On the Citizen Mike Show, we regularly discuss the future of Wallingford's lower downtown, and whether local government should do more to promote change. But it's just talk. With the exception of Parker Place, we know that lower Center Street and the areas around Route 5 and the old train station haven't changed much in two decades or more. And it's not likely to change — things will always look the same — unless there's a forceful push.
Town Hall's position, however, is that market forces will determine whether that area will look better or worse 20 years from now. And that's where the lively discussion begins.
Public officials have dangled different elixirs to cure what ails the area. The new commuter train was supposed to jump-start revitalization, but the train has not had the impact many expected. We've also waited for the Incentive Housing Zone to gain traction, but it hasn't. The Planning and Zoning Commission is once again reviewing the zoning regulations for the town's center. But they are just zoning regulations. They allow things to happen; they don't make things happen. And lastly, the newest shiny object is privately funded "transit oriented development." That may never come, but it's the latest tease and the trendy topic of the day, nevertheless.
Now, there's a new elixir: The town will rebuild the parking lot on and around the old Brothers Restaurant property. This free parking, we're told, will save money for private developers, because they won't need to provide as much parking on their own property. The thinking is that this bait will lure them into redevelopment projects in the lower downtown. The official position is, therefore: Build a parking lot for the developers to use; let the market control; and wait as long as necessary.
The parking lot idea, however, is a giant, speculative leap of faith. We may end up with a parking lot that isn't used much, ever. That would be a horrible waste of opportunity; contribute to an even bleaker landscape; and, therefore, set back chances for revitalization. So the town fathers had better be right about this parking lot idea, because it's a big gamble.
But we don't have to gamble. It's within our power to change the look of the downtown dramatically and quickly. Wallingford can transform this area with four bold measures that could be done all at once (with some grants) and relatively soon by Wallingford's standards. Each measure reinforces the others, and amplifies them, so that dropping or delaying one or more dilutes the wow effect the area so desperately needs. Here's my thinking:
1. Knock down the ugly Center Street Cemetery wall and replace it with a classy wrought iron fence. (Whether the state has a say in this needs to be worked out.)
2. Convert the town-owned land in the area of the old train station into a first class, knock your sox off, destination-worthy, park. Equip it with a lighted fountain, a splash pad, and tons of flowers. If it's done right, in time people will come and play Frisbee there, eat lunch in restaurants or out of picnic baskets, and push baby carriages. Train passengers, looking out their windows, would see Wallingford in a whole new light. And so would residents who would appreciate the upgrade, whether or not they use the park. Just seeing a beautiful public space while on a walk or even from your car as you drive in the center of town has a value that even tax hawks would admit to.
3. Install spiffy new sidewalks and landscaping along Route 5 from a point south of Quinnipiac Ave. to a point north of the new train platform; get rid of all the utility poles; and underground the wiring there. This is the point of a consultant's new "walkability study."
4. Lease or sell the old train station to a business that would transform it into something more interesting than what's there now.
The choice is stark: Either dawdle for the next decade or do something important, now. If we pussyfoot around indefinitely, we'll end up in the exact same spot, telling ourselves year after year that the time wasn't right for boldness because it never is. Or, we can change the image of Wallingford's downtown forever, starting now.
These ideas have costs. But the return would be immediate beautification and an improved business climate — a transformation that would benefit residents forever. We can influence our own destiny if we want to, and we should go "all in" to get the job done right.
Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford town councilor and host of the "Citizen Mike" television program on WPAA-TV.