Smart Growth for Torrington

by Tom Ethier
March 18th, 2001

Originally published in The Voice as 3 parts.

This article is the first of a three-part series related to the development and revitalization of downtown Torrington. Each of the three articles will have two major subject areas preceded by an introductory essay. In this, part 1, I will discuss the Torrington redevelopment plan presented by Jed Hayes of Sullivan Hayes Company and the proposed bill before the Connecticut General Assembly.

I think it is fortunate that we have been presented with a plan. But that's not the same thing as falling in love with the first plan that comes down the road. We should evaluate this plan carefully. In my second article I will discuss why I feel the plan as presented so far is not right for Torrington and how that relates to what is called "smart growth."

In the third article of this series I will review the Ferrandino Report. We have a plan that we should be following, and some even claim that we are. But nowhere in the Ferrandino Report do they recommend what has thus far been proposed. We should dust off the Ferrandino Report and let people see what it suggests. Also, in the third article I will discuss image, art deco and actions in Torrington.

Change doesn't have to be bad. Throughout these three articles I will point out what I think the voters and residents of Torrington should look for and expect from such a potentially dramatic change to our town. I am optimistic that we can fashion an outcome that will benefit several, sometimes competing interests or stakeholders in this project. The door is open and we have an opportunity to enhance what we already have in Torrington, or at least we can consider the options.

Introduction and Background

The current plan to redevelop downtown Torrington is likely to occupy large amounts of the local collective consciousness for the coming months and, quite possibly, years. If the plan is implemented, its effect on Torrington and its inhabitants will be unlike anything within the memory of most people. Not since the flood of 1955 and its aftermath has downtown Torrington been in line for such dramatic change. The consequences of the plan that was presented at the public meeting on February 22 will likely impact a generation not yet born.

Torrington and its residents have a chance to define and shape a community that will appeal to inhabitants, visitors and commercial interests, but right now much of our fate is in the hands of the Connecticut General Assembly. In another time and in another place, what the city and Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC are trying to do might be called "pork barrel spending," but that is a debate for another time. We should realize that no plan is without cost to the taxpayers of Torrington. It's just a question of what we get in the end.

If the State of Connecticut doesn't approve planning money for the project, the plan dies for now–but if they do approve, we have some decisions to make. Whatever the result in the Connecticut General Assembly, we should use the time to openly discuss a vision of Torrington that looks ten, twenty, and thirty years into the future. All of these plans are lumbering giants–so, as Paul Bentley has pointed out, why do we need to hurry? The bill in the Connecticut General Assembly refers to "stakeholders"–and the residents, workers and property owners of Torrington are all stakeholders in this decision.

The Hayes Plan and Relevant Context

The City of Torrington is embarking on a plan to redevelop downtown and they have a partner: Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC (DTR). An agreement signed by the mayor gave certain rights to DTR, and interested citizens should review that document. It is only 14 pages in length, and I intend to read it.

One of the principles in Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC is Sullivan Hayes Companies, a developer from Farmington. They have presented a plan for consideration with three primary components. The first is to bring 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of retail space to downtown Torrington. The second aspect is to build a riverwalk and park, and the last is to make infrastructure improvements in the town.

The plan–and let's call it the Hayes Plan for now, for lack of a better name–has some very positive aspects to it. Who would be opposed to a nice riverwalk and park? A pedestrian greenway, with pedestrian bridges, could link currently disconnected parts of downtown. Well, some people may not like a riverwalk and greenway–but I do, and so do most of the people I've spoken with. These ideas have been around for a number years and it makes sense for Torrington, especially since the river is much cleaner than it's been in a number of years. Ironically, it may be cleaner now than it was during the period that our collective urban revitalization goals profess to recreate.

The Hayes Plan identifies a project area running from the corner of Main and Water Streets to the intersection of Pearl and Migeon Avenue. This is presumably where the main focus of the new 300 to 400 thousand square feet of retail space and the 70,000-square-foot anchor store will be located. This is the area that we are giving control over to one developer (Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC).

When the Hayes Plan was first announced, it was stated that the Trinity Church on the corner of Prospect and Water Streets and Christmas Village would not be destroyed. I think we can all agree that both of those properties–community assets, really–should be preserved. But there are many buildings in the project area. What is to become of them? What of the Morrison's Hardware building, the YMCA, the old Torrington National Bank, or the buildings at the east end of Water Street? They are in the project area and they weren't mentioned. Are they going to be razed? Are they up for grabs? Every one of these buildings and more should be retained if we are to avoid what Steve Coan called the plan to "level downtown."

