In November 2012, Developer Robert Landino proposed the construction of a commercial center with national chains, a concrete parking lot, and a drive-thru window on Washington Street. On Wednesday Feb. 27, at Middletown’s City Hall, the Planning and Zoning Commission will consider Landino’s plan for a zoning code change to the proposed area, in which such a development cannot currently be built.
Two proposals are on the table to alter zoning code texts affecting areas adjacent to the University. The first, forwarded by Acquisition Holdings, LLC, associated with Landino and Centerplan Companies, would allow more intensive commercial development on the northern side of Washington Street. The second, proposed by Pearl Street resident and member of the Middletown Board of Education Ed McKeon, would restrict some of those properties primarily to residential use.
The neighborhood on the northern side of Washington Street is presently divided into two zones: mixed residential and commercial (MX) and institutional development (ID). The properties that Landino plans to demolish to build his commercial center are currently governed by the ID code. Current regulations stipulate that properties in ID zones may be utilized for institutional use, which is in this case, the University’s. If the University is not controlling the property, the area reverts to the MX code, as in the case of the properties planned for Landino’s development. The MX designation allows for small business and retail but not for high-density commercial developments with restaurants and drive-thrus.
“[The project] continues our commitment to building quality urban, mixed-use development in Middletown,” Landino told the Hartford Courant.
Landino’s development is planned to span over 10,000 square feet of space on two floors. The development is expected to include national branded retail stores and restaurants, including a Starbucks and a Chipotle.
“We are very confident about those two,” Landino told the Middletown Eye in regard to Chipotle and Starbucks.
If approved, the proposal would alter a streetscape that has remained relatively constant for over a century.
McKeon forwarded a counter-proposal to the other extreme. McKeon has lived in Middletown for 12 years and feels that Landino’s proposal will permanently alter the historic and residential character of the neighborhood.
“I live on Pearl Street, and in the chair I’m sitting on right now I can look out the window and see where that development would be,” McKeon said.
McKeon aims to redesignate ID zones such that if the University did not use them, they would default to residential pre-zoning (RPZ) status instead of MX status, restricting commercial activity in the area. McKeon stated that his aim is two-fold.
“One is I would rather not see that particular neighborhood change into a commercial strip,” he said. “The other thing is just having the opportunity to talk about what Middletown is and what our neighborhoods ought to be.”
The two proposals have the potential to significantly transform the landscape surrounding the University.
“This is an important municipal land-use decision that will impact the campus,” said Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Stephen Devoto. Devoto has been closely following the issue and writes for the Middletown Eye on the subject.
Four properties are at stake in the proposed development project: one house previously in the University’s property, one vacant lot, and two privately owned homes.
Middletown Mayor Dan Drew had earlier expressed support for the development plans during discussions on the bookstore relocation, vouching for the commercial center’s potential to contribute to Middletown.
“This will bring a $6 million influx of funds into the Middletown economy,” Drew told the Middletown Patch. “It will create 30 full-time jobs in the development complex. We estimate this will increase the city’s tax rolls right now by $100,000 in additional tax revenue per year and will create up to 90 well-paying, good construction jobs. Those jobs are desperately needed in our local economy.”
Drew refrained from making a statement on Landino’s development before seeing a detailed plan.
“When a proposal comes forward I’ll judge it on its merits,” Drew stated. “On the most basic level, for me to support something that would go there it would have to be something that is aesthetically harmonious with the rest of the streetscape and the use would have to fit well into downtown and complement what else is there.”
The mayor clarified that the decision will ultimately be left to Middletown’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
“My office doesn’t have any official jurisdiction over what actually goes in there,” he said.
However, the present zoning code text debate goes beyond the Centerplan development. Landino’s proposal affects the northern side of Washington Street stretching from Broad Street west to the railroad overpass, South Main Street, a portion of Saybrook Road, and parts of the South Cove by the river. The change would open the area to high-traffic commercial development in what is now a predominantly residential neighborhood.
“Once [Landino] changes the zoning then it goes beyond what he’s now trying to do,” said Professor of Russian Language and Literature Susanne Fusso. “We’re going beyond Starbucks here. It could be anything, it could be nail salons, it could be muffler shops once they open it up.”
Alternatively, McKeon’s application concerns all ID-zoned areas, limiting the potential uses of properties in those areas.
“It would actually restrict uses on dozens, maybe close to a hundred properties, in other areas of the downtown that would really remove a lot of the value from those other owners,” Drew said of McKeon’s proposal.
The two proposals may have immediate effects on the University, directly impacting students, faculty, and staff.
“Wesleyan is almost exclusively surrounded by what you might call historic urban residential,” Devoto said. “It’s a residential neighborhood full of people who either work at Wesleyan or have moved here because they loved Wesleyan—the arts and the sports and having their kids sled on Foss Hill.”
