Wednesday, March 6, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

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.


Susanne Fusso said...

What realistically can the public do at this point? I assume no comments will be allowed at the March 13 meeting.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone at the Eye explain why the Blue House connection was not disclosed?

Jen Alexander said...

Anon 12:46:

Can you clarify your question? What connection are you referring to and what blue house?

-Jen Alexander

John Hall said...

Excellent historical perspective, Jen. Thank you. I have the same question as Susanne Fusso. Will the public be able to comment on the MX Zone change on March 13? Or will further comment not be allowed because there was a hearing and the hearing is over?

Anonymous said...

Once the public hearing is closed, no more testimony can be taken. The city planner cannot speak. If he does, or the commission wants him to speak, the public hearing must be re-opened.

Jen Alexander said...

Susanne & John,

The public hearing has closed, so no speaking. But we can still witness the process - it's important to be there as this decision gets made.

-Jen Alexander

Anonymous said...

Bill Warner is staff, so he is continues to communicate with the Commission. That does not reopen the Public Hearing.

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Here's the ex parte law:

Section 1-21j-20 Ex parte communication

(a) Unless required for the disposition ex parte of matters authorized by law, no commissioner or hearing officer who, in a contested case, is to render a final decision or to make a proposed final decision shall communicate, directly or indirectly, in connection with any issue of fact with any person or party, or in connection with any issue of law, with any party or the party’s representative, without notice and opportunity for all parties to participate.

(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, a commissioner, in conformity with the Freedom of Information Act, may communicate with other commissioners regarding a matter pending before the commission, and commissioners or a hearing officer may receive the aid and advice of employees or agents of the commission if those employees or agents have not received communications prohibited by subsection (a) of this section. In a contested case, this regulation shall not be construed to preclude such routine communications as are necessary to permit the commission staff, not assigned to render a decision or to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in a contested case, to investigate facts and to conduct the informal conferences that may be held pursuant to sections 1-21j-1 to 1-21j-57, inclusive, of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies at any time before, during and after the hearing thereof.

(c) Unless required for the disposition of ex parte matters authorized by law, no party or intervenor in a contested case, no other agency, and no person who has a direct or indirect interest in the outcome of the case, shall communicate, directly or indirectly, in connection with any issue in that case, with a hearing officer or commissioner, or with any employee or agent of the commission assigned to assist the hearing officer or commissioners in such case, without notice and opportunity for all parties to participate in the communication.

(d) The provisions of this section shall apply from the date the matter pending before the commission commences as a contested case, as set forth in section 1-21j-27 of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, to and including the effective date of the final decision.

So it seems, by law, that staff can comment on statements of fact, if staff is not party to a decision. His on-the-record support, based on opinion, not fact, makes him a party. So, my not so legal take (but advised by knowledgeable attorneys), is that he can't comment, except by opening the public hearing again.

Ed McKeon said...

The Blue House group is a group of neighbors on Pearl and College Streets (I'm part of that group) who banded together to buy a house from Wesleyan, fix it up, and try to find a buyer willing to live in an owner/occupied situation.

The local tin-foil hat wearers have seen it as some kind of liberal conspiracy to "flip" North End houses.

It's a pretty hilarious suggestion since we haven't sold it yet (after two years), and will likely only get enough to cover expenses.

It's a total Red Herring, and the persons, here, or elsewhere (usually anonymous, of course), who suggest otherwise, are malicious fools.

My name's Ed. What's yours?

Anonymous said...

Ed, the ex-parte statute you refer to is solely related to contested FOI cases. It doesn't allow the commissioners of the Freedom of Information Commission to hold off the record communications.

It has no bearing on local commissions.

Ed McKeon said...

Well, I said I was not a lawyer, but I'll dig a bit further.

Roland said...

I couldn't help but wonder if P&Z had heard of National Geographics research on what makes people happy in the town where they live. Dan Buettner is the leader and on the radio frequently. Perhaps Mayor Drew should read the section about the Mayor of San Luis Obispo, CA the happiest place to live in the US!!
Let's make Middletown a Happytown.
On how the happiest place in the U.S. — San Luis Obispo, Calif. — got so happy

"So my job is to start with the statistics. These people are saying they're happier than anyplace else, and I tried to answer why. And I traced it to a professor at the nearby university named Ken Schwartz who became mayor."When he came in as mayor, he kind of galvanized the City Council to focus. And rather than focusing on policies that bettered the commerce environment — the Chamber of Commerce was sort of running things before 1970 — he focused on policies that favored quality of life. "... He got enough good policies in place that favored human habitation and well-being that lo and behold, 40 years later, people are saying they're happier there than anyplace else."

Jennifer Saines said...

Roland, thanks so much for this link!

The author also states: I live in a neighborhood that's consummately connected to my neighbors. I bump into them every day.

This is the kind of neighborhood that Middletown needs to remain attractive and livable. Drive thru development fractures neighborhood connections. Starbucks and Burger Kings won't make us happier (or even wealthier), but the protection of quality residential neighborhoods will.

David Santacroce said...

I have been following this discussion for some time. I suspect the residential streets will acquire a commercial traffic volume. That is a change probably not for the better.

David Schulz said...

Well said by all, with the obvious exception.