Leonard Felson
Jun 19, 2018

Communities On The Line: Town Centers With Hartford Rail Stops Are Being Reinvigorated

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Edited: Sep 11, 2018

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Juliet Burdelski, director of economic development for the city of Meriden, stands in front of 24 Colony Street, a mixed-use retail and residential complex, across the street from the city's new railroad station built to accommodate the new Hartford Rail Line that opens in the spring.

(Cloe Poisson | Hartford Magazine)

Imagine. Nearly hourly train service from Hartford to New York.

It's coming. This spring. That's when the Hartford Line, the first commuter rail in decades debuts. Yet its impact could provide more than reliable, frequent train service to the rest of the Northeast.

 

New life, or the possibility of it, is springing forward next to train stops in communities along the line — from Hartford south to New Haven and north to Springfield, where the line ends.

Tired, struggling towns like Wallingford, Meriden and Berlin are poised to reinvigorate their often forgotten centers as walkable, vibrant Main Streets, capturing the best of both worlds: small-town New England living and easy access to the big city.

 

With studies showing a demographic shift even in "the land of steady habits," with millennials and baby boomers sharing a common interest in repopulating town centers, the timing couldn't be better for a resurgence of towns through central Connecticut.

 

"It's a game-changer for the region," says John E. Bernick, a key rail administrator for design and construction with the state transportation department.

 

The thought of leaving your car at home, walking a few minutes to the train and riding to work, shops, restaurants or a host of other possibilities is generating unprecedented interest in what urban planners call transit-oriented developments, "TODs" in trade-speak, where retail, residential and transit cluster. With seamless, frequent connections from New Haven to Manhattan, Fairfield County or the shoreline, the Hartford Line certainly has the potential to be transformative.

 

 

The best example, the first transit-oriented development along the line, stands in Meriden at 24 Colony St. across from Meriden's grand new train station. It's a new 63-unit, mixed-use building with shops at street level and apartments above.

Even details such as parking were re-imagined. Instead of an oversized garage dominating a downtown street, state and municipal planners agreed on an innovative design, tucking the garage behind 24 Colony St., hiding it from the street, but making it accessible for rail commuters, new downtown residents and others.

 

 

Meriden's new railroad station was built to accommodate the Hartford Line, a commuter rail line opening in the spring.

(Cloe Poisson | Hartford Magazine)

 

Other downtown Meriden projects, clustered together, also are in the works, including an 81-unit mixed-income project of townhouses and row houses on the Crown Street site of the former Record-Journal newspaper building, demolished this past summer.

In all, about $100 million has been invested in the area not far from where Meriden Mall once stood, one of the early indoor shopping centers in central Connecticut that was surrounded by an emblematic sea of outdoor parking spaces.

Guiding the projects is Juliet Burdelski, the city's economic development director. She arrived here a decade ago from the University of Michigan, where she'd written her master's thesis on transit-oriented developments.

"I saw a lot of potential in Meriden as a TOD community," she tells me during a walk from City Hall to downtown.

The challenge was Harbor Brook, which runs through downtown and flooded twice in the 1990s, forcing businesses to flee.

When the Hartford Line became a reality, Burdelski saw an opportunity, leveraging a much-needed flood control project into a planned new downtown that would attract people who want to live near transit, relying less on their cars.

The result is Meriden Green, the town square the city never had, a public space the community has embraced with farmers' markets, concerts and community theater performances.

 

'Very Commutable'

In nearby Wallingford, 10 miles south, nearly 200 apartments are being added to a complex of more than 100 units known as Parker Place, walking distance to the town's train station.

For residents who want to work in Hartford or New Haven, "this town becomes very commutable," says Tim Ryan, Wallingford's economic development specialist, a point underscored in a 2016 study by Fitzgerald and Halliday, Inc., a Hartford engineering and consulting firm.

 

 

Tim Ryan, Wallingford's economic development specialist, stands near the new train station in his town. Wallingford is adding streetscapes and encouraging development to make the short walk between the station and downtown more appealing. (John Woike | Hartford Magazine)

 

 

Within a three-quarter-mile radius of the new station at Cherry and Parker streets, Ryan counts several more development opportunities. What's more, future development could bridge a gap between Wallingford's uptown and downtown, divided by a hill.

"Uptown is thriving," says Ryan. "It's becoming a destination. Downtown, near the train station, is kind of tired." Here's the thing: Though the new station was built several hundred yards from downtown, it's only a short walk away, but an uninviting walk, says Ryan. To fix that, the town is adding streetscapes and other amenities. Soon the distance from the train stop through downtown and on to uptown could be like la passeggiata, the evening stroll tradition in virtually every Italian town, village or big city.

To encourage development, the town created an aggressive tax relief plan, an incentive for developers who want to build housing and ground-floor retail around the town center. And it's identified what Ryan calls "the best projects that would fit the city's downtown plan," focused on state Route 15, Wallingford's center street, and North Colony Street, or state Route 5.

"Is the new rail line a catalyst?" asks Ryan. "No question. Do we think that it will be the silver bullet? No way. But like building a cake, the ingredients are there. Incentive housing zones, a rail-station, a demographic shift — how many stars have to align to make this work?"

 

Opportunity For Revival

In Berlin, 15 miles south of Hartford, Chris Edge, the town's economic development director, sees the best opportunity for revival next to where the town's landmark train station once stood, destroyed in a pre-Christmas fire last year.

