This story was published in partnership with NancyonNorwalk.
Back in 2017, the state of Connecticut designated three “MLK corridors” in the state—one in Norwalk, Middletown, and New Britain. The goal was to help reinvest and spur activity in these sections of the community that were named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in part because they faced more challenges such as higher rates of unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and limited educational opportunities.
That designation sparked a planning process and community conversations in the South Norwalk area—home to the city’s MLK corridor—which led to a list of about $7.6 million in initiatives, according to Jess Vonashek, the city’s director of economic and community development.
“$7.6 million—it seemed so out of reach,” she said. “How are we going to do this?”
But Vonashek said that the city was able to meet that goal and do even more, committing nearly $180 million in local, state, and federal funds to the South Norwalk community since 2017.
Much of that funding falls under two big ticket items:
- The new South Norwalk Elementary School project, which, including the cost of the school and the associated infrastructure improvements in the area, is estimated at about $86 to $90 million
- The redevelopment of Meadow Gardens, a 54-unit low income development owned by the Norwalk Housing Authority for $41 million
But Vonashek highlighted the other investments made in the area for the Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee on January 4, which she said showed the variety of ways the city is investing in this area.
“It’s so exciting to build a deck like this that shows all of these investments and how they’re all working together,” she said.
Council member Darlene Young, who represents District B which includes South Norwalk, said that this type of investment is needed.
“South Norwalk has been divested from for quite some time and we’re at a point where we’re making changes,” she said. “My belief is we’re making these changes now—the folks that have grown up here, they should be able to benefit from the changes that are happening now.”
In addition to reviewing the investments the city has made in the area, the committee recommended allocating an additional $150,000 to the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency to create a South Norwalk Community Plan. The goal of the plan is to analyze economic and equity concerns in the area around development, such as displacement of longtime residents and gentrification and make recommendations for how the city can work to address them.
“How do we address community concerns as a result of development?” said Brian Bidolli, the executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. “How do we have deep conversations and hear them out and what can we do from a policy perspective?”
The funding for the plan will come from the city’s General Growth Properties or GGP funds, which was an additional $3.5 million the city received as a part of its agreement with the developer of the SoNo Collection. The funds must be used for community-related projects in the South Norwalk community.
One of the biggest areas of investment was in environmental-related initiatives, Vonashek said, noting that this was a priority for the community as it deals with climate change and flooding issues.
“Just even in the last two tree planting seasons we’ve planted over 130 trees in that area,” she said.
Some of the investments in addition to tree planting include:
- Playground improvements
- Brownfield mitigation funding
- Coastal flood resilience plan
- Norwalk River Valley Trail and Harbor Trail work
Vonashek said that many of the citywide initiatives like making it safer to get around without a car are also a big priority in South Norwalk.
“We’ve really focused on—and we have been focusing citywide on—pedestrian safety and being able to have an equitable approach to using the roadways across the city and in South Norwalk this is really important,” she said.
She added the community has had a lot of conversations around the first and last mile—or how residents connect to public transportation and having consistent sidewalks through neighborhoods.
She specifically highlighted $310,000 for crosswalks, including those along West Avenue, where there had been some pedestrians hit in previous years.
With the South Norwalk School conversations, there’s been additional conversations about making sure sidewalks and roads are connected to help students get there safely.
One of the things that came up in their community conversations was that many of the existing programs were geared at homeowners and not many were available to renters.
“I feel like we made a lot of ground with the MLK corridor here,” she said. “It needs to be renters and owners and we need to be able to figure out a more equitable approach to make investments and help people make investments in their homes.”
In addition, she noted that the city is working to better address blight and zoning violations and work to add aesthetic improvements, like murals, to help improve the overall look and feel of the community.
Vonashek said one of their most important goals was supporting businesses, particularly those that employ local residents and those that are minority and/or woman-owned businesses.
She said that of all of the business-related funding distributed citywide, including American Rescue Plan Act funding and COVID-relief grants, more than 75% went to women and minority-owned businesses.
“We’re super happy with the diversity of the businesses that have come through,” she said.
“This is the biggest bang of this whole presentation—there’s just been so much work by everyone on this call, the previous council, the community, the mayor’s office, Alan Lo and his team, Senator Duff, and everyone we work with so closely to make sure the community has the opportunity for educational advancement within the community itself,” she said.
South Norwalk Community Plan
The committee unanimously voted to recommend allocating $150,000 for the South Norwalk Community Plan. The full Council will vote on Tuesday, January 9.
Bidolli said this plan aims to take a look at existing conditions, plans, infrastructure, land uses,” and work with the community to figure out what they want that area to look like down the road.
“The centerpiece and the real interesting part of this study is a list of improvements that will have the biggest improvement for social equity,” he said.
These could be policies to help make sure people don’t get displaced as improvements happen in a community, he said.
The plan would also really look at the economic impacts of development and improvements, such as the cost of people getting priced out and what solutions could be implemented to prevent that, Bidolli said.
Bidolli said it was really important to understand these types of dynamics—such as the city making infrastructure improvements in an area and landlords then raising the rent—and why he “made a specific point to bring on an economic impact firm.”
“We have to be able to fully understand that,” he said. “However that dynamic works is what we’re going to try to model.”
Council member Jalin Sead said that this work is urgent and important.
“All of my life, I grew up in South Norwalk—people have been talking about how South Norwalk is always forgotten about,” he said. “I think it’s important that as all of these changes are happening, that the people who endured all of the forgottenness aren't left out. There are people who are moving out of Norwalk and South Norwalk because they can’t afford to live here. Though we want to do this work and do it right, we need to have that urgency.”