January 21, 2013

Windsor Center seeing rail service as a fresh start for downtown

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
Passengers wait to board an Amtrak train at the Windsor Center station. Planned high-speed commuter trains will mean a makeover for the station, including new platforms.
Photo / Pablo Robles
Windsor Center has a walkable downtown commercial area but it needs more retail, residents say.

Residents and merchants, Loomis Chaffee students and town officials are all seeing a chance to reinvigorate, perhaps even reinvent, Windsor Center when commuter rail service begins later this decade.

But coordinating the hopes and dreams is a tricky task that's being led by planning and urban design firm The Cecil Group. Through a series of meetings, various proposed improvements are being discussed as part of the Windsor Center Transit Oriented Development Planning and Facilitation Program.

At the heart of the program is the proposed new commuter rail service that would stop in Windsor as soon as 2016. Train service in Windsor, which currently only includes Amtrak, would include daily commuter routes north to Springfield and south to Hartford, New Haven and beyond. High platforms, which will run the length of the train, will allow for quicker on-and-off service, and routes would be timed so they would be ideal for commuting.

Town Planner Eric Barz said the consultants believe there will be several benefits of commuter rail service, but it will not significantly change the face of Windsor Center.

"I don't think we'll be pulling people off of (Route) 91 to catch a train," he said. "But as a resident of Windsor Center, you could choose to walk up to a half-mile to the train station and get on a train to your job in Hartford. Hopefully, if you work in the Day Hill (Road) corridor, you could live anywhere in the state and take a train to Windsor Center, and we could have some kind of bus service (to Day Hill Road). Basically, it's about giving people a choice on how they want to get to work. We see that as a benefit."

Barz said he expects the added benefit of commuter rail service would convince more people to live in the Center.

"I see it as having a little bit of an impact on property values," he said. "People may choose to live in the Center because the idea of taking a train to work appeals to them. There could be a spin-off effect. While they're walking to the train station, they might pick up coffee or breakfast, drop off their dry cleaning, maybe grab something to eat on the way home."

There is potential for some new residential and commercial development, Barz said.

"It won't be significant," Barz said. "There isn't a huge swath of vacant land that we can point to, but we think that the more people we can get living in Windsor Center, the better. It creates a vibrancy that lasts into the evening, because those new residents would support the restaurants and existing businesses, and perhaps attract some retailers back downtown to some of the prominent locations."

Barz said he sees professional services such as insurance and engineering firms finding the Center attractive.

The Transit Oriented Development program includes plans for many other improvements to the center of town. The consultants say there is room to bring in more people, and are looking at the possibilities of accommodating more parking, bike facilities and pedestrian amenities — while conceding there is likely not room for all three. The challenges include improving the layout and availability of parking spaces, improving signage in the Center and creating new draws to the downtown, especially at night.

The Cecil Group and town officials have held two public workshops, in November and early January, to gather feedback from the public about the proposed plans.

Following the first workshop, The Cecil Group suggested that interested parties decide what is most important to them — focusing on the Center as a place to live, a transit-oriented center, or a town center destination. The consultants also identified 12 potential 'target study sites,' which they believe have the most potential to be developed or improved. The sites include the old Arthur's plaza; the Plaza building/Geissler's supermarket block; the Central Street block, including the former theater, and the train station area.

Officials will be updating the town website, at www.townofwindsorct.com, with new information, before the consultants return to town in May with recommendations.

Jane Garribay of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce said the Chamber, and its ally, First Town Downtown, have several priorities when it comes to the program.

"We want to get a few more businesses in the center of town, and more foot traffic," Garribay said. "Going along with that is all the business of better signage and parking."

Garribay said while Windsor is a great service town, she would like to see more retail.

"There are some storefronts that have valuable businesses in them, but they would do just as well back a few spots, whereas the front, right on Main Street, is great for retail and restaurants," she said. "We only have two restaurants that serve dinner."

Garribay said one of the challenges is getting people to change their habits in the Center and think about walking a bit more.

"We do have different parking areas around but you might have to walk 50 feet," she said. "The Center is more than doable for walking. We need to identify where those parking areas are. If you're coming into Windsor and have never been here, you might not know where those parking areas are."

Garribay said improved signage would also go a long way.

"If you're coming into town, it's hard to find the Arts Center or (bakery) Get Baked because they're off on the side streets," she said. "How do we communicate to people that those businesses are here? We want to keep the quaintness and that historic piece, so we have to get signage that matches that."

Garribay is hopeful for the proposed renovation of the old Plaza theater, which has a new owner.

"That would be an important piece of making the center vibrant," she said. "One of our main goals was to have a goal that was achievable."

Ashley Williams Dufresne, First Town Downtown coordinator, said First Town Downtown, a Connecticut Main Street program, is deeply invested in the town Center.

"I have been to a couple of workshops and they go through all the pieces that make a successful downtown, and we have the majority of them," she said. "We have grocery stores, a hardware store, quite a few restaurants, and it seems like the glue to pull them all together, we don't have yet."

Dufresne echoes the call for more nighttime attractions.

"During the day, it can be busy at times, but there's zero night life," she said. "If we could get a couple more restaurants, and if something happens with the Plaza theater and that turns into a movie theater or a stage, that would be huge."

Dufresne said this is a great opportunity for the Center.

"There's been so much development up on Day Hill Road and I think now is the time for the Center," she said. "They're talking about a housing development in the old garage behind Town Hall on Mechanic Street. That will bring foot traffic."

And she believes the new rail service could introduce more people to Windsor.

"Maybe they'll come back after work or on the weekends," she said. "They'll see what a great place it really is."

Norm Sinnock, owner of Nat Hayden's Real Pit Barbecue on Broad Street, said he also hopes to see additional foot traffic.

"My focus is on ways to increase the hustle and bustle in the evening and on weekends," he said. "That's the bread and butter for most restaurants. It's not conducive to being a walkable, retail-friendly area. There's very little the consultants can do about it; the town planning people need to offer incentives for small businesses to relocate to the Center."

Hayden said guaranteed low-interest loans, tax incentives and fašade improvements are all ways to improve the downtown and draw new business in.

"(I would like to see) like what they did in Hartford along Park Street," he said. "The lighting and signage made a huge difference for Frog Hollow (in Hartford). You look along Broad Street, and it's pretty grim."

The private boarding school, Loomis Chaffee School, also has an interest in improvements to the Center. With over 400 boarding students and 70 faculty members who live on campus or nearby, the amenities downtown are important to the school community, according to Director of Communications Lynn Petrillo.

"More retail or restaurants would be our focus," Petrillo said. "(The consultants) mentioned some destinations like a sports complex or a movie theater. I think all of those things would be great, and we're happy to be a part of these discussions."

Petrillo said boarding students don't have cars, so the services, restaurants and retailers available in the Center are important to the Loomis community.

"When they want more options, they have to go into Bloomfield, Hartford or West Hartford, or Buckland or Westfarms (malls) for shopping," Petrillo said. "Anything in our backyard is a great advantage for our students and our faculty that live on campus and near the Center."

Garribay, of the Chamber, said all parties in the town Center have a role to play in the program.

"We have a beautiful town Center," she said. "Businesses that are here are vibrant, and participatory in the discussions. We need to come out of this with some items that we can do and achieve."

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