CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN
OVERALL STRATEGY FOR DOWNTOWN
The plan for downtown provides a strategy to ensure that downtown is an active mixed-use area. While the plan focuses on improving the business climate and encouraging active commercial and public uses in downtown, the plan also concentrates on strengthening the existing residential and mixed land use neighborhoods which are integral components of downtown and which provide vitality to downtown.
The strategy is to promote downtown as an exciting and interesting area to be in by enhancing retail uses, promoting after hours entertainment, and creating new arts and cultural activities and recreational uses within downtown.
The plan seeks to upgrade the existing fabric of downtown and strengthen its image. The strategy recognizes that the downtown is a collage of differentiated spaces and therefore, the plan analyzes the seven sub-districts in downtown to formulate sensitive and specific proposals.
The following pages articulate general policies for the downtown. The policies regard land-use; riverfront access; future development; urban design, preservation and rehabilitation; arts and cultural activities; downtown neighborhoods; traffic and pedestrian circulation, and parking; and retail revitalization and downtown management.
LAND USE STRATEGY
As the vision statement articulates, a vital mixed-use environment is the central theme of this plan. The greater the diversity the more likely the uses will complement and build upon one another. Currently there is no clear land use strategy for downtown Middletown. The area is zoned Central Business. The uses allowed in the B-1 zone vary greatly. They include banks, offices, hotels, single and multi-family dwellings, funeral homes, public buildings, retail sales, restaurants, bars and other service related establishments. While this permissive zoning will help foster the mixed-use character which is central to this plan, in many cases the uses are not sufficiently directed.
This plan recognizes that Main Street is made up of three unique districts. The districts include the north end neighborhood service district, the downtown retail core and the south end post redevelopment commercial district. It is essential that the land use strategy promote only appropriate uses in the districts.
Zoning should be revised accordingly to reflect these districts and the overall plan. In terms of land use, these districts must complement one another, and in order to do this, each must establish its own concentrated mix of similar uses. Concentration is a key word. Shopping districts along Main Street should be as compact as possible and have continuous retail frontage. This will encourage pedestrian traffic along the Main Street frontage and will facilitate both comparison-shopping and impulse buying. Service type establishments such as small restaurants, copy centers and support offices should be directed towards office/governmental complexes. Equally important, there must be a captive population in the downtown. Therefore, the upper floors should be devoted to offices, small service businesses and distinctive residential units targeted towards young professionals and college students. The downtown residential neighborhoods should be reinforced and when appropriate, recreated. Intrusion of inappropriate businesses into these neighborhoods should be discouraged.
- Promote office, service, and distinctive residential units on the upper floors of Main Street buildings;
- Insure that all land uses relate to, and where feasible, connect to the waterfront;
- Revise zoning to recognize and reinforce the unique districts in the downtown and along Main Street;
- Promote more lodging, bed and breakfast, and conference type establishments within and on the fringe of the downtown, to attract conferences, tourists and weekend visitors;
- Maximum Building height for buildings fronting on Main Street should be changed from twelve (12) to six (6) stories. Minimum Building heights, for buildings fronting on Main Street should be changed from one (1) to three (3) stories;
- A maximum setback from Main Street of five feet should be established. The front line of the building should be located within the maximum setback area for a minimum of 80% of the lot frontage on Main Street;
- In order to achieve continuous retail frontage, first floor land uses on Main Street should be restricted to retail, including; retail banks, theaters, restaurants, and other eating and drinking establishments with direct pedestrians access on to Main Street for each individual establishment;
- Permitted and Special Exception uses in the Central Business (B-1) Zone should be reviewed to establish the desired mix. Undesirable or inappropriate uses such as adult book stores, adult entertainment, liquor stores, massage parlors, check cashing and pawn shops should be deleted;
- Cafeterias should be eliminated as a permitted accessory use in the Central Business (B-1) Zone;
- The Ferry/Green and Northwest Residential Area should be rezoned from Central Business to Residential Pre-Zoning;
- Zoning should prevent the conversion from residential to office between Broad Street and High Street;
- The Preservation Board and the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust should formulate Design guidelines for each sub-district within the downtown and act in an advisory role to the Planning and Zoning Commission;
- Architectural assistance for exterior renovation is a necessary service. The Preservation Board should provide property owners and merchants with preliminary design assistance to help visualize the type of improvements that could be made to their properties;
- Zoning should incorporate the Design Guidelines for substantial renovations of new buildings and new signs;
- Required parking for new development should be reviewed with the goal of maximizing pedestrian activity. Payments in lieu of parking and shared parking should be considered. Creating large buildings with interconnected parking garages does little to increase pedestrian circulation and should be discouraged;
- Zoning should be amended to insure that no driveway access or parking lots are permitted along Main Street;
- Zoning should be modified to specifically permit Outdoor restaurant seating;
- Zoning should be amended so that all new uses shall be integrated into the overall pedestrian circulation system;
- Zoning should be amended to prohibit free standing signs in the Central Business (B-1) Zone;
- Zoning should be amended to specifically allow small projecting signs and awnings over the public ROW;
- Neighborhood Stores should be eliminated from the MX Zone;
- Tax assessment deferrals for substantial renovation should be utilized, as has been implemented in the North End of Main Street, adopt provisions of Section 12-65c-f of the General Statutes which permit gradual phasing in over ten years of the value of the rehabilitation;
- Create a façade improvement and rehabilitation loan program, modeled similar to Manchester and Norwalk. Community Development Block Grant funds should form a major component of this program;
- Consider waiving municipal permit fees for conforming property improvements.
