The North End Action Team (NEAT) held a community meeting on Planning & Zoning in Middletown at the MAC 650 Gallery (650 Main St.) on Wednesday, Jan. 29. There were around 80 attendees, comprised of city officials, North End residents, and members of the University community.
The meeting’s discussion focused on the 2020 Middletown Plan of Conservation and Development (PoCD), creating and cultivating safe community spaces for residents of the North End, and the recycling and environmental challenges facing the City of Middletown.
Chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission Stephen Devoto and City Planner Marek Kozikowski began the meeting by explaining the progress that has been made on the PoCD so far. Connecticut State Law mandates that cities must produce a PoCD at least every ten years. This plan will set a vision for how city officials hope to see Middletown develop.
“What’s really occupying almost all of our time on the commission and as staff is writing a document that will provide a guiding document for what the city will look like in 10 years,” Devoto said. “So in 2030, what’s the city going to be like? What’s this neighborhood gonna be like? What do we want as a city?”
Devoto and Kozikowski spoke about the vision that the commission has for Middletown, and what they hope the PoCD will include.
“In my opinion, it’s going to be truly a visionary document,” Kozikowski said. “It’s going to address issues relating to sustainability, responsible growth, transportation, access to healthy foods, the arts, culture, recreation.”
Devoto added that the commission hopes to see development in the North End, and is cautious of reconfigurations that could damage that neighborhood in particular.
“We want a vibrant city,” Devoto said. “So we’d like to see this neighborhood have high quality and affordable housing.”
Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim ’14 and his Chief of Staff Bobbye Knoll Peterson, who were also in attendance, spoke about possible changes to Middletown’s transportation infrastructure and the role of the Connecticut Department of Transportation in those redesigns.
“Transportation has been a huge issue in the state for many, many years and the funding of transportation—a particularly big issue at the state level for the last year or so,” Florsheim said.
Many Middletown residents spoke about their personal experiences regarding the city’s current transportation infrastructure, raising concerns over Route 9 and the high levels of traffic on Grand and Liberty Streets.
Middletown resident and mother Johanna Rodriguez spoke about the high volume of traffic she has witnessed in the city and expressed concern for her children’s safety, highlighting drivers’ lack of compliance with stop signs and speed limits. She and other parents tried to implement projects to slow down traffic, but never received support they needed, according to Rodriguez.
“Do you want to find out what’s really going on?” Rodriguez said. “It’s not necessary to speak to the tenants. It’s as easy as setting up the cameras or devices like they know how to do on the ground so we can measure the volume of traffic that’s coming up and down the street and the amount of children that can’t play outside because cars were just flying by.”
The conversation then turned to the lack of programs and activities available for Middletown’s youth, with many discussing the late 2018 closure of the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center. The building at 51 Green Street was founded in 2005 as a University-run arts center in the North End neighborhood and served up to 3,000 residents a year with a variety of programs, from after-school classes to homeschool programs.
Founder of the Middletown Green Community Center Jeff Hush ’84 spoke about his and many of the other attendees’ continuous advocacy for the use of the 51 Green Street space, calling for the community to be included in the conversation.
“I think it’s now time for all of us,” Hush said. “And there are several groups that want to work with 51 Green Street. The mayor and the people in the city need to start talking with us…. Now’s the time to bring the community in.”
NEAT President and North End resident Cookie Quinones, who spent 15 years working at Green Street, described the impact of the arts on the neighborhood’s children and young people.
“I would love to see 51 Green Street back….” Quinones said. “I know what the arts did for these kids here, that some of the parents didn’t get to even know…what [their kids] had…. ‘I didn’t know my kid can do that. I didn’t know my kid could draw like that or my kid could dance that way or my kid could sing that song.’ So we need to bring that back to these kids in here, for the kids and the parents that didn’t know what their kids have…. The building is there. It was built for that.”
The future of the 51 Green Street space was discussed at length, with public radio series “Afropop Worldwide” Producer and Senior Editor Banning Eyre ’79 suggesting that different groups could share the building to provide a range of activities.
