Flexible planning key to Shelton’s continued success

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Local zoners credit the city’s long-term, yet flexible planning as Shelton continues to enjoy a commercial and residential development renaissance — first along Bridgeport Avenue, now in the downtown.

Planning starts with the city’s Plan of Conservation & Development, first created in 1992, then redone in 2006, and updated in 2017. But zoning officials say this document simply acts as a guide, and true success comes by being able to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace.

“We are excited as a staff,” said interim P&Z Administrator Ken Nappi. “We have 883 projected apartments for the downtown area, Canal Street, Howe Avenue. It’s a change in the 40 years of what the downtown looked like and what it could be.”

Grand list growth

The plan focuses on proper development to handle the projected population size and grand list numbers. The updated 2017 plan projects 42,500 residents. In reality, the city had a population of 41,097 in 2019, according to the most recent census estimates. More than 20 percent of that estimated total is residents 65 years and older.

The grand list number is lower than projected. In the updated plan, the projected grand list for 2019 was $5.57 billion. The real grand list number in 2019 was actually $4.74 billion, yet it was still a more than 1 percent increase from the previous year, and the continued commercial and multi-family developments coming on board will only increase that figure in the coming years.

The updated 2017 plan notes how Shelton has benefited from significant corporate office development that helped expand grand list growth, as well as industrial and manufacturing development — mainly in the area of Bridgeport Avenue.

But the plan shifts, noting that in recent years the marketplace has shown an increased demand for multifamily housing as well as retail and commercial development — and that took planners to downtown, which has several plans in the pipeline leading to the revitalization effort.

“In 2006, the talk focused on light industrial, but that has changed, and that is why we as planners must always remain flexible,” said Nappi.

Apartments & parking in focus

Overall, Nappi said that, whether built or in the planning stage, there are 1,583 apartments on Bridgeport Avenue area, and 883 apartments downtown. He also allayed fears of inadequate downtown parking, saying a city study shows there are 493 spots, maybe not all in the right area but still available nonetheless.

Tom Harbinson, a Conservation Commission member and part of the team that put together the 2006 plan, said downtown redevelopment has rightfully remained the focus.

“Conservation of open space and downtown development work in harmony with one another,” said Harbinson. “Planning of all decisions has to be done in a flexible manner. While the plan is a guideline, it is not a mandate. If you want to have success, we all — P&Z, wetlands, ZBA — must pull the oars at the same time, and the plan gives us that guidance. It is a flexible tool that has served us well.”

City zoning consultant Tony Panico said after the infamous B.F. Goodrich Sponge Rubber Factory fire in March 1975, the city had to “find itself.” The city lost thousands of jobs, families were displaced, and downtown deteriorated.

Harger said even before the B.F. Goodrich fire, plans were being made by city officials to increase commercial development on Bridgeport Avenue.

“Those plans helped the city to have some stability after the fire until developers starting bringing their private money for new downtown projects,” said Harger.

Bridgeport Avenue

Nappi said a proactive city administration, led for 15 terms by Mayor Mark Lauretti, has worked to clean up environmentally damaged areas and entice developers to invest their money in the community. That has seen increased development along Bridgeport Avenue, starting years ago when Bob Scinto began constructing commercial offices, and now in downtown.

“People on the Planning & Zoning Commission and Tony (Panico) envisioned the Bridgeport Avenue corridor, for example, and it was that foresight, planning in the rawest form, that has brought us to where we are today,” said Nappi.

Panico recalled back in the 1960s and 70s when state officials wanted to upgrade Bridgeport Avenue to become the Route 8 expressway.

“We said ‘no way,’” recalled Panico. “We went to Hartford, and we fought it. We knew the state was on the wrong path. We told them to build a new road and leave Bridgeport Avenue alone. Thankfully, they saw it our way. That was the start of the city’s renaissance. If we had not been proactive, things could have been much different here.”

Panico said that then the city just needed someone to come in and take a chance. And that someone was Scinto, who built his office complex and brought in the Tetley Tea’s corporate offices to Shelton.

“That really started the ball rolling,” said P&Z Chairman Virginia Harger.

Nappi said the city’s low tax rate and strong tax base continues to entice developers, as does the city’s location near to New Haven, Bridgeport and Fairfield County.

“The mayor always says there are 25,000 people coming into the city every day to work, and now we are trying to keep them here,” said Nappi, noting recent applications along Howe Avenue and Canal Street that propose multifamily housing. “And we’re just scratching the surface of development along Canal Street.”

Development districts

Among the recently approved Planning Development Districts are Bridge Street Commons II, 427 Howe Ave., with 72 units, two retail spaces and required on-site parking; Riverwalk Place, 356-358 Howe Ave., a mixed-use development with two retail spaces and 35 apartments; and a new five-story building at the Webster Bank location, 502 Howe Ave., with first-floor commercial space — including space approved for a drive-thru — and four levels with a total of 56 market-rate apartments.

The plan also calls for the city to avoid approving units with more than two bedrooms, which has remained the focus in downtown specifically, keeping the school population growth in check.

One area that Panico sees the zoning commission undertaking with earnest is increasing the city’s affordable housing stock. The number of affordable housing units — qualified under the state’s 8-30 statute — sits at 3 percent of the city’s overall housing units. It needs to be at 10 percent for the city to become exempt from the state statute governing such affordable housing proposals.

“We have to look at affordable housing,” said Nappi, adding that this will need to become part of the next plan revision.

Panico said the zoning staff continues to ask developers to voluntarily offer up units as affordable, but that is difficult for those developments more modest in size, such as 50 to 60 units. One development, Long Hill Crossroads, will include three affordable units — done voluntarily by the developer. Developers of Cedar Village at Carrolls — the old Carrolls Hardware site — are also examining if it is cost effective for them to voluntarily include affordable units.

“We need to take the stigma out of affordable housing to be successful,” said Harger, adding that the commission has become more proactive on this issue.

Again, Harger said city zoners must remain flexible in handling changes in state law or the marketplace, all while using the plan as a guideline.

Government, recreation centers

While the plan focuses on appropriate areas of commercial and residential development that will continue to strengthen the tax base, the document also calls on city officials to keep an eye toward maintaining and enhancing community facilities and services.

The targeted concepts are relocating the Echo Hose Firehouse to Constitution Boulevard North and finishing construction of that road to Route 108. Panico said these remain a work in progress as city officials look to bring in private dollars as part of further developing the area, which in turn would lead to completion of the road.

Nappi said the long-term hope is creating a new governmental center in the downtown area, but no real research has been done on that yet.

The plan also lists a multi-purpose recreational facility as a community need. While plans for one are not in the works at present, Lauretti said that when the Shelton High tennis courts are refurbished in the coming weeks, footings and foundation will also be installed. Lauretti said the footings and foundation would be for a future multi-purpose recreational facility when the city decides to go in that direction.

The plan also calls for traffic calming measures in areas of new development, and Panico, Harger and Nappi state that is always part of discussions between zoning staff and developers coming in with major projects.

New lighting is being installed along Canal Street, and zoning officials said the Planning & Zoning Commission works with applicants for downtown plans on all lighting, plantings and sidewalk installations.