Thursday, December 20, 2007

Commuting in Connecticut

I remember how exciting it was to get my driver's license and my first car. I was 21 and had just moved to Connecticut after graduating from college. I had lived in New York City for four years and Dallas, TX before that, both of which have pretty good public transportation, and I had never before needed a car. It took many years for the novelty to wear off, but wear off it did, and I think it was primarily due to the interminable hours of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-84. The OPEC oil embargo of 1972 was my first clue that there might be something fundamentally unsustainable about the car culture I found myself in.

I'm sure I could come up with some ballpark estimates of just how many hours/days/months of my life I have spent in a car idling on I-84, but it would be too depressing, so I won't do it. I don't care what anyone says, no one enjoys driving to and from work. Anyone who thinks you do enjoy it, just give it 20 or 30 years and then get back to me.

Tell the truth now. Would you rather get to work after being in a traffic jam like that photo of I-95 above, or would you rather commute to work in a modern Japanese bullet train like this one?

It's probably too late for us to build a world-class rail system anywhere near as modern as anything in Japan or Europe—we've sunk our resources into the highway system as if we believed that gasoline would always be 36 cents a gallon, as it was in 1972, just before the embargo. (That's about $1.36 in today's currency, according to The Cato Institute.) But the existing Shoreline, Metro North, and Amtrak rail systems are pretty good. We could improve what we have, and we just might be able to restore some of what we used to have, such as rail service between Danbury, Waterbury, and Hartford.

Or not. It's a choice.

Friday, December 14, 2007

247-249 Main Street

247-249 Main StreetWhen I came to Danbury, this was the "five-and-ten-cent store"—Woolworth's, to be exact. You can still see the evidence inlaid at the entrance. Today it's the Danbury Dollar & Gift store. Inflation will do that. A portion of the south side of the original store has been split off into a Chinese take-out restaurant.

Just as today we criticize the big-box stores for driving out locally owned and operated businesses, the same accusations were directed at Woolworth's and other five-and-dime's in their hey-day. By Woolworth’s 100th anniversary in 1979, it had become the largest department store chain in the world. (

I came to Woolworth's to buy everything except food and clothes. You name it, and they had it: makeup and hair supplies, pet supplies (and small pets, like parakeets), yard supplies, clotheslines and clothespins, kitchen equipment, and party goods. It was a dozen stores rolled into one. The selection was somewhat limited compared to what we in the U.S. expect today, but... y'know what? ...sometimes you don't need a big selection. Sometimes you just need to get in, get what you need, and get out. The beauty of shopping downtown is being able to park 10 feet from the front door—closer even than most of the handicap spots at the mall.

Friday, December 07, 2007

129 Main Street

This building was starting to show some signs of neglect even back in 1985, when it was still Sears, Roebuck & Co. Then the mall came and dealt it the final blow. But it still stands, now housing the Salvation Army Thrift Store, and I've always loved the glass block wall on the second floor. I wonder if this building was originally Sears, or if it was built to house some other business first?

Update on my revaluation: I had my interview with the representative from VAT on Wednesday. Other than the topography of my lot and the amount of traffic on the street, they had their facts right. Now I wait to see if the numbers change. Meanwhile, all you developers out there, I have the perfect location for your next 50-unit condo project!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Danbury revaluation!?

I never meant for this blog to be political--I have other outlets for that--but I just received the 5-year revaluation for my house. It's 50% higher than it was just 5 years ago. WTF? Real estate prices are dropping and inventory grows every week. When I thought about selling two years ago, no agent would even look at my house, which is over 50 years old and less than 800 square feet of living space.

This must be some bizarre plan by Boughton and the developers who really run Danbury to kick people out of their homes. "My" land is now worth more than "my" house. If a developer came along today and wanted my block to build a 50 unit condo complex, I'd have to give it some serious thought. But 50%?! As you know if you've been reading this blog from the start, I am a graduate student and work part time in a library. My salary is a quarter of what it was 2 years ago. All economic indicators point to a coming recession--if we aren't already in one. If I thought for one moment that I could actually get someone to pay the amount that Vision Appraisal Technology has assessed for my house, I'd sell in a heartbeat. But there is no such buyer, and I think everyone knows that.

I'm going to make an appointment for a hearing. I'm sure many of you are in the same boat. I'm hoping that someone will be able to point us all to some reliable data showing actual trends for the last 5 years, up to and including October 1, 2007. I know about, and I suspect that's what Vision Appraisal is using, too--I don't believe that Zillow accounts for the age or total size of the house. I think it just looks at price per square foot.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

17 Main Street

Lots of activity going on here at the former home of a furniture consignment shop, in the shadow of the Kimberly Place high-rise next door. The whole exterior of the building, including several residential units behind and above the store, is getting a facelift. This is what we like to see!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

104 Main Street

My little camera cannot do justice to this magnificent building, which houses the Rectory and Offices for St. Peter Roman Catholic Church across the street on the other side of Elmwood Park. The church's website refers to it as "Danbury's mother Catholic Church since 1851," but there doesn't seem to be any parish history information. This was the best I could find, but there's nothing here specific to Danbury. Can anyone help me out?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

111-113 Main Street

Home of the Greenery Cafe and Shop 111, this is another of those "lonely" buildings that must surely have had similar three-story brick neighbors a few decades ago. We can count ourselves fortunate that so many of them did escape the wrecking ball. And the third floor even appears occupied.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

141 Main Street

The Casa Nova Churrascaria. Churrascaria is a style of Brazilian cooking and serving meat that has been grilled on a skewer. Low-carb heaven! You can read more about it here at Wikipedia.