“There’s room for a recording studio, there’s room for dance and music performance…. It’s a big building,” Eyre said. “A lot could go on there and the more that it’s used, the better it is for the community and the better it is for the building too. It’s not good for the building to be sitting there, not used all this time.”
Many in the room echoed the value of having spaces available for residents, especially young people and children. Owner of the MAC Gallery Matt Banta offered the use of the art gallery for youth programs in the future in lieu of the Green Street building.
“I know it’s not a lot, but I would be overjoyed and more than willing to work with programs and everyone else to utilize this space as well,” Banta said. “I’m very new to that aspect of this world, and obviously you’re all very educated in those realms so definitely feel free to reach out to me and we could work together, make the best of out this.”
Member of the NEAT Advisory Board and local artist Maria Louise Brower also told attendees about a rap group that used to meet in the MAC Gallery.
“I think that that’s a big message, is having a safe place in the community where people can come and not feel threatened or not feel endangered and express themselves creatively, and I think we definitely need that space,” Brower said.
Anne-Marie McEwen, the Director of the Buttonwood Tree—a performing arts and cultural center in Middletown—also offered that space for young people in the community to come and express themselves creatively.
“We have a small space, but it’s a very cool space,” McEwen said. “It’s also outfitted with all kinds of microphones and a sound system and I would be more than happy to talk to organizers who want to provide space for teens after school.”
The discussion then shifted to recycling in Middletown and the challenges that effective waste management poses for the city.
“One of the things that I’m doing is trying to reach out as much as I can to educate people about what actually goes in the [recycling] bin, because we’re finding that about a quarter of what people are putting in their recycling bin is really not recyclable and it creates a big problem,” Middletown’s Recycling Coordinator Kim O’Rourke said.
Wesleyan Student Assembly Senator Huzaifa Khan ’22 then asked what other steps the City of Middletown was taking to combat the climate crisis.
“Is the city tracking emissions in any way?” Khan asked. “Is it seeing if there’s an effect on how to reduce emissions? Does it have a plan in place to be carbon neutral at any point? Is sustainability factored into housing development?”
Kozikowski explained that the PoCD would address Middletown’s policy for sustainability, but did not provide specifics of how it would do so.
“The PoCD is going to add a lot of weight and volume to the concept of sustainability,” Kozikowski said. “A lot of public input has been provided in that desire to become a sustainable city with focusing on environmental resources.”
Alternate Commission Member on the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission Kellin Atherton expressed his gratitude to everyone who attended the meeting, but also raised concerns about the differences between what was addressed at this meeting compared to other community charrettes.
“I’m also a little bitter about it because of the difference between what has been prioritized in this room tonight and what was prioritized at the community charrettes that have taken place over the last year,” Atherton said. “The people of Middletown that participated in those charrettes believe that bicycles are a cure-all for a city, that everything from public health to air quality in the North End, to traffic, is resolved by more bicycles and bike lanes across town.”
In response, member of the Middletown Complete Streets Committee Beth Emery challenged Atherton’s characterization of these discussions at the charrettes.
“I would not categorize it as bicycles, and you can correct me if I’m wrong,” Emery said. “It is an infrastructure that provides connectivity [that] was the number one thing…. Middletown does not have this yet, but I think New Britain would be a good example, New Haven would be a good example of ‘recycle a bicycle’ programs that actually work very hard to bring bicycles to people that are needy.”
Minority Leader of the Middletown Common Council Philip Pessina raised the point that some North End residents are unable to attend charrettes and meetings because they do not have access to adequate means of transport. Knoll Peterson said there was a charrette for the PoCD held in the North End at the Middletown Community Health Center, but that it was under-attended.
“I would respectfully suggest when you’re having these types of meetings, make sure there’s one in the North End so that they can become informed and that they have access to them, because they can’t always get to these commission meetings and the various committee meetings that are held in other areas in the city,” Pessina said. “That’s how we changed it years ago, and that’s how we’re going to change it now.”
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