As published in the Record Journal Wednesday February 22, 2012
By Russell Blair
WALLINGFORD — The Planning and Zoning Commission plans to revive discussion on a downtown revitalization plan that was shelved after it met lukewarm response from the Town Council in December 2010.
The plan calls for a 23.3-acre Incentive Housing Zone that would encompass parts of Hall Avenue, Quinnipiac Street, North Cherry Street, Meadow Street and the intersection of North Colony and Center streets. Allowable densities would be increased to attract developers to build retail and housing similar to West Hartford’s popular Blue Back Square, which opened in 2007.
The zone would allow a maximum of 361 housing units. Drawings of the proposed units include retail and restaurants on the first floor with the upper two or three floors composed of apartments or offices. Twenty percent of the units in the zone must be affordable — classified as those targeted at people who make 80 percent of the area median income — and the housing must meet per-acre density requirements.
Wallingford received a $50,000 planning grant from the state in April 2008.
Towns can qualify for incentives of up to $2,000 for each unit allowed to be built in an Incentive Housing Zone, up to $2,000 for every multifamily unit building permit issued and up to $5,000 for every single-family permit.
A public hearing originally scheduled for Monday was canceled, but Town Planner Linda Bush said the planning commission would be bringing the issue back up in the coming months and seeking input from the mayor and the council. Bush said that the commission doesn’t need an affirmative vote from the council to amend the zoning regulations.
Jim Fitzsimmons, a Democratic PZC member, said that while not required, support from the council was important.
“We don’t make decisions in a vacuum,” he said. “We’re appointed by the council; we’re all on the same team.”
Bush, who is retiring on March 1 after 28 years as town planner, has long been a proponent of the plan.
“Nobody invests money in that neighborhood,” Bush said. “We want to change that. We want to expand the retail. We’d like to see it a Center Street-type district.”
The plan remains largely unchanged from the one that resulted in a 4-4 vote by the council in 2010, though some parking was added. Councilors Vincent Cervoni and John LeTourneau, both Republicans, and Democrats Vincent Testa and John Sullivan supported the plan at the 2010 meeting. Republican Chairman Robert Parisi joined fellow GOP Councilors Rosemary Rascati, Craig Fishbein and former Councilor Jerry Farrell Jr. in opposing the plan.
Newly elected Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the proposal.
“I need to get deeper into it,” he said. “I want to talk to some of the downtown people. It’s good to hear what the people have to say.” The proposed development would take place in the area around the new train station on the Springfield, Mass.-New Haven commuter line. The new regulations are purposed to “promote the development of a transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly downtown community within walking distance to the (train station),” according to the proposed regulations. The Department of Transportation has proposed building a new station near Judd Square or Parker Street. Other upgrades include streetscape improvements, including ornamental streetlights, brick pathways and trees.
But Fishbein said he still has problems with the idea behind the plan.
“It’s going to turn the town of Wallingford into the city of Wallingford,” Fishbein said.
He said that he had problems with the height of the buildings and the idea of putting parking garages downtown. Fishbein said he was also concerned that, if there were improvements planned that property owners wouldn’t buy into, the costs could fall to the town.
LeTourneau, who owns Wallingford Lamp and Shade on Center Street, said he supported the idea the first time around and still stands by it.
“I have no idea why it was pulled (from the PZC agenda),” he said. “I don’t know why it’s before the council; it’s a Planning and Zoning issue.”
Fitzsimmons noted that the new zoning regulations are an overlay, and don’t replace what’s currently there.
“Nobody is required to make any changes,” he said. “But if a developer wants to, the option is there. It’s another zoning opportunity.”
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said he supports the idea of the zone, though he, too, had earlier concerns.
“It encourages investment in downtown,” Dickinson said. “We’re changing our regulations to encourage private investment. Everyone benefits from that.”
Fitzsimmons said he backs the plan and hopes it would help the local economy recover. The last two planning commission meetings saw no new development come to town.
“Times are tough, but this is a wonderful opportunity for the town,” he said. “Let’s put it on the books for when the economy does turn.”
LeTourneau said he’d like to see some action taken.
“We can do nothing, and we will have nothing,” he said.
Information from The Connecticut Mirror is included in this report.