Monday, November 26, 2012

Stripmauled, Or 10 Good Reasons to Oppose the Washington Street Development

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.
UPDATE: 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.  On Tuesday November 27, at 4:30 pm in 41 Wyllys, Room 112, Wesleyan will hold a community forum on the proposed development.
This proposed development is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. 
I’ve got ten of them, and I’m happy to share.
 CHARACTER ASSASSINATION – The new development will completely alter a streetscape that’s lasted a century and a half, and permanently destroy the character of an entire neighborhood.
This particular block of Washington Street and the contiguous blocks from Newfield to Broad, feature large, vintage, architecturally unique residences, some since converted to light retail and office use, but all interesting and beautiful.  The Park Washington Apartments on the corner of Washington and Park, is the exception.
This new commercial development will insert a modern, hulking behemoth into the streetscape by demolishing at least three (maybe more) of those buildings, and throwing up a concrete, steel and brick corporate structure.  If you want to get a sense of what might happen, stand on the South corner of Broad and Washington, and look Northeast.  At the corner of Washington and Wetmore you can catch a glimpse of the past and the future.
 (The block in question circa 1924) The development will also replace lawns, gardens and mature trees with a blacktop parking lot and drives, and a concrete, steel and brick box.
Since there is good evidence that Wesleyan is selling other structures and property on Washington Street, once could conjecture that the strip-mall development West of Newfield, will soon creep all the way to Main.
RADIATION POISONING – The new development will directly affect Washington Street, but its effects will be felt for several blocks beyond.
 (An historic mansard roof Victorian slated for demolition.  This property, owned by Wesleyan, has been allowed to fall into disrepair.)
While the demolition of residential structures on Washington Street is bad enough, the construction of a modern office/retail structure, and all that comes with it, will alter the quality of life in an entire neighborhood, permanently. 
 (A High Street neighbor who will likely find blacktop parking lots and driveways in its backyard.) This kind of development requires, by law, a generous amount of blacktop to be poured in the form of driveways, parking lots and curb cuts.  It also requires lighting, signage, mechanicals (rooftop air-conditioning and exhaust fans) and dumpsters.  It promotes increased vehicular street traffic, litter, noise, odors, early-morning cargo deliveries, and early-morning dumpster pickups.  Drive-way access will have to be on Pearl and High Streets which will see a jump in traffic and increased pedestrian hazards.
Incidentally, the lawns, gardens and mature trees will disappear.
This means that the quality of life and the property values of residents in the adjoining blocks of High, Lincoln and Pearl will all suffer.
And yes, as a neighbor, I’m one of those who will suffer the consequences.  You can dismiss it as a NIMBY reaction, but considering the fact that I’ve opposed other foolhardy developments (a big box store downtown, an Army Reserve Training Center in Maromas, a gargantuan university Science center on the corner of High St and Lawn Ave), I’d counter that my interest is the larger community.
And, besides, I’ll be able to see the damned thing from my front porch.
LIKE PIECRUST – You cannot really trust the promises or assurances of politicians or developers.
Most of us know better than to trust the words of political figures, but the same goes for developers.  Like piecrust, those kind of promises are made to be broken.
I don’t doubt the conviction and sincerity of Mayor Dan Drew, Centerplan Developer Bob Landino or Chamber of Commerce President Larry McHugh.  They all want to build a development which will increase commerce, taxes and retail activity in town.  They believe this development will make Middletown a better place.
I know they believe these things to be true, I just disagree with them.
I am not against development, an increased tax base or commerce.  I simply cannot understand why this parcel is the place to do it.  We have parking lots on Main Street that could serve as excellent sites.  We have empty Main Street store fronts.  We have commercial strips to the South and West.  
This block, and those adjacent, are significant gateways to Middletown.  When people think of Middletown, they think of a vibrant New England Main Street, surrounded by vintage residential structures.  They think of the Connecticut River and Wesleyan.  That is the city’s brand.  Not the commercial strip on Western Washington Street.  That kind of eye-pollution you can find in any city in America.
This development proposes the demolition of a completely unique streetscape that makes Middletown what it is, distinct from any other community.
The developer wants to do this project because his company will profit.  The mayor will be able to list the development among his accomplishments during his next campaign.  And the Chamber will get another member and boost commerce.  All good, as long as the project is built in a place that makes sense.
The promoters of this development have already begun to make claims.  They will say many things to convince you that this project should go forward.  Weigh all claims carefully.
 A PONDEROUS CHAIN – National chains are not permanent. Not immune to the effects of market or economy. Their owners don’t live in our community.  The majority of their profits flow out of the city.
I’ve got nothing against Starbucks, Chipotle or Barnes and Noble.  I am a patron of each. 
But bringing any of these trendy chains to town doesn’t mean we’ve arrived.  It may be worn as a feather in the cap, but feathers get blown away.
If these national chains are indeed interested, they would probably be interested in other sites in town too.
 (A once-successful bookstore chain, now shuttered.) We have to remember that despite the current success of a national chain today, any number of forces can render them non-existent.  The bookstore business is in flux.  You can still drive by many empty stores with the ghost of Borders etched on the exterior wall.  And Connecticut has more than its share of former Starbucks stores.  Remember, you’ll never buy another chicken dinner from Kenny Rogers Roasters, or a plate of fried clams from Howard Johnsons. 
When national chains disappear, dollar stores, nail salons and evangelical churches follow.
National chains, with all the resources and buying power available to them, also have a habit of putting local competitors out of business.  That’s the nature of capitalism, I guess, but those local competitors live, work and own property in our community.  If we have the ability to promote their welfare, we should.
ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN – The placement of this development on the busiest street in the city will guarantee traffic congestion and the inevitable accidents.
     (Washington Street, at the proposed site, on a typical weekday afternoon.) People have died crossing Washington Street.  More people will die if this development is built.  This is a four lane state road that one should never attempt to cross, except at a walk light.  Even then it’s not completely safe.  I live nearby, and use the crosswalks frequently and can attest to the “beat the light” mentality of drivers on Route 66 (Washington Street), as the wend their way from the freeway in Middlefield to Route 9.  The frustration of reckless and distracted drivers will only increase with the added congestion this development will cause.
    The location of this development will encourage pedestrians to jaywalk (the same way they are tempted at Oddfellows Playhouse).  Most of those pedestrians will be Wesleyan students.  It will make for some dire headlines.
    In addition, the increase in traffic caused by driving customers trying to reach these new restaurants will cause congestion on Washington Street, and an increase in traffic on High and Pearl where the developer will be forced to create access driveways for their parking lots and drive thru’s.  This increased traffic on Pearl and High will create another pedestrian hazard for Wesleyan students walking and riding bikes to class, for elementary school students walking to and from Macdonough, and for resident who use the sidewalks.
    Not to mention that the access drives will need to be located adjacent to residence on Pearl, High and Lincoln, creating a pollution hazard and a noise nuisance. PART TWO TOMMORROW


