Middletown’s Planning and Zoning Commission held two meetings on March 13 and 27 to discuss potential zoning code changes to Middletown’s Washington Street Historic District. At the March 13 meeting, the Commission unanimously approved the controversial MX zoning text changes forwarded by representatives of Centerplan Companies despite opposition from community members.
Ordinarily, mixed-use (MX) zones allow for the development of small businesses. The Commission’s March 13 decision allows developers to submit requests for the allowance of larger building projects containing multiple businesses. As per its March 27 decision, the Commission will continue to allow any institutional development (ID) zoned buildings that are not in use by the University or hospital to be zoned as MX and developed commercially.
“[The Commission] should do what’s best for the community, not just what’s best for a single developer or a small group of people trying to sell their properties at the highest possible price,” Middletown resident Ed McKeon said in opposition to the March 13 decision.
On March 12, dozens of residents rallied against the Centerplan proposal, picketing at the intersection of Washington Street and High Street where the proposed development would occur. Local residents, as well as several University students, faculty, and staff attended the protest, organized by the group No Strip Mall No Wrecking Ball.
“We’re asking the Planning and Zoning Commission to be reasonable and understand that this is a bad use for this part of town,” Jen Alexander ’88 stated at the protest, according to a post on Wesleying.
The protest highlighted the concerns held by many members of the community regarding the proposal, including safety and traffic as well as the potentially irreversible changes in architecture and sense of community.
Children helped carry the signs, proclaiming statements including, “Hands Off Our Neighborhood,” “Don’t Make an MXstake,” and “Support Main Street Not Sprawl.”
Others critiqued the Mayor’s position: “Mayor you put the money on the wrong horse,” a placard read.
The protest recalled the effects of the zoning decision on the University community.
“I’ve lived on Washington Street my whole life, and I’m a Wesleyan student, so this is my home; I care a lot about it,” said Maggie Masselli ’16 at the protest.
President Michael Roth expressed the University’s commitment to the interests of the community.
“I think the University should be very clear that if there’s going to be development of property in our neighborhood, we should weigh in and make sure that development is in keeping with the context of the neighborhood, and we should talk with our neighbors and our students and faculty on campus to get a sense of their views,” Roth said.
However, the University has refrained from taking an official stance on the changes or the proposed development.
“I don’t think blanket approval or disapproval is very productive in community building and urban development,” Roth said. “Mixed use [development] can sometimes—but not always—be a very intelligent way for zoning to take place.”
Students and faculty have opposed the MX zoning change and the proposed development through a Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) resolution and a Sense of the Faculty resolution, both of which were read aloud at the March 27 Commission meeting. Meanwhile, members of the Middletown community continue to look to the University for support.
“We want the University supporting that [cause],” Alexander said. “Hopefully the administration will eventually realize it’s better for the University to keep this bit of history.”
One Commission member proposed an amendment to the new zoning code changes that would prevent the alteration or destruction of officially designated historic buildings on the Greater Middletown Preservation Trust Inventory of Historical and Architectural Resources. The Commission heard his proposal at the March 12 meeting.
“The Washington Street neighborhood was recognized in 1985 as a unique and historic collection of homes,” McKeon said. “In the MX zoning [resolution] passed last week, what [the Commission] voted on was protection for historical properties on the city inventory for such properties named in 2005.”
The Inventory does not protect several historic Middletown buildings, such as four lots located between Pearl and High Street, that may be torn down to make room for Centerplan’s proposed development. The development includes national retails and a drive-thru.
“Why would we propose to increase the value of a handful of MX property owners at the expense of so many others?” McKeon asked. “In fact, often limiting the use of property increases its value.”
By allowing the possibility of changing the Washington Street Historic District from an ID zone to an MX zone, many homes in that area could lose value, residents argue.
“The value of a quiet suburban neighborhood is its quiet suburban character,” McKeon said. “Would we make the property more valuable by allowing suburban homeowners to sell property to open a drive-thru bank? Of course not.”
At the March 27 meeting, the Commission voted unanimously in opposition to McKeon’s amendment. McKeon maintains that the impending developments will adversely affect Middletown.
“It’s not all about historic buildings,” McKeon said. “It’s about people, and it’s about neighborhoods, and it’s about our town.”