Bethel plans to develop train station district
Although Bethel would be one of the first towns in the region to embrace the concept of a Transit Oriented Development district, where people can walk from their apartment to shopping, entertainment, and transit hubs, the idea is far from new, some say.
"Hundreds of years ago downtown villages were centers where people worked, shopped, played and worshipped all within walking distance," said Deborah Howes, a senior planner with Urbitran of New Haven who has been working with town planners on the project. "That was how Bethel was started. It developed as a village of Danbury surrounding a meeting house."
Steven Palmer, the town planner for Bethel, said the proposed TOD district would encompass about 40 acres surrounding the train station on Durant Avenue, which is zoned for mostly industrial use. New regulations would be developed for the district designed to promote the construction of mixed-used developments that include affordable housing options, restaurants, shops, and office space. Also being considered is a platform to the western side of the tracks at the train station.
"As Bethel moves forward in its planning for the future we want to establish areas where higher density development is most appropriate," Palmer said. "Areas near mass transit and town services are ideal for this type of development. An industrial zone is not the most appropriate development for the downtown area."
He said that an area along Grassy Plain Street, designated as a Transit Supported Area, could also be considered for mixed-use development.
"It's a state road and along a bus route that leads to the train station," Palmer said. "It could be appropriate to consider the use there as well."
Officials said affordable housing for working families is an important element to the proposal.
"The housing would be ideal for young couples working in the area, like teachers and police officers who don't make six or seven figures," Howes said. "It would also be ideal for empty nesters who still want to be close to shopping and entertainment without having to drive."
Jonathan Chew, the executive director of the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, said more future development will be geared toward TODs as people look to smart growth development options and energy savings.
"It's a logical strategy to make transportation and land use work together," he said. "We are a growing region, and we have to think about where we want to be 20 years from now."
He said Connecticut lawmakers in 2005 amended state statutes to require regional planning agencies, such as HVCEO, to "identify areas where it is feasible and prudent to have compact, transit accessible, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development patterns."
Officials said eminent domain is not being considered as part of the development effort. Palmer said the regulations for the district would be written to encourage property owners to develop parcels that fit with the concept.
"No property owner would be under any obligation to change what they are doing with their property," he said. "We want to provide some incentive for property owners to look at this type of mixed-use development. As the economy and the market marches on I'm sure they will see this is a desirable option."
James Davenport, who owns a five-acre parcel on Durant Avenue that he leases to First Student, a bus company that services Easton and Redding schools, said he would be interested in learning more about the proposal.
"If there is demand in the market for that type of development I would be very interested in it," the Bethel native said. "The current building on the property has perhaps outlived its usefulness. I'm happy that the town officials are thinking ahead. This is a great little town."
Frank Giumarra, who owns an industrial-zoned property on Diamond Avenue that is almost across the tracks from the train station, said he also likes the idea.
"It makes sense," he said. "It's something I've thought about in the past myself because of my proximity to the station. People always cut through the property and cross the tracks to get to the platform. I always thought it would be nice to have apartments in my building for that reason."
Stephen Solar, a businessman creating a similar development on a much larger scale in Georgetown, said TODs are the wave of the future.
Solar, the president of Georgetown Land Development Company, is creating a mixed-used development complete with a train station, housing, retail, a performing arts center, and a Norwalk Hospital branch from the former Gilbert Bennett Wire Mill. The project has received numerous smart growth awards.
"The key to development is certainty," he said. "When you create a mechanism such as a TOD that literally creates certainty it will attract investment. It's that simple. Creating this district is the right thing to do. Bethel is certainly moving in the right direction."
Palmer said the proposal, which is being included as part of the town's Plan of Conservation and Development, will be presented to the Board of Selectmen next month, and then a public hearing will be held.
"At this point all the options are on the table," he said.
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Proposed Elements of Transit Oriented Development District� Walkable design with pedestrian as the highest priority.� Designed to include easy use of bicycles and mass transit.� High density, high quality development with 15 to 20 housing units per acre.� Mixed uses in close proximity to each other including office, residential and retail.� Affordable housing for working families and elderly.� A trolley that connects the district to other areas of town.� Benches, water fountains, and other pedestrian-friendly amenities.
Source: Draft of Bethel's 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development