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.