As published in the Record Journal Wednesday May 22, 2013
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — A plan that city leaders hope attracts residents, businesses and development downtown was recommended by the City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee Tuesday night.
The committee voted 4-1 during a 3½-hour meeting in favor of changing zoning regulations in the city’s center. The modifications will create five zoning sub districts to streamline the approvals process for development and create a more pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented area.
“What we’re trying to do is put this ordinance in place to encourage development going forward for just before or just after the rail service opens,” City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior said, alluding to an improved rail line scheduled to open in 2016. “A lot of things are actually happening.”
City Councilor Dan Brunet was also the only dissenter to the overall plan.
The state Department of Transportation has made a significant investment in the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line. With Meriden a stop along the way, officials have coordinated a downtown improvement plan that includes a new park at the Hub site, upgrades to traffic flow and improved housing.
In order for development to occur, city officials targeted zoning as an issue because it inhibits construction and delays the process of opening some businesses. It has also created a parking issue, with too many spaces required per unit being constructed.
In many cases, the new zoning regulations decrease parking requirements and hasten the approval process through the city planner. It also conforms the five districts to ensure that buildings appear to fit in the area, and that only certain types of businesses and operations are in the same areas.
A key discussion involved the razing of Mills Memorial Apartments, a 140-unit, five-building, low-income housing development. The Meriden Housing Authority has been looking at redeveloping the property for several years and is seeking the financing to do so. The MHA would be responsible for coming up with a plan that explains how it would relocate all 140 units within the city.
In order to ensure financing could be secured, MHA Executive Director Robert Cappelletti encouraged the committee to amend a specific requirement in the Historic- Commercial sub-district along West Main and Colony streets. As written, developments that include replacement units would require 80 percent of the units to be affordable housing and 20 percent to be rented at market rate. Cappelletti requested it be shifted to a 90-10 percent split.
“This is critical for the success of our ability to develop these construction projects and critical to the redevelopment of the Mills,” Cappelletti said.
Brunet was the lone dissenter in the committee’s 4-1 vote to recommend a change to 90-10 percent. Brunet said he doesn’t want any more affordable housing units downtown, because it could affect public perception of the area. Kendzior also disagreed with changing the percentages, stating he thought financing could be secured without it.
Councilor Brian Daniels noted that the MHA is proposing an 80unit development at the corner of Colony and Church streets as part of the redevelopment plan. Shifting the percentage by 10 points would mean only eight more affordable housing units. He added that the plan could also lead to the DOT funding a 200-plus-vehicle parking garage.
“If we miss this opportunity because we are worried about eight units ... when this opportunity is lost, the people of Meriden are going to look at downtown and see the same downtown people have been looking at since 1999,” Daniels said.
Some minor changes were made to the zoning regulations, which included an amendment that would allow mortuaries in any of the zoning sub-districts. Another amendment approved Tuesday exempts Rockfall Business Park, at 29 Cooper St. and 80 Cherry St., from the zoning regulations. The Rockfall owners said they did not believe their industrial business fit in the guidelines and the committee agreed.