Developing Downtown Housing Above Commercial Space Brings Obstacles, Opportunities, New CT Report Finds

Connecticut's downtowns have a wealth of potential to redevelop under-utilized buildings into housing above commercial space - if mixed-use development can be encouraged through financing and favorable regulations, according to a new report from the Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC).

The report comes at the conclusion of the first year of Come Home to Downtown, a pilot program CMSC established to encourage and facilitate viable, interesting housing opportunities while revitalizing downtown neighborhoods.  The initiative was contracted by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) to promote housing in Connecticut's downtowns.

Three communities - Middletown, Torrington and Waterbury - as well as three property owners and their buildings, were selected as the focus of the program’s inaugural year. CMSC chose buildings typically found throughout Connecticut so they could serve as models for other towns. As a result, most of the findings expressed in the report apply to any Connecticut downtown wishing to maximize the potential of its existing infrastructure.Come-Home-logo-150x150

Among the key findings, the report indicates that mixed-use development is among the most challenging, and private owners are often in a “catch-22” as they seek financing.  Downtown management capacity is critical to the success of mixed-use development, the study found. In addition, the CMSC report explains that even when zoning regulations promote redevelopment, they are often not enough to enable mixed-use growth and a severe lack of financing impedes the growth of much-needed mixed use development.

"CMSC's report provides insights that will guide future housing development on Main Streets across Connecticut. The first year of the Come Home to Downtown program is not only creating opportunities to establish new rental housing in downtown neighborhoods, it's creating a model for other communities to follow,"   said Eric Chatman, President & Executive Director of CHFA, which has contracted with CMSC for a second year of the pilot program, which will focus on finding and creating financing.

The report's seven key findings are:

1. There is a huge amount of potential for accommodating mixed-use development - which both saves and generates monies - in Connecticut's downtowns. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the infrastructure costs to service compact, dense development like that found Downtown reportin mixed-use neighborhoods are one-third to one-half lower than in suburban areas. It has been estimated that every downtown in Connecticut has at least one building that is under-utilized, containing a store or restaurant on the first floor, but with upper floors that are vacant or used for storage that could instead generate income if converted to apartment homes.

2. Mixed-use development is one of the hardest types to accomplish. There are several reasons why this is the case: these buildings are usually older and in need of greater rehabilitation; they are in need of complex financing from multiple sources; combine several uses in one building (such as housing and retail space); and are often owned by people with little to no redevelopment experience.

3. A severe lack of financing impedes the growth of mixed-use development. Because these deals are so intricate and multi-faceted, financing for the total development costs rarely exists from traditional sources.

4. Education and outreach to owners of possible mixed-use property is needed. Property owners are often unprepared for the complex process of redeveloping their building and unaware of the potential benefit in doing so. Very often, they also need assistance learning how to become landlords and attract good tenants.

5. Private-owners are in a catch-22 when it comes to obtaining financing. With regard to apartment homes located in mixed-use buildings, private owners can either apply for subsidies if they place income/affordability restrictions on the apartments, or the units are not restricted, but there is no subsidy for apartments at the same rental rate.

6. Even when zoning regulations promote redevelopmmiddletownent, they are often not enough to enable mixed-use growth. Favorable zoning regulations are important, but they cannot create mixed-use development by themselves. Each of the pilot communities had zoning policies that allowed for buildings with a mix of uses - a practice which should be commended and encouraged - but there were still significant impediments to promoting this type of growth. In addition, lessening current on-site parking requirements as a whole will also help promote housing in our downtowns.

7. Downtown management capacity is critical to the success of mixed-use development. Any community interested in promoting revitalization of its downtown should consider enhancing its management function by becoming a resource center for mixed-use development, including convening key stakeholders, collecting data, offering education and information and coordinating development incentives.

"There is now a better understanding of what the next steps need to be, and a greater appreciation of the importance of the public-private partnership that is necessary to overcome the challenges and achieve reuse of these properties," Rose Ponte, Torrington's former Director of Economic Development, said about the new report.

 Engaging an expert team of consultants, CMSC worked with municipal officials and the building owners to develop viable redevelopment options including: determining what financing would likely be needed for redevelopment; performing an assessment of zoning and regulatory requirements; reviewing the downtown management function; and measuring the downtown's walkability. Specific recommendations for improving the buildings, including a recommended floor plan designed to attract new residents and bring market rate housing downtown, was also provided to each property owner.

Once rehabilitated, these buildings will create 60 new units of rental housing in downtown Middletown, Torrington and Waterbury, as well as make approximately 25,000 square feet of commercial and retail space available. The total development cost to renovate all three buildings is estimated to be $11.4 million.