DOWNTOWN AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO THE WATERFRONT
The Connecticut River is the single most important asset in Downtown Middletown. The riverfront represents the competitive edge the downtown possesses over most communities. The river holds the key to the long-term economic revitalization of the downtown. Middletown exists as a city today because of its relationship to the river and its future prosperity will be tied to the river.
Middletown’s evolution as a thriving agricultural and later industrial center was highly dependent on its proximity to the Connecticut River. Throughout the majority of its history, Middletown’s thriving downtown enjoyed and benefited from direct, at grade access to its waterfront.
In the late 1950’s the construction of Connecticut State Route 9 severed this extremely important link between the downtown and the waterfront. At the same time, redevelopment efforts did not recognize the waterfront as the single most significant natural and cultural resource in the City, and all too often new development turned its back on the then polluted river.
It was not until the environmental movement of the 1970’s, when the state and federal government enacted clean water legislation and began spending millions of dollars to clean the Connecticut River, which the City began to recognize the tremendous opportunities the reclaimed river had to offer. In recognition of the river’s value and to draw visitors to the waterfront, the City developed Harborpark and approved a popular restaurant and nightclub on the banks of the river. Now that popular amenities have been established on the waterfront, this plan recognizes that there is a need to re-establish a “pedestrian friendly” link between the downtown, Harborpark and the Connecticut River.
This plan advocates the creation of a carefully designed plaza over Route 9. This plan envisions this plaza as a stimulus for investment in an adjoining government/cultural plaza and major tourist attraction at the vacant deKoven Drive courthouse property. The MAT properties will provide the land mass for the total esplanade, which will once again reestablish the link between Main Street and the waterfront. (This plan recognizes the vital importance of the parking in this area and therefore advocates a redesign, which will increase the number of spaces). Once established, this new Columbus Plaza will allow visitors to the downtown to shop along Main Street, enter the Plaza for a concert or craft fair, proceed for a visit to a tourist attraction of statewide significance and then over Route 9 to the riverfront for a leisurely walk along an interpretive trail or for a drink and/or dinner at America’s Cup or a cruise down the Connecticut River.
While this plan recognizes that the above improvements are a crucial first step in the evolution of improved river access, the plan also recognizes that the ultimate solution is a much expanded riverfront plaza capable of accommodating mixed-use riverfront development. At this point, an exploratory committee should be established to:
- begin consensus building;
- the development of a conceptual plan;
- the identification of funding sources, including private sector involvement; and,
- the production of an informational and promotional document to be used when lobbying for special appropriations in future federal transportation acts.
In addition to this improved river access, this plan mandates that all future development must accentuate the City’s relationship to the river. River views must be preserved, and where possible, enhanced. The view of the City from Route 9 and the river must continuously improve. The City must carefully scrutinize the architecture of buildings fronting on deKoven Drive and should strive to light the arches of the Arrigoni Bridge. In this way, Middletown will continue to develop its positive image as the City by the river.
Finally, as the City strives for improved access, and when improved access is achieved, it is essential that the harbor area be carefully managed. For this reason the plan advocates the creation of a harbor management plan, as allowed for in Section 22a-113n of the Connecticut General Statutes, by the Harbor Improvement Agency.