Before its present incarnation, this was for many years the home of the Brass Jail. I'll bet there are a lot of Danburians and WestConn alumni who have a few stories about the Brass Jail.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What's Your Walkability Index?

Tom Condon writes about West Hartford Center, Blue Back Square, and the value of walkability in the September 30th Hartford Courant.

We need an alternative to endless oil wars in the Middle East and relentless burning of fossil fuels. We need to live more compactly. The trick is to get the benefits of more urban living without the traditional detriments - inadequate stores, poorly maintained buildings, unkempt public spaces, etc. If walkability is seen as a benefit, perhaps town or neighborhood centers will be designed for people instead of cars.

"Designed for people instead of cars." What a concept!

Use the widget in the left sidebar to find your walkability index.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

238 Main Street, reborn!

Main Street - Danbury Gas & Electric 2.0I noticed this for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but it wasn't until today that I had a chance to stop and take a closer look. The Danbury Gas & Electric Co. building is getting a makeover! Scaffolding is up—something you don't often see on Main Street— and those are all new windows. Does anyone know what the plans are for it—will it be offices, residential, or both? If there are going to be apartments, I'd like to know. And if there will be, I hope they don't get rented exclusively to WestConn students. I have nothing against students—I'm a student myself—but as a taxpayer and former potential future resident, I'm still a bit vexed at the way the Crosby Street project was handled. I want to see a more permanent residential presence downtown, not more transient student housing.

Here's what 238 Main Street looked like a year ago. I wonder if the art deco "Gas & Electric" signage will be retained.

256 Main Street - The new parking garageI wonder if the restoration was prompted by the nearby presence of the new parking garage, which looks like it's almost finished. I won't say it enhances the neighborhood, but it's not bad looking as parking garages go. And at least it's not right on Main Street. I still question the value of imposing a minimum number of parking spaces per residential unit anywhere, but especially in the downtown historical district. I think that people who live near decent bus and train service can manage very well with just one car, or even no cars. But maybe that's just me—I grew up in a city where I could get anywhere by bus, and went to college in a city where I could get anywhere by subway. I didn't have to learn to drive until I moved to Danbury. And I look forward to the day when I have my degree, so I can get a full time job in a library, so I can move where I'm close enough to walk to work, or at least take a bus.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ives Concert Park, Family Fair Day

The Ives Concert Park is another one of Danbury's best kept secrets. Why it hasn't yet become the Tanglewood of northern Fairfield County is beyond me.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The previous post on Elmwood Park drew the attention of Dennis Elpern, the Director of Danbury's Planning and Zoning Department. Mr. Elpern and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago, and he gave me some background information on the restoration project.

Mr. Elpern, who came to Danbury in 1988, used to drive past the park on his way to and from City Hall each day. He couldn't help but notice the crumbling sidewalks and overall unkempt look of the park, and out of professional curiosity went to the Danbury Museum & Historical Society (formerly known as the Scott-Fanton Museum) and did some research. He learned that the Commons, which is what Elmwood Park was, has probably been there since the Revolution, when the intersection of Main Street and South Street marked the southern boundary of Danbury. There was a Meeting House associated with the cemetery which is behind what is now the Old Jail at the corner of Main and Wooster Street. There was a bandshell, and it seems reasonable to assume that George Ives, father of Charles Ives, performed there on many a summer evening with the band that he directed.

The militia used to drill in Elmwood Park, and folks would gather there to hear election results in the fall. The Park was named for the large elm trees that dominated it and Main Street. At some point it was renamed Fountain Park, possibly because of the devastation caused by Dutch Elm disease in the early 1900s. The old photos also show a fountain and a fence.

The fountain and the fence were the starting points for the restoration work that was completed in 1998. The city hired the Danbury landscape architectural firm of Jane Didona to replicate the old fountain and the fence in an informal, English garden type of setting, for a total budget of about $250,000. Didona is also responsible for the design of the new library plaza, Kennedy Park, the Children's Garden at Tarrywile Park, a streetscape enhancement and traffic plan for the Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill Redvelopment project now underway in Georgetown, and numerous other local and regional projects.

(I don't have a good photo of the fountain. I borrowed this one from the website of Didona Associates. I hope they don't mind.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Elmwood Park

Welcome to all of you who found me from ctblogger's kind mention in Hat City Blog. If you're concerned about local politics, land use policies, open government, and civil discourse, check out Hat City Blog.