"You see it on an almost daily basis - news articles and reports showing the demand, especially among Millennials and Baby Boomers who want to live in walkable, interesting places. It doesn't seem to matter if the downtown is large or small, as long as they can live there and get around without a car to go to the movies, grocery store or coffee shop, that's where people want to be these days," said John Simone, CMSC President & CEO.

In the pilot program’s second year, CMSC will choose two new communities while continuing to work with the property owners and municipal officials in Middletown, Torrington and Waterbury.

Three Cities Selected for Program to Bring Housing Downtown

Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC) has selected Middletown, Torrington and Waterbury for its new pilot program, Come Home to Downtown. CMSC developed the mixed-use real estate planning pilot program to provide selected communities with new tools to strengthen economic health and restore vitality to their downtowns, facilitating the development of viable, interesting housing opportunities while improving downtown neighborhoods. The goal of the Come Home to Downtown program is to set the stage to attract developers and “mom and pop” building owners to redevelop vacant or underutilized buildings with a mix of uses and housing choices. CMSC will also provide local public and private champions and partners with strategic tools to aldowntownlow them to create or enhance a strong downtown management program.  The Come Home to Downtown pilot was created in partnership with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), through a $250,000 investment using Community Investment Act (CIA) Program funding.

“Our Come Home to Downtown pilot communities were selected based on criteria we feel is vital for success, including local public and private sector leadership, a strong record of community engagement, success of previous downtown revitalization initiatives and multi-story buildings and property owners who are motivated to redevelop them,” said CMSC’s John Simone.

CMSC will work in concert with Middletown, Torrington and Waterbury, beginning with the collection of data, building analysis and the coordination of community engagement activities, exploring their downtown redevelopment issues in-depth and creating new strategies that respond to changing demographics and market dynamics.  Work will continue throughout the summer on consensus buiphoto_center_01lding, a downtown development audit for each of the towns, model building analysis, assistance to small-property owners who demonstrate a desire to redevelop their properties to include housing, and downtown management organizational development.

Connecticut Main Street Center is a statewide nonprofit that inspires great Connecticut downtowns, Main Street by Main Street. Its mission is to be the champion and leading resource for vibrant and sustainable Main Streets as foundations for healthy communities.

Middletown, Bridgewater, Granby, Stamford Top Turnout List in 2012 Elections

In a presidential election year, high voter turnout is possible – it’s just not easy. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has presented the 2012 “Democracy Cup” for the highest voter turnout percentage in the 2012 Presidential election in Connecticut to the town of Bridgewater (94.75%) and the city of Middletown (89.86%).   Overall, statewide voter turnout was 74%, slightly less than the last Presidential election turnout of 78.14% in 2008, in what may have been a result of difficulties in transportation and communication due to power outages and downed tree limbs from Hurricane Sandy.

The award is given annually to the small, mid-sized, large towns and city with the highest voter turnout on Election Day. The other winners of thSOTSe 2012 Democracy Cup for voter turnout are Granby (86.22%) and Stamford (71.6%).

Under Democracy Cup criteria, towns with fewer than 5,000 registered voters are considered small; municipalities with between 5,000 and 14,999 and voters are considered mid-sized, towns with 15,000 and 49,999 registered voters are considered large towns. Cities with more than 50,000 registered voters are their own category.

Each community awarded the Democracy Cup will be able to host and display a trophy through next year’s November elections. Trophy presentations were held for Middletown, Bridgewater, Stamford and Granby.

“The voters in Bridgewater, Middletown and the other communities who win the award this year really set an example for all of the voters in Connecticut of why elections and participating in democracy are important. I congratulate both Bridgewater and Middletown for doing such a wonderful job with 9 out of 10 registered voters participating in the 2012 election – it is some of the highest voter turnout in the nation!” Co-sponsored by the East Haddam Civic Association since 2000, the Democracy Cup was created as a way to encourage voter participation in each year’s elections. Merrill said Connecticut was seventh in the nation in voter turnout. Traditionally, she told the Middletown Press, Connecticut has placed 20th. “One week before a major storm, 100 of our 730 polling places were out of commission, so it took a lot of work by a lot of people to get us back online,” Merrill said.

Bozrah is #13; Mashantucket #170: Towns by the Numbers

Every town in Connecticut has a tax code number, issued by the state and used in a variety of official reports across state agencies.  How are the numbers determined?  The towns are listed alphabetically, and given their appropriate number, in order.   Which means that:

  • Bozrah is lucky #13
  • Andover is #1
  • Woodstock is #169
  • Middletown may be at the state’s center geographically, but Monroe is half-way down the list at #85
  • Towns that begin with “New” start with New Britain at #89 and run through Newtown at #97
  • The first double digit town is Bethlehem at #10; the first triple digit town is North Canaan at #100
  • The final locale on the list hasn’t been considered a town through the years:  at #170 in a state with 169 towns is “Mashantucket

If you’d like to know your town’s number, take a look at the full list.