Friday, July 25, 2008

Downtown is looking up!

Middletown was well represented at Friday's "Upstairs Downtown" seminar in Hartford. Eight of us who work or live in our downtown road-tripped up to the Lyceum Center for the session presented by the Connecticut Main Street Program.

The topic of the day was how to help traditional downtowns revitalize the upper floors of historic Main Street buildings, particularly for market-rate housing. In Middletown, for example, there are several buildings where the storefront is active (or open for lease) but the upper floors have been shuttered for decades (for example, the old Bob's building.)

To invoke Jane Jacobs and the need to have "eyes on the street", I'll note that it's important for both residences and businesses to share the downtown, or it becomes a ghost town after business hours. But the transformation of an empty building to market-rate apartments or condominiums is complicated: bankers won't make loans if they can't find comparable buildings on which to base their appraisal; building and fire codes and the requirements of the ADA can limit rehab projects; and there are typically gaps between the market value of the housing units and the cost to develop them, especially when it's the first project on the block.

Dan Carmody and Mike Jackson shared their experience in developing housing in various towns across Illinois, using grants and tax-credits for historic preservation, tax-incremental-financing (TIF), and other alternative funding sources.
Personally, my favorite part was all the before and after shots of building facades and apartment floor plans, with photos of high, tin ceilings, exposed beams and brick walls. They've seen a return of an old-fashioned idea, with owners living above their stores, and they've had success in spurring private development after some public/private partnership projects have paved the way. One of their methods of converting people to the notion of moving downtown is to sponsor "house tours" of renovated apartments, as well as buildings under renovation, and even available property, in case someone gets inspired to take on a project (the Village District did a house tour last year for the same reason!) And we also heard from a group of folks from Greenfield, Mass. about a wide-scale redevelopment of their downtown, which involves purchasing multiple buildings and rehab-ing them for mixed-use.

Here is my "take-away" from the day: According to Dan, four things have to be in place before downtown residential can take off. First, there have to be things to walk to -- whether work or entertainment or shopping. Second, the area has to be clean and safe, and with evidence of community leadership. Third, there have to be unique architectural features. Fourth, there has to be a view. Though they weren't on Dan's list, Mike added that unless you are in SoHo, you also have to offer a parking space for their car and an elevator!

Equally interesting was the opportunity to gather with others from Middletown to talk about what we need to do to attract market-rate housing to our Main Street. One idea that emerged is to study a few likely buildings, and prepare a profile of the property and a projection of what kinds of improvements (i.e. sprinkler system, elevator) would make the building viable for either apartments or condos. That kind of profile might help local real estate agents attract buyers for those buildings, or encourage the current owners to make the investment.

The Middletown contingent included Trevor Davis representing the Central Business Bureau of the Chamber, Catherine Johnson in her capacity as a Planning and Zoning Commissioner, myself (as chair of the Downtown Business District), Jeff Bianco as Chair of the Design Review and Preservation Board, and Bill Vasiliou from the Middletown Housing Authority -- also, from City Hall, we had Chief Building Official John Parker, Fire Marshal Al Santostefano, and Economic Development Specialist Rick Kearney. Thanks to all who attended and to the DBD and the City for sending us!

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