This post is an experiment in customizing Google Maps with personal photos. I really wanted to use MapLib to create my own map that could then be embedded as a live image in the blog, but I'm having a little trouble figuring out just how to do that. The interface for "creating a map" is identical to Google's–in fact it is Google Maps–but when I save it and then go back to view my map, it's not there.

So, in the meantime, here is a link to a little map that I made in Google Maps, with a few photos taken at Elmwood Park. Click on the blue markers to see the photos.

Elmwood Park

The median strip that divides much of Main Street widens between Boughton Street and Elmwood Place, roughly centered around St. Peter Church. Today this is known as Elmwood ParkElmwood Park, but back in the old days it was the Danbury Town Green. Today it's divided into two by Wooster Street, but I wonder if it didn't used to be one continuous strip of green, maybe with a bandstand where Wooster Street now divides it? The 9/11 memorial is located on the smaller strip, between the Fairfield County Courthouse on the east, and the Old Jail/Senior Center on the west. The larger strip has the fountain, and more shady seating, paths, and plantings. It's our own little oasis.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Home-Front Ecology

Home-Front Ecology: What Our Grandparents Can Teach Us About Saving the World

"The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history. Is it a model we should use today?"

Saturday, June 30, 2007

CT ranks 7th in most congested highways

Gee, it seems as if no one knows quite how it happened, and no one knows what we can do about it. We build, we widen, and still there's traffic congestion. A dedicated bus lane on I-95 is deemed "impractical." New cars on order for Metro-North will barely replace aging cars that will be taken out of service. Bus service between New Britain and Hartford? Forget it! [And bus service between Danbury and Waterbury? Not a chance!]

What to do? What to do? Oh, of course! Build more highways!

[Link to story at,]

Study says state's traffic getting worse
By Rob Varnon
Another study found Connecticut's traffic is getting worse, but offered no concrete solutions to address the problem.

The California-based Reason Foundation published its annual report on state highways Thursday and, to almost no one's surprise, found Connecticut commuters drive the seventh most congested urban interstates in the country.

This is the foundation's 16th year of studying the condition and maintenance of roads. Connecticut's overall ranking inched up one spot from 40th to 39th -- due in part to Connecticut having the second fewest fatalities on roads during 2005, the year upon which the foundation based its study.

"If a kid consistently brings home F's and D's on his report card and suddenly gets a C, he should get a little credit," said Robert Poole Jr., the foundation's director of transportation research, on Connecticut's better ranking.

Poole said Connecticut has consistently ranked poorly because it spends a great deal of money with little to show for it, except the low fatality rate. That might also be attributable to congestion, however, as Poole said speed is a major factor in most fatalities and the states with the highest rates, like Montana, tend to be less congested with higher speed limits.

Connecticut's problems are well known to Poole, who worked at Stratford-based Sikorsky Aircraft in the 1960s. He said the roads were congested then and he suspects they're worse today.

"A lot of states are in the same boat," Poole said. It's a case where Americans aren't willing to take on the costs of building new routes, he said.

"America has to have a serious debate about transportation," he said.

But getting something done quickly, according to Poole and other experts, seems doubtful because people are looking for cheap solutions, which don't exist. He said it's going to cost money and people need to prepare for new taxes and tolls to cover it. However, to do nothing won't make the problem go away either, he said; in fact, it will just get more expensive.

Michelle Ernst, analyst for the New York-based Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the foundation's study mirrored results of her own. Tri-State is also a research institute focused on transportation issues in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area.

Like many studies, the foundation's doesn't address the question people are asking more and more, she said, "How do I improve my quality of life right now?"

It's well documented that I-95 and the Merritt Parkway are carrying more cars during rush hour than they were designed for and trains running on the Metro-North New Haven Line are near capacity during rush hour. Many train commuters will say the trains are over capacity now, because it's nearly impossible to get a seat into New York City during the morning rush after Westport.

The state's programs to improve transportation include buying more than 200 railcars, but the first deliveries of those won't come until 2009. While this will ultimately increase the size of the rail fleet, studies by the DOT in the late 1990s and earlier this decade, indicated those cars have been needed for several years as either replacements for ones that are failing or to match today's ridership.

Road improvements remain limited and have often dragged on for years.

Ernst said a planned express bus service between New Britain and Hartford could provide some relief, but she added the project has been in the planning stages for more than a decade.

She also said dedicating a lane to buses on I-95, a three-lane highway, probably is impractical. But, the state might be able to use congestion pricing -- in the form of a high-occupancy toll lane -- to address the problem sooner than later.

Ernst said cars carrying more than two or three people pay no fees, but those with just one are charged. Theoretically, this would encourage car sharing and reduce traffic.

Another possible solution to traffic congestion would be changing land-use patterns to encourage development around transit hubs, like bus and train stations.

