Norwich's potential praised in Vibrant Communities Initiative report; familiar hurdles remain

Norwich - Main Street from the Flatiron building to Franklin Square has a "tremendously historic" collection of buildings with the potential to attract residents and businesses, but the turnaround from a strip of vacant, rundown buildings to a vibrant neighborhood could take years.

And changing the city's confusing, one-way traffic pattern should be part of the solution.

Those were some of the results that an urban planning consulting agency, The Cecil Group, presented Wednesday as part of its grant-funded Vibrant Communities Initiative. A panel of architects, financial experts and developers then critiqued the results in front of about 50 residents, property owners and city officials.

The Cecil Group concentrated its redevelopment proposal on buildings from lower Main Street to Franklin Square, picking several specific buildings and suggesting niche retail shops, specialty food and clothing stores and residential units in upper stories. The latter would cater to mobile young professionals and people over age 55 - where there continues to be a demand for "funky" urban apartments.

"It has to be clean. It has to be safe. It has to have a minimal coolness factor," said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, "and they will come and help you make it cooler."

On each slide showing specific buildings, Cecil pointed out that there are parking garages and parking lots nearby that could serve the buildings.

John Simone, executive director of Connecticut Main Street, said it all sounded very familiar. He pointed out that there have been past studies of downtown Norwich that also suggested revitalizing historic buildings, getting rid of poor traffic patterns and reconnecting the waterfront with the downtown. But little was ever done.

Standing in front of a photo of the Flatiron Building at the end of lower Main Street on the projector screen, Simone called it a beautiful gateway building to downtown Norwich. But in front of the building is a prominent "Do Not Enter" sign on the one-way portion of Main Street.

Steve Durkee, an architect and developer who worked on downtown Providence buildings said that city was able to move railroad lines and even a portion of a river. Durkee said it's critical that the city have leadership that's behind the plan and that the plan includes partnerships with current owners.

He said tax incentives will be critical, because there would be a gap in the cost of redeveloping buildings and the profitability. He said new owners "would have to pay almost no taxes" at first. The projects also could need multiple sources of funding, from historic tax credits to revitalization grants and loans, state financing programs and more conventional financing - making the project even more complicated.

CJ Rockett, 31, of New York City, listened to the presentation with interest. Rockett and two partners recently purchased the vacant building at 106-110 Main St. They plan to rent the four apartments upstairs and open an office in the first floor.

"This is our first downtown venture," said Rockett, who has a background in commercial real estate brokerage. "I'm curious to see how difficult it will be to get retail in there."

Holly Salegna, owner of Pink Studio hair salon at 77 Franklin St. said nothing will work until the city addresses the perception that downtown is not safe. She said she never sees a police officer just walking the beat - new downtown police patrols are scheduled to start soon - except when a crime has been committed.

Salegna agreed that the traffic pattern is a nightmare. She tells her customers "don't even bother" with the GPS to find her shop because of all the one-way streets.


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