In 1998 the City of Torrington, along with the Main Street Action Team, commissioned Ferrandino & Associates to complete a study and produce a report about downtown Torrington. I will take a look at the Ferrandino Report more fully in my third article. However, I have read it in detail and think that one can make the general statement that the Ferrandino Report recommends that we save our infrastructure, not destroy it. It emphasized a plan for downtown that preserved what we have, and recommended that we expand and leverage certain cultural and historic institutions.

Though proponents of the of Hayes Plan say wholesale destruction of downtown is not intended, it does not rule out removing certain historic buildings. We should be vigilant in our effort to preserve Torrington's past. We should also be mindful of the riverwalk component of the Hayes Plan. If we are to subsidize a downtown retail Mecca, we should make certain that greenways, greenspace and other public benefits are preserved and enhanced.

Raised Bill 6841

Bill 6841 has been introduced in the state legislature. If passed, the Department of Economic Development will provide the City of Torrington (and the developer) with $1 million of grant money to prepare a feasibility plan related to an "urban revitalization of Torrington." Once the feasibility plan is approved, it will trigger an additional $30 million in state funding to help redevelop downtown Torrington.

Even if the bill is passed, to encompass all aspects of the Hayes plan will require far more than $30 million, so the developer should be investing a significant amount of money. Though the bill may fail, it is a good opportunity to advocate sensible development–development that relies on locally owned businesses, preserves the character of Torrington, is pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and contains opportunities for increased residential density. Many of these ideas are compatible with "smart growth," and are detailed in the Ferrandino Report–topics I will discuss in the second and third articles of this series.

Bill 6841, officially called "An Act Establishing a Pilot Program for Economic Development and Urban Revitalization in the City of Torrington," was referred to the Commerce Committee in the Connecticut General Assembly. People can find out about the bill (and track its progress in committee) on the website for the Connecticut General Assembly. The residents of Torrington should pay particular attention to some of the language in Section 1 of the bill, especially as it discusses "developing goals that include participation of relevant stakeholders."

Who is a "relevant stakeholder"? Are the voters of Torrington? How will we incorporate the participation of the stakeholders? The bill further states that once a plan is approved, the city is eligible for an additional $30 million from the State of Connecticut. I assume that the City Council of Torrington will approve the plan. How long will they have to do so? Will they have enough time to incorporate public input? These are questions that citizens of Torrington ought to want to have a voice in.

PART II

Though the Hayes Plan has presented few details to the public, you can bet that somebody, somewhere, has put something on paper; we just haven't been allowed to see it. As Mr. Hayes has admitted, he is not used to working with too much public input. He told us that he doesn't often sit in a room with over one hundred people who stare anxiously at him. Locals look upon their longtime home in a way one might an old and worn, but warm and comfortable coat. Some even regard downtown as they would their offspring.

After some of the recent reaction to the plan in public, and despite the excessive boosterism and Babbitt-like bravado of the February 22 meeting, Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC may be working on some new drawings. People have heard just enough to find much that they don't like about the Hayes Plan.

We should be gratified that so many people have an interest in the future of Torrington and took the time to appear at the recent informational meeting on a snowy February night. Though the speakers who dominated the meeting were mostly local business and community leaders, it was clear that others were paying close attention–even if they were standing quietly in the back of the room.

There was a feeling among many speakers that we should not squander an opportunity to do something about downtown Torrington. I have no doubt that these encouraging speakers really hope to see Torrington's downtown successful and vibrant for all residents. However, the Hayes Plan has some significant shortcomings in approach–and, what's more, runs counter to advice that we paid for three years ago.

Even if the plan makes significant concessions to certain structures within the project area, the overall plan of a 70,000-square-foot anchor store with several other Walgreen-like boxes in downtown is wrong for Torrington. It places an emphasis on national chain retailers, linking ourcity's fate to variables well beyond our control. A downtown retail mall would be in competition with other regional malls such as West Farms and the new Brass Mill Mall in Waterbury. While we may initially be successful, retail mall competition of this kind is one we are bound to lose, even if this is the approach to growth that we want to embrace. Once these changes are imprinted on the Torrington downtown persona and landscape, they will be difficult to remove.

