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    Local Columns
    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    OPINION: New London’s downtown is failing

    Barry Levine, chairman of the New London Planning and Zoning Commission, recently took some heat, but not enough, for suggesting that the city should not allow a proposed food pantry on outer Bank Street in the downtown.

    It is a disgrace for a leader in city affairs to suggest that an opportunity to help feed the needy be somehow hidden, that new residents of the inappropriate, suburban-style, no storefronts apartment complex across the street ― allowed after the city bent its rules ― not have to look at a social services facility.

    Really? They’ve chosen to live in a city.

    Levine ought to resign and accept thanks for his years of volunteer service. If not, New London’s elected leaders should condemn what he suggested and ask that he go.

    Indeed, not only did the planning commission chairman insult the food-challenged residents of the city and the agencies that want to help them, but his attitude belies some of what seems to be so wrong with New London today.

    Apparently the planning chairman, like Mayor Michael Passero, is ignoring the fact that these big new suburban-styled apartment complexes, aimed at young professionals at Electric Boat, are not going to rescue the downtown. They have big parking lots. Residents can drive away.

    What’s to lure them downtown?

    I would be glad to lead the mayor and the planning chairman on a tour of the sad downtown, the decaying soul of the city, and show them one empty storefront after the next, decrepit buildings left empty and in disrepair.

    Some of it is, through no fault of the city’s, a reflection of a post-COVID world, a problem for many American downtowns, since so many professionals continue to work from home and haven’t returned to the office.

    But New London’s downtown problems go deeper and were festering and unresolved long before the pandemic.

    The core of the downtown is more sad than any time I’ve seen it in decades. There are few pedestrians on the sidewalks. Some of the businesses that kept the lights on over the years are gone.

    Many thanks for the few who soldier on.

    I’ve long tried to be an advocate here for the downtown, encouraging people to come, enjoy the urban culture, the magnificent setting, architecture and history and patronize the businesses.

    That’s becoming a hard sell.

    The mayor has been preaching for some time now that the new apartment complexes outside downtown would be a downtown salvation. But the first of them, the one with the residents the planning chairman is trying to protect from seeing the poor, has not made a difference.

    Connecticut College has rented one big building on State Street, in the heart of downtown, for housing, but that is looking much more like a practical solution for a school that had run out of dorm beds than an outreach to the city.

    They haven’t even put the school’s name on the building. They are hiding.

    Shame on Connecticut College for not bringing some more energy and life to the downtown, in exchange for the extra dorm space.

    The other big savior for the downtown is supposed to be the National Coast Guard Museum.

    I’m not seeing how the museum on the other side of the railroad tracks is going to save the downtown. The plan is for a bridge to a parking garage, so people will be able to skip the dismal downtown altogether.

    But all the politicians who are busy spending COVID and infrastructure money have not found any to actually build a new garage to accommodate museum visitors. The existing garage is full every summer. So far, there’s nothing certain on the horizon to create more parking spaces for the museum.

    It’s time for the city to acknowledge that downtown needs more than suburban apartment complexes and a glassy museum, with no parking, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, for any meaningful revival.

    Surely a modern, supermarket-style food pantry would be better than empty, forlorn storefronts. Never mind that it will actually help people.

    The city could use some new ideas and dynamic leadership.

    This is the opinion of David Collins

    d.collins@theday.com

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