Centers of Attention

 

Across Connecticut, elected officials, professional planners and interested citizens are trying to come up with the formula that will make their main streets feel like the heart of town again.

 

Rose Ponte began noticing signs of decline along Torrington’s Main Street in the late 1980s, not long after the opening of the Brass Center Mall in Waterbury. The town’s director of economic development, Ponte and her husband had moved to the old mill town a few years earlier, drawn by its well-kept homes and smalltown pride of place.

“Little by little, the small shops began to close,“ she recalls. “The business just wasn’t there any more.” With fewer and fewer customers venturing downtown, the independently owned shops reduced their inventory, leading consumers to complain that there wasn’t much to buy. “It was this horrible, vicious cycle that was so detrimental to the vibrancy of the downtown,” says Ponte.

Connecticut has seen its central business districts rise and fall over the years. But it’s only fairly recently that a wide range of officials and citizen groups have reached a consensus that downtowns represent the social, cultural and economic center of a community, and that their vitality affects not just merchants but residents’ deepest sense of home and identity.

“To me it’s history, it’s authenticity, it’s human scale, it’s the ability to come and have chance encounters, to spend more time outside than inside,” says John Simone, president and CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center, a nonprofit for downtown revitalization based in Hartford.

The importance of downtowns “can’t be overstated,” says Robert Orr of Robert Orr & Associates, an architectural and town planning firm in New Haven that works with municipalities to change regulations, standards and zoning codes in order to improve downtown viability. “It’s where ideas happen and are shared—and it’s where money is made.”

In Torrington, where a revitalization effort has been under way for a number of years, Ponte has seen its effects on residents. “Everyone wanted main street to come back to life,” she says. “Everyone feels that the downtown is the heart of the community.”

And that’s a feeling shared by towns and their residents from one end of Connecticut to the other.
 

 

In Fairfield County, suburban Fairfield and Westport have always been odd neighbors. Both are affluent, conspicuously white, upper middle-class commuter towns—but there, for most of the 20th century, the similarities just about ended.

Closer to Manhattan by a few miles, Westport had long been a haven for actors and actresses, artists and ad men, cartoonists and illustrators, authors and musicians, alongside everyday businessmen. Its politics, in most cases, were liberal, its money relatively new and its nightlife vibrant. For many years, with its four downtown movie theaters, the famed Westport Country Playhouse within walking distance of Main Street, and dozens of popular restaurants and watering holes, Westport was both a destination for people not just from all over Fairfield County but from as far as New Haven, Westchester and even Manhattan.

At night and on weekends, both Main Street and the Saugatuck section of town near the train station were crowded with local diners, shoppers, theater-goers, club-and-bar hoppers and tourists. It seemed as if venues had little more to do than simply be in Westport to continue to draw customers.

Fairfield, due east, was a different story. Republican, WASPy and older-monied, with a population three times the size of Westport, its “center” on the Post Road consisted of a couple of fancy grocers, two diners, a handful of mom-and-pop stores, several blue-collar bars and an inordinate number of pizza parlors and nail salons. The heart of the business district was the Fairfield Department Store, a nearly block-long, two-story box that sold traditional styles that had changed little over the 75 years of the store’s existence.  “Passing Fads Have Their Place,” it reportedly once advertised. “But Not Here.”

A cultural and culinary no-man’s land, Fairfield barely registered as a drive-through, much less as a destination. “They didn’t call it a downtown,” recalls Simone, who grew up in the town in the early ‘70s. “It wasn’t a place.”

What has happened in Fairfield and Westport over the past generation or so provides lessons in economic revitalization that may be applicable to town centers elsewhere in the state.

First of all, in 1983, after a group of Fairfield restaurant owners complained about restrictive ordinances, the town’s planning & zoning commission removed a regulation requiring that patron bars be a minimum of 1,500 feet from one another. The next year, then First Selectman Jackie Durrell launched a streetscape design competition that resulted in a clearly articulated business district, with wide brick sidewalks, handsome cast-iron lamp posts and benches, and parklike, semicircular settings meant for resting and observing. As new restaurants opened, residents followed.

