Monday, November 12, 2012

Washington Street Development


As I reported on Saturday in the Eye, there’s a proposal in the works to build a new commercial development on the North side of Washington Street, between Pearl & High Streets.

The new building, to be located where two historic houses now stand, would consist of 10,000 sq. ft. of space on two floors.  The potential anchor tenant would be a chain bookstore, which would have an affiliation with Wesleyan as their textbook dealer.  There would be other tenants, who might include national chain restaurants and stores.

That’s about all I have for facts at this point, and I’m not particularly clear on those.  The only reason the proposal is in the public eye at this time is that Wesleyan has raised it within the university community, to allow for discussion on the merits of the idea.

So right off the bat, I can say one good thing about this project:  I applaud the open discussion about whether this would be a good or bad move for the university, and the opportunity to speculate on how it would affect the non-university community in town.

But beyond the admirable transparency, this proposal as it appears opens a whole can of worms for both Middletown and Wesleyan.

The first question has to be safety.   There have been a number of cases of pedestrians hit by cars in this corridor in recent years, including at least two fatalities.   Because it’s a state highway, because the road is wide, because cars are rushing to catch the light – whatever the reason, this area is a proven hazard for pedestrians.  For the university, placing their bookstore on the other side of Route 66 would just be bad judgement.

The second question is traffic.  Locals know that Washington Street is so congested that it often backs up from Main to High.  Can you imagine the high-volume traffic that would be coming in and out of this block if the proposed development were to open?  Although it’s not in the official statement, I’ve heard multiple sources name Starbucks and Chipotle’s as two of the proposed tenants.  That’s a lot of cars in a block that already experiences gridlock every day.

Speaking of Starbucks and Chipotle’s, most national chain restaurants want to have a drive-thru, and unless Middletown’s required lane length can fit in those lots, the project would require a waiver from zoning – it’s not permitted outright.  So that either casts doubt on the participation of those national tenants, or it opens the possibility for a refusal of the project by P&Z.

And what about historic preservation?  This area is part of the Washington Street Historic District, isn’t it?  Does that confer any protection on these houses?  One of the houses is notable primarily because it used to be located across from Vet’s Green, and has only been at this location for a decade or so.  During the construction of the university’s film center, it was saved from demolition by Wesleyan and a local homeowner, and it’s now proposed for demolition by the same – I don’t know if that’s ironic or just nuts.

Where was I.

Oh, right.  We’ve come to the more intangible issue of character.  I’ve made no secret of my hope that our downtown can resist the national chains a little longer.  What’s the rush to just be like everyone else?  Has everyone forgotten the fickle nature of Sears & Woolworth’s and the holes they left on our Main Street when it didn’t suit their portfolio to remain?   It was a recipe for short-term tax gains and long-term blight, not to mention the negative effect on our homegrown entrepreneurs.  If Starbucks and Chipotles want to come downtown, rent a storefront and follow the rules like everyone else, I’m sure I’ll buy my share of lattes.  But it would be a shame if Wesleyan – dear, independent, iconoclastic Wesleyan – was the backer that started us back on the road to Anywhereville, after we’ve come so far.

I have witnessed a 20-year effort to protect and restore the character of our New England downtown, making Middletown an exception to the blight that rests on most traditional downtowns in our region.  But it’s a delicate thing, and there’s no question in my mind that this proposal would be bad for downtown Middletown, and therefore, for Wesleyan. 

If the bookstore needs a new location, then let’s work together to find one.  But with the proposed development for Washington Street, the end does not justify the means.

Occasionally on the Eye, an author clarifies their relationship with the topic.  Here goes:  I live two blocks from the proposed development, I run a business in the same area, I’m a Wes alum, I’m a current Wes parent, I’m friends with at least one of the proponents of the development, I voted against the current location of Broad Street Books back when it took over from the old Atticus store because I thought it should move to Main Street, I’m a frequent Starbucks customer and I still miss Doris Hallie.

34 comments:

Ed McKeon said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Jen, and I plan to fight this development, and to organize others to fight with me.

