'Downtown' Groton has moved

I never knew Groton had a downtown.

Mystic, as a village in Groton, certainly has what you might call a downtown. Thames Street in the City of Groton might qualify, with a combination of business and residential properties clustered, like, well, a downtown.

But that would seem to exhaust the possibilities. I never thought of the town at large as having one.

Not true, according to official Grotondom.

And now new evidence is on the way — signage — part of a $6.5 million replacement by the state Department of Transportation of highway signs along the Interstate 95 corridor between the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River and the Rhode Island border.

This sign remake officially will move downtown Groton from Route 117 and Route 1 and the Poquonnock Bridge section of town, with Town Hall, the Groton Public Library, and an assortment of residential and commercial buildings, to the string of 1950s-era shopping centers on Route 1, more colloquially known as Hamburger Hill.

With the old signs, Exit 88 was marked as leading to downtown Groton, sending motorists off the highway toward Poquonnock Bridge.

Under the new system, Exit 88 signs direct people instead to Noank and Groton Long Point.

The Exit 87 signs will no longer lead I-95 drivers to the Clarence B. Sharp Highway (sorry, Clarence, but I still will remember you as the Groton mayor and engineer who supervised construction of the Gold Star) but instead to the City of Groton. Subsequent signs on that route will direct people to a downtown Groton on Route 1, its shopping centers, fast-food joints and pizza shops anchored by the Big Y grocery store.

If that were all I had to show for a downtown, I wouldn't call it that.

An inquiry to the DOT about the new signs was fielded by Barry Schilling, a supervising engineer working on the I-95 sign changes, which will continue into the fall.

Schilling told me the decisions about what the signs would say were generated from meetings held in early 2016 with a variety of Groton town officials, elected leaders and planners.

It turns out, I discovered after a search of the town website, the term downtown used for that section of Route 1 was sealed in a 2006 planning study for the town, which envisioned all kinds of mixed-use development around the old shopping centers — development that, of course, never happened.

The Groton Strategic Development Plan envisioned that construction of more housing and an effort to make the area more "walkable" would transform the area that the study authors conceded, because of its age and design, "can no longer compete as a traditional suburban-style shopping destination."

So, as the authors note, it is a tired, old shopping district. And all the development they envisioned that would make it into a downtown has never happened. Still, that's the downtown interstate travelers will be directed to, about the worst of what Groton has to offer.

Of course, Poquonnock Bridge, which town officials abandoned as downtown in their strategy session with the DOT, is, to my thinking, a much more natural choice, with Town Hall, library, housing, commerce and even open space at hand.

Indeed, the town agreed to spend $30,000 to encourage development in the historic area. Just don't direct anyone off the highway there.

I should add, because I have heard complaints about the sign replacement, that DOT insists it is necessary, since the signs were last changed about 30 years ago. It is part of a program that continually updates signage around the state.

The deterioration of the I-95 signs here, they say, was especially obvious at night because they have lost a lot of their reflectiveness and are hard to read even with headlights on them.

You wouldn't want anyone to misread the signs and miss a chance to visit Hamburger Hill, er downtown Groton, after dark.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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