New Britain — The decades after World War II were unkind to many Connecticut cities, New Britain among them. The Hardware City lost jobs, was carved up by highways and saw residents depart for the suburbs. Its once bustling downtown began to look desolate, almost like an archeological site.
Downtown New Britain is steadily coming back. Streets have been revamped and redesigned (with roundabouts and bike lanes), a downtown park has been spiffed up, and historic buildings are being refurbished for housing and other uses. A new development, two five-story buildings with about 160 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail space, is under construction.
“More downtown buildings have been sold in the last two years than in the last 20 years,” said longtime city development director Bill Carroll, a New Britain native. “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
What’s driving this revival? The bus.
New Britain officials, led by Republican Mayor Erin Stewart, have embraced the CTfastrak bus rapid transit system as an economic engine, and it seems to be working. The mayor said in a recent interview that she expects 200 new units of downtown housing in place by the end of this year, with another 100 coming next year.
CTfastrak “has driven nearly all of this. It’s my talking point,” said the ebullient 32-year-old Stewart, now in her third term.
Indeed, nearly all of the development in downtown New Britain is within easy walking distance of the downtown CTfastrak station, making it what planners call “transit-oriented development,” or TOD. Other communities along the state’s transit corridors — you can’t have TOD without the T — have embraced the concept as well, with support from the state.
But can TOD help revive all cities and towns, not just New Britain?
“Yes,” said David Elder, the state Department of Transportation planner and TOD coordinator, “but it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over time.”
But it is happening. Since CTfastrak opened in 2015 and the Hartford Line commuter rail service from New Haven to Springfield followed in 2018, both corridors have seen a combined total of $700 million in investment, according to figures compiled by the Capital Region Council of Governments. Nearly every community — Windsor Locks, Windsor, West Hartford, Berlin, Wallingford and others — in both corridors has at least one TOD project finished or underway. Several shoreline communities — Clinton, Fairfield and others — have projects in the works as well.
“I think it is the single most important thing we can do” for city and state economic development,” said David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Transit-oriented development is a newish term for an old idea. For most of Connecticut’s history, virtually all development was connected to waterways or rail/trolley lines. That changed with the widespread middle-class migration to the suburbs, almost all by car, in the decades that followed World War II.
By the 1990s there came the belated realization that suburban sprawl had a downside: more traffic and congestion, more air and water pollution, higher cost of infrastructure, loss of forests and farms, and isolation of the poor in cities.
In response, many planners and urbanists promoted the ideas of “smart growth,” concentrating growth in transit corridors or town centers — thus, transit-oriented development.
The 2005 federal transportation funding bill made federal funds available for TOD, as did subsequent bills. Former Gov. Dannel Malloy earmarked more than $20 million in 2011 for TOD planning and infrastructure, augmenting many more millions dedicated through state housing, economic development and brownfield remediation grants.
In short, the state has made a major push for TOD, and the momentum continues.
This spring, Gov. Ned Lamont appointed Lisa Tepper Bates, a former foreign service officer, to the new post of senior coordinator housing and transit-oriented development, and the General Assembly created a Municipal Redevelopment Authority to spur development near transit and town centers of distressed cities.
The Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects held an all-day symposium on TOD at the Capitol, and the Capital Region Council of Governments formed a collaborative to support TOD and town center development.
“Governor Lamont places a high priority on improving Connecticut’s public transportation system and advancing community development around transit hubs to drive economic development and respond to the increased demand from residents,” said Tepper Bates in a recent interview. “This is what the workforce wants, that’s what employers are asking for, and that’s what Connecticut’s communities can offer.”
She said it is also central to Lamont’s goal of reducing the state’s carbon footprint.
There are challenges and potential obstacles to TOD, however.
“It doesn’t just happen,” as Stewart put it.
First of all, the projects themselves are often daunting, involving such things as brownfield remediation, parcel assembly, road reconfiguration and complex financing. For example, Windsor Locks First Selectman Chris Cervick said his town’s conversion of the former Montgomery Mills complex into 160 mixed-income apartments drew funding from “five or six sources.”
