The Brooklyn neighborhood in the south end of Waterbury once was a city within a city, a self-sufficient ethnic enclave, originally with a large Lithuanian population. But like many urban neighborhoods in the state, it was badly wounded by disinvestment and highway construction in the last century. It was left without a single park for neighborhood children.
Soon that will change. Though it is a poor and somewhat shopworn area, it has a very active neighborhood association. That group, led by a woman named Lisa Velez — until she passed away from cancer last year — pushed the city for several years to build a park.
Though it has been delayed by the coronavirus crisis, Brooklyn will get a small park. The city acquired the half-acre site of a former restaurant that had burned down, and completed environmental cleanup earlier this year. Officials are now selecting a designer, and they expect to begin construction in the spring, said Dan Pesce of the Waterbury Development Corporation.
Though it is a small park, it’s a start.
“At least kids won’t have to play basketball in the street,” said Frank Perella, a board member of the Brooklyn Neighborhood Association.
As many cities try to include struggling neighborhoods in their downtown revivals — known as inclusive growth — the Brooklyn park offers two lessons. The first is that focused, well-led neighborhood activism can improve the built environment. The second, which perhaps should be the first, is that the built environment is important.
Inclusive growth is a multi-faceted challenge, made more so by the coronavirus crisis. The primary thrust must be the people — getting the residents of a distressed area the education and training to take some of the jobs coming to the city. But the physical neighborhood, the place where the people live, also is important. If an area can be made safer, functional and attractive, then residents’ lives will improve and, as Perella said, people with choices might choose to live there and even start businesses.
Renovating older urban neighborhoods is hardly a new idea; the post-World War II era has seen a plethora of programs aimed at urban revival. These have had mixed results; the problems persist. But recent years have brought new approaches in at least three areas: blighted properties, environmental justice and street design.
New tools to eliminate blight
Blighted or abandoned properties are millstones around the necks of neighborhoods. Run-down, litter-strewn, dilapidated structures invite crime and public health problems, depress property values and drain city dollars. Almost no one wants to buy a house next to one that is abandoned.
In the past, dealing with such properties has often been a long and frustrating process for city officials. But two companion pieces of legislation passed last year by Connecticut’s General Assembly should expedite things.
One of the new laws allows towns or groups of towns to create land banks: nonprofit entities that can acquire, hold and dispose of properties. The first such program in the state was created this year in Hartford and is headed by Laura Settlemyer, who formerly directed the city’s blight remediation effort.
Using $5 million in seed money from the state and other grants, the land bank will take foreclosed properties off the city’s hands — or buy properties — and do what it takes to get them into the hands of a responsible owner and back on the tax rolls. The work could be anything from clearing the title and back taxes to a full-scale rehab, depending on the situation.
The other new law concerns blighted properties that are still in private hands. Heretofore, neighbors had to wait for the lengthy foreclosure process and change of ownership before a property was cleaned up. Under the new legislation, interested parties – including neighbors, nonprofits, the city or even the land bank – can petition the Superior Court to appoint a receiver or conservator with the power to eradicate the blight, with ownership issues worked out later. Owners are also given the opportunity to repair their properties.
Neither of the new programs is mandatory; neither expands the powers of eminent domain. But both are tools that have worked in other states to eliminate cancerous blight from city neighborhoods.
Blighted or abandoned properties can be barriers in a neighborhood, places that discourage passage. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in an interview earlier this year that restoring a derelict building or building a new structure an empty lot can create a sense of connection to the broader city. That is one of the goals of inclusive revival.
Struggling neighborhoods often face environmental issues as well as housing, transportation and historic preservation challenges. An innovative project in a Bridgeport neighborhood is tackling all of these issues at once.
The Park City’s low-lying South End neighborhood, subject to chronic flooding for years, was badly inundated by storms Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively. After Sandy, the state won two federal grants totaling more than $60 million for a project to better protect the South End from sea level rise and extreme weather, the inevitable results of climate change.
Instead of just building a seawall, the project’s planners went holistic. There will be a flood barrier, artfully tucked into new landscaping, and also a stormwater park to collect and drain excess water; elevated roads for dry access in case of severe flooding; upgraded sewers; a pump station and green infrastructure.
