New London businesses back new traffic flow

New London — Reaction among local businesspeople to a study that recommended new traffic patterns in downtown mostly was positive this past week, though a few were concerned that vehicles would still largely be directed out of town from the train station and ferry terminals.

The plan released Monday by the engineering and planning firm Milone & MacBroom recommended that Bank Street traffic be reduced to one lane and that Eugene O'Neill Drive be converted to a two-way street from Tilley Street up to the police station. A cut-through just after the police station would allow Eugene O'Neill Drive traffic to flow into Water Street and proceed to Interstate 95 in both directions.

The recommendation to improve downtown traffic flow and make the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly was embraced by most businesspeople interviewed, whose knowledge of the city in many cases dates back decades — to when traffic was largely two-way everywhere.

"The concept sounds pretty well thought out," said Barry Neistat, co-owner of Muddy Waters Cafe on Bank Street, whose main concern is the possibility of bottlenecks when Electric Boat and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital shifts end around 4 to 5 p.m.

Charlotte Hennegan, co-owner of Thames River Greenery on State Street, liked the idea of slowing down traffic on Bank Street, which can become dangerous for pedestrians and those trying to parallel park.

"If that's their plan, I'd go with it," she said. "Bank Street is difficult."

Hannah Gant, founder of Spark Makerspace at the corner of Eugene O'Neill Drive and Golden Street, said she was inclined to support the traffic study, saying experts in this field often know better than anyone else what the effects of small changes will be.

Krunal Patel, co-owner of Gus' Pizza & Bar on Eugene O'Neill Drive, said he was unaware of the traffic changes but happy nonetheless.

"Traffic is always good if traffic can go both ways," he said. "I think that would be good for business."

Sarah McKay, general manager of Hygienic Art Galleries on Bank Street, initially was unsure of the change, concerned that it would mean less traffic going by for local businesses. But she later said she was reserving judgment, understanding that the city has limited options, given the narrow streets that date back to a simpler time.

"I wish there were a way to increase parking and traffic flow," she said.

Aaron Dronberger, co-owner of Sweetie's Bakery & Cafe on Bank Street with his wife, Lindsay, said he has had to help elderly customers to safely negotiate Bank Street, which is a narrow two lanes that make getting into and out of vehicles difficult for passengers and drivers, depending on which side of the street people park on.

He likes the idea of making Bank Street one lane and improving access for pedestrians and bikes. He also thinks slowing the traffic down will be good for pedestrians and businesses.

"I think the city is doing the right thing," he said.

Right next door, Chris Armoutsoglou, owner of Bank Street Cobbler, isn't so sure. He said business was better when traffic ran both ways on Bank Street decades ago, and he expected the new plan will hurt businesses even more.

"Now pretty much the street is dead," he said. "Sixty percent of the establishments are closed."

Neistat of Muddy Waters agreed that business is at a rough patch downtown.

"In my 42 years downtown, I've never seen so many empty stores," he said. "We don't have any businesses down here. ... We're all alone."

The worst thing the city did, Armoutsoglou said, was to make Water Street one-way out of town from the train station.

"You go anywhere else, they bring people to the town," he said. "We mathematically get rid of people in this town."

Dronberger said he believes any concerns over ferry and train passengers zipping out of town on Water Street could be alleviated with better signage. He believes if people knew how to return to the city to check out local restaurants, they would be enticed to do so.

Neistat agreed that something must be done to lure the 2.5 million ferry visitors a year to stay in the city for a few hours.

"If we can get 1 to 2 percent back here, that's a big deal," he said.

l.howard@theday.com

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