A major TOD planned around a new parking garage at the Stamford railroad station fell apart three years ago over financing issues and unresolved differences between the city and state.
“It was a disaster,” said Joseph McGee, vice-president for public policy and programs of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “But we learned from it.”
Successful transit-oriented development also comes with some built-in requirements. The transit has to be frequent and reliable, there has to be a market for TOD to serve, and housing near transit stations must be built for people who use transit, as Massachusetts transportation commissioner Stephanie Pollock and others have observed.
Developers can encounter difficulties even after these conditions are met, experts say. Access to some stations is blocked by highways, rivers or industrial buildings, and some shoreline communities cannot create much density around stations because they don’t have sewers.
There can also be strong community opposition to TOD, especially when it involves building affordable housing or parking.
And finally, the parking itself can be difficult to create. That’s because many people who ride commuter trains don’t live within walking distance of the stations, which means they need a place to park. But a station surrounded by a sea of asphalt isn’t TOD. Towns struggle to find the right balance between parking and development.
“It’s an ongoing question (in Stamford). What’s the proper ratio?” said McGee. Many Stamford companies have vans that bring workers to and from the station, he added.
Nonetheless, many communities are overcoming these challenges and getting projects done. The Montgomery Mills project in Windsor Locks is scheduled to be completed in three phases from Aug.1 to Oct. 1.
“We’re really excited about it,” said Cervick. He said the project has been a catalyst for more development in the town center.
As is obvious, transit riders aren’t driving cars. This has the societal benefit of lowering traffic congestion and reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, about 40 percent of which come from the transportation sector in Connecticut. TOD creates healthier (read: walkable) neighborhoods, and develops the population density small businesses need to thrive. It reduces household transportation costs, freeing income to spend at those small businesses, or wherever else. It provides access to the jobs.
And, as Elder said, TOD creates more transit riders and thus more money in the fare box to pay for the buses and trains.
Mayor Stewart embraced TOD because “we need to reinvent ourselves. We want to be a success story, a place where people live, work, play and thrive.” How does a community make it happen?
Stewart said the first step is to work with residents to develop a vision. “Have public meetings even if nobody comes,” she said. “Eventually they will.”
Then, she said, reduce the vision to a plan.
Change the zoning, if necessary. Zoning doesn’t age well, and can be an obstacle to TOD. To take an example from another community, Windsor rezoned the area around its train station from industrial to a center design development district, which allows a mix of uses and up to 20 residential units per acre, said Windsor town planner Eric Barz. This resulted in a 50-unit condominium in a former mill and 130 apartments on a former public works garage site. Residents have a six-minute train ride to downtown Hartford.
Have a local TOD advisory group that meets regularly and keeps focus on the plan.
Finally, execute the plan, said Stewart. “Be organized, go step by step, block by block, have patience.”
Financing TOD will be a challenge going forward due to the state’s strained fiscal situation, but there are still tax credits and other programs available and officials hope to promote TOD by using the new Opportunity Zone legislation, which offers incentives for private investment in historically underserved areas, said Tepper Bates.
Most of the recent TOD projects have been subsidized and one goal is to make the projects attractive enough to draw private investment, as has happened in downtown New Haven.
Some, including Capital Region Council of Governments Executive Director Lyle Wray, think TOD could be more effective if it were planned on a corridor rather than town by town basis. Alas, a legislative effort in 2015 to create a corridor development authority foundered because some viewed it as a usurpation of local authority or creeping regionalism.
For all of the issues surrounding TOD, however, there is apparently one not to worry about.
Windsor now has hundreds of people living near its train station, said Barz, and not a single person has complained to the town about train noise.
The Cities Project, a collaboration between CT Mirror, Connecticut Public Radio, Hearst Connecticut Media, Hartford Courant, Republican-American of Waterbury, Hartford Business Journal, and Purple States, will publish periodic articles exploring challenges and solutions related to revitalizing Connecticut’s cities. Send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.