Slowly, A Wave Of Walkable Town Development Gains Speed

Article by: Dan Haar, Hartford Courant

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A handful of people were already gathered around the stone fountain in Glastonbury center when a family of four parked on Main Street and walked to a table in the summer sunset to enjoy their burgers and fries.

Nearby, a husband and wife from East Hartford sipped smoothies and an elderly couple looked out onto Hebron Avenue, where several restaurants, some with outdoor dining, have opened in recent years along a walkable one-block stretch. A young man was writing at a table near the fountain.

This is village life in a town that decades ago demolished most of its traditional downtown buildings, replacing them with newer shopping plazas, small malls and standalone structures, each with its own parking places. Now, like many towns with a sprawling business district, Glastonbury is working to restore its center as a walkable place where people can gather, complete with color-coded signs showing walking routes.

“It’s kind of fun to be in the midst of things,” said a man who gave his name as Travis, as his family set up to eat.

But it’s only fun to a point. Travis and his wife, Laura, chose Glastonbury six years ago in part because the developing downtown scene is quieter than the bustle of West Hartford Center. “That might make it too crazy,” Laura said. “You want restaurants, but at the same time, it’s nice not to be in an urban environment.”

With that view, they and their baby son and 4-year-old daughter, Maddie, make a point that’s both powerful and subtle when it comes to how people in Connecticut communities want to live. More than our suburban parents and grandparents did, we want communal life with elements of a city or city-like setting, we want places near enough that we can walk to eat, shop and see people, and we want to live in towns that keep car-dominated, sprawling developments under control.

These hopes and dreams aren’t new. A yearning by millions of people to live and enjoy life in dense clusters of offices, stores, restaurants and apartments has driven a return to central cities and the construction of such multi-use developments as West Hartford’s Blue Back Square in the past few decades.

That’s the powerful, long-term trend. And as the Glastonbury picture makes clear, the lifestyles people want are different from one place to another.

And so cities and towns are responding, finally, in a wide variety of ways — not just with ambitious projects such as New Haven’s redevelopment of the Route 34 spur that destroyed a neighborhood a half-century ago, but also with small changes that make a difference in a one-block zone.

Call it a new wave of the new urbanism that led to a resurgence of cities in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of reflecting an all-or-nothing desire for an urban lifestyle, in this wave it’s happening on a small scale, in many places.

It is a new zoning code in Canton and Simsbury that emphasizes the look of buildings, not their use.

It is cooperation in Avon, where a store leasing a small, former Ensign Bickford factory building sponsors a community event on the lawn by a parking lot in the middle of town.

It is the decision to construct new stores and offices with the narrow end of the building close to the road and parking along the side — more pedestrian-friendly than a strip mall that’s set back with parking out front.

Or, as in Manchester, it is the redevelopment of a failed shopping plaza on a now-vacant,18-acre parcel with the hope of creating a district with a little bit of everything, tied to nearby walking/biking/jogging trails.

“It all comes back to the notion of quality of life,” said Richard Martz, vice president of LiveWorkLearnPlay, a Montreal-based development firm with significant work in Connecticut, including the Route 34 project in New Haven. “And that means something different to different people. … The suburbs are not going away, but I think there’s an understanding that there’s a new way to service these suburbs.”

A New Wave Gains Momentum

At the moment the Glastonbury scene unfolded last week, a crowd had gathered in downtown Hartford for the first night of Infinity Music Hall, part of the Front Street food and entertainment district that was backed by tens of millions of state taxpayer dollars. It was the “soft opening,” a day before the grand opening with dignitaries.

Infinity Hall owner Dan Hincks was working the crowd as the wait staff worked out kinks and the local band West End Blend inaugurated the 500-seat hall.

I told Hincks, after I tried the restaurant fare, that he should follow the Hartford Downtown Dwellers page on Facebook. On that site, more than 1,000 people who live in apartments downtown discuss and argue about everything from parking rules to new restaurants to overflowing trash bins to dog-walking to the planned baseball stadium.

Hincks took note. That’s the sort of pulse Hincks and his team need to tap into if they want to fit in as an institution for downtown Hartford and beyond. The conversation is a key component of what makes the new wave more than just a collection of reconfigured streets and buildings.

In Avon, the Brownstone Bakery for Dogs opened four years ago after its co-owner, Roger Howard, closed a store in West Hartford Center that offered similar, upscale, healthy fare for canines. The old location didn’t have space for a commercial kitchen. But Howard and his co-owner, Stephanie Bunnell, needed to find a way to draw customers since the Avon store doesn’t bring the spontaneous foot traffic of West Hartford’s Farmington Avenue.

So the store, in a building where Ensign Bickford once made explosives, launched an event on the back lawn, by a parking lot with a suites hotel on the other side. They bring in related businesses, which set up tents for a dog-related fair. When I saw it recently, families gathered on the green with balloons, and Bunnell read out the winners of raffle prizes.

No, it wasn’t a civic event on town land sponsored by the Rotary, but it had some of the same elements. That dog fair fits in perfectly with the notion of small-scale changes that bring people together.

“We’re looking for businesses that don’t just sell stuff but actually create a sense of community in their own right,” said Martz, like running-gear stores that sponsor clubs and wine stores that offer winemaking classes.

“What makes a community and what makes a city is a whole collection of people doing what they do best. … Not everyone cares about dog food, but some people do.”

The people, and for that matter, the dogs, who came to that fair may well prefer to climb back in their SUVs and drive to a shopping plaza for dinner before retiring to their 3,000-square-foot houses on a full acre. Or they may want to live without a car altogether and walk home to their apartments, though that wouldn’t happen in most Connecticut towns.

The point is that the new wave of new urbanism comes in many strengths.