SUSCEPTIBILITY TO CHANGE ANALYSIS
In order to identify future development opportunities a susceptibility to change analysis was undertaken. This analysis considered current ownership, vacancy rates, parcel size, east of consolidation of parcels and surrounding land uses, which may provide an impetus for redevelopment. The areas identified as being most susceptible to change were as follows:
- the Sears, Sears Automotive, Riverview Center block;
- the deKoven Drive Superior Court property;
- the City Tire property;
- properties north of Rapallo Avenue, behind Main Street frontage;
- the Marino property on Ferry Street;
- the Metro Square block;
- the Acme Auto, Middletown Plate Glass block;
- the Harbor area south of Sumner Brook
FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES
- Analyze the opportunities and impacts of a new Police Headquarters in the downtown area. If determined to be appropriate, keep new buildings in scale with existing structures and in accordance with this plan;
- Promote the redevelopment of the Sears Automotive Center as an office building or hotel/conference center with a scale and architecture which responds to and complements the new Courthouse;
- Locate a transit center on the northern side of Rapallo Avenue to bring people and greater activity to the area. Ensure that the facility is in keeping with the area’s historic nature and scale and is sensitive to air pollution concerns;
- Create a focal point in the center of the downtown by developing a Pedestrian Mall with links to Main Street and the riverfront in the area of Columbus Plaza and use the deKoven Drive courthouse property to develop a major tourist attraction;
- Promote the development of retail frontage on buildings facing Columbus Plaza, particularly in the Clock Tower building
- When market conditions dictate, guide the private sector redevelopment of Metro Square towards the recreation of a mixed-use neighborhood complete with offices, specialty retail, residential, restaurants, and nightclubs. (Ensure a mandatory residential component).
- If vacated, direct the future re-use of the Bob’s Warehouse building on Kings Avenue towards multi-family residential;
- After reviewing potential environmental constraints, consider the development of a marina at the Peterson Oil property;
- Examine the feasibility of relocating the sewage treatment plant in conjunction with major employers to create an expanded marina at Harborpark;
- If the treatment plant were to be relocated, promote high rise, multi-family residential development in the area south of Sumner Brook and on the southern side of River Road;
- Attract small to medium sized corporate headquarters to accommodate the automated and telecommunicating workforce of the 21st century. This will foster a mixed-use atmosphere of working, shopping and relaxing all within the downtown.
URBAN DESIGN, PRESERVATION AND REHABILITATION
The plan seeks to provide a strong identity to the downtown. While prominent landmarks such as the Arrigoni Bridge, the church steeples and the Middlesex Mutual office tower do exist, the downtown lacks a strong sense of place. There is no clear system of visual signage that ties the whole of downtown, nor does the downtown exude a distinct image. To a certain extent, the North End does maintain a certain character but this character fails to permeate to other areas within downtown. Another significant weakness is the lack of visually defining limits of Downtown. Downtown contains numerous features, which could enhance the visual image and lend articulation if developed appropriately. The plan seeks to identify these features and proposes interventions to enhance them.
Downtown Middletown has a distinct history dating back to 1651. Its character remains due to the presence of historic buildings along Main Street. Though the historic buildings have been earmarked for preservation, the downtown does not specify design controls on new construction or rehabilitation of existing buildings in proximity to historic buildings. Regulating the built form in downtown is important to ensure that any new construction does not engulf older buildings and destroy the historic character. This regulation need not necessarily require rigid adherence to restoration standards. The regulation should encourage building rehabilitation that respects the distinctive architectural quality of each structure while adapting it to meet contemporary commercial or residential requirements. The guidelines should address acceptable store fronts, window and door types, approved siding material, masonry repair, replacement or highlighting of trim, cornices and other architectural details, selection of appropriate colors and removal of incompatible signs. The zoning regulations should include these design guidelines and the Preservation Board should be expanded to act as an advisory design review committee to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Furthermore the Preservation Board should offer preliminary design services to building owners.
Urban Design, Preservation and Rehabilitation
- Upgrade the image of downtown;
- Create a focal point/activity node in downtown to impart a clear sense of place;
- Develop a tree-lined boulevard down the center of Main Street from Washington Street south to College Street;
- Provide outdoor display areas, active public places and other recreational facilities within downtown to attract people;
- Design a coherent system of signage and a distinct streetscape sensitive to the historic character to provide a cohesive visual quality to the downtown;
- Preserve and restore the historic buildings and upgrade the sidewalks with sensitive landscaping;
- Improve rear facades of buildings facing parking and pedestrian areas to be more attractive to pedestrians;
- Preserve and strengthen views towards existing landmarks by appropriate zoning and by creating strong visual links and view corridors towards the land marks;
- Impose façade controls and controls on new buildings through zoning regulations to preserve the character of Main Street and highlight the historic qualities of the area;
- Establish and strengthen entries into downtown. Create gateways to establish a sense of entering downtown by undertaking physical improvements to streetscape such as landscaping, signage, building setbacks and appropriate land uses. At each gateway install a downtown map with the main attractions highlighted;
- Emphasize views towards the riverfront by identifying, preserving and strengthening existing view corridors, ensuring that future new building activity does not block views towards the river and creating new ones by defining the view corridors by hard and soft edges;
- Install textured cross walks at entries to Main Street and at key intersections to clearly identify pedestrian areas. This will reinforce a sense of district and encourage pedestrian movement across Main Street;
- Highlight entries to activity nodes by pavement treatment, lighting, and streetscape elements. Enhance the appearance and visibility of entries to parking lots from Main Street and other activity nodes by appropriate urban design treatment;
- Promote the inclusion of the Arrigoni Bridge on the National Historic Register and use lighting to promote it as an historic Middletown landmark;
- Understanding that lighting is an attraction in of itself; lighting should be used along deKoven Drive and Harborpark to accentuate the City and its positive relationship with the river;
- Promote increased use of outdoor dining and portable carts to bring more activity to the sidewalks;
- Bury overhead wires within the downtown and provide for more landscaping and trees to soften the urban environment.