    Mike Maier said...

    It is hard to imagine that the developer, in its planning stage, has only looked at a single Middletown site that would be appropriate for this development. I would hope the community can help steer the conversation towards alternatives that make more sense for Wesleyan and Middletown. I think smart development could be great for the area, but this site is a terrible location for that. I've lived here 3 years now and almost every day I think about the shortsighted decision to have Rt 9 cut the town off from the riverfront. We should be more careful with the town's remaining resources.

    Mike Maier

    Anonymous said...

    I agree with many of these points but in order to put a stop to this, the opposition might need clear substantiated proof of these claims. But right now the listing of all the future problems (traffic, pollution, etc) are only conjectures and claims. It is true that developers will say anything to make their projects sound good and benevolent and they will promise the world as far as concessions, environmental practices and the like, but when it comes time to actually build, there is nobody there holding the developer accountable and making sure they make good on their promises. They might or the might not do what they promised, and once it's done, it's done, and there is no recourse. All that can be done is commit to learning a lesson and not letting it happen again. THat is what we should be doing now and I commend Ed's consistent efforts. side note: I don't understand what Ed means about dollar stores and evangelical churches and that should be explained.

    Anonymous said...

    Is there a group being formed that is in opposition to this development?

    Anonymous said...

    It might be good to hear the other side. I for one don't think this is a good idea but also don't believe the government or anyone else should be determining which property transactions are good or bad ideas unless there are previous zoning laws in place--historical districts, etc. It's a transaction between two or more parties. People should be engaged civilly before and put such rules in place BEFORE hand.

    Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

    About dollar stores and evangelical churches:

    When urban retail and office space is empty for too long, the natural evolution is to admit any tenant who will pay. Often, it is a less prestigious, sometimes less responsible, tenant. Storefront churches, nail salons, dollar stores and the like now fill much of America's formerly prospering retail space.

    I'm not sure how you can substantiate what might happen in the future, other than to point to what's happened in the past.

    Commercial development comes with certain requirements - blacktop, dumpsters, air conditioning units, etc. And if we are to believe that this development will be successful, it will certainly bring traffic, pollution, noise. Surely, that's obvious.

    Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

    Anon 2:36:

    There are zoning plans in place. This block is not zoned for this development.

    Therefore, it is not simply a transaction between two parties.

    Wendy Sheil said...

    What exactly is PAC 001? Want to be sure I can find the meeting this a room number?

    Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

    PAC - Public Affairs Center. Just East of the Olin Library, set back from Church Street.

    Anonymous said...

    Will also bring more trash and litter!

    Anonymous said...

    Interesting points have been raised, but I would like everyone to consider some other points. 1) The residence currently owned by Wesleyan, vacant land and 5 family at the corner of Pearl and Washington have been for sale for YEARS and have not sold. I have been inside both of the buildings and they are in horrible condition. It does not make sense economically to rehab these properties.. 2) We have a Middletown business that wants to develop this property to add numerous high paying jobs to Middletown, versus moving their growing business out of town (I am not referring to book store or chipotle jobs). 3) North of Washington street in this area is a disaster, maybe this will be the spark that begins the revitalization of this area. I own property on Lincoln Street, so this is my backyard and I will be impacted by whatever happens here. I think this proposal is a sign of progress, and that this building will look better than what we currently have to look at on this section of Washington Street.

    Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

    Anon 9:06:

    In terms of habitability, people said the same thing about the house I've been living in for 12 years. A better question might be how and why Wesleyan let one of these buildings get to this state.

    As for the company that wants to stay in town and create more high-paying jobs. Great. There are lots of places in town where a suitable building could be built.

    Anonymous said...

    Herm...the traffic on Washington Street is already bad enough. Just imagine what happens when the east-bound, left lane, becomes the left-turn lane. The concept is good, but why not develop another piece of property closer to the center of the campus? There are plenty of side streets that would offer a more relaxed way of book shopping.

    Anonymous said...

    beautiful empty brick building on the corner of College St and Hamlin Court - 2 blocks from campus, 2 blocks from down town, plenty of parking in already existing lot - why not use this space?