New London development goals need to be clearly defined, planner suggests

New London - When John Renne, a professor at the University of New Orleans and an expert on transportation and urban planning, gets invited to talk to a municipality, he likes to walk around and get a feel for whether or not he would want to live there.

Before speaking Friday to about 80 people at a forum at the Radisson Hotel on "transit-oriented development," Renne wandered around downtown. He told those gathered at the "Transit New London" forum that he would definitely want to live in New London.

"It's beautiful here,'' he said. "You have the water and restaurants, great architecture and an arts scene ....''

What he did not find, after talking to several people, he said, is a clear idea of where the city is heading in terms of development.

"It's not clear to me what your goals and objectives are,'' he said. "What is the 'there' you're trying to get to?"

With train and bus stations already in place and two ferry terminals nearby, downtown New London could be in a position for federal funding of projects that promote mass public transportation.

The forum, sponsored by New London Landmarks, brought together experts, business owners, conservationists and other "stakeholders" to discuss the city's future as a transportation center for the region.

Renne, managing director of The TOD Group, which specializes in transit-oriented development, suggested to those gathered that they figure out what they want and then find a leader.

"You need someone to stick their neck out,'' he said.

H.H. Smallridge, founding principal and director of urban design at Crosby/Schlessinger/Smallridge LLC of Boston, presented some long-range ideas that center on transportation.

"The idea is to go back to the future,'' he said, pulling out a tinted photograph of New London from around the 1920s that showed multistory buildings with stores on the sidewalk level and offices and living space on the upper floors.

Smallridge, who worked on the soon-to-be-released "New London Regional Intermodal Transportation Study," suggested that, long-range, the city could open itself up to the waterfront to be inviting to more than 2 million people who each year catch trains and ferries from New London. Buildings should have doors that open to the waterfront, parking garages and lots should be pushed away from the shore and hotels and businesses moved closer to the water.

The forum also included a panel discussion with representatives from the city, Landmarks, SEAT bus transportation, Shore Line East One More Stop Coalition, Bike New London, Union Station, New London Harbour Towers and Cross Sound Ferry Services.

Panelists agreed that bringing Shore Line East service to the city would help further the revitalization of downtown. But they also noted that the city and the region have little clout in Hartford, where the decisions are made on who gets attention and money from the state.

"I think the most important thing we can do to generate activity in this town is to improve our focus and our leadership,'' said Todd O'Donnell, co-owner of Union Station, the 1885 depot designed by the acclaimed American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. "We have to get people to say, 'Yes, New London is important.' "

O'Donnell urged everyone in the room to call their state legislators and the governor's office to demand Shore Line East make regular stops in the city and more funding for the regional SEAT buses.

"We have to come together and have a master plan,'' said Larry Caruso, owner of Caruso Music and chairman of the Shore Line East One More Stop Coalition. "We're so close. We have all the components, but we have to get together."

Sandra Chalk, executive director of Landmarks, said that in this election year politicians should be pressed for their views about making public transportation available and affordable. "It's an exciting moment to be here in New London,'' she said. "It's up to the city, city councilors and stakeholders in this room what the next step will be. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

Friday's forum came one day after The Day hosted a roundtable discussion on future development at Fort Trumbull. The city and the Yale Urban Design Workshop team are looking at possibly working together on a new plan for the 90-acre Fort Trumbull development site.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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