Nearly 150 people packed the Council Chambers last night for the Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on a proposal to change the zoning code text to approve high density commercial development on Washington Street, South Main Street, and Newfield Street. The large number of public comments pushed the meeting nearly to midnight, and the Commission tabled their discussion and vote until the next meeting, on March 13.
40 people spoke against the change; most identified themselves as residents of the neighborhoods near either Washington or South Main.
Far fewer spoke in favor of the proposed zoning change, they included only Bob Landino, the developer who proposed the change, Mayor Dan Drew, former Mayor Seb Giuliano, Jeff Pugliese for the Chamber of Commerce, Vice President John Meerts speaking for Wesleyan, and two others selling land on Washington Street to Landino's Centerplan Development company.
"It's opening the door for a different type of use for your consideration."
Ralph Wilson is representing the developer. He opened the public hearing by describing what is currently allowed in MX zones, highlighting neighborhood stores and banks with drive through windows. He then said that the proposal to allow retail and drive-through restaurants would not be a big change. Wilson emphasized that the proposal was consistent with the Plan of Conservation and Development, which is the document that provides guidelines for Commission decisions, "This text has been purposefully drafted [for the POCD]."
Wilson said that the proposal would only affect land on State Highways, "We're not in a neighborhood." He also told the Commission that the text change would ensure that any developments would be good, "This is not going to be a project with no value."
The text change would not grant automatic approval for high-density commercial development, it would allow developers to apply for a special exception from the Commission. Landino said that the Commission would be able to determine what was approved, "It gives you what you need.... You are in control."
Wilson called on two paid consultants to speak to the Commission about the proposed text changes. Philip Michalowski, a certified planner, like Wilson, emphasized the State highway aspect of the text change, "The critical element to keep in mind that it only applies to properties fronting on state highways." John Nitz, a real estate appraiser, said that the text change would increase the value of land because it could now be sold as retail land. Nitz said that the commercial development of some MX properties would not have any impact on the value of neighboring residential properties.
Commissioner Beth Emery asked Nitz to substantiate this statement, but Nitz could not provide any data to support it, he simply said, "I feel there will be no affect on residential."
"With proper zoning, it can be a great city forever and forever."
A large and diverse group of residents then spoke against the proposed text change. Marian Katz requested, "Please don't allow a change that will allow a developer to destroy [a neighborhood]." Ellen Ornato, a Middletown resident who was formerly the assistant planning director for Meriden, said she admired the proposed change, but that it was being applied to the wrong neighborhoods, "The logic makes sense, the map does not." Jane McMillan said that the proposed change would hurt downtown and the residential neighborhoods around Washington Street and South Main, "this ... would be a self-inflicted wound."
Many residents expressed alarm at the traffic consequences to Washington and South Main if high-traffic commerce were to be allowed. Melissa Schilke did not want Wesleyan students walking across Washington Street to a new fast-food restaurant, "They will be walking to a fatal attraction." Brian Stewart spoke of how walking in the downtown area made for a livable neighborhood and kept him fit. He was concerned about the danger of increasing traffic on Washington Street, "It's not much of a victory if I stay fit and then get smashed by a car."
The Wesleyan Student Assembly passed a resolution in early February, in opposition to the proposed text change. Andrew Trexler read the resolution, which noted the "significant and vocal opposition" by the Wesleyan faculty, residents of areas neighboring campus, and the student body. The WSA resolution also expressed concern over the potential for "damage to Middletown's unique urban aesthetic."
"I would like to express my support."
City Planner Bill Warner read a letter from Dan Drew in support of the text change application, "The amendment allows the applicant and other developers to design projects in the MX zone exclusively along state highways that could be very beneficial to our city." Drew expressed his faith in the Commission, "I have full confidence in your ability..."
Former Mayor Seb Giuliano also supported the application, suggesting that since the state had made the highways into "4-lane commercial throughways" it was necessary to change the zone to allow property owners to develop their land for commercial use. Two such property owners, who have agreed to sell their property on Washington Street to Landino, expressed their strong support for Landino's proposed text change. Lee Osborn painted stark consequences of denying the application, "A no vote will ... signal a period of reduced growth." John Desena praised Landino and expressed impatience for the start of the developer's project on Washington Street, "Approve this so that we can move forward as quick as we can."
Wesleyan Vice President John Meerts spoke after Giuliano, in the portion of the public hearing reserved for those in support of the developer's text change application. However, the Wesleyan statement did not make its position clear. Meerts said that Wesleyan "supports the preservation of the neighborhood's architectural identity, urban design, and history." He went on to say, "new development is important to the vibrancy and economic vitality of cities."
A tale of two cities, commentary
The Commission voted to close the public hearing, but decided to put off any discussion and a vote until their meeting on March 13th. When it deliberates the impact of the proposed change, it will be considering public comments that seemed to describe two different worlds.
The developer and his supporters spoke of "State Highways", in a way that limited their connection to residential neighborhoods. Drew and Giuliano both echoed this language, and Wesleyan emphasized the physical, but somewhat abstract aspects of the neighborhood over the people and homes, "Any proposed development should be consistent with the scale, massing, and architectural sensibility of the neighborhood."
In contrast, those in opposition emphasized the community of people who live, and the specific homes they live in. Bill Carbone, who lives on Pearl near Washington Street, said, "...I absolutely love this community. My wife and I have chosen to raise our kids here..." Lucy McMillan said, "...there are hundreds of us that can't imagine living anywhere else."
Disclosures: I am employed by Wesleyan, many of the people who spoke against the proposed change are friends, and I share most of their concerns about this proposal before Planning and Zoning. Before the public hearing on this proposal, I urged the Commission to take a more pro-active role in writing the city's zoning code text.