Massive overhaul aims to make Branchville more pedestrian friendly
RIDGEFIELD — To make Branchville more walkable and inviting, town and state planners have been working on a $2.3 million plan that includes new sidewalks, street lamps and landscaping, as well as a redesigned highway intersection.
“Branchville has been over the years kind of the forgotten child of Ridgefield, and it’s time we addressed that area and gave it a good face for people coming into town,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “Plus, make it pedestrian friendly — it just is not now at all.”
“A vision of Branchville that’s really built around a pedestrian-friendly village — that’s the core of it,” said Francisco Gomes, of Fitzgerald & Halliday, a consultant on the project. “The basis of that is a walkable community.”
Ridgefield residents had some questions, but seemed generally supportive of the plan as described at a virtual meeting attended by about 30 people last week.
“Overall, I think the proposal is great,” John Ancona said.
The town’s 20 percent share of the $2.3 million project would be $460,000, and has already been approved by voters.
Former town engineer Charles Fisher, who retired but has continued working for the municipality in a consulting role, outlined the project.
“Sidewalks, street lights, traffic signal improvements, pedestrian bridges and other site amenities” are planned, he said.
“The ultimate goal is to improve the economic viability of Branchville and tie it in to the other economic centers of Ridgefield,” Fisher said.
Also planned as a separate but related project is the reconstruction of the two bridges — at Portland Avenue and Depot Road — over the Norwalk River at either end of the Branchville train station.
“Both bridges ... it’s going to help this entire area,” Fisher said. “That’s going to help get people in and out of the railroad station better. When everything is done it’s going to be a great project for that whole area.”
The Portland Avenue Bridge project will involve the addition of a new traffic signal at the intersection with Route 7. Route 7 will also be widened in the area to accommodate the addition of a left-turn lane.
The Depot Road Bridge is at the Route 102 intersection where there is already a traffic light. The Depot Road Bridge — which was closed last fall due to safety concerns — will be repaired first, so it can handle traffic in and out of the train station while the Portland Avenue Bridge is reconstructed.
“Combined with our project, there’s a sizable infrastructure improvement being undertaken in the Branchville area,” said Jonathan Richer, senior project manager with Tighe & Bond, the other consulting firm working on the project.
The improvements planned in the area include:
• Realignment of the routes 102 and 7 intersection
• Signalization of the Portland Avenue intersection, with a left-turn lane on Route 7
• New 6-foot-wide sidewalks in much of the area
• A pedestrian bridge over Cooper Pond Brook by the intersection of routes 102 and 7
• Improved pedestrian crossings
• Bus stop facilities
“The project came out of multiple corridor studies, the Route 7 Corridor Study 10 years ago, the Branchville TOD study,” Richer said. “Both identified the lack of pedestrian facilities as an impediment to development in this corridor.”
The Branchville TOD or “transit oriented development” study Richer referred to was done for the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, a regional planning agency, and sees Branchville with its train station as a hub for development.
The plan, completed in 2017, lays out an ambitious vision for Branchville and suggests a variety of zoning changes that could lead to extensive long-term development. The “preferred development concept” envisions 189 apartments, 192 townhouses, 38,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,022 parking spaces being added in the coming years, generating a projected $3.2 million annually in new tax revenue.
But barring major changes from the state, zoning and development in Branchville will be controlled by the decisions of Ridgefield’s Planning and Zoning Commission. To accommodate that much development, Branchville would need some kind of sewage disposal facilities that do not now exist.
Still, the sidewalk, intersection and bridge improvements being worked on fit with the vision of the longer range Branchville TOD plan.
The main thrust of the project is providing a more coherent sidewalk system.
“Where there are sidewalks in the corridor they’re not connected and don’t lead to any logical end points,” Richer said. “There are a couple of isolated segments constructed as part of development projects, but they don’t lead you to the train station, or a crossing — that’s something we’re trying to correct.”
So, the plan is to add sidewalks with decorative street lamps and plantings that would make the area easier for pedestrians to navigate while creating more of a village atmosphere.
The main new sidewalk would be on the west side of Route 7— the side that looks across the highway at the train station — starting at the bridge just north of the intersection of Route 102 and running south to the Wilton town line. A new sidewalk would also extend up the north side of Route 102, as far as Florida Road.
The goal of the new sidewalks is to make Branchville “a comfortable place to walk around” said Gomes, the Ftizgerald & Halliday consultant.
The sidewalks would be 6-feet wide, with a planted buffer area separating them from the traffic. There would be “street trees” planted and lampposts.
