one-way with diagonal parking.
“Tonight we have a chance to think differently about the future of our downtown. We have an opportunity to vote before us on a project proposal that will turn our most dangerous downtown intersection into a much safer one for all pedestrians and motorists, especially for those with disabilities and our elderly.”
He said the project had the support of town safety departments and would bring all ADA parking spots into federal compliance.
Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo said that back in 2019 he began talking about a pedestrian friendly Greenwich Avenue connected to a brand new waterfront.
“People seemed to like it,” Camillo said. “I talked about it again last year and people seemed to like it.”
Speaking of the waterfront, earlier in the RTM meeting, there was a close vote on $50,000 for seed money requested by the First Selectman to “get the ball moving” for improvements of the waterfront park, Roger Sherman Baldwin Park.
The vote to reduce the $50K failed in a vote of 98 yes and 99 no, with 4 abstentions.
The First Selectman noted that during the pandemic, Greenwich was one of the first towns to offer street dining, which he said had transformed Greenwich Avenue.
Camillo said the bump outs had the “absolute support of almost every single merchant I’ve spoken to – not just restaurant owners,” he said.
Camillo said the intersection with Havemeyer and Arch St was one of the most dangerous, and that bump outs serve three purposes: cutting down the distance for pedestrians to cross, improving sight lines, and slowing down cars.
The First Selectmen said Greenwich Police, Greenwich Fire Dept and GEMS all supported the bump outs.
“We’ve done our research,” Camillo said. “Yes, it beautifies the Avenue…but that’s not it. It is about intersection improvement and safety.”