On Tuesday evening, a crowd estimated at between 40 and 60 assembled in the community room of the Community Health Center Building on Main Street to hear, see, and discuss a report on living in downtown Middletown and a plan for the transformation of the upper stories of two Main Street buildings into either six or eight rental apartments.
Michiel Wackers, assistant city director of planning, conservation and development said that about 1000 of the 1200 rental units in downtown Middletown are subsidized, and it would be better for the city if there were also market-rate units available in quantity, to balance the downtown housing stock.
The event was a part of "Come Home to Downtown," a program Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC) developed with the support of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. CHFA apparently wants to find ways to help smaller housing projects than the big ones it usually helps.
CMSC calls "Come Home to Downtown" "a mixed-use real estate planning pilot program, which will provide selected communities with new tools to strengthen economic health and restore vitality to their downtowns."
The "selected communities" are Torrington, Waterbury, and Middletown, based on likelihood of success, market opportunity, real estate development capacity, and other criteria.
CMSC is providing a package of services to the selected pilot communities. Among the services are a downtown development audit and a model building analysis.
John Simone of CMSC made the following points:
Downtown commercial districts need to be managed if they are to compete with malls that are aggressively managed 24/7;
Managing downtown districts is harder than managing malls because mall owners have complete control over the mall property, while downtown management needs more cooperation of diverse parties;
Connecticut's downtown properties are needlessly underutilized. Middletown is correcting this problem faster than many other Connecticut cities and towns, but has great room for more such growth;
The challenge is to make downtown properties more revenue-producing while controlling costs;
In Asheville, North Carolina, the Walmart at the edge of town contributes much less to Asheville per acre than downtown businesses;
Residents in upper stories of underutilized downtown buildings increase the income generated by the buildings, the value of the buildings, the taxes generated by the buildings, and the business done by the retail establishments on the street levels of the buildings;
Vacant and underutilized buildings are costly in lost economic and social opportunities;
Baby boomers and millennials both want upper-story downtown apartments that let them walk to places they care about (jobs, stores, libraries, restaurants, churches, doctors' offices);
Downtown upper-story dwellers spend $20-40K per unit per year downtown;
Starbucks doesn't care if its rent is high as long as there's sufficient density to generate sales, since Starbucks calculates rent as a percentage of sales -- big sales justify big rents;
Mixed use of downtown properties (residential above, business below) is a lost art that we are having to relearn;
Mortgage lenders typically don't lend enough to cover the cost of rehabbing downtown buildings for upper-story residential use; the additional funding needed is ideally obtained from "patient investors" like local hospitals, universities, pension funds, and other stakeholders that benefit from downtown housing created in underutilized commercial buildings.
David Sousa, a consultant with CDM Smith, presented the results of the "urban design audit" done for Middletown as part of the CSMC services. He described the criteria and the scoring. Among his remarks:
"Walkability" is the key to downtown vibrancy, and there are 16 indicators of walkability that fall into four groups (periperal connectivity, enclosure and engagement, diversity and design, and safety and security);
Pedestrian and bicycle linkages to areas outside of downtown are factors;
Counter-intuitively, a lack of plentiful parking is by far the most important element of downtown success; parking must be minimal and discreet;
Access to public transit is a factor in the scoring;
A good downtown has strong edges and a density of people and buildings;
Many appropriate street trees contribute to a desirable sense of enclosure;
Monuments and art objects and unique local icons contribute to pedestrian and visitor engagement;
Diversity of property uses and of income levels is desirable; residential above retail is great, but town houses are also good as part of the mix;
Design coherence at a human scale is a positive factor;
Distinctive buildings and spaces can act as "gateways" to downtown;
Direction and orientation should make visitors welcome;
Intersections should be frequent, traffic-calming, and pedestrian-friendly;
Sidewalks should exist and be inviting;
Block lengths should be short; high density of intersections means more traffic safety, so don't hesitate to add streets and don't close streets;
Security is achieved by the presence of people, that is, by active and natural surveillance, and at night not only by streetlights but also by light spilling from ground-level stores and dwellings with people inside.
CMSC scored every street in downtown and produced a color coded-map of downtown showing the results. Main Street scored well from St. John's all the way to South Church, with the side streets scoring lower.
Several areas offered low-hanging fruit, such as Metro Square, which could be ringed with multi-use buildings surrounding an interior multi-level parking structure.
(Note to self: didn't Nate Shapiro offer to do something like that without government assistance decades ago? Ask his son Stephen.)
Bill Crosskey, an architect engaged by CMSC to do the downtown development audit (another piece of the CMSC "Come Home to Downtown" package) made a presentation about the model building analysis.
The model buildings selected are 418 and 420 Main Street, side-by-side structures housing Vinnie's Jump and Jive and formerly a dollar store.
Some of the criteria for selection were: mixed use capacity (residential and commercial), size allowing no more than 20 residential units, upper floors not currently in use; strong likelihood of being redeveloped, motivated and committed property owner, and obstacles and challenges that have prevented redevelopment until now.
The biggest legal problem for residential upper-floor redevelopment of 418 and 420 is that they cannot meet the current requirements of the zoning code for on-site parking. There would have to be a zoning adjustment. Many cities seeking downtown rental housing resurgence are dropping the parking requirements from zoning and letting the owners deal with it as a marketing problem, Crosskey said.
Crosskey showed two options for redevelopment of the properties, the first involving 8 rental apartments varying from 600-1200 square feet, and the second a lower-construction-cost version involving only 6 units, with exposed brick interior walls, high ceilings, large windows, and other loft-like features resulting from changing the buildings as little as possible.
Then the questions and answers began in earnest. Askers did not identify themselves.
Would the units have air conditioning? Yes.
Would the units be energy efficient? Um, that would be a marketing decision based on things like whether to keep brick walls exposed for aesthetic reasons and therefore uninsulated.
At worst, though, the buildings are pretty "green" no matter what, because adaptive reuse is always greener than new construction.
In addition, the buildings abut other buildings with similar interior temperatures, so there is little heat loss except at the Main Street front end and the Mellili Plaza back end.
Will there be one or more elevators? No. The cost of elevators is justified only when the number of apartments served by the elevators is more than the few envisioned at the model building.
Will there be parking for tenants? Not on the premises. The ideal arrangement would be for the landlord and the city to make a deal for tenants' to pay for overnight use of Melilli Plaza parking spots directly across from the buildings.
The questioning seemed to reflect a rough grouping of the audience into a baby boomer element who might like a luxury downtown apartment and a "young professional" element who might like a hip downtown apartment.
For the boomers, the lack of elevators and in-pocket parking seemed to be a deal-breaker or at least a dead rat in the punch bowl.
For the "young professional" element, lack of elevators in the three-story buildings wasn't so much a problem as lack of either (1) really convenient public transportation (think New York City and London) or (2) in-pocket parking.
The ideas of large rear apartment window views of the world-class Connecticut River and of north-facing skylights and of large loft-like apartments occasioned a little drooling during the evening.
John Simone pointed out that there is almost no doubt that there would be willing renters for the notional six or eight units at 418 and 420 Main Street, since at rock bottom, at least 3% of any city's population wants to live downtown no matter what.
Quentin Phipps, the executive director of the Downtown Business District, spoke briefly on the city's and the DBD's participation in Middletown's piece of the "Come Home to Downtown" program.
The cookies served were from Fusion Bakery. The coffee was from Klekolo.