I attended the February 27th P&Z hearing on the zone change, but frankly, I was a little distracted.
At the hearing, it was hard to organize my thoughts, as dozens of other downtown dwellers got up to sing the praises of living within walking distance to Main Street, and pleaded with the commissioners to recognize the damage that would be done by changing a few blocks of Washington Street from a historic district to a new commercial strip.
As those 40 people spoke, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the turnout and the comments were something that would have been unimaginable twenty years earlier, when I sat in the council chambers twice a month as a Planning and Zoning Commissioner, hearing proposal after proposal for housing subdivisions on the few remaining rural bits of Middletown. In those days, I can’t imagine anyone speaking up about the value of living in the traditional neighborhoods of downtown, which were busy sinking into blight.
In the early ‘90’s, virtually all subdivision requests were approved. We would sit there, often until 1 am in the morning, as crowds of neighbors, such as the Westfield Residents for Rational Development, would ask the commissioners to use common sense and think about the impact on the schools, the traffic, and the environment.
But when an application is in front of you, it’s not time for common sense. If the development is allowed in the zone, commissioners can’t just vote based on their experience of what it’s like to live in a town. Their job is to review the application and see whether it fits the requirements. Even a “special exception” application has a preference toward yes, despite its name. Maybe the commissioners get to recommend some plantings or move a driveway to make things easier for a neighbor, but for the most part, it’s a yes vote or the city might get sued.
That’s because the time to use common sense is when a zone is changed in the first place – and that’s the point we are at now for the MX zone.
The uses that are proposed – high density retail and restaurants with drivethru windows – are not allowed in the MX. The commission has to change the zone before any developer can even propose a project. But as I noted above, once we’re at that point, the idea that the commissioners have the discretion to judge each project on its merits - Starbucks? Ok! Donut Depot or Dollar General? Not here! - that’s just laughable.
The proponents of the change made some ingratiating attempts to flatter the commissioners, saying the community should trust them to deny any projects that were not “high quality”. Hopefully the commissioners know that the moment to exercise judgment is now.
It’s no coincidence that these gateway streets – Washington & South Main - are more residential and have seen less demolition of historic homes as they get closer to downtown. Think about it: the Ace Hardware plaza on South Main and the “Gasoline Alley/Five Guys” area on Washington are the closest that major commercial development comes to Main Street. Why is that? Because the P&Z commissions of the past recognized that creating a buffer around Main Street raised its commercial value, and that was a significant benefit to the entire town. Main Street property has a much higher tax value to the city than the equivalent size commercial land in other parts of town, such as the Home Depot plaza on west Washington Street.
In fact, many P&Z decisions of the past 20 years have actively protected Main Street. A few examples include the “retail only on first floor” rule, the limits on drive-thru windows, and the defeat of the proposal for a Target superstore behind Main Street Market. Those were all good decisions, but at the time some said they were “anti-business.”
Limiting drive-thru windows (which happened after Burger King closed) meant that most fast food chains wouldn't consider opening on Main – some landowners were disappointed in that. Some thought that big box retail, like Target, would be good for Main Street, creating a “mall” vibe. And in the mid-90’s, it was a lot easier for Main Street landlords to find a social service or government tenant for their empty storefronts, so the “retail only” rule meant a very real delay for those owners. But those sensible zoning decisions allowed our Main Street to make a gradual but definite recovery – some even call it a renaissance.
Likewise, the Village District zoning decision helped downtown by protecting the neighborhood between Main Street and the University and limiting the conversion of old houses into offices and apartments. It stopped the slide into urban blight; now it’s turned into one of the most engaging places to live in Middletown.
So as I sat there last Wednesday, listening to the stories of people walking to school, planting community gardens, shopping at downtown stores and biking to work – a veritable “New Urbanist” fantasy – I thought mostly about the role that P&Z has played in bringing Downtown Middletown back from the dead.
As the last of 40 speakers in opposition to the zone change, I did stand up at the microphone and say my piece about how I think this would lower property values on Main Street, and make it harder for downtown’s customers to get through the grind of Washington Street stop lights. I talked about how it will threaten the North End and other downtown neighborhoods by encouraging more cut-through traffic, and how the progress we’ve made is recent and fragile. But it was hard to concentrate as I thought about how it all might have turned out differently.
What seemed impossible 20 years ago has happened – Downtown Middletown is now a desirable place to live and do business. Good decisions got us here.
Please join me at the P&Z meeting on Wednesday, March 13th at 7 pm at City Hall, where today's commissioners will be voting on our future.