What Wesleyan is proposing is the complete destruction of a streetscape that has been there for a century and a half. They are proposing introducing modern, commercial, retail properties on a block where magnificent residences have stood for decades. They will be destroying the character of the neighborhood, and drastically change the lives of those who live in adjoining and neighboring properties.

You are more than generous in commending Wesleyan for opening this for development within the Wesleyan community. Unfortunately, I cannot be as magnanimous. Very few of the Wesleyan faculty own homes or live in this neighborhood. Wesleyan should have considered bringing it to the Middletown community, but it only reached us because it leaked out through faculty.

One other piece of bad news. I've got a report that Wesleyan is selling several (one report said all) of its properties on Washington street, and some faculty, who are renting in these properties, have protested to the administration.

While this is being touted as a means to connect Wesleyan to the community, it is really an arrogant proposal, largely made by non-residents, which will permanently alter streets that are signature entryways to our city.

Liz Warner said...

Couple of comments:
* How will they take the property from the current non-Wesleyan owner? They do not have the right of eminent domain (although they might feel all that powerful!).
* The National Register District affords only one protection: If they plan to tear down historic, contributing buildings, they cannot use any federal funds for the project. The moved house may NOT be contributing because it moved from one NR district to another. But the other Wesleyan-owned house they plan to tear down IS a contributing building (See district nomination here pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/85001018.pdf).
* I whole-heartedly agree that this is a very poor development plan for the residential neighborhood along Washington Street. It is dangerous for students and shoppers, and would be an aesthetic nightmare.
* I encourage Wesleyan to work with the City to locate their bookstore on Main Street. Or how about revitalizing the old mill on Hamlin Street?

Anonymous said...

Wesleyan should focus on education.

Anonymous said...

Ed lives where this project might go. More NIMBY arguments. Yale has a great large scale bookstore, this could be a legit project in Middletown.

Middletown Duo said...

We are concerned about this proposal as well. Does not seem like a natural fit, and it has caused us to scratch our heads and say "you want to do this why, exactly?" Seems like it weakens rather than strengthens Middletown's valuable assets.





jarsilver said...

For clarification: Wesleyan is not the developer and would not be the owner of the property. I believe the property has already been bought.

jarsilver said...

For clarification: Wesleyan is not the developer and would not be the owner of the property. As far as I know the property has already been bought and this project would go through (assuming it's approved by the community) regardless of whether Wesleyan relocates its bookstore.

Jesse Ross-Silverman
Wesleyan Class of 2013

Alycia said...

Trafficcccccccc, no wayyyyyy!!!

Anonymous said...

Jesse - What does your comment mean? - "assuming it's approved by the community" ??? Please clarify. How is "the community" being engaged and how will the community be enabled to voice approval or not? What are the specifics needed for community approval? This is the first I am reading of this and I haven't gone back to past articles in other sites, so maybe this seems obvious to you or has been covered already, but I would like a better explanation here. thanks

Anonymous said...

Wesleyan was approached by the developers with this opportunity just a few days ago, and Wesleyan is considering whether or not we want to involve ourselves by moving our bookstore into this new development. Please stop making the wrongful assumption that Wesleyan is a main proponent or even a proponent at all.

Wesleyan would like to engage with the Middletown community on this issue, and has begun conversations to the end, but this is all very new to us as well so please don't call us the "arrogant" proposers trying to force this on Middletown for our benefit.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I'm with you and will help fight this any way I can. I'm looking forward to the updates here on the Eye.

Jennifer Peifer

Wes Student '13 said...

