Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stripmauled, Or Ten Good Reasons to Oppose the Washington Street Development, Part 2


Local developer Centerplan, with the blessings of Middletown’s Mayor and Chamber of Commerce, and with the cooperation of Wesleyan University, has proposed a commercial development on Washington Street, between Pearl and High, on the Northern side of the street.  It will be a three-story office and retail complex.  I live in sight of the proposed development.  Part one of this commentary was published yesterday.

The Wesleyan forum on the proposed development (Tuesday Nov. 27, 4:30 PM) has been moved to a larger space on campus,  PAC 001 (on Church St, just East of Olin Library).  The developer, Centerplan will be making a presentation.  Unfortunately, this meeting has been scheduled at a time when many faculty chair and co-chairs will be attending mandatory meetings.  Several of these chairpersons are influential faculty, and Middletown residents.
WE'VE NOW ENTERED THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  The parcel in question is not zoned for the kind of development proposed.  To develop this parcel, the Planning and Zoning Commission will have to grant a significant zoning change.  A zoning change would be permanent, thereby allowing a wide array of commercial, retail and restaurant development on this block, and because a precedent will be set that goes beyond this block.

When parcels in a town are zoned, it is an attempt to create a contiguity of purpose and design in adjacent parcels.  This comprehensive plan is designed to prevent the kind of free-for-all development which occurs when there is no plan.

There are four lots in question.  The four closest to High Street are zone ID, which, according to Middletown’s zoning ordinances, “shall be limited to governmental, health, educational, charitable and religious institutions. The facility should be compatible with its setting in scale and design.”  A Mexican restaurant, and a coffee shop cannot reasonably fit into those designations.

The final lot, on the corner of Pearl and Washington, is zoned MX, or miscellaneous and multi-family uses, which does not allow restaurants or retail without a granted exception.

So, a development of the sort proposed, would go against the comprehensive plan and would require a zoning change, and could be considered “spot zoning.”   Spot Zoning is considered illegal, and is zoning designed to allow unfair advantage to a developer.

The only way a zoning change could sidestep a charge of “spot zoning” is to change the entire zone of Washington Street (Northern perimeter), to create one contiguous zone.

Wesleyan’s sale of several Washington Street properties makes this last alternative a frightening possibility.

Finally, once a zoning change is made, any allowable use within that zone can be allowed.  So, the zone change might be granted, and the developer might decide not to build, but another developer could come along and develop something much less appealing.

WHAT’S GOOD FOR WESLEYAN IS GOOD FOR WESLEYAN – Some Wesleyan administrators say this development will be good for students and faculty, and the relationship with Middletown.  It ain't necessarily so.

I moved to my house in Middletown because it was across the street from Wesleyan and I know what a cultural resource it is for our city.  I have had great interactions with many Wesleyan students.  Wesleyan students babysit my kids.  I hosted a radio show at WESU for three years.  I count many Wesleyan faculty as friends.  I have no automatic Wesleyan enmity.

Wes administrators claim this new development will relieve the financial burden of owning a bookstore building, will give students and faculty close access to a “quality” bookstore, restaurant, coffeeshop and in doing so will connect Wesleyan to downtown Middletown.

I can’t argue that a convenient bookstore/coffeehouse/restaurant won’t be enjoyed by students and faculty alike. 

I can’t argue that the sale of property won’t relieve some financial stress.

I can, and have, argued that it will be unsafe.

I can, and have, argued that it will permanently alter, in a negative way, a gateway street for anyone visiting Wesleyan.

I will also argue that this development does nothing to connect Wesleyan to downtown.  In fact, it does the opposite.  It is not a downtown development.  It will deter students and faculty from visiting downtown.  It will hurt current downtown businesses.  And it's two blocks further from Main then their current bookstore.

There are some at Wesleyan who believe that building a strip mall near campus will attract students to apply.  At a school that turns thousands of applicants away every year, it seems ridiculous to change the character of a city block to attrack students who would rather shop at a national change then walk a few blocks for some coffee with local character.

Wesleyan's acceptance or rejection of this plan is critical in whether it moves forward or not.  So far, Wesleyan has agreed to sell its properties on this block, and to signing a non-binding letter of intent to move its bookstore.  It did both of these things before it opened to topic up for discussion in its own community.  It seems to have forgotten to elicit response from neighbors outside the Wesleyan community.

I remind readers, that while Wesleyan makes substantial tax payments to the city, and some payment in lieu of taxes, most of its real estate holdings are tax-exempt.

TAXING OUR PATIENCE WITH PROMISES OF REAL JOBS.  The amount of taxes raised on the property must be measured against the cost of additional city services needed  to deal with issues created by the development.  The handful of new jobs will mostly be part-time, temporary and largely without benefits.