Rob Varnon, who covers business for The Connecticut Post, can be reached at (203) 330-6216.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Summertime Festival on the Green

The Summertime Festival on the Green opened last night with a pops concert from our own Danbury Symphony Orchestra, thanks in large part to the generosity of long-time Danbury Music Centre supporters Fred and Joan Weisman, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with many of their friends.

It's hard to imagine summer in Danbury without the Green now, but its existence came about almost by accident. I've tried to find articles from the News-Times on the subject, but they are safely hidden away in the archives, or more likely were never preserved in digital form to begin with, so I'm relying on my memory here. If any of you readers have better recall than I do—and I'm sure you do—please speak up.

As I remember it, this block was cleared many years ago with the intention of selling it to developers, but it sat unused, perhaps as long as the current site of the Terrance P. McNally Parking Garage languished in concrete and rebar disrepair. At the same time, the market for office space in downtown Danbury crashed. Then some enterprising and visionary souls conceived of and organized the summer concert series and September's Taste of Danbury on this empty and unused plot of land.

When the real estate market picked up again, and the property was to be sold for development, a loud protest rose up from the citizens of Danbury—so loud that even City Hall heard and obeyed. The space remained open, and has been improved and maintained to the beauty that you see here today, thanks to the efforts of CityCenter Danbury and the Danbury Downtown Council. The Green is framed on three sides by the aforesaid parking garage—which is really quite attractive as parking garages go—and brick buildings both old and new. Dining opportunities in the immediate vicinity include Two Steps Downtown Grille, Ciao's, and the newly opened Bella Luna.

The Summertime Festival schedule and more photos are here at the new CityCenter website. See you next Thursday for Dr. Ya Ya's Gumbo band, Friday for The Glamour Girls, or Saturday for Seeking Homer? (Speaking of gumbo, try the chicken and sausage gumbo at Two Steps Downtown Grille before the concert!)

By the way, the original Danbury Green was the median strip of Main Street that we know today as Elmwood Park. I'll have some photos of it in its full summertime blooming glory in the next week or two.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

276 Main Street

This is without a doubt one of the most attractive buildings on Main Street. Look at the cornice and the detail over each window. It has an attractive storefront that welcomes pedestrians, and the upper floors both appear to be occupied. It does look a little lonely, though. I imagine that once upon a time there might have been an entire block of buildings of similar height and utility, but over the years they were torn down in order to put up something "more modern."

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Living Locally

I'm taking a class on Digital Libraries this semester, and I discovered this extraordinary video library today.


In particular, I found this video of James Howard Kunstler, whom I mentioned in an early post as one of the influences that prompted me to start this blog. In Mr. Kunstler's view,
"public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about. Reengineering our cities will involve more radical change than we are prepared for, Kunstler believes, but our hand will be forced by earth crises stemming from our national lifestyle. 'Life in the mid-21st century," Kunstler says, "is going to be about living locally.'"

I urge you to watch all 20 minutes of the talk. Some of the photos he shows will remind you of similar places in and around Danbury, so while you're watching, think about the best and the worst civic features of Danbury, and what we can do to enhance the best and redesign the worst.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cars, Destroyers of Civilization?

Quote of the Day, courtesy of

"The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic."

-James Marston Fitch, historic preservationist (1909-2000)

How do you feel about your car? Are you enjoying your daily commute? If you have to use one of Connecticut's interstates, you're not. I'm usually driving against the traffic, and what I see is appalling. How much longer can this go on?

Take a look at the traffic cams on I-84 sometime. Not now, but some weekday morning when you're home between, say, 6 and 8 a.m. Or on a Friday afternoon, starting around 3 p.m. Look at all those cars, most of them carrying only one person, and try to calculate how much gasoline is being wasted while they crawl along an interstate highway at 10 or 20 mph. Then calculate how many buses or trains it would take to get half those cars off the road. How does the cost of the purchase and maintenance of a few buses compare to how much has been spent on construction projects on I-84 in the past 30 or 40 years? How does it compare to government subsidies for car companies, oil companies, and highway construction companies that have been expended to encourage private automobile travel and discourage public transportation? What was life in Danbury like before I-84? How was it worse, and how was it better?

That's my research project for this summer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Flood of 2007

This is the intersection of Newtown Road (Rt. 6) and Eagle Road this morning around 8:30. Yes, that is a car in the intersection. There are a few more just like it in the Holiday Inn parking lot just to the left of this picture.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

143 Main Street

This is a perfect example of what I was talking about yesterday. Who wouldn't want to live over a variety store on Main Street? You could step out your door in the morning, stop and get a cup of coffee and a newspaper, walk to work or to the train station or catch a bus, walk to the Palace Theater (if it were open), walk to a number of good to excellent restaurants, walk to the grocery store and the laundromat and the library...well, you get my drift.

Sure, I recognize that not everyone is a natural-born city dweller. A lot of you left The City and Long Island to get away from exactly this kind of lifestyle. But rest assured that there are plenty of people who would be very happy indeed to live in a reasonably priced apartment in downtown Danbury. After all, what is the vacancy rate of apartments right now? I haven't found any figures, but I'll bet it's not very high. I'll bet it's not as high as the vacancy rate for commercial and office properties.

