Envisioning a new downtown Shelton, two blocks at a time
Three possible scenarios for a two-block area in the heart of downtown Shelton were presented to local officials on March 13.
The plans would involve building a new City Hall on Coram Avenue as well as retail and residential units on Center Street.
Trees and planters would be added and sidewalks widened to encourage more pedestrian activity and outdoor cafes.
Bridge Street would more directly connect Howe and Coram avenues as a one-way road with no curves, partly as a way to lessen traffic backups near the bridge to Derby. Eventually, this part of Bridge Street might become a pedestrian-only walkway.
Center Street has much potential
“I see Center Street as the future of development,” said Jason C. Williams, lead landscape architect with Milone & MacBroom, an architectural and engineering design firm hired by the city.
The firm was asked to envision what could be done with the area bordered by Howe Avenue, Center Street, Coram Avenue, and White Street.
Williams said that with some work, he sees “the real makings of a walkable downtown.”
The city owns much of the land in the two-block area, including the Echo Hose firehouse, the probate court building, two parking lots (including the one used by the public for the post office), and a now-vacant older Howe Avenue structure.
In addition, the city leases the corner of Howe and Coram for a pocket park and small parking lot, and this parcel likely could be purchased.
A large property owned by the Matto family remains vacant after a January 2014 fire, and the U.S. Postal Service is believed to be willing to sell the post office building and its side employee parking lot.
Looking for feedback
Williams, who lives in Shelton, unveiled three alternatives at a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z)’s Downtown Subcommittee. “I need you guys to tell me exactly what you like,” he said.
All three concepts presumed the Mattos would construct a new multistory retail and apartment building on their site, and the historic Pierpont Building and nearby row of retail/apartment buildings would remain in place.
Officials liked the idea of putting the new City Hall (government center) where the probate court and firehouse are now located. This new building could be extended farther by demolishing the post office, although the idea of re-using the post office building for a restaurant or other unique use was also considered.
The parking area used for City Hall during the day would open up for use by restaurant and bar patrons at night.
New retail/apartment buildings would be built on Center Street between Howe and Coram, another idea that officials liked. Williams said he thinks new restaurants and bars would prosper there.
Underground utilities, interior parking
Other possible ideas are moving all utilities underground, adding interior parking decks to increase off-street parking, putting in solar-powered electric car charging stations, and including a restaurant/cafe for the public in the government center.
Officials didn’t look too favorably on the idea of expanding the pocket park and creating a large interior pedestrian plaza, mostly because they think the land should be used to generate economic activity and plenty of open space exists nearby on the riverfront.
Eliminate on-street parking?
Williams’ suggestion to eliminate parallel parking along Howe Avenue and Center Street in the two-block area received mixed reviews, with some worried it would hurt businesses and make parking harder to find.
Williams said it would help with traffic congestion, possibly allowing for more turn-only lanes at intersections, and people would fully adjust to the new parking situation after about a year.
While stakeholders always initially oppose getting rid of on-street parking because “we all like to like to park in front of the business we use,” Williams said, they later realize the benefits to this approach.
Mayor Mark Lauretti said he still needs to be convinced it’s best to eliminate on-street parking on Howe.
There was discussion of whether the Matto family should be encouraged to pursue their rebuilding plans or perhaps urged to collaborate more closely with the city.
In general, the ideas with the most potential would involve the greatest need to buy private land, demolish buildings and build new ones, which takes time and money.
Other complications include potential environmental remediation issues and the fact that some of the streets involved are state roads.
James Ryan, Shelton Economic Development Corp. president, said the project is achievable but the process would not be simple, particularly if the fire station had to be relocated and underground parking had to be built.
'We only get one chance'
Officials said that while such a redevelopment project would take years and might have to be done in phases, it’s a way to reshape downtown for future generations.
“We only get one chance,” said P&Z Chairman Ruth Parkins.
“You have to be bold and take that risk,” said P&Z member Virginia Harger.
“There are times you need to be bold,” said Alderman Eric McPherson. “Whatever goes there, it will define [the downtown area] for 100 years.”
State Rep. Jason Perillo said one approach would be to package all the land together, spell out the overall development goals (desired amount of retail, residential, parking, etc.), and then seek developers to present specific proposals on how to best achieve those goals.