WALLINGFORD — Downtown is a patchwork of businesses operating in storefronts built in a mix of architectural styles, with parking areas stitched in wherever they fit.
Redevelopment of lower downtown — the area west of Route 5 near the historic train station and gazebo — has been a longtime goal of the Economic Development Commission, but getting developers to sign on has been difficult.
Many parcels contain buildings with several owners, which is something that discourages developers who are interested in investing in large parcels, said Tim Ryan, the town’s economic development specialist.
Ryan spoke to the Town Council Tuesday, as members considered whether to renew a tax incentive for the Incentive Housing Zone and spend $293,205 to renovate the parking lot where Brothers Restaurant once stood.
“The biggest hurdle at this point, frankly, is that these are privately owned sites and we need property owners that care to do something and engage,” he said. “We need property owners to assemble sites, and assembly is a very difficult thing.”
One site that’s ripe for redevelopment is the the northwest corner of Hall Avenue and North Colony Street (Route 5). However, the buildings within that parcel have four owners.
Ryan said all four parties would have to come to the table to get that corner redeveloped.
“No developer is going to be the person to assemble a property,” Ryan said. “If you buy two or the three, what happens if you can’t get the fourth?” Incentive Housing Zone
Property taxation and zoning regulation are tools the town has to encourage downtown redevelopment, he said, and he still believes that the Incentive Housing Zone can be part of that toolbox.
The Incentive Housing Zone is located entirely in the lower town center. The zone was approved in 2014, but no projects have qualified for the tax incentive yet.
An approved project would be a mixed-use development in the lower part of downtown. The residential portion would need to be at least 20 percent affordable housing, the rest market rate. The applicant would need to make a $1 million investment for a sizable project in scope.
The applicant doesn’t have to buy a property to be eligible. Current property owners can apply for the tax incentive if they want to renovate a building they own.
The tax incentive would be spread out over five years. Applicants would pay no property tax for the first two years. The owner likely would not be getting rental income during that time while the site is being renovated, Ryan said.
In the second two years, property taxes would resume at 25 percent of the new taxable rate. In the fifth year, the taxes would go up to 50 percent, and then the full tax rate in the sixth year.
Ryan said it’s the most generous tax incentive the town offers.
“Stimulating some level of development in the lower part of our hill, the downtown, is critical for us to take and leverage the fact that we have a unique, New England-esque downtown,” he said.
The nine-member council approved renewal of the Incentive Housing Zone for three years with eight votes. Councilor Craig Fishbein was absent Tuesday.Brothers Restaurant site
Located within the Incentive Housing Zone is a parcel of land bound by the railroad tracks, Quinnipiac Street, North Cherry Street and Hall Avenue.
A town-owned area takes up most of the parcel, except the privately owned commercial buildings that house a liquor store, pizza place, barbershop and appliance repair shop.
The former Brothers Restaurant stood in the northwest corner of the parcel and was demolished in July 2019.
The town purchased the building and property for $411,000 in a foreclosure auction in October 2018. The Town Council voted later that month to bond $610,000 to purchase the building and property and raze the structure.
Last month, the state awarded Wallingford a Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grant of $128,205 for improvements and expansion of the parking lot. There is $165,000 previously allocated for the project in the town’s Capital and Non-recurring Expenditure Fund.
The council approved funding for the 128-space parking lot — $293,205 — by a vote of 7 to 1 on Tuesday. Councilor Gina Morgenstein voted against the plan.
Any changes to the current parking lot proposal would have to be heard by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but councilors and members of the public discussed some proposed adjustments, including installing the conduit for future electric vehicle charging stations, areas for bicycle racks and increased green space.
Ryan said the EDC supported the town’s purchase of the site, which from the beginning had been with the intention of increasing municipal parking.Historic train station
During the conversation, “repurposing” the historic train station was floated as a possible way to bring interest to lower downtown.
Ryan called the historic station “an absolute gem” and “the most significant asset that we have in the lower part of our hill,” but that the building is “underutilized” and “could be something extremely special to this community.”
Currently, the train station is home to the programs of Wallingford Adult Education. No alternative location for those services was proposed by any of those at the meeting.
Ryan said he “could picture” the train station divided into multiple commercial spaces available for lease, perhaps with “an arts component,” with the increased parking at the Brothers lot supporting those businesses.
“That is not something that would potentially happen overnight,” Ryan said, “but I can see that happening within the next couple of years.”