The University community first entered the discussion with the proposed relocation of the bookstore. This proposal was struck down after Middletown residents, students, and faculty expressed extreme opposition to it in the November community meeting.
“At the meeting, I think it’s safe to say that there was unanimous, strident opposition to the commercial development, let alone the bookstore,” Devoto said.
At a faculty meeting in December, Devoto introduced a non-binding Sense of the Faculty resolution that called on the University to oppose commercial development around campus.
“Wesleyan should formally express its opposition to any change to the zoning code text or the zoning map that allows restaurants or high volume commercial use on land surrounding the Wesleyan campus,” the resolution stated. “Wesleyan’s commitment to maintaining the architectural harmony and historical nature of its neighborhoods fosters an environment that enriches the campus of a residential university.”
The resolution was passed with 39 in favor, 11 opposed, and 10 abstained.
“I have not talked to any faculty member who is in favor of [Landino’s zoning code proposal],” Fusso stated.
Many Middletown residents have voiced strong opposition to the proposed change.
“The residents who live in this area are extremely upset about this,” Devoto said. “Right now they look at a historic house. If a development came in, they might very well be looking at dumpsters; they might hear tractor trailers in the middle of the night backing up, making deliveries.”
The proposals may have potentially adverse economic impacts as well. One major concern is that the new development would endanger local businesses on Main Street.
“It’s sort of encroaching, getting ever closer,” University Librarian and President of the Board of Directors of the Middlesex County Historical Society Pat Tully said regarding the strip of high-density commercial developments on Route 66.
However, Mayor Drew believes the promise of commercial development could spark Middletown’s economic, social, and cultural development.
“I think the notion that a commercial building there would destroy downtown—I don’t necessarily agree with that,” Drew said. “It depends on what somebody’s proposing, and it depends on whether or not the ultimate end use is a positive one.”
Another concern brought up at the community meeting was the potential destruction of historic spaces. The stretch along Washington Street and Washington Terrace entered the National Park Service’s National Registry of Historic Places in May 1985.
“History is always important,” Drew said. “But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t ever continue to make progress.”
At the Feb. 27 public hearing, The Planning and Zoning Commission will decide to pass one, both, or neither of the proposals.
Devoto explained that the Commission has in the past taken into account opinions expressed during the public hearing to modify the proposals. According to Devoto, during this hearing, those present will have the opportunity to suggest amendments.
Opinions vary as to whether, and how, the University should participate in the decision.
“My concern has been that Wesleyan is not as engaged with the residential neighborhood as I personally think it should [be],” Devoto expressed. “I find it ironic that Wesleyan is not engaged in land-use decisions that not only affect Wesleyan itself directly but also affect all the residential neighbors around Wesleyan.”
McKeon said that the University contributes positively to the town; however, he believes that the University is making a statement even in its current level of involvement with the issue.
“By not taking a stand, they’re taking a stand in not willing to stand with us to stop this,” McKeon said.
The University’s decisions regarding the development continue to influence public perception of the institution. Devoto stated that many believe that the University is supporting the commercialization of Washington Street against the wishes of the residential community.
“Unfortunately, the perception is that Wesleyan enabled the change because they were involved initially with the bookstore and because they were selling property,” McKeon confirmed.
At the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting on Feb. 10, several students expressed their displeasure with Landino’s proposal. WSA members adopted a resolution opposing Landino’s proposal.
“The Wesleyan Student Assembly urges the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commision to deny any zone text change that would allow for MX zones along Washington Street to be used for retail, upper story professional office space, restaurants or upper story residential purposes,” the resolution stated.
In a survey from the WSA asking students whether or not they are in favor of the proposed development, 62 percent of respondents indicated “No”.
“I’m pretty convinced that this could be very bad for Middletown,” said WSA President Zachary Malter ’13.
Some students contended that the WSA should amend its resolution to encompass varying student views on the issue.
“Obviously there are some students who do want the development to go forward,” said Scott Elias ’14. “I don’t think we should write a resolution [that] approves [the coding changes] or disapproves [them].”
Pending the Commission’s resolution, the zoning text change debate has sparked an important discourse between University members and Middletown residents.
“This is a complicated issue with legitimate interests on both sides,” Editor and New Media Writer at the Office of University Communications Lauren Rubenstein wrote in an email to The Argus. “We look forward to hearing an open and informed discussion at upcoming public hearings.”
Drew also appreciates the discussion that has arisen because of this issue.
“As controversial as this whole motion has been, I think it has been good for the community because people have an opportunity to discuss what they want to see there, what works for Middletown and what doesn’t, what kind of community we want to have—that’s a good thing,” Drew said.
Additional reporting by Staff Writer Michelle Agresti.