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Groton City looks to revitalize 'cute little' Thames Street

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Groton — Thames Street resident Jennifer Lerz-Arnold enjoys watching large ships and submarines go by on the Thames River, which she can see from her bedroom window or a nearby dock.

She said she knows it's summertime by the sound of the party boat Hel-Cat II's three loud horns in the morning. The water is what she loves about living in her apartment in a historic home on Thames Street.

"I always loved it," she said of the water, which drew her to the area. 

Lerz-Arnold said she sees the potential of Thames Street, where she is close by the post office and can easily walk to Paul's Pasta Shop. She would like to see the area become more family-oriented with additional businesses, such as an ice cream shop and more restaurants, within walking distance.

City officials share her vision.

The City of Groton is in the midst of multiple efforts to try to revitalize the street along the Thames River — once an area bustling with small shops until shopping centers opening in the suburbs decades ago drew people away from the village's mom-and-pop stores — and create an economically developed waterfront and a more walkable area with small shops.

A new Tax Increment Financing district to spur such development recently went into effect for the Thames Street and Five Corners area, while a study on Thames Street recommends recreating the "vibrant, classic New England coastal village status" on the central part of Thames Street, enhancing waterfront access, and focusing higher-density developments on Bridge Street and the top part of Thames Street to draw more people to walk the neighborhood and support businesses.  

The city's Economic Development Commission, through a "Welcome to the City" initiative, is looking at how to enhance the city's primary and secondary gateways for multiple modes of transportation, create a sense of arrival for people and help visitors and residents navigate to key destinations within the city, according to economic development specialist Cierra Patrick. The city also is reviewing zoning to help facilitate development on Thames Street and Five Corners, looking at opportunities for parking, and undertaking coastal resiliency initiatives, city officials said.

City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said that while economic development initiatives in the city aren't new, it's the right time for growth based on what's happening in the region. He said the city is leveraging the water taxi program, fostering its relationship with New London, which is slated to become the home of the National Coast Guard Museum, and also is seeing benefits from the development in the Town of Groton.

But he said, by and large, the largest driver is the expansion of Electric Boat, which plans to construct a 200,000-square-foot building where ballistic-missile submarines will be assembled.

"There's a lot of optimism around that so with the optimism and action we should be able to accomplish our goals," Hedrick said.

A once-booming street

Town Historian James Streeter, whose father opened up a fish and tackle store on Thames Street in the late 1950s, said he remembers when the street was booming. A variety of small shops, including grocery stores, meat shops, barber shops, cobbler shops, and tailor shops lined the street that runs along the Thames River.

But in the 1960s and '70s, when the shopping centers started opening, people drifted away from the mom-and-pop stores in the village area towards the bigger stores, he said.

But with EB hiring and a lot of younger people wanting the convenience of living in a smaller dwelling and walking to work or to have a cup of coffee, meal or beer, he can envision the street coming back full circle.

He thinks it would be encouraging if some of the defunct buildings were redeveloped with small businesses on the lower floor and condos or apartments on the upper floor.

"They live there and they can enjoy it there," he said. He added that visitors would then come to the area to go to the businesses, like in Mystic village.

Streeter said Thames Street has potential with its waterfront, and revitalizing the street "has to be a gentle balancing act."

"I'd like to see it become a village environment where we have a close-knit network of residents and business owners, but we also have people coming from the outside to enjoy what we have," he said.

Thames Street's future

A recent study that looked at possible revitalization — the Thames Street Promenade Study — recommended enhancing the "walkable historic coastal village feel" of the center part of the street, making the waterfront "an amenity that can draw people," and focusing "denser development at Upper Thames Street/Bridge Street to take advantage of the topography, parcel sizes, and limited flood zone issues," and implementing a buffer around Electric Boat. The study was funded in part by a grant through Thames River Innovation Place, via CTNext, a public-private partnership that offers resources for entrepreneurs, as an effort to look at revitalizing neighborhoods on either side of the Thames River. 

People participating in an online survey and workshop last spring picked creating a "walkable historic core with water access," "potential riverwalk with docks" and improvements to Thames Street as among their top priorities, according to the study. The study cites that 84 percent of people that responded wanted development on Bridge Street and the upper part of Thames Street, while 16 percent "expressed concerns" that "mainly centered on tackling blight on the corridor first, especially at Thames and School Streets." 

Hedrick said the city can get back to a similar vibrancy of Thames Street's past, but "it's going to take a little bit of time."

"It took us a long time to get here," he said.

