Friday, February 17, 2006

You Can Get There From Here!

From Brownfields To Greener Pastures: The Rebirth Of The Great Suburban Downtown

Every community has one -- at the very least. A "brownfield." An abandoned movie theater, once the art-deco pride of town, now a crumbling relic serving as cover for drug deals and muggings; A chain of vacant stores, part of a once bustling "Main Street" that, over the years, has yielded both appeal and shoppers to the "big box" stores; that seedy no-tell motel, home to prostitution, violent crime, and the unsavory we keep at bay by putting out of mind; the old concrete plant or scrap metal yard, once integral parts of the local economy, now nothing more than eyesores taking up valuable space in the very heart of community.

The mindset we've kept, at least as long as most of us have lived on this island, is that, well, we simply have to live with the ugly, the outdated, the relics of a time passed that have no place in a modern, suburban setting.

Ah, but what to do?

Perhaps the best way to take the lead on the redevelopment front is, as the old adage goes, by example.

Here's one we happened upon, courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no less. We reprint the story of one suburban town's successful efforts to reclaim, rebuild, and reinvent it's "Downtown."

Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill Redevelopment, Town of Redding
Redding, Connecticut

Cleaning up and redeveloping a brownfield site can be daunting for small communities. The Town of Redding overcame this challenge by working with a developer with brownfield experience to manage the cleanup and redevelopment of a closed industrial site into a healthy, convenient, attractive neighborhood.

Over 1,000 people, including citizens of Redding as well as local, regional, state, and federal stakeholders participated in workshops that helped define the cleanup plan, historic preservation guidelines, and master plan for the redevelopment.

Closure of the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill in 1989 left a 55-acre, contaminated, industrial site in Redding’s Georgetown section, the primary commercial zone for this town of 8,400 residents. By 2002, the facility that was once a major source of tax revenue had accrued unpaid taxes of over $1 million. To revitalize the area and protect public health, the town partnered with a developer who not only paid the tax lien in full, but also cleaned up the contamination and is redeveloping the site into a mixed-use neighborhood. This partnership has been good for the town and the developer—each benefits from the new homes, businesses, services, and revenue.

In a week-long public workshop, over 1,000 stakeholders from the town and from regional, state, and federal governments developed the design for the new neighborhood. A key component of the plan is a lively diversity of uses, including 416 homes in a wide variety of styles, 109,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 113,000 square feet of office space, a performing arts center with a black box theater, and a health facility with a public pool. To honor the mill’s heritage, 15 of the site’s historic buildings will be rehabilitated, and 21 new buildings will be designed in a historically sensitive manner.

Pedestrian-friendly design features such as trails, wide sidewalks, short blocks, and narrow streets encourage people to walk around the neighborhood. To give residents more transportation choices, the developer is building a commuter train station that will provide easy access to Manhattan.

The Gilbert & Bennett wire mill redevelopment is a model for complex reuse projects. The strong public-private partnership invited community input in the design process, facilitated the remediation plan, and expedited adoption of the master plan.

When the neighborhood is complete, the Town of Redding expects that it will create over 1,700 permanent jobs and provide the town with $4.7 million in new, annual property tax revenues.

Is it any wonder that Redding, CT, was rated Connecticut's number one small town?

UPDATE FROM REDDING, CT: Redding Brownfield Redevelopment Project Receives $600,000 Grant from State to Help With Contaminant Removal
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It is hard to believe that the brownfield depicted in the lead photo above (a declining shopping mall in Lakewood, CO) could be literally transformed into a development that will include vibrant retail space (as shown in the rendering at left), 1,300 new homes, including town homes, loft apartments, and live-work units, and open, "green" spaces for recreational use.

Yet, this is exactly what is happening in towns, villages and hamlets across America.

Why don't we see more of this kind of redevelopment on our Long Island? Why do we address today's tribulations and tomorrow's concerns with yesterday's tunnel vision? Good questions.

Perhaps the answers lie in a populace mired in old ways of thinking; in the fact that our local governments continue to "plan," "zone," and build much as they did a century ago; in our own inertia, a failure to get moving in the right direction borne out of the fear that it will be the wrong direction.

Other than the waters of the Long Island Sound, what is it that separates, say, a Town of Redding from a Town of Hempstead -- the intuitively progressive from the hopelessly regressive?

Is it that because we're "bigger" we can't be "better?" The answer to that one is as simple as the troubles faced by our dysfunctional "Downtowns" and aging "Main Streets." It's not just a matter of money -- the funding is out there for those ready to pull the brass ring. [Besides, if we wait until "tomorrow," what we truly must do today will only cost us twice as much.] It certainly is not a lack of ideas. [Take half the number of e-mails we get at The Community Alliance and you could still build a monument taller by far than the lighthouse at Montauk Point.]

Perhaps it all boils down to that basic want of will as is necessary to find the way.

Can we turn Long Island's brownfields into the greener pastures now being sewn in places like Redding, CT and Lakewood, CO? Of course we can. That is, if we really want to!


  1. As readers of this blog already know, Town government is largely "complaint driven."

    That means they are mostly "reactive" rather than "proactive."

    So, if you want to see any movement toward downtown redevelopment, at least from the Town (which has the lock and key on zoning and enforcement), then you better start complaining now.

    Self-help is the key to a successful revitalization program, folks. If you're not willing to (a) make a stink at Town Hall and (b) get your hands dirty, the horse will never get out of the paddock, let alone cross the finish line.

  2. I really do wonder how we can ever get "there" from "here!"

    "Here" for me is just off of Woodfield Road in West Hempstead, and "there" is what I can see from my second floor window - the Courtesy Hotel, the waste transfer station, and the Western Beef shopping center (surely one of the sights we see in those "before" pictures).

    It seems that the Town has been forever telling us that they're going to "close it," "fix it," and "get right on it." In all those years, nothing. In fact, by any measure, things are alot worse, and certainly more costly, than they were when I first moved into this house in 1972.

    I would like to share the optimism and enthusiasm of the Community Alliance, but if our Town and County can't solve even the most simple problems, how can we expect them to take on the awesome task of the rehabilitation of our business districts and "Main Streets?"

  3. We appreciate the comments, and encourage readers to "keep 'em coming!"

    Glad to see you think of The Community Alliance as full of "optimism and enthusiasm." While some would see us as viewing that glass as half full, we like to see ourselves as telling it like it is, with a view toward getting it done as it should be.

    Anyway, each day presents a new opportunity to do good and start anew, both for us as an organization dedicated to the improvement of Long Island's quality of life, and for our elected representatives.

    We take Mr. Skelos, Mr. Suozzi, and, yes, Ms. Murray at their word -- that they are committed to revitalizing our communities through redevelopment, revitalization, economic stimulation, and even that ever-elusive code enforcement.

    They've said so much. Now comes the real work -- turning words into action along "Main Street."

    The bottom line still holds true: The success or failure of our collective community's course is in our hands. We welcome our elected officials to join with us, not merely going along for the ride, but in being, in many respects, the driving forces that enable the new suburbanization process to move forward from vision to reality.

    If we all work together -- State, County, Town and community -- we will, we are confident, get from "here" to "there."

    On the other hand (yet not to cast a cloud over our villages and hamlets), if our government leaders should disappoint us, then the course will continue to be in our hands. By that, we do not mean at the groundbreaking on "Main Street," but rather, in the voting booth on Election Day.