Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Final Score: Blacktop 9, History 2; or A Tale of Two Cities

Pardon my bitterness, but yesterday was a disappointing day. On the way to a meeting of Middletown's Common Council (which is the subject of this post), I heard that Bush had commuted Libby's sentence. It saddens me to hear more evidence that American democracy is broken and that the rule of law is a pathetic joke to the rich and powerful.

As for the Common Council meeting, more than two hours was spent debating how to investigate the alleged threat made by an unidentified police officer against council members before a vote on a new police contract. It was not a scintillating debate, and the final resolution was a carefully nuanced dance to avoid potential legal action against the city.

As for the comments, debate and vote on Liberty Square, the proposed development on Liberty and Main Streets, the bad news is that the "insider" deal seems to be alive and well in Middletown.

I will begin by saying, again, that commercial and retail development on that parcel is a good thing. I also think the plan is, in essence, a good plan. But it's not a perfect plan, and several of the speakers last night, both opposing and supporting the development, echoed that sentiment. Members of the North End Action Team spoke in favor of the development, as did Larry McHugh, representing the Middlesex Chamber, who called it a home run for the city. The developer, Peter Harding, an experienced and respected Main Street developer, also spoke about the positive effect it would have on the North End. There's no doubt that it will have a positive effect. But as designed, it will have some negative effects, as well.

Vijay Pinch, Jennifer Saines, Catherine Johnson and I spoke against the details of the development, and against the nature of a deal that was formulated without open bidding. We suggested that the 100 ft gap to be created on Main Street by the proposed parking lot runs against all principles of urban design which favor pedestrian-friendly development. We also argued that the driveway entrance/exit which crosses the Main Street sidewalk creates a car vs. pedestrian safety hazard. We argued the value of retaining the historically significant structure at 9 Liberty Street, as opposed to the 10 blacktop surface parking spaces which will front Liberty Street in its place. We argued that there were alternative, attractive, practical design alternatives. And we argued that this deal, like others the city has made in the past, is driven by a deadline imposed by the developer, and as a result, the city feels it's not in a position to pursue alternative options. Finally, I argued that after the announced sale of the Middletown Press building for $4 million, the city was in a good position to ask for concessions on a Main Street parcel that it will be deeding or leasing to the developer at a bargain price.

Town Planner Bill Warner affirmed that the city's stake in the deal, with tax abatements, amounted to approximately $720,000 and that the developer would be spending $3 million. Under questioning he revealed that while this public/private real estate deal had not gone through an open bidding process, that a regulation was being drawn up so that all future such deals would be forced to adhere to an RFP (request for bid) process. That's good news, except that it has no bearing on this project.

Vijay Pinch details the Council member's debate in a great summary email he sent this morning to members of the Village District and Aware. Some of what I say here is redundant if you've read that.

David Bauer spoke passionately and strongly against the proposal and against the process followed by the planning office. He suggested that the development plan only seemed to appear before the first city commission after it navigated City Hall departments, and was essentially designed. In fact, as it was presented by the developer to the Economic Development Committee, the Redevelopment Commission and the Design Review Board, it was complete enough in design and layout for the parcel, that the developer insisted, it could not be altered without the potential loss of the proposed tenant, It's Only Natural.

Vinnie Loffredo refused to support the development on the principled stand that he would oppose any plan which did not go through an open bidding process.

The rest of the Council members supported the development while some, including Earle Roberts and Elizabeth Nocera, felt design alterations suggested by the public could be pursued before the Zoning Board. And Gerry Daley thanked those of us who pursued our objections by attending meetings. While some of the members conceded that the plan was not perfect, none suggested a single friendly amendment to request changes in design for safety or streetscape.

Interestingly, Bob Santangelo, in praising the development as the "best thing since sliced bread" (I, in fact, don't like sliced bread), revealed that the new parking lot would solve a problem created by the the Richman Group (Wharfside Commons) development on Ferry St. The flaw in that development is that there is not enough parking for the number of units, and that this new parking lot is needed for offstreet parking for Wharfside Commons. So, it appears, this latest development is a band aid for the last development brought to the table by the planning department.

In general, I found the meeting, and its outcome, dissatisfying for a few reasons.

It's discouraging that the Common Council approved the development of surface parking directly on Main Street, causing a safety hazard, and a streetscape flaw.

It's discouraging that the Common Council, while recognizing that the plan was not perfect, asked for no concessions or alterations from the developer. With minor alterations I think it would be a fine plan.

It's discouraging that while the Council is concerned with economic development, the grand list and jobs, it seems to have little or no concern for streetscape, urban design, pedestrian throughflow, or the negative effects of surface parking lots.

It's discouraging that the mayor, whom I respect, and who campaigned on a platform against insider deals and preferred developer contracts (particularly in the cases of the Richman Group and Landmark Development), now supports a similar deal because he seems to like the details of this particular plan, which was not put out for bid, and entails taking a property through eminent domain.

It's discouraging that city leaders continue to have little respect for Middletown's historical and architectural heritage.

And frankly it's discouraging that aside from "the usual suspects" as Dave Bauer characterized us, so few other citizens seem to care enough about these issues to participate.

Overall the meeting points to the need for a masterplan for downtown development, complete with rigorous design specifications. It points to the need for a design review committee with real authority to prevent bad design. And it points to the need for the suggested regulation to prevent development without open bidding.

Barring a devastating natural disaster, it's unlikely that Middletown's historic character and architectural heritage will disappear in one fell swoop. Instead it vanishes a building at a time - a chapel on Liberty Street, a few house on Ferry Street, an old mill on Washington Street, a stately convent at the end of Main, a couple of houses on Lawn Avenue. And when we look back, we'll wonder where Middletown has gone.

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