In Manchester, Mark Pellegrini, the longtime director of planning and economic development, sees an evolution, not a grand debate between the forces of car-based convenience and advocates for so-called smart growth. His town will have the vast Buckland Hills retail area as well as a traditional, walking downtown, and, he hopes, a new, mixed-use development on the site of the portion of the old Manchester Parkade that the town bought and demolished.

“I’m not one to say sprawl is bad and compact development is good,” said Pellegrini, who had a strong hand in shaping the massive — and yes, sprawling — Buckland retail area. “People aren’t trying to get rid of cars. It’s not a zero sum game. … It’s a matter of better choices.”

Not So Bad

As I walked the length of Route 44 from Salisbury to Putnam this summer (for the “Explore 44” project), I saw, up close, central Connecticut’s many styles of commercial development, and the ways each town is trying to steer it — ironically, in order to regain what they lost decades ago.

One thing I learned, as the Glastonbury family made clear, is that people are passionate about their ideas of what enhanced community living means to them. As a New Yorker by birth who went to high school in the inlying suburbs of New Jersey, I’d be happy with a vast urban zone — which we might have had if we hadn’t torn down the human-scale heart of Hartford and run highways through it, rather than around it.

Sprawl, the commonly used slur against creeping, car-based development, has no clear definition. Loosely, it’s development that’s low-density, with one use in any given area, such as residential or retail, and typically low-rise, with 1- or 2-story buildings.

The good news is that the sprawl situation is not bad at all in metro Hartford. The commercial sprawl, if we can call it that, lies mostly along main highways in limited places, like the Berlin Turnpike and parts of Route 5. It does not cover vast, multi-square-mile areas. That’s partly because Connecticut is a collection of historic towns and villages that grew, or didn’t. With few exceptions, we don’t have real suburbs at all.

This ain’t overdeveloped northern New Jersey and it ain’t Charlotte or Phoenix, which had such rapid growth over the last 20 years that they had to build a support system of sprawling, low-density retail, surrounded by uncountable numbers of parking lots that pushed ever deeper into the hinterlands.

State policy has offered a nod to Connecticut’s development, for example in a 2005 law that encourages towns to pursue so-called smart-growth paths, though the law has no real teeth.

But for the most, part, if central Connecticut lacks vast sprawl, it’s not the result of planning. The brutal recessions that have hit Connecticut, most notably the 1989-94 downturn that cost the state 10 percent of its jobs, have had the effect of keeping development of all kinds in check.

Throughout my 107-mile trek across Connecticut, I saw for-sale signs on old buildings, new buildings and open land — much of it advertised as ready-to-go, commercially developable property. And much of that will remain undeveloped, for better or worse, especially in places such as Ashford, where I saw a sign on land for a “business pad site, 90% of engineering completed.”

“I think those people are just fishing,” said Brian Jessurun, of Pomfret.

Jessurun knows a bit about gathering places. Along with his brother, Barry, Jessurun owns the Vanilla Bean Café in Pomfret, the Dog Lane Café at the new Storrs Center and key restaurant property in the burgeoning town of Putnam — all of which have tapped into people’s desire for more communal gathering, to the Jessuruns’ advantage.

Putnam owes some of its success in recent years to outdoor dining, which required special zoning approval. Now we’re seeing under-the-stars seating even in places where there’s little or no walking around, a sign of towns and property owners striving to join the wave.

But when it comes to major growth in the rural, outlying towns, Jessurun said: “I just don’t see the demand.”

Physical Reality

A car wash building, nestled in a 2-mile stretch of virtually unbroken commercial development along Route 44 in the Farmington Valley, says a lot about the direction of things in Connecticut.

Wedged between a Walmart and a swath of green that’s undeveloped only because it surrounds a stream, the car wash represents a triumph of sorts, at least when it comes to the look of the place.

Back in 2005, when the car wash developer came to Avon, Steven Kushner, the town’s director of planning and community development, wanted the business to evoke an old village. So Kushner produced photos of an old firehouse in nearby Unionville, and asked the developer to try for something like that. The developer agreed, and even brought in an Italian stone mason for the brick detail.

“We try and create character when we can,” Kushner said. “The idea was to try and build a modern-day car wash that was reminiscent of an old firehouse that was converted to a car wash.”

Kushner refutes criticism from people up the road in Canton that his town, Avon, is full of oversized commercial sprawl while they, in Canton, are preserving architectural heritage with businesses in old, converted houses and new buildings made to look old. He talks about improvements to shopping plazas in which entrances and exits are shared between neighboring plazas — giving more of a sense of unity, as well as a smoother traffic flow.

Kushner also talks about a few mixed-use developments closer to the center of town, some of them years old. He shows a zoning map of the town, which makes clear that the stretch containing the large plazas with Walmart, Marshalls and the like is but a minuscule piece of the town — though it leaves a lasting impression.

Like Pellegrini, in Manchester, Kushner deals in a pragmatic world. These town planners know that, ideals aside, the market responds to what people will pay for.

In response to a Canton antiques merchant who took a swipe at Avon, Kushner shot back, “The average suburban resident doesn’t survive just on specialty retail in 100-year-old houses.”

Martz, at LiveWorkLearnPlay, believes that the old view of sprawling suburban development was not a move away from the ideal of community, but an attempt to find it in a different form, based on a “false paradigm.”

“They were sold a bill of goods,” he said of the generation that moved out to sprawling towns on large house lots. “That was presented as a great way of life.”

Though he may disagree, it still is a great way of life, for many. Still, as he says, the old view of economic development that went along with it — “go land IBM and then people will want to move to your city” — is defunct.

And that makes the quality of where we live all the more important.

“People are choosing where they want to live first, and then choosing where they want to work,” he said. “Young, creative, intelligent, educated professionals, they’re not moving to the side of a highway 30 miles outside of a city.”