COMMENTARY on the proposed strip mall development on Washington Street between Pearl and High.
What I Don’t Understand About the Developer
What the Developer Doesn’t Understand About Me
I get it. It’s a developer’s job to dream up real estate projects that they can create and from which they can profit.
So I don’t fault the Centerplan folks for acting upon what is their core mission. Developers develop. And when these developments are in the best interest of a community, the developer prospers and the community prospers.
In the case of the Washington Street strip-mall, I think the community loses out.
I’ve tried, but I cannot put myself in the shoes of anyone who would say, “here’s a parcel of land with some historic homes that’s zoned inappropriately for large scale commercial development, so let’s convince residents to move out, knock down the homes, pour some concrete and blacktop, chainsaw dozens of trees and invite some national chains to move in.”
It seems to fly in the face of what Middletown, and the downtown community, is all about. It certainly flies in the face of the zoning regulations for that parcel.
IT AIN'T VENICE
According to Centerplan representatives, the plan was dreamed up in a brainstorming session over a six-pack of beer, and it shows.
The proposal, admittedly in an early stage, shows an outsized mass of a building – mostly a big box, with some artificial cornices, and some slapped-on filigree. Otherwise, it’s an early 21st century commercial building without much charm. Add parking out front, some driveways out into the side streets, illuminated signage and chain restaurants, and voila, strip-mall development of the kind you can find in any good-sized town in America.
The consulting architect defended the destruction of historic houses by saying “we don’t live in Venice,” but I’ll bet a gondola ride that most neighbors also don’t think we live on a commercial strip in Newark.
Centerplan claims the neighborhood is not residential, despite being surrounded by houses filled with people. As it turns out, the developer’s team have made concerted efforts to convince some homeowners to move out. Perhaps it’s their way of transforming a residential neighborhood into a non-residential neighborhood. According to a Centerplan employee, residential development on Washington Street is just too “sleepy.”
It seems farfetched, but the developers have convinced city leaders and the smart folks running Wesleyan University that transforming a residential neighborhood to a commercial strip will be appealing to students, faculty and the community at large.
I can’t speak for students or faculty, but I can say, emphatically, that Centerplan doesn’t understand me, or my neighbors.
A DIRTY BOHEMIAN DREAM
It appears that the developers can’t imagine why anyone would want to live where we do, unless we are poor, crazy or unsophisticated bohemians. Why would we choose a unique, vintage home on Pearl Street, High Street or Lincoln Street, in a marginal neighborhood, when we could have a MacMansion in the ‘burbs?
I live in a neighborhood that’s my community. A community that I feel I belong to, more so than any I’ve lived in before.
I live across the street from one of the country’s finest educational and cultural institutions. I walk to the movies, and to restaurants, to concerts and street celebrations, to the library and the coffeeshop. The locally-owned coffeeshop.
Sure there’s noise, and traffic and occasional crime. But there are pot lucks and walks to school, shared child care and cool Wesleyan babysitters, art shows and street celebrations. There are runs through Indian Hill Cemetery, and long walks on Long Lane, paddles on the Coginchaug and hikes in Maromas. There are neighborhood projects, sing-alongs around backyard campfires and strolls to City Hall for municipal meetings. There are small businesses, and a lively downtown, and some of the most unique architecture in the state. My kids walk, each day, to a great neighborhood elementary school. My neighbors are musicians, artists, teachers, counselors, environmentalists, film-makers, chefs, journalists, carpenters, architects and professors.
So why would I want a cookie-cutter strip mall with carbon-copy National Chains.
I wouldn’t. And I don’t. And neither do most of my neighbors.
So lure Chipotle to town. Seduce a Starbucks into opening a branch. Build an office tower. But do it where it makes sense, on Main Street, or on one of the many commercial strips that already exist. And when you do, I won’t oppose it. In fact, I’ll stand up and tell my neighbors that the right development, in the right place, is the best thing we can do for our town.