There is no good reason for the fourth floor of this building to be vacant. (And I'm not too sure about the third floor, either.) What does our city need to do in order to make it feasible for the owner of this building to open up the upper floors to housing?

173 Main Street

Who wouldn't want to live over Nico's Pizza? And the owner of this building clearly cares about it. Look at the carefully preserved detail over the windows. And yet...the upper floor appears to be vacant. Why? What needs to change before the owner of this building decides to make the third floor available to renters?

Friday, April 13, 2007

264 Main Street

This building and its neighbors are notable for their arched windows and attractive cornices. The building on the left looks bare by comparison. But the feature that really sets them apart from a lot of other Main Street buildings is that the upper floors appear to be occupied. Far too many buildings have empty second and third floors, and a few are even boarded up. Not very attractively, either. I don't know why they're empty, so I don't know what we'd have to do to make it financially attractive for the owners of those buildings to make the upper floors habitable again. Is there a minimum number of parking spaces that each dwelling unit must have? Who needs more than one car--if that many--when you live on a bus line and just blocks away from the train station? Are there accessibility requirements imposed when remodeling older structures? Can't we make an exception for 100-year-old buildings? Or must we wait until they deteriorate to the point at which we have to tear them down and start over, like the Danbury Gas and Electric building is on the verge of doing?

The traditional Main Street model has always been shops, restaurants, and other retail services at street level, and residential on the upper levels. We could go a long way toward solving our affordable housing problems if we just made full use of our existing infrastructure again.

Smart Growth

I attended this forum on Wednesday night. I am reprinting Robert Miller's excellent report here because News-Times articles generally go to archive within days, and then they are very difficult to find again. It's about time that the City of Danbury, the towns of Fairfield County, and the entire state of Connecticut, asked its citizens what kind of development they want to see here in the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Continuing to build more highways and turn more farmland into 2- and 3-acre zoned subdivisions is clearly a losing proposition in my view.

Apr 13 2007 4:15 AM
Smart Growth advocates key in on regional cooperation
By Robert Miller

The mixed-use redevelopment of the old Gilbert & Bennett factory in the Georgetown section of Redding is seen as one example of Smart Growth principles in effect.
It seems counter-intuitive, but it may take regional cooperation to preserve good neighborhoods within a town.

On Wednesday, panelists at a forum on Smart Growth discussed the need for the state to take a different approach to development -- one that preserves open space, slows the spread of suburban sprawl and rebuilds the state's inner cities.

"It's not a question of whether we grow, but how we'll grow," Heidi Green of 1000 Friends -- a pro-Smart Growth organization, who spoke at the forum sponsored by the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Danbury.

Green -- along with urban planner David Kooris and Steven Patton, director of the Nature Conservancy's Devil's Den preserve in Redding and Weston -- spoke of how people in the state are increasingly starting to recognize that some problems are not well-served when there are 169 independent towns to deal with.

Green said under the current political structure, towns must compete against neighboring towns for development to build up their tax revenues, largely to pay for the ever-increasing cost of running a public school system.

"They need to get as much tax revenues out of development as possible," she said.

The end result is housing and development patterns that constantly push out from urban centers, eroding the state's existing open space.

It means people spend more time commuting than ever, more time on the road, and more money on gasoline. That means heavier commuter traffic and more air pollution.

Kooris is a senior planner with the Regional Plan Association, which helps towns and the three states of the greater New York City metropolitan region. The entire region is facing the same challenges as Connecticut.

"They can't be faced alone," Kooris said.

Patton of the Nature Conservancy pointed out that preserving natural resources is also always a regional effort, simply because rivers, mountain ridge lines, forests and wetlands couldn't care less about town boundary lines.

Nor can any town afford to buy a lot of land because of the cost of real estate in Fairfield County.

"But that's a good thing," Patton said. "It forces us to talk together, think together, plan together."

In recent months, the Smart Growth message -- that regions should concentrate growth in places where there are existing stores and office and train stations -- is catching on.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has created the Office of Responsible Growth to help further Smart Growth goals in the state. And Green said there are several good examples in the state -- including the mixed-use redevelopment of the old Gilbert & Bennett factory in Georgetown, the Blue Back Square development in West Hartford, and the creation of a town green in Mansfield -- where Smart Growth principles are in effect.

Even a small town like Higganum has used community discussions to decide what the town center should look like, then changed roads and added sidewalks to promote that look.

"This isn't just a big city thing," she said.

Danbury City Planner Dennis Elpern, who attended the forum and took part in the fully engaged discussion afterward, pointed out that the proposed Kennedy Place development in Danbury -- to build 500 housing units on the former Amphenol site off Kennedy Avenue -- is another example of building housing in an urban center, near both the city bus lines and the Danbury rail station.

Green pointed out that such approaches can either create new neighborhoods or revive old ones. But she warned that at its worst, it can create gentrified neighborhoods that jack up rents and drive low-income people away.

"That's one of our greatest challenges," she said.

Kooris said Smart Growth works when architecture actually organizes the way people live and travel, and when people in a community are fully involved in planning the town's future.

"Some people are good at reading the numbers on a project," he said. "Some people like maps. Some people like models. You should always seek more input from people, not less."

Kooris said new developments will also succeed when the town and developers agree on what the town and a region can support.

"You need a flexible framework," he said.

Green said there are also looming pressures to build up even more of the region. The population of the United States now stands at about 300 million. It should top 400 million in less than 50 years.

"Connecticut is located between Boston and New York," she said. "A lot of people are going to want to move here."

But currently, Kooris said, the state is hemorrhaging young adults who cannot afford the price of housing in Connecticut.

And Elpern and others at the forum pointed out that in the Danbury area the wealthier suburban towns have often walked away from their responsibilities when it comes to building affordable housing.

"Americans are (conflicted) when it comes to Smart Growth," Elpern said. "They don't like suburban sprawl. But they don't like high-density housing either."

# Contact Robert Miller


or (203) 731-3345.

There will be a Forum on Responsible Growth on April 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. at New Milford Town Hall.

Connecticut Community Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Connecticut will sponsor the event in cooperation with the Litchfield Hills Greenprint, Housatonic Valley Association, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Northwest Conservation District, Working Lands Alliance and the Trust for Public Land.

The public is encouraged to attend.

Related Stories

* Forum focuses on Smart Growth Thu, Apr 12 2007

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.

"Requiem," by Kurt Vonnegut

Thought for the Day

"A city that outdistances man's walking powers is a trap for man." -Arnold Toynbee, historian (1889-1975)

(thanks to for today's quote)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

78 Deer Hill Avenue

There are many grand old homes on Deer Hill, but I'm a sucker for Victorians, though I could never afford the upkeep. This one is my favorite. I can imagine a time when people would sit out on this porch on a summer evening and wave to their neighbors as they promenade up and down the street.

Nowadays most homes don't have porches, and most streets don't have sidewalks. I can't help but think that we lost something priceless when we moved from a neighborhood-centered culture to a car culture.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Good News for Commuters

Maybe I really will be able to ride the bus to work one of these days.

Here's a link to the story, but they usually go to archives in just a few days.

Mar 21 2007 4:12 AM
State urged to put buses on the roads
By Robert Miller

[photo: Linda Tarjanyi, of Danbury gets off the bus at the Kennedy Avenue bus stop in Danbury on Tuesday.]

Too many people are driving on the state's roads.

"I-95 is a traffic nightmare," Karen Burnaska, coordinator of Transit for Connecticut, said Tuesday. "I-84 is becoming almost as congested."

In a report issued Monday, Transit for Connecticut asked the state to take some of those cars off the road by increasing state spending on bus transportation by nearly $280 million over the next five years.

The report said this would help the state's economy, its residents and the environment by creating a more mobile workforce without adding cars to the highways.

"The point is we need to give real choice to the residents of Connecticut," said Gloria Mills, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Community Transportation, one of the members of Transit for Connecticut coalition. "We need options that are flexible and affordable."

Transit for Connecticut's members include business groups and transportation and environmental advocacy groups, including the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

The report comes at a time when Gov. M. Jodi Rell and other state leaders are trying to change the state Department of Transportation's decades-long devotion to highway spending by adding more mass transportation to the mix.

Michael Sanders, DOT transit administrator, said Tuesday the DOT has let the state's bus system languish.

"I've been here 13 years, and we haven't increased spending on bus transportation that would have allowed it to grow," Sanders said.

At the same time, Sanders said, it's become increasingly clear all the state's major issues -- economic growth, environmental protection, smart growth, combatting sprawl, and access to health care -- come back to improving its transportation system.

The report says Connecticut spends less on transportation than Northeast states of comparable size, including Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland.

"There's no way rail and bus transit will ever take the place of the highways," Sanders said. "But there are some things rail does best and some things buses do best."

The state is finding new ways to mix and match these different modes of traveling, he said. For example, Sanders said, the state runs a daily express commuter bus from Stamford to White Plains, N.Y.

"We have people taking the train from Branford to Stamford, then getting on the bus," he said.

The state has big sections -- especially the northwest and northeast corners -- where a rail infrastructure doesn't exist.

"But there are still people there that need to get to jobs, that need to get to doctors' appointments," Sanders said.

In Danbury, the HART/Housatonic Area Regional Transit bus system is studying commuter bus service to Waterbury and Bridgeport, said Richard Schneider, HART's director of service development.

HART also plans to offer shuttle service from New Fairfield to the Metro-North railroad station in Southeast, N.Y.

Schneider said HART's two existing transit shuttles -- which take Danbury commuters to the Metro-North station in Brewster, N.Y., and Ridgefield commuters to the Metro-North station in Katonah, N.Y. -- have been solid successes.

