by Alexander Soule
NORWALK — City officials on Friday unveiled a vision for a new gateway to the Wall Street Historical District, replacing a leafy island plaza that separates entry and exit routes for vehicles with a single roadway, flanked by walkways that are wider than the ones that exist now.
Sidewalks would be widened throughout the district under the initial blueprints floated by design firm Fuss & O’Neill, and eastbound traffic would be restored on Burnell Avenue.
That, in turn, could create the possibility of River Road being closed off for large events, according to Jim Travers, who is six months into the job as director of transportation, mobility and parking under Mayor Harry Rilling.
Wall Street cuts through the historic core of Norwalk, connecting to West Avenue, which runs south past the Waypointe development and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children to the SoNo Collection mall, and historic South Norwalk beyond.
“We’re looking to connect the West Avenue area with the lower Wall Street area,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Friday. “We’ve got a company that is working with us that’s going to be doing some significant outreach to the community, to find out what the community would like to see here.”
That company is Fuss & O’Neill, with offices in Trumbull and Manchester, which has undertaken similar projects in Springfield, Mass., and Pawtucket, R.I., among other locales.
A Fuss & O’Neill representative said Friday that he expects the outreach and design process to take a year. Travers said the city is putting together grant proposals to line up funding in advance so the work can proceed immediately.
“We’re not going to develop a plan that’s just going to sit on a shelf for 10 years,” Travers said. “In 1955, a flood devastated this area. It’s been over 60 years that we’ve not really reclaimed it, and we’re about to reclaim it and bring something wonderful.”
The neighborhood got a pair of major new additions in the past several years — The Wall Street Theater and The Head of the Harbor apartments overlooking the Norwalk River.
The theater survived a bankruptcy proceeding shortly after opening in 2017, going on to generate $1.4 million in revenue from shows and venue rentals in 2019 before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifteen concerts and comedy shows are on the Wall Street Theater’s schedule through the end of 2021, with comedian Colin Quinn and musician Howard Jones on deck for early next year.
While some businesses have departed like the My Three Sons family arcade and party center, or Peaches Southern Pub & Juke Joint, others have stepped in like the Troupe429 LGBTQ bar and performance space, Coals Pizza and a bakery planned for the My Three Sons building.
Jason Milligan, who owns that building along with a number of other commercial properties in the district, said Friday that he supports the concepts of wider sidewalks for outdoor seating and other purposes, and the conversion of River Road to a pedestrian mall whether for scheduled events or permanently.
Milligan added the city should consider making Wall Street a one-way street with angled parking, citing the success of that model on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich and Elm Street in New Canaan.
Wall Street continues to carry an albatross in the long-stalled Wall Street Place apartment building, which remains an empty shell covered in white sheeting.
In 2018, the city asked a state Superior Court judge in Stamford to nullify real estate agreements by Milligan’s POKO Partners development company and partners, then submitted a revised complaint this month asking a judge to force compliance with “discovery” requests for documentation from POKO Partners. Milligan declined to comment Friday on the ongoing litigation.
The Stamford developer JHM Financial Group expressed interest last year in taking over the project, with the firm led by John McClutchy.