In the third section of this article I will discuss "smart growth." You will hear the term used often over the next several months, so people should know what it is–and what it is not. Though it is not mentioned by name, smart growth is a distinctive theme of the Ferrandino Report. It is the kind of urban planning that is consistent with contemporary ideas of urban and small city development. Smart growth, though it may sound like an oxymoron to some, is widely discussed among city planners, developers and environmentalists. During the February public meeting, Torrington City Planner Martin Connor termed the Hayes Plan "smart growth." Let's hope he's right.

Retailing and Development

It's noteworthy that the first two opinions published in The Voice on the redevelopment plan for downtown Torrington [by Steve Coan and Paul Bentley, March 2] were from skeptics. This is in stark contrast to the first public meeting, which was dominated by local notables offering enthusiastic support for the plan. The excessive spirit displayed at the first meeting, over a plan short on details, should give pause to the average citizen. A plan where proponents are advocating swiftness of such a dramatic makeover of our city should cause us to require a levelheaded account of what is at stake.

This is not to say commercial interests in downtown Torrington can't be viable, but a plan that relies on remaking the center into a mall is not the answer. I know that Mr. Hayes claims it is not a "mall"–but when you start talking about a 70,000-square-foot department store serving as a hub for 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of retail space, it sounds like a mall to me. Especially when he states that "non-conforming" businesses will be taken by eminent domain (another troubling aspect of the plan) so as not to interrupt the uniform sameness of the 20 to 40 retailers that he envisions. It can be dressed up as some postmodern simulation of a bygone era with crowded sidewalks and people with places to go, but it's the 21st century version of a mall–and he said as much in his opening remarks at the public meeting in February.

With regard to retail sales, the Ferrandino Report states that the "Torrington market appears significantly saturated." It further states that the data used to evaluate the market was done before the retail developments (Wal-Mart, Home Depot and their satellites) on the East End of town. In other words, Torrington is even more saturated than before, which can "account for the significant number of retail vacancies downtown and in certain strip centers with ample parking." This is not to say that retail of a certain type can't be successful. But a plan such as presented by Mr. Hayes is predicated on nationally owned, high-volume, low-margin and high-traffic retailers, and runs exactly counter to the sentiments of the Ferrandino Report that we spent $10,000 on.

An opportunity to shape a better vision for our community, even one that whispers a postmodern cultural and retail simulation, should not be missed. But we should not pin our hopes on a flock of national box structures that will dominate our downtown landscape. We have too much invested in an image much closer to reality that tells a better story about ourselves: one of hard-working and thrifty people, with a solid New England cultural and historical past that relies on small locally owned and controlled businesses offering a diverse mix. We should reject any plan that turns Torrington into a designer label flea market run by multi-national corporate hucksters.

Smart Growth

In endorsing the plan proposed by the Downtown Torrington Redevelopment LLC and Mr. Hayes, city planner Marty Connor used the term "smart growth" to describe the plan that Mr. Hayes presented (and, I presume, the form of development that Mr. Connor favors). An article written by Edward McMahon, a land use planner, attorney and director of the Conservation Fund’s "American Greenway Program," identified five trends of smart growth in Planning Commissioners Journal (Winter 1999).

The first trend, suburban town centers, is what McMahon describes as a "new urbanism" that emphasizes compact and highly-defined town centers, with a shift away from the endless strip development that has characterized most communities in the last fifty years. This means walkability of the area and greenspace as residential amenity, with greenspace being the second trend of smart growth that he cites. The third tendency of smart growth identified by McMahon is the benefit of open space. We should remember that open space doesn't only refer to Cornwall and Goshen; we can have some in Torrington, too. Any plan that we choose for Torrington should increase open and green space.

The fourth trend of smart growth that McMahon emphasizes is particularly relevant for the proposed downtown redevelopment–downtown housing. This idea was mentioned by more than one person at the meeting on February 22, and supports the concept that the retention and development of a residential component to downtown is essential. Even though it is not mentioned in the general outline of the Hayes plan to date, it is not too late to include it–particularly since it is on the minds of many people. Housing in the town center is consistent with a modern redevelopment ideology that relies on a mix of commercial, public and residential ingredients.

Mr. McMahon, who has written about stopping sprawl as well, describes one last attribute of smart growth. "Across the country," McMahon writes, "we see cooperation over confrontation between developers and environmentalists." In areas of successful smart growth that benefits many contending interests such as builders, preservationists, planners and administrators, common ground is being found. We should include many voices and opinions on any plan for urban revitalization, not just the ideas of developers and city officials.

