Traffic flow and ease of parking downtown could be improved by removal of the huge cement blocks — long called “mafia blocks” — that sit atop the driveway connecting the Yankee Ridge parking lot to other lots behind commercial buildings on the east side of Main Street.
“That would do a tremendous amount to improve the flow,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
A renewed effort to get the blocks removed came up briefly at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting April 4, as Marconi recapped the status of the state’s much-discussed improvement plan for Main Street.
In an interview Tuesday, Marconi confirmed the renewed effort — but he wasn’t confident removal of the blocks would soon be accomplished.
“I’m not predicting anything. We’re going to take it one step at a time,” Marconi said.
“I know a majority of the townspeople feel it would make sense.”
Marconi said he has been pursuing the block removal with Willing Biddle of Urstadt Biddle Properties, which became the owner of Yankee Ridge last year.
Biddle told The Press he’s interested in cooperating with the town on the effort but also has some concerns he wants addressed — specifically, parking.
“Our feeling at this point is that we are very willing to work with the town on the issues of parking and the mafia blocks but we want to see some positive movement on the town’s part regarding a comprehensive parking management plan,” Biddle said in an email Tuesday.
“The parking committee in our view has historically been ineffective and content to do nothing about the parking problems in town which we have found very frustrating,” Biddle said. “There have been some recent developments regarding the people on the parking committee which we think are positive and we look forward to working with the town and the committee on making some changes for the benefit of all.”
Biddle isn’t the only one involved in the decision, however. Yankee Ridge is a commercial condominium association, and owners of many units have been reluctant in the past to agree to removal of the blocks.
“Any changes to the ‘mafia blocks’ need to be agreed to by the condominium association and I don’t think the association is going to want to consider any changes until they see some positive changes by the town,” Biddle said.
Past and present
In addition to improved effort from the Parking Authority to monitor lots under its control, the town has in its 2018-19 budget plans to build a $570,000, 63-car parking lot in the wooded area east of lower Bailey Avenue — if approved by voters.
Some years ago, Marconi said, the town went as far as having plans drawn as a result of discussions with a previous owner of Yankee Ridge. Those plans addressed the concerns some Yankee Ridge business owners raised about cars speeding through the lot, using it as an informal bypass of Main Street traffic and lights.
“The design more than accommodates the fear of speeding traffic through not only installation of speed bumps but also, if necessary, the installation of gates — electronically operated gates, that would only open upon the presence of a vehicle,” Marconi said.
There are a couple of reasons removal of the blocks is worth pursuing, despite the difficulties, according to Marconi.
“First and foremost is fire suppression,” he said. “When we experienced the unfortunate fire at Milillo’s [in 2008], we needed the ladder truck to respond.
“Due to the rear parking area already being impassable due to fire hose and the first arriving trucks, an attempt was made for the ladder truck to actually access the rear property from Main Street, by utilizing the alleyway between what is now Johnny Gelato and what is soon to be a taco restaurant,” Marconi said.
“So, if you can picture an 80-plus-foot-long truck attempting to align itself to get into that alleyway, one can imagine the amount of time it took. It was like an 18-point turn,” he said.
“If the blocks were removed, there would have been direct access from Prospect Street, allowing the ladder truck to access the rear area in a more direct manner. …
“That is reason No. 1.”
Reason No. 2 is for the flow of traffic utilizing that area, Marconi said.
Of particular interest is allowing more ways in and out of the connected parking lots that are now accessible only from Bailey Avenue or through the two narrow alleyways off Main Street — one of which is technically a town road, Big Shop Lane.
“Cars that are on Main Street now, that make a left onto Big Shop Lane, would then be able to access that area from Prospect Street or Bailey Avenue, without the need to turn mid-block on Main Street,” Marconi said.
Where did they come from?
The big blocks have sat atop the driveway that once connected Yankee Ridge to the Bailey Avenue parking lots for years now — decades, actually. They appeared one morning, having been placed there on the apparent orders of original Yankee Ridge developer and owner Paul Morganti.
At the time, there was a lot of speculation as to why. Safety? Parking? Anger at a variance granted to a neighboring commercial property owner?
Reopening the connection between Yankee Ridge and the upper lots has long made sense, Marconi said, but the town’s past efforts to get the blocks removed haven’t been met with success — despite the obvious logic of making the connecting driveway usable.
“True to government, logic does not always prevail,” Marconi said. “But we’re going to make every attempt.”