Since elected officials were not allowed to comment at last week’s public hearing, I join my Democratic City Council colleagues, Calvin Brown and Mary Fortier, in issuing a statement on downtown so our constituents will know where we stand.
My biggest concern at this time is the dueling perceptions of Bristol residents not wanting to invest in themselves. We CAN have a vibrant downtown. And I think we CAN address people’s concerns so that we achieve an outcome that the majority supports.
In 2005 the city wisely voted to purchase the old mall as a means of controlling our own destiny and shaping our own future. We wanted our citizens to come downtown for more than just city services.
Then, some potential plans called for a new Boys & Girls Club to be relocated on the Mall property, as well as a field house and some mixed use retail, office space and a parking structure. The voters who came to those public hearings objected to the land being used by entities that would not generate tax revenue. In late 2006, the Mall site was on the short list for the location of the new West Bristol School, but people again objected and the school was eventually built on a remote section of Chippens Hill.
Today, people are asking why the new Club, built on a small parcel on West Street, couldn’t have been built facing Brackett Park? Why is the new school as far west as it could possibly be while still being considered a Bristol school? The fact that the hue and cry from angry citizens 10 years ago that prevented either of these plans from happening is indeed ironic. Recently the discussion has turned to more open space and a synthetic field from the school of "something is better than nothing" and "let’s get something going," even though the economic benefits of these scenarios would be marginal at best.
Are we destined to repeat history? I sure hope not. But our track record is not great for getting it right, dating back to the problems surrounding downtown urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s.
So what do I think today, after being back on the City Council for almost a year and being immersed (again) in a variety of reports, data, and public hearings on downtown?
First, I understand why people are opposed to investing $6 million of taxpayer money into a private investment when the economy is only slightly improving and people are watching every dollar. There are a lot of unknowns that would have to be hammered out with the City having an equity stake and deed restrictions if public money were part of the equation.
I understand that people want a say and are asking for a referendum. But what is the question? Are we asking taxpayers to approve the plan as presented, or is it about the $6 million that Renaissance asked for from the City?
They have now publicly stated that they are no longer asking for $6 million so this now appears to be off the table as a main argument for referendum.
Through the City’s 5 Year Capital Improvement Program, the City spends millions each year on projects that the taxpayers don’t even know about, much less have input into or for many, even know they are occurring or how they are funded.
For example, in the spring of 2013, the then-elected officials approved a $6 million renovation project for the Fire Department’s Engine 4 – a fire house located off of Route 229 next to the Public Works Yard and the Sewer Plant. Let’s just think about the irony of this for a minute – there is currently a $6 million project – the same amount as was being discussed for downtown - being launched for ONE fire house, in the southeast section of the city - that no one is talking about. A project that even many of the firefighters think is ridiculous.
The amount being spent would still be ridiculous if it was for the fire headquarters on North Main Street, but at least one could weakly argue that the $6 million would at least be benefiting a building that was more centrally visible and part of downtown.
So philosophically, if we are already bonding $6 million for a firehouse, why couldn’t we transfer that money to the downtown project that would benefit the entire community? Since it’s already budgeted, the taxpayers would feel nothing, and the Engine 4 fire house expansion could be put on the shelf for another year. Or better yet, put these large-ticket items up for referendum.
I know that Bristol has a lot of housing in the downtown area. Some of it has been the subject of code enforcement actions and we must also acknowledge that third floor apartments in restored Victorians do not appeal to all young professionals. I can support some new housing construction in downtown, but I have not supported the number of housing units that Renaissance desires. I think that is too much density for this site but if they build it, I do hope they fill it with the type of sustained residential population that will represent the 7 day a week customer base that businesses need to thrive.
I think we need to compromise and get the ball rolling. The City of Bristol should offer to partner with Renaissance with in-kind services to help them achieve their financial package needs. This would mean taking responsibility for the creation of the Piazza, roads and sidewalks, street lights, a shared parking plan for all parcels, and the necessary hook-ups for water and sewer. While this may amount to less than $2 million in city costs and services, it would be way to demonstrate support and buy-in in an area where the City has experience and ability. The City can also be of assistance by continuing its aggressive marketing and business recruitment activities on other parcels that will bolster downtown – the recent sale of 10 Main Street, the former Press building and helping other downtown landlords fill their spaces – as well as supporting projects such as the Memorial Boulevard which is another piece of the puzzle.
I think both the Renaissance work and some of the recommendations of the Goman + York report go back to what we knew in 2005 – sometimes a public driver is needed to stimulate private investment. Whether it’s going to be a Piazza or skating rink or something else, the City of Bristol needs to have a role. And I would really love to see ESPN involved as a partner in designing housing tailored to their employees’ needs.
Last spring, I talked to a number of local developers and real estate experts about their thoughts on downtown. One theme that did emerge from all of these separate conversations was making the project more manageable. Renaissance needs to be encouraged in their role as gatekeeper and the preferred developer to bring other developers to the table for the remaining parcels. We have design and zoning regulations for downtown in place and with careful, collaborative efforts, we could possibly have several developers at the table at the same time, all working with Renaissance to create a synergy for the 15 acres.
I like that the Mayor called a joint meeting of the BDDC and City Council. We all need to show leadership, keep the lines of communication open, and continue to work together and decide on a path that works for everyone and gets shovels in the ground sooner rather than later. While the Democrats have not been at the table for the negotiations, I think I speak for all of us when I say we are anxious to be part of the solution.
No downtowns are perfect. They are all, regardless of size and demographics, a work in progress with a mix of businesses that appeal to some people and not others. But if Southington, Plantsville, and New Britain can re-build their downtowns with a mix of government center, independent retail and restaurants and other activities, so can we.
In fact, we have a blank slate of 17 acres to draw our future. It’s time we got our paints and start putting color on the canvas.