Over the past few months, I've knocked on about a thousand doors in Middletown campaigning for the Planning and Zoning Commission. I wrote this to share what I heard from residents and how it's informed what I’d like to do as a commissioner.
First, an introduction: my name is Ben Florsheim, and I'm a Democrat running for P&Z for the first time. I came to Middletown as a Wesleyan student in 2010, and after graduating I decided to stay here. I grew up moving around, and over the four years I spent at Wesleyan, Middletown began to feel like home… and that’s what it’s become. I currently work as outreach aide to U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, and my job helps me see how much positive difference can be made through public service. And since I travel all over the state for my job, serving as Senator Murphy’s “eyes and ears” while he is in Washington, I am continually reminded of what a good decision I made in choosing to live in Middletown. I love it here and plan to stay for a long time. And since I’m 23, the decisions made now will affect my family and me for years to come. That’s why I decided to step up to take part in making this community even better.
Here are the priorities that have been shaped by my conversations with residents throughout the city:
1. Put the "planning” back in Planning and Zoning. The Planning and Zoning Commission is fundamentally a reactive body rather than a proactive one. Commissioners do not create proposals themselves but rather respond to those put forward by developers and property owners. And they don't have much leeway in how they vote: they are constrained by the zoning code on whether to approve or deny applications, as opposed to fully considering the particular needs of neighborhoods affected. This has led in the past to sometimes-undesirable outcomes, like single-family homes sandwiched between commercial buildings and apartment complexes. I spoke with residents who complained of banks in their backyards and trucks rumbling down their residential streets to access the nearby industrial buildings.
While one thing P&Z can do proactively is change the zoning code to accommodate projects, this option isn’t always used intelligently. To take a prominent recent example, P&Z approved a zone change to clear the way for a proposal to build an office/retail complex at Washington and Pearl two years ago. This would have demolished historic buildings and created nightmarish traffic and public safety conditions, and the developer abandoned the project after much public backlash. The whole thing was especially unfortunate because the project proposal was well put together and, in isolation, the sort of thing we may want for Middletown – just not in that zone! The "planning" component of Planning and Zoning too often falls by the wayside in light of the board's reactive nature, and residents feel the consequences.
Given how many empty storefronts and lots we have on Main Street and throughout the city, we can be more thoughtful and collaborative when it comes to where we are putting new buildings. This is why, if elected, I'll involve myself in a proactive way to every extent I can. I will ask for a seat at the table when the mayor's office and the Planning Department are at work on major city projects. I will seek out and take seriously the recommendations of Design and Review. I will visit project sites personally to see how they will impact the area. In short, I commit myself to more than just attending meetings to cast “yes” or “no” votes a couple times a month – because we need long-term planning, not short-term reacting.
2. Grow our economy while preserving open space and historic landmarks. Virtually everyone I've spoken to thinks Middletown needs more vibrancy and diversity in its business community. The good news here is twofold: we are already increasing our business sector and can continue to do so without compromising on open spaces and historic preservation. A perfect example is the repurposing of the vacant Aetna site in Westfield, where FedEx will soon be breaking ground to build a regional distribution center. Not only is this a huge win in the usual fiduciary terms by creating jobs and growing the city’s tax base significantly – it also shows what can happen when public and private sectors work together towards a common goal. We beat competing cities and states to get FedEx here by doing our homework (“planning”) and presenting the best possible offer for the company to come here. It is imperative that we adapt this approach across the board to make Middletown friendlier for small business and retail as well.
Thankfully, building our tax base through new business does not have to come at the expense of green space and historic neighborhoods. We have vacant buildings and spaces across the city, along with abandoned brownfield sites that are ripe for remediation and redevelopment. For example, the long-empty Middletown Manufacturing Company building on Stack Street was approved for conversion into apartments, which will transform that part of the North End while preserving an architectural gem. And we have a decommissioned sewage plant by the river that will soon give way to a waterfront that finally lives up to its potential. Given this bounty, and the opportunity to make good use of it if we think creatively and proactively, I believe much of our existing open space can either be preserved as such or used for innovative, community-focused projects that preserve their character, such as the unique new CSA initiative that will turn four parcels of city-owned land into small farms so residents can enjoy easier access to fresh, local food.
3. Do the riverfront right. The riverfront redevelopment is a make-or-break opportunity for the next 100 years of Middletown. A well-planned riverfront will lure new residents and visitors, offer extensive amenities and benefits to current residents, and preserve the unique character of downtown. But if we don’t think long-term, we could end up with a costly boondoggle that no one has much use for. We run the risk of the latter outcome if we overdevelop the riverfront with things like chain restaurants, obtrusive condos, and retail models that may not last more than a few years. Don’t get me wrong – I believe both retail and residential development are crucial for the redevelopment plan. But what I heard the most desire for in terms of the riverfront is community spaces: walking and biking paths; showcases for local art, culture, and history; an outdoor concert and event venue.
We have seen downtown retail struggle for years because there is no real anchor that draws families and individuals to spend afternoons or evenings on Main Street. If people are going somewhere for the day, it’s to the malls in the surrounding towns, or down to the shoreline. Our riverfront can and should offer the best of both those worlds and more. If we are thoughtful about applying the principles I’ve outlined in this piece to our riverfront development plans, we can make Middletown an even more enjoyable community for current and future residents and a sought-after destination for folks from throughout the region.
If you have feedback on any of these ideas, I would love to hear it — figuring out what fellow residents actually want from their town has been the whole point of this campaign, so please shoot me an email at BenFlorsheimCT@gmail.com. If I have the chance to serve as your representative on P&Z, I won’t get tired of listening.
If you have any interest in seeing some of what I’ve outlined become reality, I hope you will support me (and the other great folks on the Democratic team) this Tuesday, November 3rd.
Thanks for reading,
Ben Florsheim (D)
Candidate for the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission