Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Strip Mall Or Livable Residential Neighborhood?

 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.


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.


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?

Here’s why.

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.


Anonymous said...

Strip Mall!!!! We need a Starbucks.

Anonymous said...

Why do you refuse to name the local architect??

Anonymous said...

The consulting architect whom all are afraid to name is also chair of histiric preservation in town. Not good behavior if these are his views about preservation.

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Anon 8:24 & 8:28,

The architect is Jeff Bianco - you could simply have said that in your comment if you thought it was missing from the coverage, without all the innuendo. It was a piece of public information that was clear to anyone who followed the stories on the Eye and Wesleying about the forum at Wesleyan.

-Jen Alexander

Susanne Fusso said...

This is an excellent essay by Ed McKeon.

Anonymous said...

Ed- I feel for you. I can totally relate to the feeling of having bought a home with a dream- and the mayor at the time had plans unknown to me- to block that dream-

I remember going to hearings against the power lines that had encroached on our property without eminent domain-

I spent hours in city hall researching propert lines- historical ones- fighting insanity-

The most heartbreaking part- after we used our savings that was to fix up a fixer upper- to fight for land that we were taxed on but apparently didn't own- was the lack of support from people who couldn't understand our pain and rage -

We were one family- in a fixer upper in the woods- fighting mayor Thornton- the power lines- and we were left unheard.

I wish there was a south end community at the time who would have joined me- or anyone- instead I was yelling and speaking to no avail-

I'd love to share our experience with you.

I admitt- I have no understanding of the issues you face- I'd love a big name bookstore in town- but I hear what you are saying- and I understand the pain, anger and helplessness I felt when fighting for land that I believed was rightfully mine-

Good luck to you with your cause- I'm a bit jealous of the sense of community you have surrounding your fight-


Anonymous said...

The property owner of one of the historic homes actually wants to sell to the developer! No one is forcing anyone to demolish or give up their home!

Anonymous said...

I live in Middletown and one day I always thought as things improve downtown, it might be nice to move to that area to be able to walk to all of the amenities and places that Ed mentions. If this development goes through, the idea is much less appealing.

I wish this city had stricter zoning and requirements for fitting into the surrounding area. Why can't we develop responsibly and in areas zoned for this type of development?

Anonymous said...

Is this concept being supported by the mayor because he owes his election to the Wesleyan community? Just asking....

Anonymous said...

Well said, Ed. Houses make a town a home.

David Sauer said...

Here are some facts about how dangerous this stretch of Washington Street already is.

I searched the State DOT records for the six year period 1/1/03-12/31/08, the most recent statistics available to me, to find out how many accidents occurred on Washington Street between Newfield Street and Main Street (which is a distance of approximately 0.6 miles). During that period there were a total of 128 accidents reported in that area which included:
54 rear end collisions;
41 accidents involving vehicles turning; and
6 car vs. pedestrian collisions

Of the 128 accidents:
2 resulted in fatalities
115 resulted in non-fatal injuries
11 were property damage only.

A total of 178 people were injured or killed in these accidents. That is an average of almost 2.5 people injured per month on a very short strech of road.

It would be unconscionable to change the zoning in this area to a use that would greatly increase traffic, increase the number of vehicles stopping and turning and increase the number of pedestrian crossings, all of which would increase the number of accidents, injuries and deaths that would occur.

Anonymous said...

I would say the only objection I have is it being placed on Washington St. I would love a Starbucks and Chipotles in Middletown.
I am not for protecting one business over another as some are in the Village district. Let free market rule.

Sally Bachner said...

Beautifully put, Ed, in all respects. The vibrant, close-knit neighborhood that has been built by the residents makes downtown better for everyone. Like you, I think the key is location: I'd be delighted to have the right kind of national retailers on Main or in existing commercial space further up Washington.

Thanks for a great summation.

Anonymous said...

I'm in favor of a Starbucks and a Chipotle.

Tom Christopher said...

I see lots of disadvantages to the developers' plan and no benefit to the community. Among other things, the businesses slated for the new building -- both franchises of international chains -- duplicate in some respects services already offered by existing, locally owned ones. Bring in a Starbucks and help to close down our locally owned coffee shops -- does that sound like a good thing for Middletown? Add one more "Chipotle Mexican Grill" to the 1,200 already scattered over North America and Britain, siphon off customers from Middletown's existing restaurants -- all that will accomplish is to rob our city of some of its personality.

Anonymous said...

I live downtown, its not so close knit- its who you know and who you ask-
I support Mr. Landino as a fine businessman with a vision.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that the downtown commercial district can never expand? You've got the river on one side...
Going up Washington street seems a natural progression. Kidcity sees a lot of traffic, and they seem to manage all right. Most cities have a downtown that extends beyond one main street.
I think a large bookstore would be in the best interest of Middletown residents. Perhaps it's worth trading in an older home to get one.

Keith Blakeslee said...

I grew up in Meriden. Anyone who supports bad development like this should look to that city to see the ultimate results.

Just on Broad Street, rows of old mansions were destroyed to make way for I-691, while others were taken to be replaced by dismal little apartment developments, low-rent office buildings, a gas station and, most unbelievably, vacant lots.

The developers and town fathers always claimed the same thing - 'no historical significance' - yet those houses show up again and again in every pictorial history of the city, and parts of them have been preserved permanently, most notably at MOMA in New York.

It's a mistake to replace established, architectually interesting areas with modern junk that's designed for a 25 year life when there is lots of space available just up the road where Waldbaum's market vacated, and it's perfectly suited to this type of development.

Anonymous said...

Great point by mr. Blakeslee, above. One minor correction: the pieces of old Meriden are on view at the Met, not MOMA. For a bit more on this, and a picture or two that will break your heart, go to:

Anonymous said...

More images to break your heart:

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Take all the trees, put them in a tree museum.

- Joni Mitchell

Anonymous said...

Does Middletown have a Historic Preservation Commission or group that reviews these projects?

Anonymous said...

So glad Wes scrapped that idea. I'm with those in favor of preservation of historic structures and reuse if possible.... Why not a small-ish boutique movie theatre on Washington in one of the historic houses.

(Seattle (and other places, no doubt) has several vintage movie theatres that people charish and flock to.(for example http://
One of Seattles' many (historically preserved) charms--relatively little "urban development" there.

Middletown has a chance to preserve quite a lot more of its historic charm. I'm praying for it. Once it's gone ....

Stephen Devoto said...

The Design Review and Preservation Board "reviews all exterior rehabilitation or new construction in business zones." Its members are appointed by the mayor. They meet on the second Wednesday of the month.

According to their website, "The board's goal is not to get in the way of improving Middletown, but rather preserve and promote the character and heritage of our neighborhoods and business areas." [emphasis mine].

The chair of the Design Review and Preservation Board is Jeff Bianco, an architect who has worked on the renovation and adaptive re-use of a number of historic buildings in the City.

Bianco is the lead architect on the proposed strip mall development.

Tree Fanatic said...

The Greater Middletown Preservation Trust was, for many years, the independent watchdog organization that helped to achieve Landmark status for many important buildings in the area. It would be wonderful if someone would revive this useful organization -- its files contain invaluable historic information. I'm sure the block in question is written up in some of those files.