ARTS AND CULTURAL ACTIVITIES
The plan envisions downtown as being the hub of regional arts and cultural activities. Rather than an arts center, the plan promotes an arts community with numerous offerings intermingled among other downtown uses and downtown neighborhoods. Downtown is multi-cultural and this characteristic is an asset which must be nurtured.
Downtown will be a place where people will congregate, recreate, dine, exchange views and ideas, and celebrate important events. The arts and cultural activities at present are limited to very passive ones. The existing facilities fail to generate any significant activity on Main Street or in the downtown. This is partly because these uses are in scattered locations and are not inter-linked in any way.
Further, the downtown lacks a central place or a plaza where people could congregate for cultural events. Lack of a convenient link to the riverfront from the downtown prevents the riverfront from being used actively. Inactivity on the riverfront is furthered by a lack of public events.
The potential to establish downtown and the riverfront as a focus of public activity remains uncapitalized. Location of governmental and other offices and institutional uses in the downtown are an asset because they bring people to downtown. An exciting and stimulating environment with opportunities for arts and cultural activities and active and passive recreation will ensure that the visitors to downtown have greater reasons to come to downtown.
The plan proposes to strengthen and reinforce the character of downtown as an arts and cultural center of the city and region by proposing more diverse arts and cultural uses and recreational events all year round. The plan promotes the creation of a plaza, carefully designed to meet the technical needs of a performance space, for sculpture, gardens, exhibitions and performances.
The plan acknowledges the need to involve the City’s Arts and Cultural Commission, Wesleyan University, Oddfellows Playhouse, the Buttonwood Tree and others in the activities of Downtown. The plaza would serve as a common platform for these groups, city residents and visitors to interact. The plan also stresses the need for the existing cultural organizations to undertake out-reach efforts and plan more special events that would encourage activity in downtown.
Co-existence of retail and business activities with arts and cultural attractions will enhance the Downtown’s competitive edge over antiseptic suburban malls. The influx of downtown retailers will have the extra benefit of drawing customers who are in downtown for other purposes.
Arts and Cultural Activities
- Encourage through the City’s Arts and Cultural Commission and the Park and Recreation Department more arts and cultural and recreational events in the downtown and on the riverfront. Adopt a policy ensuring a special event once a month from April to October;
- Develop the armory, the deKoven Drive court property and the Capitol Theater for arts and cultural activities, performance space, recreational uses and other types of events to attract children, teenagers and adults during the evenings and on the weekend;
- Link the river to downtown and organize special events, fairs and activities in downtown and on the riverfront;
- Provide a centrally located plaza, designed specifically as a performance space which could house outdoor arts and cultural events and exhibitions and where city residents and downtown employees could congregate for special events;
- Constantly and aggressively provide for the arts in Middletown;
- Encourage the City’s Arts and Cultural Commission, Wesleyan University, Middlesex Community College, the Buttonwood Tree, Oddfellows and others to host events in the downtown;
- Consider the development of an “Arts in Architecture” program and other programs promoting the establishment of permanent works of art in public spaces;
- Involve all artists: visual artists, outdoor sculptures, landscape artists, dancers, musicians and actors in the activities of the downtown.
To residents of the downtown, the downtown is their neighborhood. If their neighborhood represents a safe and pleasant living environment they will invariably dine, shop, socialize and recreate in the downtown. For this reason, the City must recognize the downtown as a very unique and special “neighborhood”. A neighborhood which also has the ability to attract visitors.
There are two predominately residential neighborhoods in the downtown. They are defined on the subdistricts map as the Ferry/Green mixed-use neighborhood and the Northwest Residential Area. River’s Edge Condominium, Traverse Square, South Green Apartments, Sbona Tower, Old Middletown High, upper floor apartments along Main Street, particularly in the north end, and the Arriwani Hotel also represent significant populations of people in the downtown with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
This ethnically and soci-economically diverse population includes long time residents, new families, college students, young professionals, and low to moderate income households. These residences and the people who reside in them are certainly one of the most important elements contributing to the vitality of this downtown. No individual income group can preserve and increase the vitality of downtown. Currently there is an over concentration of lower income groups living in the downtown. Therefore, the mixed character of the current population must be enhanced by attracting more moderate and upper income groups.