"The Ridgefield ridership has increased by 25 percent in the past year," Schneider said.

The Transit for Connecticut report calls for expanding bus routes by offering more runs during crowded hours and providing more weekend service. It calls for creating rapid-transit bus service along major transportation corridors, expanding the Dial-a-Ride service to towns not served by buses, creating more commuter connection services to trains, and expanding express service between major employment centers.

According to the report, the state could increase bus ridership by 81 percent. Mills, of the Connecticut Association for Community Transportation, said the figure now stands at about 35 million rides a year.

But, it will cost the state about $63.6 million over the next five years for operating costs and another $215 million for new buses.

Burnaska, coordinator of the Transit for Connecticut coalition, said the state needs to replace its buses with new, clean-diesel buses, or retrofit existing buses to make them clean diesel.

With an enlarged fleet of such buses running more routes, she said, many drivers would choose to use them for commuting, reducing the number of cars on the road and cutting pollution, she said.

It would also promote what Rell's administration calls "responsible growth" -- encouraging development in urban centers with existing infrastructure, while slowing sprawl into the suburbs.

However, coalition members said Rell's proposed 2008-09 budget calls for a 20-percent fare increase for state bus riders. Mills said fare increases generally discourage people from using mass transit.

While the state budget contains $7.5 million to purchase new buses, Mills said, it has no extra money for operating those buses.

The proposed budget also cuts a $5 million-a-year grant program that helped towns develop new bus routes or improve existing ones to serve the elderly and people with disabilities.

"We hope that money will be restored," she said.

"It is that issue -- how much money the General Assembly decides to spend on improving bus transit -- that will determine the fate of the report," said the DOT's Sanders.

# Contact Robert Miller


or at (203) 731-3345.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


This is what commuting on I-84 feels like most days. And I'm not usually in the worst of it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Palace Theater

The Palace Theater
A story in Sunday's New York Times Connecticut section titled "A Renaissance in Full Bloom for Aging Thearers," by Elizabeth Maker, prompted today's entry.

RICK DOYLE remembers when icicles hung from the ceiling and saplings grew amid the mold and broken glass in the lobby of the abandoned Warner Theater in the early 1980s. Despite its artistic history, the 1931 landmark building appeared headed to becoming just another city parking lot.

Today, $20 million later, the Warner Theater in Torrington is a magnificent example of the height of Art Deco, rivaling even the Bushnell in Hartford.
The Palace theater
The state allocated $65 million in bonds for theater projects in the last decade, and the commission [the State Commission on Culture and Tourism] gave $555,000 in grants to 25 theaters in the last fiscal year to help with operating costs.

The Palace Theater in Danbury is in the same position that the Warner was 25 years ago, but it hasn't received any of that money. If not for the Martha Apartments, it might have already become a parking lot by now.
The Palace Theater

In Stamford, the Palace Theater, built in 1927, recently underwent a $16 million renovation, and a $2 million project is planned for the subground space, including a 199-seat theater and a new performing arts education center to be named after Pitney Bowes, one of the Palace’s benefactors.

The Palace was still a movie theater when I moved to Danbury. Over the years it was split up into three smaller screens, with only remnants of its former glory showing here and there. I wish I could show you a picture of the lobby, but it's been closed for years.

In Waterbury, the Palace Theater, which opened its doors in 1922 but had been closed for 18 years, reopened in 2004 after a $30 million makeover. “Our ticket sales went up last year to 105,000, from 90,000 the year before,” said the theater’s executive director, Frank Tavera.

It's not too late for the same kind of miracle to happen in Danbury.

In Torrington, the Warner’s executive director, James Patrick, walked along Main Street, showing off a 50,000-square-foot space, next to the theater, that is being transformed from a vacant department store into the Warner’s new Carole and Ray Neag Performing Arts Center, named for the benefactors who donated $1 million last year to the project. The center will include classrooms, a new 200-seat theater and several retail stores and restaurants surrounding a grand lobby.

The record number of ticket sales last year — 92,000, up from over 80,000 the previous year — “shows you how much people love this place,” Mr. Patrick said.

“And look what the Warner has done for this city,” he added, pointing across the street at freshly painted building facades and bustling new businesses. “Torrington has gone from a depressed old mill town to a thriving arts center that’s just teeming with life.”

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

But Then There's This

Today's News-Times reports that BRT is definitely going to market its new Crosby Street apartments to WestConn students.

Apartments marketed to WestConn students
By Elizabeth Putnam
Brookview Commons on Crosby Street in Danbury, a 115-unit apartment complex marketed to Western Connecticut State University students, is scheduled to open in August.
DANBURY -- A new Crosby Street apartment complex marketed just for college students is on track to open in August.

The developer, BRT, will rent all of its 115-unit apartment building to Western Connecticut State University students. The building, called Brookview Commons, offers furnished studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments and is on WestConn's shuttle bus route.

"We are doing well. About 15 percent of our units are reserved. It's going to be great energy for downtown," said Dan Bertram, a principal in BRT.

