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    Thursday, September 28, 2023

    Think rail station, not parking garage

    The fundamental challenge of redeveloping Ft. Trumbull’s vacant parcels is that the area’s roadway infrastructure imposes a practical constraint on its capacity to grow. For two decades, the state limited the area’s residential build-out potential to 80-100 units in recognition of this reality: it wanted to ensure that, in the event of an emergency requiring evacuation (like storm surge flooding), the peninsula’s three, narrow, one-lane road connections to the rest of the city would be able to carry everyone out of the area before disaster struck.

    Mayor Passero explained, in an April 10 interview with The Day, that the state decided to relax its cap on residential units last year because it decided the housing crisis demands an immediate response. The state has a right to prioritize its responses to concurrent problems, but by increasing Ft. Trumbull’s development cap by 580% (from 104 to 604 units) and consciously overlooking its longstanding resiliency concerns for the time being, the state is enabling the city to make a risky bet for a part of New London that was leveled 20 years ago because of another risky bet that didn’t pan out. Nobody knows what the future holds, so the city has a responsibility to carefully manage Ft. Trumbull’s growth until its ingress/egress issues can be resolved.

    In this context, the Planning & Zoning Commission’s approval of a six-story, 1,200-space parking garage in Ft. Trumbull was irresponsible: it consumes a vacant parcel that could otherwise accommodate housing, and it significantly adds to Ft. Trumbull’s existing resiliency problems by drawing in three times as many vehicles as the two, 250-unit apartment buildings the PZC also approved that night will be adding to the area. Worse still, it isn’t even necessary to bring this extra traffic onto the peninsula: most of the garage’s anticipated patrons will be EB employees, who have the option of parking off-site and walking or being bused in (even if it’s not their preferred option).

    Approving the parking garage was an unforced error. It’s inconsistent with the state’s intent of relaxing development limitations and runs aground of the reality that the area’s roadways cannot accommodate all these extra vehicles. Fortunately, even now, it’s not too late to consider a more efficient, inexpensive, and resilient alternative: building a Shore Line East station to serve the area.

    There is enough space along the tracks between Caulkins Park and Green Harbor Park to install two platforms and a pedestrian overpass – that’s all a rail station needs to function. A station at this site would put 3,000 employees within a quarter-mile walk of both EB and L+M and 9,000 residents within an easy one-mile walk, bike, or bus ride. EB’s expanding workforce and Ft. Trumbull’s new redevelopment projects will add several thousand more potential riders during the next decade.

    With sidewalk connections to local streets and a basic bus loop off Montauk Ave for SEAT’s Routes 13 and 15, the station would integrate well enough into the surrounding neighborhood that there would be no need for parking facilities, which means no impact on traffic volumes and circulation patterns on existing roadways. This minimalist design would keep capital costs low, probably less than $20 million. The station would increase Shore Line East’s ridership without increasing operating costs, enough so to cause a measurable reduction in the line’s high per-rider subsidy.

    New Haven—State Street Station stands as proof-of-concept. It opened as that city’s secondary stop on Shore Line East, less than a mile away from Union Station, specifically because it would bring riders closer to an important job center, and it eschewed on-site parking in favor of pedestrian, bicycle, and bus connections, which downtown’s walkable street grid facilitated. A station at Ft. Trumbull would be closely analogous and should be similarly successful.

    All major players have a reason to support this idea: EB needs to move large volumes of employees into the Ft. Trumbull area for work; the state needs to grow Shore Line East’s ridership to improve the return on its investment in the service; and New London needs to accommodate new development without overburdening the area’s constrained roadway network.

    A rail station should have been part of Ft. Trumbull’s redevelopment plan from the very beginning, and it’s even more baffling that the state, which funds Shore Line East and knows the line is underutilized, didn’t think to require the station as mitigation when it relaxed Ft. Trumbull’s development limits. But it’s not too late for the city and the state to ask the developer in good faith to consider deferring construction of the parking garage while they investigate what it would take to expedite construction of a rail station for Ft. Trumbull. Apartment buildings would be a viable, high-value, alternative use for the parcel, so it’s in the developer’s interest to wait and see if that might not be a better use of the land than a parking garage.

    Alex Berardo is a resident of Westerly, a municipal planner, and a rail advocate.

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