MERIDEN — After implementing new transit-oriented zoning in downtown, the city has an opportunity for 1.2 million square feet of development just on the Hub site. Combined with a plan to construct new housing and commercial space on Colony Street and a new rail station, economic models show there could be more than $100 million in new development in downtown, new jobs and a significant increase to the tax base.
Before private developers can even consider constructing on the Hub, however, the city must address an issue that has plagued Meriden since the late 1860s — flooding. The Hub redevelopment and reuse project goes beyond just turning the 14-acre site into a park, which is something that can get lost in discussions about what downtown may become.
“First and foremost, this is a flood control project,” Director of Public Works Robert Bass told the Planning Commission last year, seeking approval for the project. “But we have an opportunity to build a park within that ...There are sections of the site that can be developed in the future, but that can’t happen until all of this flood control work is implemented.”
Since the late 1860s, Meriden’s downtown has experienced 11 major floods. The two most recent came in 1992 and 1996 when a combined $26 million in property damage was caused. Hoping to avoid similar future incidents and to prevent all businesses from vacating the downtown, officials made recommendations and worked to implement them. Close to 20 years later, the Harbor Brook plans are coming to fruition with bridges being replaced to add relief, culverts being installed and the Hub redevelopment project getting underway.
The project will include uncovering the brook from a culvert that is too small to carry the waterflow of major storms. The channel will also be realigned after it was pushed closer to State Street during the 1960s. And by redeveloping the topography of the 14-acre site, there will be added storage in the event of a signifcant flooding incident.
Shrinking flood plain
Flooding along Harbor Brook, originally known as Pilgrim’s Harbor Brook, dates back to at least the late 1860s. The brook runs from the northeast of the city at Baldwin’s Pond, to the southwest at Hanover Pond. Along the way, the brook passes through the center of the city, underneath Mills Memorial Apartments, below the Hub and continuing under other downtown properties before reemerging to the west of South Colony Street.
The brook, however, did not always flow beneath the surface of downtown. Over time, it was covered, uncovered and partially covered in order to make room for businesses and manufacturing plants in the center of the city. While increasing the tax base was beneficial to the city, Meriden has suffered from numerous major flooding events over the years, which is a partial reason business eventually left the downtown.
When businesses and factories moved downtown in the 1800s, they built on top and around the brook, eliminating natural space for brook water to overflow into. When bridges and culverts were constructed around the city, they were made far to small to carry the flow of a major rainstorm.
While officials made attempts to tackle the flooding issue over the years, there were numerous failures due to a lack of funding, lack of support from the community and a lack of support from state and federal officials after previous attempts fell through.
This attempt, by far, has been the city’s biggest effort to resolve flooding in downtown and along Harbor Brook. Once completed, the flood plain in downtown will shrink, meaning properties would be removed from an area susceptible to flooding when the brook breaches. The improvements would result in fewer properties having to pay for flood insurance, easing the burden of doing business in downtown. Because developers would be unlikely to build within a flood plain and federal housing cannot legally be moved within one, the shrinking of the flood plain will open up additional space for economic development and replacement units for Mills Memorial Apartments.
Allowing for development
The current flood plain stretches across the full Hub site. It extends northward over much of the Mills site, eastward to the opposite side of Pratt Street and westward toward Colony Street. On the south side, the flood plain extends over Perkins Square. After flood control plans are implemented, the flood plain would be restricted to only part of the Hub site, not stetching across streets. The Hub is also being redesigned with a berm around the perimeter to help contain any flooding of the brook. In total, 150 properties around the city will be removed from the flood plain, the full flood plain will be reduced from 225 to 95 acres and street flooding, in the event of a major storm, will be significantly decreased.
On the Hub site alone, there will be 3.4 acres of space that can be built upon, much of it in the northwestern corner of the property. There is a space for a building that would cover 150,000 square feet and that could reach as high as eight stories. A building smaller in square footage could be built fronting Pratt Street once the flooding issue is fixed.
Throughout the rest of the city, several bridges will be replaced and culverts will be added that will also significantly decrease the flood plain. For example, most of the area between Hanover Street and the new bridge on Cook Avenue falls within the flood plain. After being addressed, much of the area would be removed and be far less susceptible to flooding.
While the economic development on the Hub may still be a few years away, the actual park is not. Work is ongoing and expected to be completed by mid-2015. The park will include the exposed Harbor Brook, a large pedestrian bridge and some smaller ones, an amphitheater, walkways, and other amenities. With flooding being the first priority, city officials are still pleased they have an opportunity to improve the Hub.
“Every New England town is supposed to have that (central) scenic green space: a commons or a park,” City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior told the Record-Journal in 2012. “Meriden has never had that.”
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