BRT, which officially began marketing the development to students last month but had been considering the option for several months, also likely will keep the tax incentive it received from the city in 2005 to build downtown housing.

The incentive allows BRT to pay a flat fee of about $25,000 in annual property taxes for seven years, after which the taxes will jump to about $340,000.

After BRT announced that it might rent the complex to students earlier this year, some city officials questioned whether the incentive should be rescinded.

BRT never agreed in writing or verbally to build market-rate housing for families and can rent its new complex to college students, according to a recent review by the city's corporation counsel.

"The possibility that the apartment building may ultimately have ... an occupant class that has been changed as a result of a market need is therefore insufficient to rescind ...," Deputy Corporation Counsel Les Pinter said in a report to the mayor and Common Council.

Democrats said BRT received the deferral with the understanding that the company would build "middle-income, market-rate housing for families."

"Although this legal opinion rules out rescinding the tax giveaways, the fact remains that the developer violated the spirit of the agreement with the city, which underscores the need to more closely scrutinize any such proposals in the future," Democratic caucus leader Tom Saadi said Monday in an e-mail.

The corporation counsel's report will go before the Common Council today, where it likely will be accepted by the Republican-majority council.

Saadi, however, said the city needs to do more to restrict tax incentives.

"The city should amend the ordinance and limit these types of tax deferrals and abatements to those businesses and industries that create long-term jobs in our city and increase our tax base, not weaken it," he said.

BRT received a similar tax incentive to build about 560 condominium units on Kennedy Avenue. That tax deferral will benefit the condo buyers, who will pay no property taxes for seven years.

Construction of that project is expected to start this spring.

# Contact Elizabeth Putnam


or at (203) 731-3411.

I don't know about you, but this isn't what I had in mind when I heard that BRT was building "downtown housing." I had in mind a lot of working singles and families who wanted to be near public transportation, restaurants, shops, and grocery stores, not a building full of transitory college students.

I wonder what this signals for the fate of the "luxury condo" project scheduled for the empty parking lot that used to be the old Amphenol property?

The Best News I've Heard About Downtown Danbury in a Very Long Time

This story ran in the Monday, March 5 edition of the News-Times. You can read it here on the News-Times website, at least for a few days.

"City may create review panel: Architectural board would ensure designs comply with others, By Mark Langlois, THE NEWS-TIMES"

DANBURY -- The city is considering creating an architectural review commission to make sure new buildings are designed to look compatible with others in the city.

The city has an Architectural Advisory Committee, but the new plan would give a new commission, whatever its name might be, more power.

For most of the committee's 18 years, it has reviewed signs proposed by new businesses. The committee's goal has been to help a business design a sign that will attract customers and at the same time fit in with other signs and building facades in the neighborhood. While the committee has some influence over signs, it doesn't have as much as committees in other towns do.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said he will propose a more powerful committee at Tuesday's Common Council meeting. He said he first proposed one in 2002, but the idea was rejected. People argued against it then, saying it might be too much of a financial burden on downtown developers.

In other towns, the committees can influence more than sign design.

"In other towns, like Southbury, Glastonbury and Ridgefield, the committees have more power," said Mark Nolan, chairman of CityCenter Danbury, the downtown tax district that sponsors the advisory committee. They make recommendations about the shape and facade of a building to local planning commissions or to zoning commissions before a building is approved. The golden arches of McDonald's restaurants disappear behind wooden facades.

Danbury officials are hoping the new commission, if approved, will have that kind of power.

Committee members like the look of downtown Glastonbury, Ridgefield, Southbury and Northhampton, Mass., where they say more powerful architectural committees already work.

"The main street of a town or city may be only 5 percent of a town, but that's what gives a town its identity," said Joseph Heyman, an urban planner and member of the Architectural Advisory Committee.

Heyman said visitors who reach Danbury's outlying streets see the exact same big-box retail stores and franchise food stores they see across the country. If the city had an architecutral review committee, it might be able to influence what those big-box retial stores look like.

"We're asking developers and business owners to be sensitive about how their business will look from the outside," Danbury architect Leigh Overland said. Overland is also a member of the Architectural Advisory Committee.

Boughton said the architectural review committee concept must be reviewed by an ad hoc committee of the Common Council before it can be approved.

City Planner Dennis Elpern said he proposed such a committee in the city's Plan of Conservation and Development approved in 2000, and he still supports the idea of architectural review.

"It's a question of teeth" or power, Elpern said. "An architectural review board can make recommendations."

"Other towns have been quite successful in influencing the design of facades to make improvements on how buildings look," Elpern said.

He said the level of influence such a commission has depends on the members and their skills at working with people.

Contact Mark Langlois


or at (203) 731-3337

But note the weasel words "may" and "could." I would never expect downtown Danbury to ever look like downtown Ridgefield or downtown Glastonbury. It's far too late for that. But maybe we can keep it from becoming another downtown Stamford or downtown Bridgeport.