Perhaps one of the most pressing social issues in the downtown is the fact that the Arriwani Hotel and the Saint Vincent DePaul Place represents a source of affordable shelter and meals for the region’s desperately poor and mentally ill. From a purely business and marketing perspective, these uses should not front on Main Street. These uses detract from the retail experience by leaving visitors and downtown residents with the perception that downtown is a dangerous and unwelcome place. Nevertheless the City recognizes its obligation to provide for its fair share of the region’s less fortunate. For this reason, the City is working with those involved to make the land use more accommodating to its residents and less threatening to downtown shoppers. The Arriwani Hotel and the St. Vincent DePaul Place are located in historically significant buildings. Their historic significance should be enhanced and as an initial step, the Main Street frontages should be converted to more retail type establishments.
Northwest Residential and Ferry/Green Mixed Use Neighborhoods
Recently there has been a decline in the vacancy rate of north end storefronts. However, the new uses are not classic downtown retail. They are more service oriented uses, which cater to the “captive” population in the residential areas to the east and west. These north end businesses have recognized and exploited this particular niche in the overall downtown market and have enjoyed success.
The City needs to ensure that the Northwest Residential neighborhood continues to represent a very pleasing, safe and ethnically diverse neighborhood. Equally important to the success of the area, the City must recognize and support the grass roots efforts, which blend traditional values with emerging multi-cultural thoughts in the Ferry/Green mixed-use neighborhood. Zoning should be amended to clearly reflect and protect the residential character of these neighborhoods and aggressive code enforcement should continue.
Traverse Square is a federally subsidized housing project located in the south end district. It contains 60 dwelling units and represents a significant population living in the downtown. As with most housing projects, the buildings are deteriorating and the neighborhood is stigmatized by a history of crime and other social ills. It is essential that the Housing Authority and the City continue to address these problems, perhaps with a reduction in the area’s density, and ensure that the neighborhood will become a safe and pleasant area in the downtown. Due to its proximity to Wesleyan University and the University’s dormitories, the University should play an active role in the improvement of this neighborhood.
Future Housing Opportunities
As the number of employment and cultural and entertainment opportunities in the downtown increases, so too will the demand for market rate apartments and condominiums. The two largest complexes, South Green apartments and River’s Edge Condominiums, enjoy relatively low vacancy rates. The City needs to strive towards a critical mass of market rate to upper income households distributed equally throughout the downtown. For this reason, this plan identifies the Marino property, the former Bob’s warehouse property, upper story apartments along Main Street and the Metro Square block as future distinctive residential areas. Young professionals from major employers in the downtown and the City as a whole should be targeted. To attract this population, the downtown must remain a safe and pleasant environment and the City must foster an invigorating nightlife with numerous restaurants, nightclubs, arts and cultural and entertainment uses within the downtown and along its riverfront.
VEHICULAR AND PEDESTRIAN CIRCULATION AND PARKING
Middletown’s existence as a central city has historically been directly related to its accessibility to the primary mode of transportation during each era.
As primary modes of transportation evolved from water to rail to automobile, Middletown adapted and thrived. Middletown’s evolution to the current mode of transportation, the automobile was marked by the construction of the Arrigoni Bridge, Connecticut Routes 17, 66 and later Route 9. Due to this infrastructure, Middletown’s downtown today enjoys exceptional access from all parts of the State. However, as the number of automobiles has increased dramatically, the infrastructure has, for the most part, remained in its historic configuration. This has resulted in significant congestion in and around the downtown.
Connecticut Routes 66 and 9 are the most congested routes in Middletown. The State Department of Transportation has historically expressed its desires to find solutions to the Arrigoni Bridge - Hartford Avenue – Route 9 traffic light situation. In 1991 the State DOT once again examined the issue, undertook preliminary designs and conducted an environmental impact study. The designs if ever implemented would have had dramatic negative impacts on the character of downtown Middletown. Fortunately, during this time of limited financial resources, the ”Middletown Route 9” project was shelved and is currently programmed in the twenty-year range.
There is little doubt that eventually the Arrigoni Bridge – Route 9 issue will be addressed. The bridge is approximately seventy years old and is currently at or near capacity. The lights on Route 9 are a major cause of traffic congestion, particularly in the summer months, and a major source of air pollution. In order to ensure that the issue is adequately addressed, the City should be working with the Department of Transportation to formulate a design which adequately addresses environmental concerns and which preserves and enhances the character of downtown Middletown and its historic relationship to the riverfront. In formulating these plans, improved vehicular access to and within the downtown and the north end industrial area and improved at-grade pedestrian access to the riverfront should be of paramount concern. Furthermore, the historic Arrigoni Bridge and views to the bridge should be preserved and any new bridge should be north of the current bridge or south of the bend in the river at the narrows.