“We’re introducing a decent amount of landscaping,” Gomes said.
“We’ve tried to separate the sidewalk from edge or roads as much as we can — that distance varies,” he said.
Planners hope this will trigger more private investment in the area.
“Residential, retail, services, maybe restaurants — it will become more active and vibrant as a village,” Gomes said.
“It’s possible eventually these sidewalks might be lined by storefronts.”
Pedestrian comfort and safety is another goal.
“We have safe pedestrian crossings at all the roadways,” Gomes said.
At Branchville’s main intersection — at routes 7 and 102 on the west and Depot Road on the east — “we have sidewalks on all four corners of the intersection and we have crosswalks on all four sides,” Gomes said.
A question from the public concerned right-on-red turns at the intersection.
“There is no turn-on-red now,” Marconi said, “and I don’t anticipate that changing.”
There would also be a crosswalk on Route 102 from the sidewalk on the north side of 102 to the CVS plaza on the south side.
There would be a new pedestrian bridge over Cooper Pond Brook, a tributary to the Norwalk River, which runs along Route 102.
The pedestrian bridge over would be separated by about 12 feet from the existing bridge, which carries Route 7 traffic over the brook just south of the 102 intersection.
“Neither we nor the town felt it was safe to put pedestrians on roadway side of existing bridge,” Richer said.
The pedestrian bridge will have a “rusted steel look” with a “composite wood decking,” he said.
The plans would also improve accommodations for the “Route 7 Link” buses that Housatonic Area Regional Transit (HART) runs between Norwalk and Danbury.
“There is HART bus service through this area — the 7 link. There are only a few buses a day. Currently, they just stop at the edge of the road — not handicapped accessible. It’s not comfortable and safe,” Gomes said.
“We propose wide sidewalk sections that meet ADA requirements” on both side of Route 7 to serve northbound and southbound buses, he said. The stop for southbound buses would be in front of the parking lot that serves the Tusk and Cup and various retailers, and the stop for northbound buses would be just north of Depot Road.
“That would provide safe loading and unloading,” Gomes said. “That’s a tremendous improvement for the people that do use that service.”
Although the train station provides a signature amenity, Branchville is dominated by routes 7 and 102 that meet there.
“Route 7 is a major north-south thoroughfare,” Richer said. “It’s primarily a commercial corridor and has very few sidewalk facilities.”
Route 7 in Branchville is traveled by more than 18,000 vehicles each day, traveling on average about 38 mph, he said.
And Route 102 — Branchville Road — “is also a major roadway,” he said, with a traffic volume of about 7,000 vehicle per day.
The average delays at the traffic signal in Branchville are “over 80 seconds in the morning and over 60 seconds in the afternoon,” the consultants said.
In reconfiguring the intersection, the project would address the “lack of access ramps” for wheelchair users at crosswalks. The redesign will also eliminate the “island” in the middle of Route 102 at the intersection, shortening the distance pedestrians have to cross.
The plan for extending sidewalks along Route 7 also involves reducing the frequency and width of commercial driveways — something the consultants referred to as “improved access management.”
“You want to provide access to land along the corridor, but improve safety for users,” Richer said.
Driveways should be no more than 30 feet wide — when they’re too wide it’s hard for pedestrians to cross, he said.
“Properties should not have multiple access driveways when not necessary,” Richer said.
“We don’t want multiple points where vehicles are entering and exiting the corridor right next to each other,” he said. “It makes it more difficult for pedestrians when there are a lot of conflict points to cross.”
Dennis McDonald, of the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Rights of Way, said the project would be accomplished mostly on what is already state property.
“Right now, we’re looking at some minor partial acquisitions,” he said.
Property owners with land the state needs for the project will receive a letter of intent to acquire a portion of their property, with a “property impact map” included.
“A valuation will take place, and the property owner will receive a written offer of acquisition,” McDonald said.
The property owners would have “time to review, and a negotiation, if they wish,” he said..
“If an agreement is not reached, the state will use its power of eminent domain,” McDonald said.
Eminent domain is a legal “taking” of property by the government — with the property owner receiving compensation, but not necessarily with their agreement.
If the state pursues eminent domain, McDonald said, the property owners can continue to negotiate.
Construction in 2022
The schedule for the project has “preliminary design approval” this September, “final design approval” in June 2021, and construction expected in 2022.
The planners involved in the project said it is designed to address concerns people have raised.
“We did hear from people,” Gomes said. “...They would just like to come down and walk around comfortably ... come down here, run a couple of errands, and do it on foot and not have to drive from parking lot to parking lot.”