“She put the heart back into Fairfield Center,” says architect Mark Finlay, whose Southport firm won the streetscape contract. “Suddenly, it became nice to walk around downtown. It became a matter of pride that got into everyone’s blood.”  

In 2000, The Fairfield Store, closed and shabby looking, was purchased, along with several adjacent retail stores, by local development company Starwood Cerruzi. The 80,000-square-foot space was completely renovated and a large parking lot constructed in the rear. When Victoria’s Secret and Borders Books moved into the new space, traffic downtown increased dramatically.

For its part, the town began permitting outdoor dining, another key driver in getting people downtown. Already endowed with a 1923-vintage movie theater and a bandstand on the town green, the town also turned a former maintenance building into a performing-arts space that it leased, at below-market rates, to the Fairfield Theatre Co.  

“Sometimes it’s the small things that in the aggregate foster and create the environment you’re looking for,“ says Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s director of economic development. “You can definitely see the connection between arts and culture and a vibrant downtown.”

Since then, Fairfield Center has steadily accrued a broad and deep array of venues: in addition to the theaters and bookstore (now run by Fairfield Univesity), two ice cream parlors, three cafes, national-brand clothing stores, and some three dozen restaurants within a five-block area.
 

 

Meanwhile, during roughly the same period as Fairfield’s ascension, Westport’s downtown lost some of its attractions. Market forces were clearly at work. The opening of multiplexes in adjacent Norwalk and the north end of Fairfield in the late ’90s for a time rendered the economic model for free-standing theaters obsolete, and one by one Westport’s four downtown Fine Arts movie theaters closed. Exorbitant rents, driven up in part by a surge of national stores on Main Street, including GAP, Banana Republic and J. Crew, displaced several long-established mom-and-pop operations. Also damaging were zoning regulations that had kept existing restaurants at a disadvantage--a half dozen closed in the past five years--and new restaurants at bay.

“Downtown Westport has always been a successful downtown in terms of the high-end retail we’ve been able to attract,” says David Waldman, a local developer and acting chairman of Westport’s Downtown Merchant’s Association (DMA). “What we were lacking was a plan for when those stores close. Over a 10-year period, Westport became a tumbleweed town. When we lost our movie theatres, that was probably the beginning of the decline.”
 

This rise and fall is a familiar story around Connecticut, and Fairfield certainly isn’t the only town to have pulled itself up from cultural and economic obscurity.

South Norwalk, the gritty historic district of the city of Norwalk that is bordered by Westport and Rowayton, underwent a $750 million redevelopment effort in the mid-’80s after more than 10 years of planning.  Renamed “SoNo,” the redeveloped business district, centered around Washington Street and the nearby Maritime Center and IMAX movie theater, saw dozens of industrial buildings converted to restaurants, bars, antiques shops and apartments and condos.

The once quiet downtown area known at West Hartford Center found new life a decade or so ago after the town consolidated the many small fiefdoms of individual store parking spaces into one large lot and then began permitting open outdoor dining on the sidewalks. The addition of adjacent Blue Back Square, a housing, shopping and dining mecca, only solidified the gains.

Torrington’s turnaround, still in progress, seemed highly improbable 20 years ago. Malls in Waterbury and Farmington had depleted local stores of customers and hope. Worse, the historic Warner Theatre, built in 1931, faced demolition, and nine buildings on Main Street had fallen into foreclosure.

Then the community got involved. Public and private funding raised $7 million to restore and reopen the Warner. Sharon Dante, who grew up in Torrington and founded of the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts there, relocated her classical ballet school to the Warner. New restaurants opened nearby. And three local developers formed Torrington Downtown Partners—a partnership invested in by members of the community—that bought and restored all nine of the foreclosed buildings. Other organizations, including The Art Culture Torrington Commission and the University of Connecticut at Torrington, have joined in.

“Those were huge plusses,” notes Connecticut Main Street Center’s Simone. The revitalization came about, according to him, through the combined efforts of public support, business and property owners’ commitment and community involvement.