As discussed in the land use strategy, this plan calls for a regional transportation center/hub in downtown Middletown. As the downtown evolves towards its “Vision Statement”, more and more employees, visitors and tourists will be coming to the downtown and more residents of the downtown will be commuting to other employment centers. All agree the State of Connecticut must move towards alternate modes of transportation.
Middletown’s downtown is ideally situated to be a transportation hub. The downtown is centrally located and has direct access to interstate highways, rail corridors and the Connecticut River. Potential exists for barge and passenger boats to the north and south. Potential exists for light rail commuter access to Old Saybrook, Hartford and Bradley Airport via the Griffin line and the New Haven and New York commuter line. Potential exists for a bus/trolley terminal to service the downtown and the entire community and region. There is also a need to establish a reliable mode of mass transportation within the downtown. It is felt that a reliable and aggressively promoted loop between major employers, residential areas, Wesleyan University and downtown shopping areas and restaurants would be heavily utilized.
This plan identifies the area north of Rapallo Avenue as the site for a future transportation center. This site is the site of the former railroad station and is currently a rail yard.
This plan envisions this transportation center attracting more people to the area and thus acting as a stimulus to future investment in the area. Any transportation center at this site must be at a scale and design compatible to the surrounding neighborhood.
Due to the far reaching benefits of such a regional transportation center and its focus on alternate modes of transportation, the City and Midstate Regional Planning Agency should aggressively pursue expanded rail service first to the north then to the south and federal transportation funding through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Downtown Traffic Loop
A central element of the 1965 Downtown Plan, the first comprehensive look at the downtown, was the establishment of a “ring road” around the downtown. The establishment of the “ring road” was intended to remove through traffic from Main Street and take this traffic around the Central Business District. In this way Main Street would become a heavily landscaped access road whose primary function was a pedestrian friendly parking area. A portion of this “ring road”, Rapallo Avenue, deKoven Drive and Union Street, was completed during previous redevelopment efforts.
While this idea still has a great deal of merit, it was proposed at a time when there was very little sensitivity to historic structures and huge amounts of federal monies were available to undertake urban renewal. Today the implementation of the western portion of the ring as proposed in 1965 would, for all intents and purposes, be impossible. To widen Pearl and Grand Streets to the width proposed would require the demolition of many historic multi-family homes. However, a modified ring from Washington Street to High and/or Broad Street to Church Street to Pleasant Street to Union Street to deKoven Drive to Rapallo Avenue to Main Street back to Washington Street could be developed and promoted through the use of signage as an alternative for through traffic. If formally established, this modified ring would allow access to parking areas at the rear of Main Street buildings from several side streets running perpendicular to the ring. By removing a portion of the through traffic from Main Street, south of Washington Street, Main Street can become more pedestrian friendly as a landscaped boulevard with textured crosswalks and other urban design elements. Due to congestion and traffic lights, traffic currently moves fairly slowly on Main Street and traffic should move slowly on Main Street. But it should move slowly, not due to congestion or traffic lights, but because Main Street is attractive, inviting and interesting. The modified ring road is a major part of accomplishing this objective.
In 1989 the City of Middletown contracted with Wilbur Smith Associates to conduct a detailed downtown traffic study. The result of the study was several excellent short and long-term recommendations. The recommendations were designed to improve traffic flow in the downtown area, including the above-discussed modified ring road and a possible prohibition on left turns on Main Street. This study was adopted by the Planning and Zoning Commission and forwarded to the Police Department for implementation. To date, none of the suggested improvements have been implemented. It is time to review the plan and begin its implementation.
Pedestrian Circulation and Parking
Ease of pedestrian circulation and parking facilities help in attracting visitors and shoppers to Downtown. While there are currently 2246 public spaces in the downtown, parking is still perceived as an obstacle and inconvenience to downtown shoppers. This plan recognizes the vital importance of an appropriate number of safe and convenient parking spaces in downtown. With this in mind, the plan for pedestrian circulation and parking envisions downtown as an active pedestrian center, with easily accessible and convenient parking spaces located in close proximity to Main Street and other activity areas such as the riverfront and Columbus Plaza.
Ironically, in many cases the parking at suburban malls is far more distant than downtown parking but mall parking is much more direct. Presently, the downtown has a number of parking lots located in proximity to Main Street with sufficient capacity. What it lacks is a coherent and legible system of pedestrian circulation, which ties these parking lots to each other and to the nodes of activity. Further, the extremely wide Main Street divides the downtown and serves as a barrier between the two sides of Main Street.
