It seemed the writing was on the wall for the Arch Street / Greenwich Avenue intersection project after Peter Berg, chair of the RTM Land Use Committee, said at Monday night’s RTM meeting that his committee had voted 12-0-0 a week earlier against the Municipal Improvement.
Michael Spilo from the public works committee said his committee also voted against the project 6-4-1.
Spilo said some opponents of the MI on his committee had pointed out that DPW engineers were “young and inexperienced and made costly mistakes recently including changes to the intersection at Maple and Husted Lane, which were made in the name of safety and traffic calming. Those changes caused accidents had to be reversed.”
The MI project at issue Monday night proposed to straighten the intersection of Arch Street at Greenwich Ave, remove a swath of lawn in front of the historic Havemeyer building, and add a dozen diagonal parking spots along Arch by the historic former post office. It also would derease the distance of the crosswalk by creating a slip lane for right turns onto the Ave and creating an island between two smaller crosswalks.
About 25 people signed up to speak, mostly in opposition to the project.
The lead opponent was Louisa Stone, a longtime RTM member and former P&Z chair herself.
She said the first principle of the POCD is to preserve community character, of which historic preservation is an important part.
“This plan shows little regard for topography, the urban forest, the historic aspect, and thus is inconsistent with the POCD,” she said. “This process began with a proposal from DPW. Funding was offered through a state grant, pending local approvals. We in the RTM approved it in the May budget by a margin of 16 votes. The BOS passed it and P&Z commission approved it, but our process allows the RTM to consider and act upon an MI even after all those steps. This is important.”
“It could be a costly mistake and one that could not be easily be reversed,” Stone warned. “The application for the grant did not recognize the historic district. It didn’t even show the sign marking it, or the trees planted in memory of civil war veterans.”
She noted the project had gone through the P&Z process and was approved by many departments.
The vote, which came quickly, given the 230 member body was using a newfangled electronic voting system that lit up the screen in real time, reflected a reversal of the vote taken back in May 2022 to adopt the $2.8 million in state funding.
Several speakers made the point that just because a public works project is championed by the DPW, and is funded entirely by the state, there was precedent to reject a project. 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.
More recently, in 2018, a proposed roundabout by the Perrot Library was met with an outcry and was later withdrawn.
Matt Popp, licensed landscape architect, said he opposed the Arch Street intersection project partly because it was inconsistent with the POCD.
“It takes up 4500 sq ft of the center of the town, the ‘soul of the town,’ as one townsperson called it,” he said.
“If you look at the open space plan, it defines that area as an urban forest,” he said. “I’m not sure how you can assess the impacts the the Beech grove if you don’t have a grading plan. It’s either going to need a wall or the grading will encroach into that slope.”
Also, he said the slip lane was hazardous because it was wide and cars would block the view of the stop sign.
“If you can’t see a big, raised stop sign, how do you expect to see a child crossing the street or a handicapped person in a wheelchair or walker?” Popp asked.
Stephanie Cowie, vice chair of the First Selectman’s Committee for People with Disabilities, said the conditions of the intersections today were unsafe for anyone.
“Additional improvements are a massive win for our town, improving safety not only for the disabled population, but for all. So much noise is out there. Please listen to he facts of our town professionals and experts.”
Alex Popp questioned the quality of the 2,000 sq ft of green space created by the design.
“The September design I believe was flawed, missing key elements, reduces true open spaces and replaces it with concrete planters and White Plains-like bush islands,” he said.
“This is a vote to redesign the soul of the town, the heart of the town, the most historic section of the town, but remarkably, the design approved by P&Z at the September meeting had no input from the Conservation Commission, ARC, the veterans groups, the HDC and the tree warden.”
“More problematic with this lousy design is how it has divided the town,” he added.
Molly Saleeby said she had changed her mind and opposed the project after having abstained last spring.
“I’m against this radical design that I don’t think is entirely necessary,” she said, adding that she anticipated drivers heading south on Arch Street would make illegal left turns to snag one of the proposed 12 diagonal parking spots, given that does happen on Sound Beach Ave in the village of Old Greenwich.
Those speaking in favor of the project included First Selectman Fred Camillo and DPW deputy commissioner Jim Michel.
Camillo said pedestrian fatalities had risen across the state and people had been struck by cars in downtown Greenwich
“I’ve heard a speaker refer to the ‘ambiance’ of that part of the Avenue,” he said. “It’s a concrete boulevard.”
“I love Greenwich Ave as much as anybody here, but this enhances it. Public safety is number one, but it does make it look better. It adds 2,000 sq ft of green space, but people are focusing on a piece of grass that hardly anybody goes on, and it has to be taken out to line it up.”
Jim Michel, a principle proponent representing the Dept of Public Works, said the project had received approvals from the Board of Selectmen, BET, RTM, P&Z and the Commission on Aging, and was 100% grant funded.