The Center last year gave its Award of Excellence to Torrington for its Main Street Marketplace, a weekly event in the summer months that closes the street to traffic and opens the downtown to vendors, performers and late-hour shopping and dining

“If there’s one take-away from any kind of conversation about downtown revitalization, it’s that downtowns have to be managed,” says Simone. “The underlying thing here (in Torrington) is that there’s some sort of a management mechanism that’s convening the right stakeholders and helping to develop a mission.”
 

 

Torrington’s Rose Ponte graduated from Fairfield University. Torrington Chamber of Commerce president JoAnn Ryan lived in Fairfield. During the early stages of the Torrington’s revitalization planning, Ponte and Mayor Ryan J. Bingham visited Fairfield, as well as West Hartford and Great Barrington, Mass., shopping for ideas.

“What I learned from Fairfield,” Ponte says, “is that they didn’t go the route of big name-brand stores. They chose to support their individual merchants. Also, their downtown is very clean and beautiful, they do flowers, the parking is pretty accessible, they have wonderful restaurants and they also have a little movie theater.”

Ironically, two years ago Westport also looked to Fairfield for clues on how to revitalize its downtown. Members of various boards and committees visited Fairfield Center and talked with Fairfield Economic Development director Mark Barnhart and Chamber of Commerce president Patricia Ritchie.

In 2010, after years of complaints from local merchants, the Westport Planning & Zoning Department, like Fairfield before it, finally struck its own 1,500-foot requirement for patron bars in restaurants—one of “a series of regulations that were resulting in a lack of vitality downtown,” according to former P&Z chairman Ron Corwin. The board also eased or eliminated other regulations. “The restrictions on outdoor dining were horrendous—they were lumped into ‘outdoor storage and display,’” says Corwin. “There were onerous parking requirements that required additional parking spaces for a modest number of additional tables. It was byzantine.”

Corwin’s department urged the creation of other commissions and subcommittees to help revitalize downtown Westport. Howard Lathrop, an architect and P&Z member who heads the Beautification Subcommittee, had seen pop-up cafes in New York City and last fall urged the P&Z board to allow them in Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, as well as other parking lots, behind Main Street. Last May 10, Acqua, an existing restaurant, began outdoor table service at what is believed to be the first pop-up café in the state.

Yet another group, the Westport Cinema Initiative, is currently in talks with a Main Street landlord to build a three-screen, art-house movie theater in an empty lot behind The Tavern on Main, a longtime local fixture, bringing films back to a town that has had a long love affair with its actors and actresses.

Almost as soon as the 1,500-foot regulation disappeared, local entrepreneurs began planning new restaurants, too. David Waldman, a developer and the acting president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association, was first out of the gate with The Spotted Horse Tavern, a hot new restaurant in a renovated 1808 colonial-style house on Church Lane, around the corner from Main Street.

“If you look at Fairfield and you look at Darien and other towns—New Canaan’s a great example of what they did with Elm Street—there’s a concentration of restaurants in one area,” says Waldman. “People think, ‘Oh, all these restaurants are going to kill each other,’ but it’s actually the contrary. All of those restaurants actually feed off one another and bring more people downtown, which creates a more lively downtown area.” Four new restaurants are currently in various stages of development on the Post Road near Main Street.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the next phase of downtown Westport’s revitalization may be the redevelopment of the handsome 100,000-square-foot, Tudor-style YMCA at the foot of Main, which was given to the town by local industrialist E.T. Bedford in 1923. Construction is scheduled to begin sometime in 2014. When completed, Bedford Square will contain retail, office and 30 to 40 housing units. And with the completion of an ambitious plan to wrap the entire downtown area in new sidewalks and streetscaping, it may also be the cornerstone of a unified, revitalized Main Street.
 

That downtowns must serve a multiplicity of purposes and needs, with fewer government restrictions and more responsible commercial involvement, is a lesson being learned the hard way by dozens of cities and towns. How effectively?

Connecticut Main Street’s Simone answers this way: “I think we’re on a rising curve. I’m not sure if we’re above or below the curve when compared to other states, but there’s the beginning of a sea change in which elected officials are beginning to see the downtown as a potential asset worth investing in. But we’ve got a ways to go. We’ve spent a long time making sprawl development real easy and the kind of mixed-use development downtowns need real hard—and we need to reverse that.”
 

Centers of Attention

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