There also will be a “resilience center,” a place for community climate change education and other activities. It will be built as part of the restoration of the historic Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses — part of an early 19th century neighborhood of free Black people called “Little Liberia.”
Officials completed the environmental review last year and worked through the pandemic this year on design and site preparation, with the scheduled goal of completing construction by September 2022, said Shante Hanks, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Housing.
When completed, Resilient Bridgeport will protect 110 buildings, including two substations and a power plant, and will reduce the threat of flooding to the point where a 64-acre area will be removed from the federally-designated flood plain, a state official said earlier this year.
The resilience project is being built in conjunction with the city’s phased demolition and replacement of the decrepit, World War II-era Marina Village public housing project. The new housing will be mixed-income apartments within walking distance of the train station.
So there will be multiple benefits that work together — and that is the takeaway, said Alan J. Plattus, executive director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop, which is part of the design team for Resilient Bridgeport.
“As a principle, every project should have multiple goals,” he said.
One area where the “multiple benefits” thinking would apply, Plattus said, was with roads. In the past, when a town wanted to build or repair a road, it would send in the traffic engineers and they’d, well, build a road.
Today, especially in light of the pandemic, many cities are beginning to take a broader view and use road construction projects to look at sidewalks, lighting, burying utilities and, increasingly, the design of the road itself. Poorly designed roads are both unsafe and unsightly; well-designed streets are safer, healthier and more attractive.
The countless thousands of people out walking and biking during the pandemic gave impetus to a growing sense that public rights-of-way should serve all members of the public, not just drivers. This does not come out of the blue. Growing interest in “active transportation” – walking and biking – over the past decade has given rise to the Complete Streets movement , which encourages street design for all users of all ages and abilities: pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, as well as motorists.
A complete street should at minimum include sidewalks and safe crosswalks, and might also include bike lanes, bus lanes, accessible transit stops, curb extensions, median islands, roundabouts and other features.
Travelers to Vienna, Copenhagen and other European cities, as well as to a few U.S. cities, have seen streets safely shared by cars, trams, bicycles and pedestrians. The concept has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, three dozen states including Connecticut and about 1,500 municipalities, including a dozen here.
New Haven and Hartford closed roads in parks during the pandemic, as did a few other communities. New Haven, which produced its own Complete Streets manual a decade ago, opened the state’s first protected on-road bike lane along Long Wharf Drive in 2017. But implementation has gone more slowly that many residents would have liked; one called the plan “incomplete” at a meeting last year.
Still, there is movement in New Haven and elsewhere. Hartford added about 100 speed humps in late 2018, doubling the existing number, to calm traffic on city streets.
The state Department of Transportation, for decades the de facto highway department, began to shift more attention to transit and active transportation a decade ago. Among other things, the department has awarded made 80 grants totaling $25 million in its Community Connectivity program to enhance walking and biking in community centers, and committed to closing the gaps in the state’s multi-use trail system.
The DOT formally adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2014 and now requires that complete street principles — accommodations for walkers, bikers and persons with disabilities — be incorporated into each project. Some recent projects include a traffic roundabout in Monroe, guardrails, fencing and sidewalks along Route 17 in Watertown and curb extensions on Main Street in Middletown, reducing the trek across that wide thoroughfare from 97 feet to 50 feet.
Such measures are important because the state, like the rest of the country, has seen an uptick in non-motorist deaths and serious injuries since 2015.
The pandemic was a help for complete street and other infrastructure projects. With car traffic way down some cities across the country striped new bike lanes, retooled traffic signals, suspended transit and bike-share fees, and closed streets to nonessential vehicles to ease social distancing for pedestrians.
These are steps that complete street advocates have championed to increase safety and cut carbon emissions. Whether the measures will continue after the pandemic remains to be seen.
The post-pandemic period offers perhaps a greater opportunity. When the crisis abates, there will be a lot of people in need of work. A major national infrastructure program is being talked about by both parties in Washington. If properly planned and executed, it could bring new life to downtowns and struggling nearby neighborhoods.