The downtown needs a comprehensible system of pedestrian circulation which links activity nodes and parking areas. The pedestrian ways have to be sensitively landscaped so as to encourage people to use them and provide a sense of direction. The width of Main Street has to be reduced by providing textured crosswalks at appropriate locations and a landscaped boulevard. Parking areas need to be appropriately landscaped, frequently patrolled and made to look more pedestrian friendly to dispel the prevalent notion that they are unsafe.
Circulation and Parking
- Provide a system of well-designed and user-friendly pedestrian walkways linking areas of activities with parking areas. Ensure that pedestrian circulation is segregated from vehicular circulation;
- Reduce the psychological barrier of Main Street by defining pedestrian areas with textured crosswalks and a central boulevard in the retail core from Washington to College Streets;
- Ensure safety in parking areas by appropriate lighting and safe accesses;
- Strengthen the directional signage to city parking lots from all parts of downtown;
- To the maximum extent possible, preserve on-street parking along Main Street;
- Improve access to downtown from Wesleyan University, Middlesex Hospital and other nodes in the city by improving pedestrian links;
- Currently the Parking Authority manages public parking in the downtown. In the past the Authority has shown insensitivity to the needs of downtown shoppers. To correct this situation downtown merchants should represent a majority of the Parking Authority membership;
- Maintain the practice of two (2) hours of free parking in municipal lots;
- Reinstate the practice of courtesy parking tickets thanking shoppers for coming downtown and reminding them the next ticket will include a fine;
- Eventually, transfer the Parking Authority operations to the Special Services District. In this way the Authority will have a vested interest in the downtown;
- Discourage employees and employers from parking on Main Street. These spaces must be reserved for high turnover patron parking. Require employers and employees to register with the Authority and receive a parking assignment in one of the more distant lots at very attractive rates;
- If an enforceable procedure which limits parking to less than one hour can be established, consider the removal of the parking meters along Main Street.
- Implement a payment in lieu of parking arrangement for new development;
- As development proceeds, increase parking at the Broad and Washington Street lot by adding a single deck, carefully designed to limit its mass;
- Eventually, as demand dictates, expand the Riverview Center parking arcade.
RETAIL REVITALIZATION AND DOWNTOWN MANAGEMENT
This plan recognizes that the suburban mall possesses many advantages over a downtown area. This plan recognizes that a downtown cannot compete in the same market with a suburban mall. A downtown must develop its own unique and specialized image and it must market that image to specific niches in the overall market with a focus on customer service, product knowledge and quality merchandise. Therefore, this plan strongly advocates that a market analysis be undertaken by a nationally recognized marketing firm in order to identify the existing and new markets. The plan cannot overemphasize the need for a detailed market analysis of the downtown. After reviewing all relevant demographic and economic information for the downtown’s market area, the analysis will identify downtown’s economic niche and recommend the proper retail mix, various merchandising and promotion techniques, and a strategy aimed at recruiting new businesses to the downtown. Funding for this study should come from the city’s Economic Development fund with possible assistance from the private sector. The pursuit of funding for this market analysis must by the first step in the implementation of this plan. Based on this market analysis and in concert with existing merchants, a detailed promotion and economic restructuring strategy can be developed.
In developing this strategy, the plan recognizes, first and foremost, the need to work with existing merchants and businesses. Stabilization and strengthening of the existing retail base is bound to attract new investment and new businesses. In order to accomplish this stabilization and strengthening, this plan feels modifications of current business practices will need to occur. The modifications will be in terms of merchandising, promotion, retail store mix, retail recruitment, retail building improvement and finally overall and well-coordinated downtown management. This would include a Special Services District to generate necessary revenue to continue the duties of a full time Downtown Manager.
It is recommended that a special services district be established to provide the sustained organizational focus and resources that downtown revitalization demands. The district should encompass all of the study area, with the exception of the two primarily residential districts. An organizational focus for Downtown revitalization is crucial to the success of the plan and must be pursued immediately. The Downtown Manager’s Advisory Board and the Downtown Manager should take the responsibility to organize and promote the creation of the special services district.
Merchandising, Promotion and Retail Mix
While the plan recognizes that it is essential that a market analysis for downtown Middletown be undertaken, it also recognizes that some general recommendations that have been proven to be successful in other communities can be articulated here. The following general recommendations were taken from the “Concept and Strategy for Downtown Manchester” and have been somewhat modified to suit Middletown’s needs.
The main merchandising theme should emphasize the unique and local character and tradition of shopping downtown with personal service and product knowledge offered by the independent merchant in the historic heart of the town. Some measures to achieve this objective are presented as follows:
Upgrade the presentation of merchandise and stock. Conduct periodic peer review of the layout and display practices of each store. Utilize the advisory capabilities of state and national retailing associations i.e. jewelers, clothiers, etc., to bring the latest concepts of that area of retailing to the Main Street merchant.