The comments from many people at the public meeting in February would lead one to conclude that we need to tilt strongly to the side of preservation and renovation in determining what stays and what goes in the redevelopment plan. It is too early to tell if the Hayes vision really qualifies as smart growth; we need to see more details. However, we should understand and internalize what smart growth is, and stay within those boundaries in our plan to redevelop downtown Torrington.

PART III

In 1998 the City of Torrington, along with the Main Street Action Team and others, commissioned Ferrandino & Associates to "identify the appropriate physical and economic improvements and mix of retail and other uses that will enhance downtown Torrington." The study set the city back about $10,000–but it was money well spent; unfortunately, it wasn't well read. It also wasn't widely discussed by city officials. I don't agree with all of the Ferrandino recommendations, but largely the plan is positive for Torrington, environmentally friendly, and consistent with smart growth trends.

The report is dated March of 1998, and I didn't see it until about a year and a half later. It's hefty, clocking in at 90 spiral-bound pages. It's laid out in double-column fashion with lots of tables and charts, diagrams, and plenty of readable business writing. Since the report is too long to cover in detail here, I will only discuss what I feel are some of the important recommendations and interesting ideas. A much fuller airing of the Ferrandino Report should be done to give citizens a chance to consider the different options and directions to growth and development in Torrington over the next ten years.

In the third section of this article I discuss Art Deco and the recent past. I include it here because it relates to Torrington's image and the story we tell about our city. The message of the Ferrandino Report is that the way we design our city shapes the perception that residents and visitors have of Torrington. Though it may sound like I mock our "art deco preeminence," I think it is a healthy characteristic of Torrington. I also realize that many people may not care about art and architectural history, but the point is that there are several dimensions to our community that help define what we are. Art deco architecture is one of them, baseball at Fuessenich Park and dance recitals are others. All should be considered and celebrated.

The Ferrandino Report

The first thing that jumps out at you from the Ferrandino Report is the idea that we should emphasize the cultural and historic aspects of Torrington. "Cultural and heritage tourism" is the first area mentioned in the Action Agenda section of the Executive Summary of the Ferrandino Report. We still have a certain old-time charm to the city that captures the image of an early- to mid-20th century factory town. And for now, we have several buildings that reinforce this image. This tourism-oriented economic flavor (which does not rule out a certain retail component) provides harmony with at least four of our current city assets: the Warner Theater, Fuessenich Park, Christmas Village and the Nutmeg Conservatory. We should be focusing on a development plan that accentuates what we have and what we are, not one that intends to transform Torrington into some kind of postmodern retail nirvana.

While the Ferrandino Report does advocate attracting additional retail downtown, it never recommends anything of the scale or approach to downtown retail that the Hayes plan does. The Ferrandino Report does suggest downtown development, such as a movie theater or restaurant at the entrance to the downtown shopping center. This development would face Coe Park and, in the words of the report, "create a continuous street wall along Main Street." This development would not detract from the public uses of the current lot, such as the farmer’s market.

Along Main Street at the five-way intersection, we could do streetscape improvements that would include painted wooden store signs, tiled sidewalks and crosswalks, trees, and a general sprucing up. Significant to the center would be the Main Street Alleyway connecting East Main Street to City Hall Place–complete with traffic-calming measures to limit the speed to 10 mph. The Alleyway would be pedestrian friendly and have connecting alleys onto the Main Street sidewalk. This is viewed as a first step to a downtown parking garage in that area that would serve addresses on East Main and Main Streets.

The Ferrandino Report, just like the Hayes Plan, calls for a riverwalk and park, only Ferrandino has much more detail. Ferrandino says, "The stage is set for a new chapter in the relationship between Torrington and the river." I know there have been other river plans, but the Ferrandino plan has a greenway running from Fuessenich Park to the Brass Mill Pond. For those of you (like me) who weren't quite sure where the Brass Mill Pond is, it is north of Church Street, and runs behind Riverside Avenue. The Ferrandino Report recommends that we liberate this resource from its barbed-wire prison.