I’m a member of the Board of Education, and I know how important revenue is to the functioning of city government and thereby to our schools.  Still, the revenue raised through development has to be measured against the benefit gained by the city, and by the amount of money the city will spend to maintain the infrastructure surrounding the development.

The developers claim they will be paying $100,000 annually in taxes.

A new set of restaurants on this particular block will mean more traffic issues, more accidents,

What’s more, to bolster “economic development” the city often promises tax abatements which last for several years, meaning the full tax payments only begin many years after the development is created.

As for the jobs, most of the new jobs will be part-time, most without benefits.  These are restaurant jobs which don’t offer the permanence, pay level or perks most wage earners need.  

The developer is claiming the development will support 25-30 full time employees.  Not 25-30 full time jobs.  Nor 25-30 new jobs, since existing businesses with existing employees will be moving into office space in the building.

Greenskies Renewable Energy has been cited as one of the office tenants.  They are now tenants in Centerplan’s “Rite Aid” building on Main Street.  Centerplan also plans to move its offices to the building.   It’s not clear that shifting two existing companies into a new building will, in itself, create jobs.  And it begs the question, who will occupy the space Centerplan had been using on Main Street.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT TILL IT’S GONE – Not every old building is worth saving.  But not every development is essential for prosperity.

On its website the Centerplan Companies describes itself as “a fully integrated real estate acquisition, development, construction and investment firm, with an emphasis on adding asset value through repositioning strategies.” 

I’m not sure if “repositioning strategies” means knocking down significant old building and putting up steel-framed quasi-Colonial Stop and Shops like the ones pictured on their website, but if it does, I’m against it.

Every time we, as a community, decide to take down an old building we are forever wiping that portion of our architectural history clean.

I’ve said it before.  You can visit dozens of offices and businesses in Middletown and see a lovely nostalgic photo of our former city hall on Main Street.  It was destroyed, and where it stood the lot is empty still, and in it’s place we build an unlovely, late-20th century municipal building.

We can't save every old building, but we must be sure that when a building comes down, a worthwhile development goes up in the appropriate place.

YOU CAN ALWAYS GO, DOWNTOWN – The place for development of this kind is Main Street, and the adjacent nearby blocks.  

Middletown’s Downtown Business District has worked diligently, and successfully, to make Middletown’s Main Street work while other similar-sized cities have failed.

There are empty storefronts, and vacant lots (used as parking lots), on Main Street.  Can there be a good reason to encourage a developer to create a retail/restaurant/office complex that will draw business away from downtown?

In the end, it’s a question of philosophy.  If you believe that saving an existing, longstanding streetscape that speaks to the character of our city is important then you will oppose this development.  If you believe that a vibrant center city includes a mix of retail, and lots of livable residential units, then you'll oppose this plan.  If you believe the city ought to be creating opportunities and incentives to live downtown, then you'll oppose this plan.


Anonymous said...

There are plenty of under-utilized retail locations on Main Street.

Re-use, re-design and re-purpose what we have already.

John P. said...

I have to echo the comments above. I have no strong feelings about the bookstore moving, or even national chain stores appearing, but the location seems wrong.

Anonymous said...

Considering that closing both Broad Street Books would effectively eliminate about 2 dozen jobs- this would result in a net loss of jobs in Middletown- not6 a gain. The cafe has served both the college and community well for the past 9 plus years- how about those employee?
Cliff S.

Dale M said...

Developers develop for no other reason than to make money, and they are by necessity really excellent at spinning tales of future prosperity, whether realistic or not. Officials are often blinded to other concerns by the visions of dollar signs. Putting aside other issues -- whether or not you care about destroying neighborhood character(it will), whether or not bringing in national chains is bad for local businesses(it is), or whether or not downtown needs a fourth Mexican restaurant(it doesn't) -- I challenge anyone to articulate a reasonable claim that this is NOT a specifically, obviously, awful spot to put a new retail destination, especially one geared toward Wesleyan students, simply based on the traffic and pedestrian issues. Find a spot for this somewhere on the OTHER side of Washington. Putting a bookstore on Main Street would be just as close to campus. And while you're at it, make it a Spanish restaurant. Or a White Castle.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above(s). Wrong location, especially when there are so many vacant locations right on Main Street. Of course, that might not be as glamorous but it would be the correct thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Is it just a strange coincidence that this meeting was moved to a place difficult to find for those not familiar with the campus, and with basically zero public parking?

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Anon @ 3:16 pm,

Yes, I think it is probably a coincidence. I would guess the location was specifically to a larger venue to allow more people to attend. Most places on campus don't have much parking because it is mostly a walking community - in this case, the best place to park is probably in the lots on Wyllys avenue, and then walk around to the other side of the football field to the PAC building.