Improved service in retail stores during the lunch hour is one step, which will help convert downtown workers into better downtown spenders. Maintaining a full complement of staff and offering lunch hour specials are two measures to be tried. Getting downtown employees to buy downtown’s goods and services is a must.
Design, display and imagery – incorporate as much as possible, the historic theme of Downtown into the presentation of merchandise. Use the richness of the materials within the interior of buildings to enhance the display and setting for merchandise. Wooden beams, brick walls, ceiling joists, metal ceilings, wood floors, etc. should be prominent interior surfaces. Letter style and art work in displays, signs and advertising can employ images of downtown’s past glories.
Develop a credit financing pool for stores – Downtown banks should create a short-term loan pool for purchase of stock and displays for stores participating in the revitalization program.
Strengthen the Central Business Bureau. Broad-based participation is essential to a successful retailing community. Joint action on merchandising and other issues requires an organizational framework to coordinate individual actions.
In accordance with market analysis, work toward shifting the traditional business hours of downtown. An increase in market share may be achieved by opening on Sunday. The weekday store hours should be rearranged to be open for area residents after work.
Develop common lease conditions covering items such as uniform store hours joint advertising, required membership in the Central Business Bureau etc. Prepare master lease conditions for use by downtown property owners, which address retailing issues important to the overall success of the district. Receipt of incentives should be conditioned upon use of the lease conditions developed by the Downtown District.
Restaurants should be encouraged to use outdoor areas where possible. The sidewalk in front of the restaurants can serve this purpose. Adding a few tables with colorful umbrellas can add greatly to the visual quality of street. In addition to enhancing the vitality of the street scene, outdoor areas increase restaurant capacity with minimal increase in fixed costs. Encourage Downtown restaurants to identify with a theme i.e. pasta, Creole, etc.
Promotional activities by the Downtown merchant community need to be intensified with more cooperative advertising and greater coordination. Recommendations to improve promotional activities follow:
- Undertake at least one event each month from March through December. Build upon the present events of the Sidewalk Sale, the Hadassah Craft Festival, the Fourth of July Fireworks and the Connecticut River Regatta.
- Establish a monthly or bi-monthly flyer for distribution to shoppers with a particular emphasis towards Wesleyan and Middletown students and Downtown employees. One side of the sheet might be standardized with a logo, map and directory of Downtown’s stores and services and the other side would carry current news about sales, upcoming events, products, special coupons, new businesses and merchant profiles.
- Intensify the effort for cooperative advertising in local newspaper and radio and increase its frequency.
- Undertake promotions with special groups in the community (i.e. church groups, civic organizations, service clubs, tenants and nearby apartments, Wesleyan University and Middlesex Community Technical College, and major employers) to offer special incentives as part of the promotions.
- Publish a booklet containing advertisements and helpful information for anyone living, working or visiting downtown. The booklet should list categories of businesses and the name, address and phone number of the retailers listed in each division. A section on restaurants should include a price range. A map of Downtown showing parking facilities should also be included.
- Since a large percentage of the public changes residence each year and there are over 18,000 dwelling units in town, Downtown should make special efforts to welcome new residents to Middletown. Special welcome mailings, gift packages and invitations to shop downtown can build recognition and the shopper base. For instance, the Westlake Planned Residential Development contains over 3000 dwelling units with rapid turnover and a relatively young population, but it is suspected that few venture to Downtown.
Retail Store Mix
Downtown currently has some areas with noticeable vacancies. These generally are the larger spaces (Waldbaums, Woolworths, Kabachnicks and Sears), which housed department stores that have found it impossible to compete with regional malls. These are the vacancies of greatest concern. Whether it is possible to attract large retailers to fill these spaces or to retro fit the building for multiple smaller end uses would be questions answered by a market analysis. As the economy improves and Downtown moves toward it’s critical mass, entrepreneurs will no doubt fill the smaller spaces, as has already occurred in the North End and is beginning to occur throughout downtown.
A market study will identify those businesses the Downtown should be targeting. Potential uses, which are successful in other downtowns, include:
- Specialty women’s wear / accessories Apartment furnishings
- Shoe store Theme restaurants
- Card, gift & stationary Confectionery stores
- European house ware Gourmet food stores
- Home accessories Gourmet ice-cream yogurt parlors
- Interior decorator Green grocers
- Antique shop Wine & cheese
- Bookstores with cafes Copy centers
- Art galleries / frame shops
Middletown can no longer passively wait for business to come to Downtown. An aggressive and targeted recruitment program must be implemented. It is suggested that the Downtown Manager working with the Chamber and the Municipal Development Office develop a computerized database of available sites, formulate a marketing brochure and identify several potential retailers within the region. They would then contact the retailer to introduce them to Downtown Middletown.