Ridiculed as the “busway to nowhere” during construction, the state’s new bus rapid transit system, CTfastrak, is an early success by one modest metric: Sudden interest in a vacant police building near a transit station in New Britain.
“We’ve had four or five developers call asking, ‘How much do you want for the property?’ ” said Erin Stewart, the city’s Republican mayor. “It wouldn’t even be a question if fastrak wasn’t across the street.”
West Hartford, whose elected officials were skeptical about the busway, already has rezoned industrial land along the transit corridor to allow housing in response to market interest. Neighboring Newington, with two stations, has gone the opposite way, adopting a moratorium while it considers a new transit-oriented development zone.
In fits and starts, transit-oriented development, TODs in planning jargon, are taking root in Connecticut, a state expanding mass transit with the Hartford-to-New Britain busway, commuter rail service from Springfield to Hartford to New Haven expected by 2017, and Metro-North improvements from New Haven to New York.
On a sweltering day last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker stood in a vacant lot in downtown Meriden to mark a TOD milestone: groundbreaking on a mixed-use project, the work of a public-private partnership.
The project involves DOT, the Meriden Housing Authority and a private developer. On a site near a coming rail-and-bus station on the upgraded Hartford-to-New Haven line, the partnership is building housing and commercial space, with parking for tenants, customers and commuters.
It took five years to get to the groundbreaking.
“We’re still in the learning process,” said Redeker, who came to Connecticut during the administration of Gov. M. Jodi Rell to oversee DOT’s transit operations. “This was for us the first of this sort, which was a multi-faceted project. It was transportation, but it was housing. It was redevelopment. It was flood management. It was a host of things. It was a major rail line upgrade and restoration.”
“For this day, it’s a celebration of partnerships. And it’s a celebration of what transportation investments mean to communities, to the corridor and to the state,” said Malloy, who promised more to come. “It’s about to get busy.”
The groundbreaking was a step forward after a significant legislative defeat on TODs for Malloy in the recently concluded legislative session.
He convinced legislators to dedicate a half-point of the sales tax for transportation infrastructure, but his proposal to create a Transit Corridor Development Authority floundered in a storm of questions and suspicions about its ability to seize land by eminent domain and operate outside local zoning.
“The displeasure was universal,” said Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, who led the opposition. “I’m still having folks approach me who say, ‘I am a Malloy supporter, but I can’t stand this idea.’ People were quite shocked by the audacity of introducing language that would allow the state to simply come into any town and do what it wanted.”
Redeker said that was never the intent. Eminent-domain language in the bill mirrored authority already held by the DOT. The authority was intended as a vehicle to provide financing, planning and technical expertise in crafting complex public-private partnerships, he said.
It didn’t help that the DOT’s selection of a development team for its most complicated transit-oriented development, a plan in Stamford to raze an aging parking garage at the busy Metro-North and bus station and construct a 1,000-space garage, 150 apartments, a hotel, 600,000 square feet of office space and 60,000 square feet of street-level retail space, was cloaked in secrecy.
Or that principals of the team chosen as preferred developers, Stamford Manhattan Development Ventures, turned out to be major donors to the Democratic Party. That has reinforced suspicions that the authority would be another rainmaker for campaign contributions.
Even after the eminent domain language was struck from the Transit Corridor Development Authority bill, the legislation never got back on track.
“That would have been a potential funding vehicle and I think got wrapped up in a lot of, quite frankly, inappropriate statements by folks who thought there was something other than that,” Malloy said.
“Once the perception is out there, it’s hard to change, but I think it’s still a great idea if we’re going to make these happen,” Redeker said. “And I look up and down Connecticut and say, ‘Which town has a ready-made TOD capacity?’ Nobody does.”
Redeker said the DOT has learned from the complex Stamford project.
“ ‘Trust me’ is something that probably doesn’t go along with DOT easily for a lot of people, right?” Redeker said. “So a more public process that doesn’t necessarily give up the specifics of the proprietary proposals, but gives the dimensions of the project, so that people don’t get concerned, is something we would certainly do differently.”
“It was like DOT taking over,” said Joe McGee, a vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, a backer of the administration’s ambitions for updating and expanding transit. “It cannot be seen that way. It has to be a partnership of equals. They both bring things to the table. It’s got to be a partnership of equals. Everyone we’ve talked to in the country has told us that.”
McGee, a member of the Stamford TOD Advisory Committee that worked with the DOT, said there were other lessons aside from a need for openness.
Planning officials in states with experience in public-private TODs all advise that a clear compact between the state and municipality should be the first step. McGee said public-private partnerships, especially ones tackling a project as complex as Stamford’s, raise numerous questions. How will zoning be changed? How will financing be obtained and revenue shared?
Many details were unresolved when the DOT, owner of the parking garage that comprises much of the site, selected the development team, something the DOT acknowledged in its announcement of the selection on July 11, 2013.
But the DOT also said then it expected to “complete negotiations and sign a contract with SMDV this fall,” meaning 2013. Two years later, there is no contract between the DOT and the developers, and commuters are complaining about the premature loss of the garage, due to a hole that opened one deck in April.
“I think the lesson we’re learning in Stamford is you’ve got to sort those things out before you choose the developer, not after,” McGee said.
John McClutchy, a principal in the development group, did not respond to a request for comment. Redeker blamed the complexity. Stamford has been outside the contract talks.
“That is a question for the McClutchy group and the DOT,” said Thomas Madden, a one-time planner named last year as the city’s economic development director by the new mayor, David Martin. “We’ve got contacts with DOT and John McClutchy’s group, and we’re ironing out a process.”
In the Hartford region, CTfastrak is exceeding its early ridership projections for the nine-mile busway that runs west from downtown Hartford through West Hartford, Newington and New Britain. The Malloy administration has announced plans to expand the busway concept east, using the high-occupancy vehicle lane of I-84.
“The real deal on TOD is going to be on fastrak, not the rail line,” said Lyle D. Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. “It goes to frequency of service.”
Bus rapid transit is frequent enough to meet the transit needs of millenials, who are opting for car-free places to live and work; empty-nesters looking for a lifestyle that doesn’t revolve around cars; and working families who cannot afford a car.
Wray said another factor in the busway’s potential as a generator of development that does not rely on cars is that it runs along a corridor largely surrounded by undervalued and under-developed land.
“Every single station on fastrak is an economically challenged neighborhood,” Wray said.
Stewart, the first-term mayor of New Britain, said transit-oriented development can bring new life to cities that have lost jobs and population as the highway system opened development in the suburbs and beyond.
With state grants, New Britain is readying tainted parcels, including the old police building laden with asbestos, for developers and constructing streetscapes intended to lead pedestrians and bicyclists to CTfastrak.
“We understand the busway is here,” Stewart said. “Now, it’s up to us to make it work.”
Todd Dumais, the town planner in West Hartford, which has made its town center a magnet for pedestrians with housing and offices above street-level shopping and restaurants, said he is seeing new development interest in New Park Avenue, an old industrial area. It runs along CTfastrak and has two stations.
“Most have indicated part of the reason is the fastrak,” he said.
A development group that includes a subsidiary of the West Hartford Housing Authority has proposed a four-story building with 54 apartments, a mix of market rate and affordable, over commercial and retail space.
Dumais said the design reflects the proximity to rapid transit, as does the town’s response to it. Last week, the planning commission approved a waiver allowing fewer parking spaces than suburban zoning otherwise would require.