Downtown New Britain is no longer a "downtown," if that word means anything. But if it's no longer the city's commercial or business center, then what is it?
The revitalization of downtown New Britain was not much of an issue during the 2007 municipal campaign. The welcome news of Carvel Corporation's move to the long vacant Smart Park (the former Stanley Works factory parcel)and a meaningless flare up over the location of a new police station were about the only headlines drawing attention to the city's vital center this year.
Downtown is ripe for new investment and development that needs to be managed wisely by city and state officials over the next five years. One of the big challenges of putting a viable downtown New Britain back together has to do with Route 9, the highway that connects I-84 to I-91 and shore points. New Britain is not unique among U.S. cities in having a four-lane roadway built 40 or 50 years ago that hastened decline of the central business district. The major task now is to undo that public works and public policy fiasco that cut the city in two.
As Pat Thibodeau observes in a recent post on his blog about New Britain, there's no bringing back a downtown full of big retailers and big stores that people pouring out of factories patronized in the middle of the 20th century.
Thibodeau sees the opening of C-Town -- an urban grocer that people walk to -- as a harbinger of downtown's future. "Downtown New Britain isn't so much the place to be (the old city slogan), as it is a place to live. It has the potential to become an interesting and lively neighborhood," he says. He goes on:
Downtown housing is likely to be occupied by single adults or couples who want to be in walking distance to essential services and stores. I also believe that, more and more, people will be interested in living without having to own a car, even in Connecticut. (I just paid about $25 for 8 gallons of gas at the Sunoco near West Farms. What happens when gas hits $4 a gallon?)
Thibodeau's analysis needs to be heeded as key pieces of real estate (the old police station, the Herald building and the New-Brite shopping plaza) enter the development picture in the immediate or near future. Above all, officials at the local level need to be ready to take full advantage of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway that will turn the old Greenfield's property into a transit hub and instantly make the land and buildings around it more attractive for private investment. These investments will have little need (nor should they) for abatements and public subsidies for business that desperate cities often use to boost their grand lists. Like third world countries fighting poverty, distressed U.S. cities are engaged in a "race to the bottom" because of the property tax.
Last July experts, lawyers and developers were at New Britain City Hall to outline some exciting plans for a downtown in dire need of good ideas and new public/private investment. Careful listeners to a study prepared by Harrall-Michalowski Associates wouldn't be wrong in thinking they may have already heard much of what is being proposed. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: "It was deja vu all over again."
If you flashback two years to the 2005 campaign, Jason Jakubowski, the Democratic mayoral nominee, unveiled a plan called "Project Hope" that represented a comprehensive and very ambitious agenda to bring downtown back. Jakubowski, reviving some older proposals dating back to the DeFronzo administration and raising the new ones, defined "hope" for downtown with a nine-point plan that included a new police station and the conversion of New-Brite into a collegiate sports and conference center multi-plex. He urged an expanded role for Central CT State and Charter Oak State downtown and proposed an arts and entertainment district built around the city's existing assets. To correct the highway mistake of the 70's, a mini platform idea was floated again to bridge the divide between East Main Street and Columbus Boulevard.
Jakubowski's "Project Hope" and the master plan to come from consultants hired by the city this year are based on the same essential component: the federally funded busway planned to run aside the railroad tracks from New Britain through Newington and onto downtown Hartford.
While the busway is still five years away at best, the city and state -- working together -- could begin to put into place elements of a plan that will make downtown "interesting and lively" for visitors and residents who are ready to consider the center of the city a place to live if convenient public transit exists.
An interim step that could happen within a year is to upgrade the existing downtown bus stop. "One thing New Britain should try to get the state to do is improve the downtown bus hub," states Thibodeau. "The bus pick-up location at West Main and Main Streets is dismal and unattractive. It actually looks dangerous. It needs an extreme makeover to encourage new riders." A cosmetic makeover next to the municipal garage would invite greater use of public transit before the busway arrives.
And what would be wrong with a commuter bus direct from downtown New Britain into Hartford? There is a commuter Express near Corbin's Corner with limited services now. It should be expanded to downtown given the thousands of New Britain residents -- not to mention people from adjoining towns -- who trek into downtown Hartford to work every day. More local service -- a university downtown shuttle and a route up to the West Main Street business area -- would get people to work and shop without using a car at $3.30 a gallon.
It's time to implement a transit-based economic development strategy now and not wait for the first ride on the busway some of us plan to take circa 2012.