To clarify Jesse's point:
The developers have no relation to Wesleyan outside of the fact that after having purchased the property, they reached out to Wesleyan about locating the Wesleyan bookstore in the new development. In terms of national chains, the developers have said that is one possibility, although they have indicated that they would like to make it primarily locally owned business. This is something that they will hopefully clarify in greater depth before any decisions are made on Wesleyan's part.
To the point of "community approval" that Jesse made, the approval that would be needed would be through the Planning, Conservation and Development committee (which is meeting Tuesday 11/13 at 7:30 pm at 27 Washington St.) and the Planning and Zoning Commission (particularly if they need zoning waivers for whatever they plan on doing. This meeting is Wednesday 11/14 at the Council Chambers Municipal Building which is at 245 Devoken Drive).
Anyone from the Middletown community should feel free to come to the meeting at Wesleyan on Tuesday November 27th at 4:30pm which will be held at 41 Wyllys Ave. Room 112. If you can't make the meeting, but would like your voice in the process, feel free to email wsa@wesleyan.edu to get in touch with our student government leaders (of which I am one). We are being actively consulted in the matter and would happily listen and convey and concerns, opinions, questions, etc. that anyone has.

Anonymous said...

Jesse, thanks for participating here, but what is your source that the property has already been purchased. Did you check the property records in town? Perhaps the developers have an option rather than a purchase. Why do you think that the development would go through even without Wesleyan's participation? You can't really say that right? If that is what students were told then it would be good to know who said that, since no one could promise all the approvals.

Anonymous said...

People, this commercial center is going to be built regardless whether wesleyan puts a bookstore there, it's not wesleyan that is "destroying " your neighborhood. Just want to clear things up. I think the author should clear this up too.

Stephen Devoto said...

The process of going from a concept to an approved plan is as follows:

The Economic Development Committee would consider a municipal subsidy (tax abatement), if it feels that a development is good for the city in the long run. The next meeting of the EDC is Tuesday, but this Washington Street development is not on the agenda.

The Planning and Zoning Commission would consider the safety, environment, economic, etc, impacts of such a development, but they would need a detailed site plan to do so. This site plan would need to be available for the public to view at least 2 weeks prior to the P&Z meeting. The next P&Z meeting is on Wednesday, but this development is not on the agenda.

The Eye provides consistent coverage of land use decisions in our city, stay tuned.

Karen Swartz said...

??? to anon206 - Wes student - you wrote "Planning, Conservation and Development committee (which is meeting Tuesday 11/13 at 7:30 pm at 27 Washington St.)" ? I am on the Middletown Conservation Commission and we meet on the third Tuesday each month at 7pm in room 208 of City Hall, next meeting is Nov 20th. I searched the city's websites and calendars and other sources and I found nothing posted matching what you wrote. Are you referring to a Wesleyan committee or something else. The address given is for the deKoven House which hosts many different organizations. Can you please explain so anyone who decides to attend that meeting can understand what entity is running the meeting. Thanks

Anonymous said...

This is really, really sad.

It should be noted that, in the email sent out to students Friday, it was stated: "...we also hope the new businesses would enhance connections between the campus and downtown."

By putting the small businesses (Klekolo, etc.) out of business?

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Thanks for explaining the process Stephen.

I would recommend to Wes students (especially those who are sure that this project is a "go" no matter what), to follow the entire process from this point forward.

I can guarantee an education in civic process that they won't find within the confines of a classroom.

The developer is a respected, high-quality firm in Middletown, but it's unlikely that they have a signed contract from any national chains. If they do, I'd like to see them.

The developer is also, likely, very anxious to get Wes to sign on. That's an automatic customer base for the bookstore and national chains. Without a Wes sign-on, it'd be a tougher sell to the chains.

And while this development is apparently being pushed by City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce (which increases the likelihood of it happening), it doesn't guarantee the outcome.

Finally, I would appeal to Wesleyan students to consider the effect of this development on something other than their own need for convenience. This mini-mall will be in Middletown long after they're gone, and all the traffic problems, neighborhood disruptions, noise, litter, smells, and daily problems will be ours for decades.

Take a look at the four contiguous blocks of Washington from Newfield to Broad, on the North side now. Pretty nice - unique architecture. Vintage homes. Traditional New England streetscape. They don't build them like that anymore.

Now picture Washington Street South of the railroad bridge, and that's what's coming - modern, shoddy, ugly commercial-strip development.

