Sidewalks lined with shops, shaded by trees, welcoming strollers and shoppers, but split by an unrelenting line of cars, backed up, waiting at lights — people appreciate Main Street, and know its challenges at the wrong time of day. Nearly all agree on the goal of preserving the village as a thriving, pedestrian-friendly commercial district.

A $3.15-million Main Street renovation plan laid out by state planners got mixed reviews from a crowd of about 50 — residents, business owners, town officials — at a three-hour back-and-forth discussion Thursday, March 22, in the town hall annex.

The central question: What will keep Main Street flourishing?

Some support traffic-flow improvements — some version of the project state planners have been working on for two years, adding turning lanes for cars and pedestrian bump-outs to slow traffic while shortening crosswalk distances.

“We do need to address the idea of traffic flow, and make it more graceful — but not fast,” said Ursula Hanavan, who has a shop on Main Street.

Longtime resident Joan Zawacki said driving down Main Street into the village means waiting through several traffic light cycles. She wants turning lanes.

“I can’t get out for three lights,” she said. “Gridlock has occurred.”

Others urged planners to preserve — not change — the Main Street people love.

“Why do anything?” said one man. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Some questioned better “traffic flow.”

“What most of us are concerned with is the pleasantness of Main Street for pedestrians,” said Helen Dimos, a landscape designer active on town planning issues. “I think trying to make traffic flow better is the wrong goal. When a car goes slowly it sees the pedestrians, it sees the shop windows. If someone wants to go fast, they should go somewhere else — like Route 7.”

“The street’s for everybody, not just cars — and certainly not just commuters,” said Sean O’Kane, a Main Street architect.

Where to send comments

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) is trying to determine what the town wants.

“At the end of the day it’s a collective decision, by everybody,” said Sal Aresco, DOT project engineer. “If the public, the department, and the town can’t agree to move forward, that’s a problem.”

People with comments may email them to Michael.Calabrese@ct.gov or send them to Michael Calabrese PE, Bureau of Engineering and Construction, Connecticut Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 317546, Newington CT 08131-7546.

The state wants comments before April 6 and asks people to identify the project by number: 117-159.

Additions and divisions

Most everyone at Thursday night’s discussion seemed appreciative of state planners’ effort to accommodate local opinion.

Many liked the planted “bump-outs” and the added turning lanes to smooth traffic flow.

“Just putting in a turn-lane, that seems to be the single most significant thing,” said Zawacki, who’d complained of gridlock.

“People avoid Main Street, who are Ridgefield residents,” said Hanavan. “It takes three or four light changes just to get to the next light cycle.”

But opinion was divided on the state’s plans to re-do the entrance-exit drive to the CVS parking lot, moving it north to be directly across from Prospect Street.

Some favored the change, which would allow better synchronization of the downtown’s three traffic lights by eliminating the need for an extra cycle at the currently offset Prospect-CVS intersection.

Others felt the improved traffic flow wasn’t worth the significant changes — including a small retaining wall — that would be required near Ballard Park’s southeast corner.

“You’re killing the very nice, quiet entrance to Ballard Park that all the kids use, and that on concert nights is full of people,” said Elizabeth DiSalvo, an architect with offices on Main Street.

Some critics felt that creating a “straight shot” across Main, from Prospect Street into the CVS lot, would be asking for trouble.

“People are going to bolt through that intersection,” said O’Kane.

“My main concern is people going too fast into the parking lot, where a lot of people walk. This is where people take their kids to the park.” said Patsy Knoche of Pelham Lane.

“I do like the crosswalk, with the bump-out,” she added.

Trees

Aresco, the state traffic engineer, recalled an “aha” moment when he came to town for an evening meeting during the holiday season and saw all the lights in the trees. He showed a slide of lit-up Main Street: “My management, I gave them this slide,” he said, “This is what Ridgefield is.”

The state’s plan calls for increasing the number of trees on the two Main Street blocks between Governor and Prospect streets — from 53 trees up to 61.

A total of eight trees are to be removed and replaced — four because the street design requires it, and four others simply because they’re in “poor condition.”

Eight additional trees — in addition to the eight replacements — would be planted by the state.

The new trees wouldn’t be as large as the more mature trees being taken out, Aresco admitted.

The state lists six other trees “recommended for replacement,” although it’s not required by the design. And four trees need “further evaluation.”  

Traffic, 12,000 cars

State numbers show that traffic on Main Street has actually been declining. In 2004, more than 14,000 vehicles a day were counted — 14,100 between Governor Street and Bailey Avenue, and 14,400 between Bailey and Prospect Street.

By the most recent count, in 2013, those figures were down to 12,100 vehicles a day between Governor and Bailey, and 13,100 between Bailey and Prospect.

“Your first selectman is getting phone calls because people are avoiding Main Street, driving on other roads,” Aresco said.

“If people are not going to your central business district anymore, you’re not going to have a central business district.”

Parking spaces

The state’s preferred plan — it’s been through several, at this point — has 53 parking spaces along Main Street, compared to 54 now. The one-space reduction didn’t seem to trouble people. But to keep the numbers close, the plan would create four new spaces on the west side of Main Street near the town clock, in front of St. Stephen’s North Hall. This drew concerns from a few speakers.

“We want to make certain nothing that is done would take away from the beauty of a 293-year-old historic space in Ridgefield,” said Chris Fallon of St. Stephens’ vestry.

Although the state identifies the four spaces near the town clock — which would not need to be moved — as parking, they are also envisioned as an early morning “loading zone” for trucks.

“The unloading would be called for between the hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then it would become available for parking,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said a few days after the presentation.

“Many people have said we object vehemently to the introduction of parking — not only in front to St. Stephen’s but at the beginning of our Historic District,” Marconi said.

He added, “People need to realize that years ago, cars did park up to Governor Street, in front of St. Stephen’s. They used to park there, and that parking was eliminated due to the turning lane onto Governor Street.”

Changing opinion

The state’s presentation did win over some people.

“I came here skeptical. But after seeing what you guys propose, I’m on board. There have to be turning lanes,” one man said. “We have to do something about traffic flow, and turning lanes do that.”

Timing remains a concern to the business community — especially after the Route 35 bridge project, which state planners admit was a problem.

Hanavan, the shop owner, urged the state not to begin work in June 2019 and risk having it run into the holiday season and into another year, causing prolonged problems downtown.

“Start April 1, 2020, and try to get it done,” she said. “Our Halloween Walk is really big. Oct. 25 is your deadline.”

The state’s detailed plan map is available on The Press’s website (www.theridgefieldpress.com) and on the town website (www.ridgefieldct.org), along with a summary of information shared at the meeting.

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of negative comments submitted, because people don’t like change,” Marconi said.

“I’m supporting the plan because I think there are other additions that will really make Main Street even more pleasant — with pedestrian bump-outs and a little bit more green. I’m in favor of more green and less asphalt, less bricks, less concrete — and there will be some areas that will be allowed to achieve that.”

More meetings

While the state engineers may not be able to come and do the presenting, Marconi said he would put together more public information meetings if people want them.

“We’re more than willing to do as many public hearings as you want,” he said. “We can do presentations to all the civic groups in town.”

Charles Robbins, a Planning and Zoning Commission member who served on the committee working with the state planners, is supportive of more public information meetings. He seemed concerned that a few critical voices might scuttle a plan without much input from the many others in town who would be affected.

“The decision to go or not go can’t be based on two or three people,” he said.

“You need a large audience,” he said after last Thursday’s meeting. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with making a decision based on just the people in this room.”