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No Shortage of Ideas To Fill the Vacancies

By Karin Crompton

Published September 02. 2008 4:00PM   Updated September 09. 2009 4:41PM

New London has no overall strategic plan for overcoming the one-third vacancy rate among its downtown storefronts.

People and groups have their own ideas. Others are quick to place blame. Nearly everyone says there have been too many studies, too little action.

The closest thing to a vision for downtown's future is in the Plan of Conservation and Development, the document that each municipality prepares as a guide for evaluating potential development. State law requires each town to review its plan every 10 years.

However, New London's Web site simply gives a link to the 1997 plan with a 2007 supplement. A committee of 40 tasked with reviewing the plan dwindled to about four, said Mark Christiansen, the Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, and there seemed to be no public interest in the results.

"The problem is, people don't totally take it seriously," Christiansen said. "When you do a 10-year plan and two people show up at the (public) hearing … "

Kimberley Whitaker, associate director of the Connecticut Main Street organization, has advice on how the city should get started on coming up with a plan.

"You have to get your hands on the facts and issues," she said. "What's empty? What's the square footage? What are the current building conditions? Are they in violation of fire safety codes?

"It's also getting a handle, square foot by square foot, on what the possibilities are for the downtown."

Last spring, when the City Council eliminated the position of planner, the council boosted its contribution to New London Main Street from $25,000 to $77,000 with the directive that the organization should play a greater role in promoting downtown development.

New London Main Street, which was one of the first programs under Connecticut Main Street 10 years ago, is putting together a database of all properties downtown, with square footage, condition, for-sale and for-lease information.

After the structure and planning stages, potentially a multi-year process, the city's local flavor would be the focus.

"Once you get the structure under your belt, then the program becomes what your community is all about," Whitaker said.

The city's architecture and demographics lend themselves to a downtown of niche retail in small shops, but there are a variety of ideas about what that niche should be.

"Ever since I've been here, I've always complained that it's a college town, why don't we cater to the college kids?" said Susan Howard of U.S. Properties

Lori Hopkins of Hopkins Realty LLC favors an "international shops" concept. "The only way these retailers can survive and flourish is if a critical mass of them open at one time - 20 shops in a grand opening, like a mall. So we have to line them up ahead of time," she said.

"I think you've got to try to create an environment where things can happen and then let them happen," said John Jensen, manager of Pequot Commercial. "Let the market do what it's going to do."

Ethnic restaurants and eclectic shops have opened downtown, bringing sparks of vibrancy the city hasn't seen in years. And New London has its waterfront, a variety of transportation modes and a desirable location.

"We're right in the middle of everything," said City Councilor Mike Buscetto III. "And we have a diverse culture. This is a great community. I think those strengths need to be highlighted."

Overcoming hurdles

People who have given thought to New London's persistant problem with downtown vacancies identified a number of hurdles the city must overcome, including bureaucratic red tape, a perceived lack of parking, aging, odd-shaped buildings needing expensive repairs, and low pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Christiansen, the PZC chairman, said the commission has responded to concerns that New London does not allow enough uses in its downtown. Earlier this year the commission revised its regulations to increase the list of allowable uses.

It can do more, Christiansen said, although business owners and real estate brokers need to ask for help, not handouts.

"Look, we're willing to open up," he said. "We're willing to make it easier. … Maybe one of the things to do is to come up with a different fee schedule for downtown to entice people to go there. There are different waivers that potentially we could give.

"Just because something is not allowed doesn't mean you can't approach the commission and ask us," he said.

Christiansen proposed a forum of real estate brokers, property owners and his commission to hash out their concerns and offer solutions.

Ned Hammond, the city's economic development coordinator, outlined the handful of programs New London offers to help business owners get started: a revolving loan fund, building rehab program, a façade program, a tax break for owners who improve their properties and a new rent subsidy program.

Parking is one of the trickiest issues. Most people involved in downtown business said the city has enough spaces, but they are not close enough to shopping, and visitors don't like to use the paid parking garages.

Next steps

It is important to "streamline the process" for developers and owners, said Buscetto, which was one reason he moved to eliminate the city's Redevelopment Agency this spring.

Buscetto wants the council to serve as the city's development agency. He said developers should approach the City Council about buying property and then work together with the council, the Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff.

"I think there needs to be (fewer) committees playing a role. … We have to make it easier for people to come into town and get the job done," he said. "We've got to streamline the process. When a development doesn't happen, they don't go to the planning and development office and say, 'What's happening?' They say, 'Hey Mike, what's happening to that property?'"

In May, the City Council, led by Buscetto, ousted Director of Development and Planning Bruce Hyde, who headed the Office and Development and Planning for nearly 19 years.

Hyde leaves the position later this month, and the leadership and operation of the office is "under review," City Manager Martin H. Berliner said last week.

The city, for now, is referring any developers and property owners to Berliner or Hammond, whose position the City Council spared in the office's shake-up earlier this year.

Frank McLaughlin, a downtown developer, and Penny Parsekian, the New London Main Street CEO, said some people have started talking about reverse taxation: levying a higher tax on a property that is vacant.

"What happens is, that vacancy devalues the property around it, and so there should be a fee for that," Parsekian said. "It's been that way in Germany forever - you get taxed on the land instead of the property. And vacant land gets taxed at a higher rate."

Still, Buscetto said, building owners also need a measure of selectiveness.

"There are different property owners who, they'll rent to anybody, they don't care - and they know who they are," he said. "They'll rent to anybody with a voucher."

Hopkins said the city needs to put a plan in writing and stick with it. "You put a start date and an end date on it - not a 10-year Fort Trumbull fiasco, but a one-year (plan)," she said.

One year is realistic, she said, if the city hires someone to make it happen. Hopkins suggested New London put the job out to bid and go into it with expectations of its return on investment.

"It is doable, but it takes a full-time position," she said. "It's not a volunteer position that people meet once a month."

Still, there is another question no one could answer: Who will take the lead?

"It's a heartbreaking situation," said William Newman, president of New London's Connecticut Commercial Realty, "because New London has wonderful potential. ... You simply can't sit back and wait for people to come to you."

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