Mayors’ forum finds agreement on issues, uncertainty on how to pay for improvements

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Sustainability, resilience, prosperity, opportunity – and transportation – were the main issues discussed at the recent “Outlook for the Future” forum featuring six city leaders in Connecticut and Westchester County at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus.

Moderated by Melissa Kaplan-Macey, Connecticut director of Regional Plan Association CT, the Sept. 29 panel – sponsored by the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) NY Westchester affiliate and Hartford-based Construction Institute — included New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, Stamford Mayor David Martin, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach, and Fairfield First Selectman Mike Tetreau.

Kaplan-Macey set the forum’s tone with a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Charting a New Course.” The group estimates that with sufficient housing and infrastructure capacity the tristate region could gain an estimated 1.9 million more jobs by 2040, adding $760 billion to the region’s economy and offering more chances for employment and higher incomes.

Accomplishing that would require a number of initiatives, she said, including adding jobs in poor cities and neighborhoods by 25 percent; growing multifamily homes in affluent towns and neighborhoods by more than 50 percent; reducing the average share of income going to housing and transportation to 45 percent from the 51 percent it said was spent from 2009-13; and increasing the number of homes affordable to low-income households to more than two-thirds of rentals and a quarter of owner-occupied homes.

Kaplan-Macey also called for continued reduction in greenhouse gases, renewed emphasis on walking and bicycle riding, and reducing vulnerability of the nearly 2.2 million regional residents who face significant flooding issues by 2050 due to the changing environment and its effect on weather patterns.

Regarding flood vulnerability, Tetreau noted that most of Fairfield sits at sea level. He also noted that millennials typically no longer are seeking to buy big properties, preferring to live in smaller houses or apartments in close proximity to downtown areas, train stations and the like.

Asked how he’d like New Rochelle to look in 25 years, Bramson replied, “We build a big, beautiful seawall all around New Rochelle and make Stamford pay for it,” a joke well-received by Stamford’s mayor Martin.

New Rochelle’s mayor went on to say that he’d like to see his city enhance and strengthen the qualities it now has; reclaim its waterfront from public works yards for public use; and continue to improve its appeal to New Rochelle’s “very diverse” population.

Martin, calling Stamford “the most diverse metropolitan area in Connecticut,” said his town needed to seriously address senior housing before current longtime residents find themselves priced out of the market.

Roach, characterizing White Plains as “the fastest-growing city in New York,” said he expected that growth to continue. If one goes to the White Plains train station, he said, nearly the same amount of people arrive to work in White Plains as leave to commute to Manhattan or other destinations. Much work can still be done around the train station, he said, as far as adding retail and other attractions to make the area more appealing.

Roach also implied that the town’s walkability can be improved: “We have six-lane roads. It’s a Frogger situation,” he said, referring to the popular 1980s video game, “when you want to cross one of these roads.”

Affordable housing remains White Plains’ greatest challenge, he concluded.

Rilling touted Norwalk’s significant changes over the past several years, moving away from its ‘70s-era nickname “hole in the donut,” — signifying the economic and social problems that set it apart from its wealthier surrounding neighbors like Darien, Westport, Wilton, Weston and New Canaan — by developing its urban core.

Naming several of Norwalk’s recently completed or in-progress redevelopment projects, Rilling said such initiatives as his Bike/Walk Task Force, comprised of residents and business owners charged with helping to make the town’s streets and sidewalks safer, will help establish “Norwalk as being the destination we always thought it should be.”

Harp maintained that Connecticut “should be run like a county,” with the state establishing regional governing bodies instead of leaving its 169 towns to fend for themselves. She also decried the state’s byzantine highway system, saying that it had taken her two hours to travel that day the 40-mile distance from New Haven to the forum, and that a recent trip to Brooklyn by train took her four-and-a-half hours.

More efficient transit options would be a boon in attracting business to the state, the group agreed.

The panel also discussed how to raise more money in taxes for education, development and other causes. Suggestions ranged from Rilling’s 1 percent city sales tax added on top of the state tax to Harp’s suggestion that the state, rather than cities, should pay for public education.

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