Old Lyme officials explore ways to enhance Halls Road
Old Lyme — A revitalized business center with mixed-use development. Enhanced lighting and sidewalks. A pedestrian bridge over the Lieutenant River.
Those are some of the ideas town officials, business leaders and community members have discussed as they envision future improvements to Halls Road, the town's main commercial thoroughfare.
After the Halls Road Improvements Committee held focus groups in the community, local officials are now considering the creation of a master development plan for the road and exploring potentially turning it into a tax increment financing district.
The state allows municipalities to designate an area as a TIF district for the purpose of enhancing real estate development within that area, the committee's chairman, Bennett "BJ" Bernblum, said.
First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the focus on improvements comes as many people feel Halls Road needs a "facelift." She said it's important to enhance the area, for reasons from providing more safety for pedestrians — including students who frequently walk there after school — to ensuring businesses remain in the area.
"We have all of our businesses there, and if businesses start closing up, it does not bode well for Old Lyme," Reemsnyder said. "I think we need to look to the future and keep our businesses there."
A vision for Halls Road
Reemsnyder said people who attended the focus groups had a positive attitude about the discussion and are enthusiastic about making changes to Halls Road and creating an atmosphere more in keeping with Old Lyme and a typical Main Street center of town. In holding the focus groups, the committee reached out to business owners, property owners, organizations in town, nonprofits and the school district.
They discussed adding consistent signage, sidewalks and lighting, and even allowing mixed-use developments in the area, which could appeal to a variety of people, from individuals looking to downsize to younger people interested in reasonably priced housing close to the center of town, she said. Current zoning regulations don't allow for mixed-use development on Halls Road.
Rental housing in the neighboring towns of Old Saybrook and East Lyme, which is home to the Gateway Apartments near Interstate 95, is popular, noted Bernblum, who also serves on the Board of Finance. The addition of housing on Halls Road would be attractive to people interested in walking, rather than driving, and would bring vitality to the local business community, he said.
People are interested in improving the street's aesthetics, making it safer to travel on and friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians, and enhancing its usefulness to the Old Lyme community both financially and socially as a more robust business center for people to go to have a cup of coffee, drink, or meal or to visit shops and retail outlets, he said. While people already visit Halls Road for those activities, people could enjoy the area even more if it was easier to access by bicycle or on foot.
Recreational space is also of interest. The committee came up with an idea to potentially reconstruct a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Lieutenant River at the east side of a triangular parcel of land that the town intends to convert into a park.
"It’s a beautiful river and this would facilitate people's access to it and enjoyment of it," Bernblum said.
People are further looking to boost the economic vitality of the business community for the benefit of the businesses, the town's grand list and the residents of Old Lyme, he said.
A master plan and tax incentive financing district
Bernblum said the purpose of the focus groups was to provide preliminary feedback, while the development of a plan for Halls Road will include more broad-based public input.
To that end, the town is exploring a proposal to work with Yale Urban Design Workshop to create a hypothetical master development plan for the road that would be presented to the public for comments and tweaked to create a master development plan, Reemsnyder said.
The town also is considering studying if it would be beneficial to create a "tax increment financing" district, or TIF district, for the road.
A "snapshot" of the assessed value of the district is taken at its moment of inception. As new taxes are generated from construction in the area, whether from a new building or improvements to an existing building, the law allows the town to designate some or all of those taxes toward the district, rather than the general fund, Bernblum explained.
The town then can use this extra tax money in a broad variety of ways, including toward infrastructure in the district, such as sidewalks, streetlights or a bridge, or to entice a private developer to make an investment in the district that would not otherwise be affordable because of the tax burden, he said.
"It is a tool that can be used, if necessary, to facilitate private development within the district," he said.
Town officials are proposing to use consulting and legal services to determine whether or not such a district would be beneficial and how it potentially could be used.
At its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall, the Board of Finance will discuss a financing proposal to spend, over two fiscal years, $22,000 for the Yale Urban Design Workshop, plus a 20 percent allowance for extra work, to develop the master plan, and $35,500 for Pullman & Comley and Camoin Associates, plus a 10 percent allowance for extra work, for the legal and consulting work for the potential TIF district.
This fiscal year's portion of that would be $9,000 for Yale Urban Design Workshop and $7,500 for exploring the potential TIF district. The town would continue to the second phase of the TIF district proposal only if the first phase determines that the TIF district would be beneficial.
If the town decides to move forward with the TIF district after analyzing it, it ultimately would go to a town meeting.
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