Anonymous said...

To the Wesleyan students who have been reading and commenting here, hopefully you will read the post by Stephen DeVoto about how developments get approved in town. It should be clear that this proposal is very far from being an approved development or a "done deal". There is no commitment from the national chains that have been mentioned. He clarifies that the developer does not own the properties. One of the properties is owned by Wesleyan though under contract for possible purchase, That doesn't indicate that Wesleyan has the kind of distance from this project that students seem to believe is the case or that it emerged only recently. The point is that students in official positions have leapt into a position of endorsing a plan that they don't fully understand and which is not confirmed. Please, please consider the implications for this town when you lend your support to this concept and ask yourself if you are really ready for that responsibility. Do not underestimate the impact of your endorsement or resistance on this process. It has serious consequences. Please, take a step back and take the time to truly understand the situation and wait for the full measure of campus awareness and reaction to develop before you act. Thank you.

Ridge Road Resident said...

This is not where I live, but I feel this would be a negative to this side of Middletown. It would tear apart a neighborhood and destroy the streetscape. It would snarl traffic even more. Pedestrians have a difficult enough time crossing Washington Street, This is not the place for a commercial development of this size. Never mind, not in my backyard...I don't want this in Middletown's front yard!

Wes Student '13 said...

To clarify the earlier point this is the meeting that was brought to my attention by a member of the student body: http://www.middletownplanning.com/agendas/111312edca2.pdf
The agenda lists a public session, though does not list the development specifically, so I am unsure whether there would officially be room for any lengthy discussion of the matter. Mr. Devoto's post clarifies a lot of the logistics in terms of city approval.

In response to the idea that student leaders at Wes are jumping to support of this or are convinced it is a done deal, this is not the case. Again, as a leader on the student government, I can tell you that we had a lengthy discussion on Sunday and will follow up with a second one November 27th. No official position has been taken by student leadership and we want to hear not just from students, but also from members of the Middletown community at large about this proposed development. If there is strong sentiment in the community in one direction, that is something that students the students would take into strong consideration in our advocacy for or against the proposed move of the bookstore by Wesleyan.

Anonymous said...

As owners of The Red & Black Cafe, we have posted our position on the proposed development on our website.
http://weswings.com/2012/11/14/our-position-on-the-bookstore-relocation/
We welcome discussion.

-Karen & Ed

Anonymous said...

I'm upset to see that Wesleyan students are being hassled here when they are trying to be involved in a community discussion. If you have animosity against Wesleyan students, don't take it out on them here. I genuinely think the comments from the students above are meant to show solidarity with community members. The buzz around campus is that students are really against the move, as well as anything that would be detrimental to Red & Black. I just want to promote the idea that coming together on this issue would benefit everyone.

Anonymous said...

i read all this again and i do not see any hassling at all. just a lot of questions raised and a pretty decent discussion. i do see that Ed wrote that it is an arrogant proposal. .. maybe the word arrogant touched a nerve here, but he did not say students are arrogant, he was referring to the institution. i dont see anything here that is hassling students or taking out animosity on them as 3:55 wrote. read it again and with less sensitivity. I do see that some Wes students have jumped to explain their positions and understanding of the issue and I take that at face value and think it's great. i hope everyone else will think so too.

Anonymous said...

i bet this will do wonders for the traverse square neighborhood

Ross Levin said...

I'm a student at Wes, and I'd hate to see any more national chain stores in Middletown than there already are. And I'd hate to see Wesleyan go further down the path of becoming a big, corporate business than it already is. I'm off campus for this semester, but when I get back, I hope I can be an ally in fighting this. In my hometown in PA, a community effort recently stopped the construction of a huge mini-mart and gas station in a historic downtown "revitalized" much like Main St from what I've heard, and so I'm hopeful that this kind of thing can be fought.

Ross Levin said...

