WNPR

In West Hartford, a Look at the Trials of Transit-Oriented Development

May 27, 2016

Town officials adjusted zoning regulations to allow for mixed-used development along the busway route.

There's a shell of an old Pontiac car dealership at a corner of West Hartford’s industrial district that to the public eye -- and perhaps the public’s ire -- is littered with trash and weeds, with four lanes of fast traffic rushing by.

But just feet away is a shiny new bus rapid transit station, serving CTfastrak, that’s been carrying passengers to and from West Hartford’s Elmwood neighborhood for over a year now.

After the station was built, plans to turn the old dealership site into $20 million mixed-used development started brewing.

That’s the gist of transit-oriented development, or TOD -- to build support for public transit -- and with the collaboration of the state, town, and businesses, development will sprout up around it.

The whole process is a relatively new idea in Connecticut, but town officials hope the old Pontiac site will be a catalyst for further investment around the station. State officials plan it as one in a series of developments around CTfastrak’s route between New Britain and Hartford.

Tom Maziarz, state Department of Transportation policy and planning chief, said the focus on TOD reflects a shift in his department’s statewide strategic planning.

“One of our primary goals is actually economic development,” Maziarz said.

Tom Maziarz of the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

And Maziarz said TOD is a cross-departmental effort. The Department of Economic and Community Development, for example, will issue its brownfield grants with proximity to public transit in mind, he said.

If TOD is successful along the busway’s corridor, it could help pave the way, if you will, for more of it in other locations in Connecticut.

Even before major development has kicked off, local businesses around the Elmwood station are showing improvement, said Randal Davis, special assistant to DOT Commissioner James Redeker, as he gave WNPR a tour of potential TOD sites along the busway.

“The implementation of the transit system puts people on the ground. People were not stopping here a year ago,” Davis said, pointing across the street to a newly-renovated building housing a few small businesses across the street from the CTfastrak station. “These owners have taken it upon themselves to beautify the aesthetics of their location.”

In West Hartford, town officials adjusted zoning regulations along the busway to allow for mixed-used development in the town’s industrial zones.

West Hartford Community Services Director Mark McGovern said the intent isn’t to push away industry from that area of town. Rather, the goals are to slow traffic, build better pedestrian walkways, and introduce more small businesses and residences in the town’s manufacturing, industrial center.

There have been a few glitches. One of the first major developments will be a Cumberland farms gas station -- the second on that intersection -- now nearing completion across from West Hartford’s Flatbush CTfastrak station.

Advocates have pointed this out as both counterintuitive to making the stretch more pedestrian-friendly, and a competitor to the bus station across the street.

From Amy and Kyle Bergquist's Greater Hartford Real Estate Blog:

I’m no Transit Oriented Development expert, but my understanding is that a gas station is an auto-centric land use, which is generally discouraged for TOD sites. Worst of all, this will be the second gas station on the intersection.

There is no doubt that this will be a beautiful gas station. It will be spacious, and brand new, but putting a gas station next to the transit station is a failure – a lost opportunity. That lot could have been used for something far more complementary to the busway.

McGovern said the gas station shouldn’t be considered a TOD site.

The parcel was zoned as a by-right development, he said, meaning the developer could build without scrutiny from the town as long as the site and plan is up to code.

A Chik-Fil-A restaurant recently approved for construction between the two West Hartford busway stations will have a drive-through, so plans faced skepticism from cycling and pedestrian advocates. But McGovern said the restaurant will have several features making it accessible to pedestrians, a key element of TOD.  

A view of Elmwood in West Hartford, Connecticut, where CTfastrak parking is available near the transit station.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

“People will say [the Chik-Fil-A] is not TOD either, but we’ve made it much more pedestrian-friendly than it was initially,” McGovern said. The restaurant, he said, will have outdoor dining, and pedestrians won’t have to cross through drive lanes to get inside.

At the Flatbush station, DOT’s Davis said passengers could one day link up with the New-Haven-Hartford-Springfield Amtrak line, another potential springboard for transit-oriented development. The commuter line is slated to start running in 2018.

By then, there could be a clearer picture of whether TOD takes root in West Hartford.