As the first stop south of Hartford, Edge says Berlin makes a great place to live, if you want to rely on transit. Not far from the now-demolished station stands a new station, and Edge says a new building on the historic site, ideally a restaurant, would be a home run.

Bordering the train stop are 3.8-town-owned acres, land waiting for mixed-use, retail-office-housing development. In September, the town sought proposals, due Dec. 5, from developers to partner with Berlin on this centerpiece project.

The goal, says Edge, is to attract millennials and empty nesters, "put feet on the street," in what is the Kensingtion section of Berlin, being branded as "Kensington Village." He expects more local shops and restaurants to join new ones already on Farmington Avenue, Berlin's main street, such as Ramen-Ya, a noodle place, and Himalaya Restaurant, an Indian Nepalese eatery.

To attract development, the town created a business-friendly website, letsdobizberlin.com, and 700 T-shirts, most of which he handed out at the annual Berlin Fair in mid-September.

Last summer, with microphone in hand, Edge ran a bus tour through Berlin for 25 real estate agents and developers, handing out packages and thumb drives listing available properties. "Developers are showing interest in residential," Edge says.

 

"It's a perfect place for one-bedroom and studio apartments," he says, noting the more clustered density of 20 units per acre.

Indeed, all along the new commuter line developers and real estate agents are calling and eyeing land around the stations, says Bernick, the state transportation official.

"We can sell this," a Coldwell Banker Real Estate regional director told him.

What's Ahead

Besides the existing stations in New Haven (one at Union Station, another at State Street), Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford, Windsor and Windsor Locks, the Hartford Line plans stations in four more towns: West Hartford, Newington, Enfield and North Haven. They are at least two years from opening, with design funded, but not construction.

Nevertheless, the ripple effects have begun, especially in West Hartford's Elmwoodneighborhood. That's because two CTfastrak stations opened along New Park Avenue in 2015. One, the Elmwood stop, is at the intersection with New Britain Avenue; the other is at the corner with Flatbush Avenue. (Ctfastrak, the state's first bus rapid transit system, between downtown Hartford and New Britain, provides up to 18,000 rides weekdays, exceeding all expectations.)

 

 

New Park Brewing opened this spring at 485 New Park Ave., in West Hartford, near the Flatbush CTfastrak stop and the West Hartford train station planned next to it. 

(Suzie Hunter | Hartford Courant)

A new 54-unit residential and commercial transit-oriented development called 616 New Park is under construction next to the Elmwood fastrak station, scheduled to open next summer or fall.

 

The West Hartford train station, once built, is planned next to the Flatbush fastrak stop, a three-minute drive from the 616 New Park, or a 15-minute walk. And making New Park Avenue more walkable is one of the town's goals, says Kristen Gorski, a West Hartford economic development specialist.

 

Meanwhile, the New Park corridor, long filled with small manufacturers, is shifting into an eclectic retail destination, spurred by relaxing uses to the area, once strictly zoned as industrial.

 

Last spring New Park Brewing, the first West Hartford brewery opened at 485 New Park Ave. A food truck is now also allowed on the site, and a new food truck park, with up to five food trucks, is being planned across from the Hartford Baking Company, the wildly successful bakery and café on New Park.

 

Of course, midway on the new line stands Hartford, ripe for transit-oriented development because of downtown's density and the influx of new apartments over the past decade. Last fall at Envisionfest, a daylong festival focused on Hartford as a walkable city filled with cultural and fun destinations, Catherine Johnson, a Middletown architect and new urbanist, unveiled an 8-foot long plan she drew, showing how much land could be filled in with humanly scaled buildings for people who want to live within five or 10 minutes to the train.

 

"If we can improve the walk from Asylum Hill, near ArtSpace and The Hartford, it opens up a whole neighborhood," she explains. "It can make downtown viable at nights, on weekends."

From a wider scope, experts and state leaders say the Hartford Line represents the potential for even more. It speaks to leveraging transit as a way to make Connecticut, including metro Hartford and New Haven, a more desirable place to live and work, a critical point as Aetna, General Electric and Alexion Pharmaceuticals move their headquarters to Boston or New York.

It also speaks to a fundamental problem Michael Gallis, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consultant, identified in a 1999 report on how the state can compete in a global economy. Without improved and frequent rail service, the capital region is effectively rendered a transportation cul-de-sac, cut off from New York, the most powerful economic engine in the Northeast, if not the U.S. That changes with the Hartford Line, something Gallis applauds, though he says high speed rail would be an even greater game-changer.

 

Still needed to fully open Greater Hartford from its often backwater image is hourly train service to Boston, another link Gallis identified as being critical. The missing piece is new track from Springfield to Worcester. (Nowadays only one, often-delayed Amtrak train runs daily from Albany, N.Y. through Springfield to Boston.)

 

It's an estimated $600 million project, relatively inexpensive as infrastructure projects go, but Massachusetts lawmakers failed to include it in its most recent state rail plan.

Supporters of the link, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, say they will continue to push for the project.

 

Even so, transit planners say the Hartford Line marks a new day. With trains every 45 minutes at peak times, Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, and a strong proponent of improved transit connections, remains cautiously optimistic.

"We're close to getting there," he says. "We're actually getting to be like a real place."

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