The Ferrandino Report points out that area around the old Railroad Station, the likely epicenter for the Hayes Plan, is one of the few areas that can absorb large-scale development. Only it doesn't recommend a 70,000-square-foot anchor store as the centerpiece for a 400,000-square-foot retail fantasyland. In keeping with the historical and cultural theme, the Ferrandino Report advocates the saving and restoring of two significant structures on this yard: the old station itself, and the transportation shed on Mason Street. Ferrandino & Associates recommend that we explore something along the lines of a railway museum, or perhaps getting the State to build the new courthouse in this area. It also recommended that we save the old firehouse. All of these structures are historical and can be adapted to alternate uses; this "renovate before detonate" philosophy is a hallmark of sensible growth and re-use.

The Ferrandino Report recommends a couple of highway infrastructure changes (new roads), with the extension of City Hall Place to East Main Street being the most dramatic. A downtown "gateway to the city" in the area of East Main and Wall Street could announce a road through to City Hall Place. This would create a direct vehicle route from East Main Street, past the Old Center Cemetery, up Mason Street and around to Christmas Village.

The new road would open another auto and pedestrian route east to west in the center of town. As anyone who has lived in Torrington knows, moving through the center in a north-south direction is usually pretty good–it's the east-west travel that can be difficult. The new road would ease the traffic flow in the center of town at the five-way intersection and provide access to the Old Center Cemetery behind the City Hall; another hidden greenway.

The idea to incorporate the Old Center Cemetery fits with the historical theme recommended in the Ferrandino Report. In this area we have the Historical Society Museum, coordinated with the renovation of the Old Carriage House. This would reinforce a historical tie for walking tours on the grassy knoll, and among the oak trees in the cemetery and historic churches in the City Hall area. The history of Torrington is varied and deep-rooted; it should be displayed and told. Not only would walking areas and greenways benefit potential visitors, they would be particularly pleasing for employees at City Hall and in Main Street shops to enjoy during lunchtimes and breaks.

There are many other aspects of the Ferrandino Report, such as integrating Christmas Village with a revitalized train station and aspects dealing with funding, that I have not been able to touch upon here. The plan, of course, also has many mundane but helpful aspects such as sidewalk improvements and better signs around town. Some of these ideas have been incorporated over the last couple of years, but we should use the entire Ferrandino Report as a pattern for the future growth of downtown. We should ensure that any development plan fits within the contours of the 1997 Ferrandino Report. Once certain structures and buildings are gone, we can't get them back. We should keep the recommendations in the Ferrandino Report readily at hand. It would be sad to discover, after the fact, what we might have had.

Ensuring Our Art Deco Distinction

Did you know that Torrington has the largest concentration of art deco buildings in the state of Connecticut? I know now because this obscure but not insignificant fact has been trotted out a couple of times from official channels in the Torrington area over the last few years. It's even on our website. I first learned of our art deco preeminence when I read of it in the Ferrandino Report a couple of years ago. As Torringtonians, we are familiar with the term "art deco design" from the work done over the years to the art deco Warner Theater, the crown jewel of Torrington.

I had a vague idea of what art deco design was, but had never really thought about it all that much. My father, who has lived here all of his life, didn't exactly know about Torrington's art deco dominance either, but at least he had an appreciation for the architectural style. It was contemporary to his time. When I came upon it in the Ferrandino Report, I did some research and found out a little about art deco design. Art deco design evolved in the 1920s and ‘30s. It is distinguished by simple, clean and streamlined features that invoke a reverence for modernity and machine-made. The intention was to symbolize an anti-traditional elegance; it coincided with an increase in spending power among the working classes in America and was viewed as an expression of "culture for the masses."

In addition to our art deco buildings, we have many older brick buildings built around the turn of the last century scattered throughout Torrington's downtown. They are substantial though more elegant structures, and help create a comfortable and secure image of downtown Torrington.

Since our architectural heritage is so rich and presumably so important to the image of Torrington, what is the record when confronted with an opportunity to retain and enhance buildings like these in our downtown area? I refer specifically to the destruction of the Malham Block Building, built in 1911, that defined Laurence Square and Torrington's Northend. I don't wish to revisit decisions made a couple of years ago; I only raise this as a point in the debate over our current urban revitalization plan and to underscore the fact that we can't be too vigilant in these pursuits.

The Malham Block Building that dominated Laurence Square was not in the deco design, but it would have seemed to be one that illustrated the architectural heritage of Torrington and one that should have been spared the wrecking ball. Though proponents of the Hayes Plan say wholesale destruction of downtown is not planned, I'm just saying that when it comes to preserving our architectural heritage, the record is mixed; we have had some successes, but we have also had failures.

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