Monday, September 9, 2019

CANDIDATE FOR P&Z: Catherine Johnson

My name is Catherine Johnson. This fall, I am running for Planning & Zoning. I am an architect & town planner and am blessed to do work I love. This includes creating neighborhood master plans, strategies for reviving Main Streets, planning for new development on brownfields and around train stations, and creating custom zoning codes.  I have had my own practice in downtown Middletown since 1996.

My public service in town has been as a commissioner on the P&Z 2007-11. I attended all 88 meetings. We cleaned up the By-laws, re-established bi-partisan leadership, and created committees - something which hadn’t been done in over a decade.

When the city began its Main Street Program in 1997, I served on the Facade Committee for seven years. We worked hard to enhance historic storefronts and re-ignite commerce downtown. For years, I’ve fought against unnecessary demolition of older buildings, on Ferry Street, near East Main, on Washington. But ordinary citizens can do only so much. We all know the devastation of urban renewal which removed a quarter of downtown 60 years ago, but amazingly, almost as much has been removed since. It has to be city policy to retain or move older buildings, or the Middletown we know and love will be even further erased.

This is my hometown. My family goes back a few generations: my grandfather Alec Ewanowski was the Wadsworth’s chauffeur. I grew up just down the hill,  as my mom had. The mansion was my playground. We knew every inch and every pathway. I would walk through the woods to school every morning. When the estate was for sale in the early 1990’s, I was one of the first to encourage the city to buy it.  I outlined for the mayor how similar properties in CT had been converted to city parks and how the mansion might pay for itself in the process. It would be nice to see more city-led, sensitive redevelopment projects like this.

Riding seven miles each way to Crystal Lake in the summer, I got to understand Middletown’s long hills. Seeking the most efficient routes to traverse them was a constant endeavor. This insider knowledge is hard won. While on the P&Z in 2009, I shared an idea to create a bike path around the perimeter of downtown, linking the schools to neighborhoods, and neighborhoods to grocery stores. I think this would invite more bikers, especially kids, than initially building bike paths along the four very busy main roads. You shouldn’t have to own a car in order to be a citizen. Walking and biking are among the joys of life, and finding a way to incorporate them into everyday tasks is what makes life more enjoyable.

Thinking about connecting Middletown regionally, in 2008 I ran for state rep, advocating to re-connect Middletown to Hartford by train. I studied every town along the route to see what development potential there is around future rail stations. The drawing is 40 feet long. Middletown has enormous development potential downtown, on Washington Street, South Main and Newfield Street. There are so many places so easily within reach, adjacent to downtown, it’s odd that “the riverfront” is the current default answer for what to do next. Development there is not simple and will not be possible without significant investment and major infrastructure relocation beforehand. I may be the only person to have considered this question in depth, practically understanding the barriers. Older cities can give us ideas about our riverfront, and how to manage the highway, but how to make something beautiful in addition to being practical. If they did this, we can too.

In 1995, returning home from studying town planning, I shared ideas with the Common Council for reconnecting Main Street to the riverfront, for civilizing the highway, and for ways to becoming more energy-conscious. I showed how our well-built, mixed-use, small-footprint buildings downtown are actually models for sustainability.These kinds of buildings require less energy to build and operate, are highly flexible when changing occupants or businesses, and are more sustainable than buildings in suburban locations in the state. Our wide variety of building types makes for more interesting activity and a more diverse population. This is Middletown’s essence. We need to be following our own models for new development, not national trends. Our heritage is these buildings. We can build new buildings with character, and it’s time we started working toward that goal.

I want to contribute my skills toward making Middletown an even nicer place to live, work and enjoy. I encourage you to vote for me and the rest of the endorsed Planning & Zoning slate in the Sept 10 Democratic Primary: Johnson, Pelletier, Emery and Pattavina.

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