April 15, 2014 08:29AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — The entrance to downtown Meriden from Interstate 691 is not one city officials like to brag about. The westbound exit takes motorists down a ramp, toward a rail yard, under a bridge, past factories and into an intersection with its own set of complications.
“It’s not an attractive area. It’s kind of dark,” City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior said.
The eastbound exit isn’t much better. It lets motorists off on Columbia Street, and they have to navigate down the road and onto Colony Street before eventually finding the downtown area. In developing plans to resurrect downtown Meriden, officials began looking at ways to better lead people into the center of the city.
Officials had previously explored the idea of rerouting highway exits, but it proved far too costly. Instead, Public Works Director Robert Bass recommended the signs along Interstate 691 simply be changed. It would mean placing a sign that read “Downtown” near the Broad Street exits. With more signs, motorists would be routed down Pratt Street and into the heart of the city, said Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski.
“The concept would be as you come into Meriden, Pratt Street is very wide, so there is opportunity to give it a road diet ... and make it more friendly to the eye,” she said. “We could use boulevards and plantings so it’s more appealing as you come into downtown.”
Officials have formally named the area the “Gateway District” as part of the recent transit-oriented development (TOD) zoning regulation overhaul. It’s an area that stretches from the intersection of Pratt and Camp streets to Pratt and Center streets. The area is made up of only a handful of properties, most notably the Meriden Enterprise Center at 290 Pratt St. and the Miller Co. at 99 Center St.
The former New Departure building at 290 Pratt St. has been converted to house several businesses with both office and commercial space. The property owners have also taken part in the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program to help reduce the cost of running the building. There is also a proposal to put a micro-grid on the site, which could in turn help power the neighborhood.
Kendzior said officials have had discussions with the Miller Co. about its property. While the property is at the corner of Pratt and Center streets, the building is set back a significant distance from the street. The city had proposed using a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Sustainable Communities Challenge grant to purchase the unused section with the possibility of residential or mixed-use development in the future.
“(Miller) is looking to make better use of its assets,” Kendzior said.
A similar proposal was made to purchase a parking lot across from the 290 Pratt St. property, but there are environmental issues with the property. Still, in the long term, Kendzior and City Planner Dominick Caruso said they see potential for the property.
“There are some parcels out there ... that offer a lot of potential,” Caruso said.
In a zoning change, at least 90 percent of an individual parcel would have to be covered by buildings, Caruso said. The previous requirement was only 45 percent, which is why a large portion of the Miller Co. property is unused. Also, at least 50 percent of the property at the street would have to be part of a building.
“It all depends on the quality of the streetscape and it’s going to be high quality, as is the street wall,” he said. “Everything is up front and right on the street.”
The Public Works Department is working on plans to redevelop Pratt Street. The wide, four-lane street would be reduced to two lanes with left-turn lanes incorporated. There would be a median strip with trees or other plantings. As motorists approach downtown, in addition to the landscaping, there will be a view of the redeveloped Hub park once Mills Memorial Apartments are razed, Kendzior said.
“It’ll have a nice appearance,” he said. “It’ll be very inviting.”