He said his department’s main purpose was to maintain infrastructure, with a primary focus on improving safety and ADA accessibility and that he had attended likely over 100 meetings about the project.
“I want to clarify some points inaccurately stated: 2,000 sq ft of green space is being added. Twelve parking spaces are being added to this project. No trees are being removed. No trees are being damaged.”
Mr. Michel said there was no need for retaining walls to be constructed and the entire project was within the town right of way, not on parkland.
Dan Quigley, a downtown resident, said some opponents of the project had used scare tactics.
“They say we will lose our heritage and betray our history. The only thing that is betrayed by these statements is our intelligence. We will not be losing our history, but rather connecting it to the future.”
Quigley said the project had the support of the police department, the fire department, DPW, and majority of the BOS, as well as the Housing Authority, Commission on Aging and the First Selectman’s Committee for People with Disabilities.
Beth MacGillivray, who is chair of the Greenwich RTC themed her remarks, “Say Goodbye.”
“For conservationists, say say goodbye to the open space — 3,000-4,000 sq ft of park lawn called ‘valuable urban forests’ in the open space plan,” she said. “For tree enthusiasts, say goodbye to your gorgeous, mature 100 year old specimen Beech tree grove commemorating the Civil War. These beautiful, mature Beech trees are in jeopardy of surviving due to the imposing Arch Street sidewalk and street cemented so close to them.”
MacGillivray said pedestrians would need to be careful crossing with the new, small island in the middle of the road.
“Please look all ways to check oncoming traffic from three directions, plus the slip lane,” she said.
Lastly MacGillivray said, ‘Say goodbye to premiere parking on Greenwich Avenue.”
Diane Fox, chair of the Greenwich Preservation Network, on behalf of the Greenwich Historical Society, spoke against the project, saying the intersection was in the area of historic elements including the old town hall, Havemeyer building, old post office, Bolling Monument, World War monument and historic retail and commercial buildings.
Also, she said the intersection was located within two historic districts: the Greenwich Avenue Historic District and the Municipal Center Historic District.
“This intersection is the heart of Greenwich life and history,” Fox said. “And while it shouldn’t be frozen as is for all time, any changes at this intersection should be made in a manner to protect, preserve and where possible, enhance the district and historic nature of its crossroads.”
Also she said preservation of the existing greenspaces was critical in enhancing historic buildings and settings and requested that a more detailed redesign be created and resubmitted.
Brooks Harris said he was passionate about the Beech trees and believed they would be endangered by having their roots cut.
“The point keeps being made that no trees will be removed, as if that’s the standard that should get us comfortable that the trees are safe, when I believe people realize the real issue is the roots,” he said.
Bill Lewis said opponents of the project fell across the political spectrum, and included many senior citizens.
“I believe we should vote yes to reject the MI, otherwise we would be disrespecting the war memorial, paving over sections of two historic districts, jeopardizing the health of the trees, and creating a traffic hazard on Arch Street with the slip lane and sketchy parking plan – all for bumpouts that have no proven safety advantage,” Lewis said.
Lucy Krasnor said she’d read a letter from First Selectman Camillo who argued that the intersection project was being sought for the safety of older people.
“I am old, and do not walk quickly,” she said. “However I truly believe there are better ways to enhance the safety of this area instead of totally destroying the ambiance of the lower part of Greenwich Avenue.”
She listed recent DPW proposed projects she described as “out of scale” that were turned down despite being funded by the state, including the one by North Street and Fairfield and one at the rotary at Perrot Library.
“We should not do projects unsuited for our town simply due to the fact that money is available,” Krasnor said.
Navy veteran Dean Gamanos, who is a member of American Legion Post 29 and Byram Veterans, said veterans were not consulted. “I think we should have been. We spend a lot of time in that area and know the monuments well,” he said.
Alan Gunzburg, chair of the First Selectman’s Committee for People with Disabilities, said, that in the last month a dozen people have been killed in Connecticut by cars and that his friend, Steve Famiglietti, who managed the Eleanor A. Brooks Blindness Support Center, was hit and killed by a speeding car in Hartford.
“For too long I’ve attended meetings in this town asking and reminding anybody who will listen about safety, accessibility and inclusion. I did not come here today for that,” Gunzburg said. “Instead I came here to remind you and everyone in this room that this town is out of compliance with federal law. The ADA law was passed last century and signed into law by George Bush. These are my civil rights, and the civil rights of everyone else who is disabled.”
In the end, the vote on the motion to reject the MI was: 114 to 72 with 12 abstentions .
Going forward DPW might potentially go back to P&Z with the same or a new proposal. In terms of the state funding, the money can only be used for this improvement project.
On Tuesday morning in her 1490 AM WGCH radio debrief, RTM Moderator Pro Tempore Katherine LoBalbo said she had been torn, but had voted against the MI herself.
“I really hope they can come back with a result that does a better job addressing the context of that site,” LoBalbo said. “It was a very tough vote for me.”
September 12, 2022