I'm a student at Wes, and I'd hate to see any more national chain stores in Middletown than there already are. And I'd hate to see Wesleyan go further down the path of becoming a big, corporate business than it already is. I'm off campus for this semester, but when I get back, I hope I can be an ally in fighting this. In my hometown in PA, a community effort recently stopped the construction of a huge mini-mart and gas station in a historic downtown "revitalized" much like Main St from what I've heard, and so I'm hopeful that this kind of thing can be fought.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've lived and worked in downtown Middletown for almost 15 years and in that time, I've seen MUCH improvement. If any of it has been thanks to Wesleyan, I'm not aware of it. Look at Wesleyan's handling of the Green Streets Arts Center. Aside from the wonderful youth programs, it is a sadly under-utilized as a community arts space. Wesleyan is too self-sufficient and self-interested to be of any great help to Middletown. The students do not have reason enough to leave campus and contribute to the local community. Adding a Starbucks etc so close to campus will just give them another reason not to venture down to Main Street.

Ron Medley said...

@10:24 -

I'm a Wesleyan alumnus with many fond memories of shopping and dining downtown; I can remember when the length of Main Street had its "historic" storefronts, when Ford News was where you could reliaby buy a copy of the Times when you absolutely wanted it and when Pelton's was the contraceptive vendor of choice for many Wesleyan men.

Wesleyan is not as self-contained as you may think; most of its buildings abut the city property lines; they don't even control the use of the sidewalks in front of them; it is an open campus.

And, while this openness has its advantages in terms of keeping the university connected to the neighborhoods that surround it, that advantage dissipates at night when most Middletown residents retire for the evening and, ironically, its relatively conservative habits and work ethic combine to make Middletown's streets deserted and univiting after dark.

I think part of what may be making this proposal so enticing to Wesleyan is that they have been looking for years at ways to encourage foot traffic downtown. Students do not keep the same hours as families with childrren. They need places to hang out at different hours of the day and night, safely and with minimal disturbance to their neighbors. Perhaps, this is not the right proposal to do the job, but it is not so far-fetched that a national chain might have more resources - personnel and profit margins - to keep hours even after the heaviest traffic of the day dies down and maybe even provide an "island hopping" experience that leads further downtown.

At least, that's one theory. Rant button off.

Cathy Lechowicz said...

@Anon 10:24: The Green Street Arts Center would love to support more local art. This weekend we're hosting Chasing Manet put on by the Vintage Players, in December we'll host a production by ArtFarm. We host some of Oddfellows programs when they do not have space at their location. If you see specific opportunities, please contact me: clechowicz_at_wesleyan.edu, I would love to see the space utilized even more.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what everyone is so opposed to. This is a great opportunity to have a great, big bookstore right downtown. Middletowners are constantly saying "if we only had a bookstore...." Now we can.

The lots in question are sadly underutilized and uninviting, except for the one nice house which was moved there from campus.

Traffic is not a big deal, tons of people cross at that intersection all of the time, day and night. I live near there and the crosswalks work very well.

Broad St Books, sadly, is not big enough to be a great community bookstore. It doesn't have enough selection and its hours are minimal.

This would be great. I think we need more people who are for it speaking up.

Anonymous said...

Back in 1985 the city of Middletown had the forsight to submit this very portion of Washington Street for consideration on the National Registry of Historic Places. Today there are just 31 places within our city of roughly 40 square miles listed on the Registry - most are single structure buildings or residential homes.

The City of Middletown itself has taken the further step of formally recognizing these homes as historically significant. As such, any proposal to demolish these buildings - regardless of whether their owners have allowed them to fall into a state of disrepair (the worst offender being Wesleyan's own property) must have some pretty significant reasons for doing so, other than "it's convenient" or "it's cheaper."

There are bigger ethical considerations at stake when we debate wiping out a piece of our history and I have yet to understand WHY no other non-historic location isn't equally or better suited for commercial development.

Marilyn Mills said...

Why was my comment removed? It was number 5.
Marilyn Mills

Jen Alexander said...

Hi Marilyn,

I think you originally commented on a different post - there's a comment from you on one of the other bookstore posts at position #5 -

-Jen