The city has applied for a grant to improve Thames View Park, formerly called the Lower Costa Property, to install an eight-slip dock, an Americans with Disabilities Act- accessible kayak boat launch, an amphitheater and an ADA-accessible pathway, he said.

He said the city is trying to get more people and activities on Thames Street and make it a destination location with an economically developed waterfront. Hedrick said he sees an opportunity for the city to embrace its past with the small village feel on the east side of the street, including the Avery-Copp House, Mother Bailey House and, up the hill, the Ebenezer Avery House and Fort Griswold, while at the same time embracing the future on the waterside of the streets with water-dependent uses, marinas, boardwalks, restaurants and bars to draw people to the area.

He emphasized that the city has waterfront houses with docks and is not looking to tear everything down and make it commercial.

"We're looking at how do you take the City of Groton where she is right now and make it better than what we already have," Hedrick said.

Flood zones can pose a challenge to development. The city recently announced that it received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife's Long Island Sound Futures Fund for a coastal resiliency plan and the City Council also created a Coastal Vulnerability Working Group. City Planner Dennis Goderre said the grant would include looking closely, with a consultant, at how flood areas and storms impact economic development. He also mentioned that tax-increment financing potentially could be a tool to help with more expensive development costs in conforming to regulations in flood zones.

Hedrick also said the city has increased enforcement to address blighted properties and is trying to reach out to owners to encourage them to either redevelop or sell.

The city also has been evaluating parking, particularly in anticipation of the expansion at Electric Boat. Hedrick said he is not looking to make Thames Street one-way, and the city is considering all options for parking, including off-street parking, using a lot for multiple-use parking and the potential for developing new parking lots near Thames Street.

Hedrick said the additional personnel from expanding businesses will bring a demand for services in the city.

"They're going to need places to go, they're going to need services, they're going to need restaurants, bars, those kind of things, so now I think the opportunity presents itself to do this," he said about the economic revitalization effort.

He said there is interest from developers in building high-density residential housing, with commercial space on the first floor, on Thames Street and in Five Corners. He said the city will be reviewing its zoning to see if it can help facilitate that.

An uptick in interest

Goderre, the city planner, said there appears to be a recent uptick in interest from businesses looking at Thames Street, Bridge Street and Five Corners, and also cited EB as a factor. Other factors may be the availability of property, which is on the affordable side, as well as easy access to the highway and to large employers.

A company is interested in raising fish in the former Garbo Lobster facility, which shuttered in January, while oyster companies are looking to spruce up a pier for their operations in the river.  

A new bar, Forty Thieves, and The PRIDE Center, a 24-hour fitness gym and family fitness center, recently opened on Bridge Street around the corner from Thames Street.

The PRIDE Center opened last month at 179 Bridge St. after relocating from New London when rent went up with the city's development, said Tammy Schmidt, co-owner of the business with her husband, Chad. The Schmidts, who were born and raised in Groton and now live in Ledyard, were drawn to the location off the highway, which is near Pfizer and Electric Boat and gets a lot of foot traffic. She said with Electric Boat's contract and employment boom, the spot is a convenient location.

"It's just a beautiful area, so we're fortunate to start at this location," Tammy Schmidt said, adding that they just signed a contract to expand to an additional building. They also plan to develop a citywide fitness program and set up trails for running and biking and incorporate the Thames View park into some training sessions, so people can run down there, do calisthenics — muscle-building exercises — and run back to the fitness center. 

"We want to incorporate the whole city," she said.

Patrick, the economic development specialist who has been reaching out to the business community, said the city also wants to continue public outreach. With several initiatives ongoing, she is encouraging people to get involved and articulate their opinions, as well as listen to others, as the city builds its community.

"The city's future is bright," she said. "I like the process that we're going through because it's developing that vision together. We're definitely trying to be transparent. We want people to participate."

Leese Malone, who works as a contractor for Electric Boat, said the area needs more parking for people and she'd love to see a more social atmosphere with more restaurants and businesses focused on health and wellness.

She said if there were more of those businesses locally, people would stay in the area after work rather than just going straight home.

Dottie Streeter, who owns Ken's Tackle Shop on Thames Street and is the sister of James Streeter, said she'd like to see more first-floor businesses with residential space above.

She said it would be nice to have more small shops on the street, such as a coffee shop or bakery, while at the same time preserving the character of the neighborhood.

"You don't want to change the ambiance," Dottie Streeter said. "People come in and say it's a cute little street."

k.drelich@theday.com

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