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.