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Old Lyme - Halls Road, the half-mile commercial stretch that begins with a modern intersection at Route 156 and ends at the historic district at Lyme Street, is dotted with restaurants, stores and offices - which landscape architect Sarah Wood McCracken describes as a series of seven distinct physical identities.
They range from a cluster of 1960s-style commercial buildings to marshes near the Lieutenant River, and they occupy a space near the center of town.
"How can these seven identities ever become assimilated to represent the unique identity of Old Lyme and the cultural, historic and business communities here?" asked McCracken, a local landscape architect, at a Wednesday business breakfast organized by the town and the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce.
About 30 people attended the event at the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library to hear about possibly developing a master plan for Halls Road.
The town wants to enhance the road, which is a stretch of federal Route 1, to ensure long-term economic development by encouraging passersby to linger and patronize shops and keeping the road attractive for businesses. At the same time, it aims to create more opportunities for residents to enjoy the area and unite the road with Lyme Street, tapping into the history of arts palpable on its main street, said First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder.
"This is a lot about what place-making is about," she said. "Rather than getting people passing through, we want this to be an inviting stretch where people will stop and patronize our businesses."
Possibilities include a town-owned open space area with benches for people to enjoy views of the nearby Lieutenant River. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recently agreed to give the town a triangular parcel of land near a town-owned parcel, which could aid in creating such a space, said Reemsnyder.
Installing a bike lane and adding more landscaping were ideas that emerged after the Mentoring Corps for Community Development first approached her and the town about exploring ways to beautify the road, McCracken said. It could even become an outdoor arts gallery, she said.
The mentoring corps is a group of volunteers from Old Lyme that works on economic and community development.
McCracken said enhancing Halls Road could encourage customers to stay longer in the area, which would in turn help stores remain in business and attract new shops. The redesign could also "engender a feeling of pride in Old Lyme" and turn the area into a greater destination for eateries or other shops.
Attendees asked questions ranging from the project's benefits to how to alleviate traffic congestion when drivers use Halls Road to avoid a traffic jam on Interstate 95.
Reemsnyder said the master plan will take traffic into account but added that if those drivers were to stop and patronize local businesses, the inevitable traffic could become less of a drawback. She stressed improving the area to make it attractive for businesses to stay. She said she would never want to see vacant storefronts along Halls Road.
"I think the economic benefit to the town and the residents is that we maintain the businesses that we do have," she said. She added that while the town wants to maintain its character and doesn't want big box stores or huge complexes, it should be creative about its economic development. She said the town originally began holding the breakfasts - the first one was in September - as a way to find solutions to comments tossed about that the town was "unfriendly to business."
The town is aiming to acquire some grants for the project, which could be a phased-in process that could take up to 10 years to complete. The town envisions the project as a "collaborative effort" with local and regional groups, according to the presentation.
A yet-to-be-formed committee with local stakeholders will study ideas for enhancing Halls Road and building a greater sense of place there for business owners, residents and visitors.
Ultimately, an architectural firm could then develop a long-term master plan for the road. The firm's tasks will include surveying the area's topography, identifying rights of way, becoming familiar with local zoning laws and transportation regulations, and designing the area, said McCracken.