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Updated: November 7, 2022

Hartford Line train stations spur major economic development opportunities for municipalities

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Windsor Locks First Selectman Paul Harrington said his phone has been ringing off the hook lately from developers interested in potential projects near the town’s planned $65-million train station.
HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Tony Valenti (left) and Mark Lovley have built a mixed-use residential development next to Berlin's train station, hoping rail passenger traffic will make their project a success.

Developers over the years have shown interest building mixed-use projects in Windsor Locks’ central village area, but few had ever come to fruition.

Last month, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new $65 million train station, part of the state’s transit-oriented development (TOD) investment program for the Hartford Line rail corridor.

Since then, “the phone has been ringing off the hook,” from developers looking for more information on potential projects in Windsor Locks, said First Selectman Paul Harrington.

It’s a trend seen up and down the CTrail Hartford-Springfield line, from North Haven to Enfield, where the state TOD program has helped spur public and private economic development growth, including hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment in new apartments and other mixed-use commercial properties.

The TOD collaboration involves several state agencies — including transportation and economic and community development — and aims “to use transit centers to enhance economic development, job-accessible housing, retail amenities and quality of life in many of Connecticut’s walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.”

It started around 2015-16, when the state won a Federal Transit Administration grant for the Department of Transportation to initiate a study of transit-oriented development opportunities along the Hartford Line rail corridor.

The Hartford Line, which debuted in 2018, is a 62-mile, high-speed rail service that connects New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, serving North Haven, Wallingford, Berlin, Meriden, Newington, West Hartford, Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks and Enfield.

Town leaders and private developers said the state TOD program is a carefully-crafted master plan that pulls together multiple components, from vision to planning, development strategies and funding options, to spur development of the train line and several town centers.

Towns like Berlin have already seen concrete evidence of TOD-initiated growth as brick-and-mortar, mixed-use developments are sprouting up around new state-built train stations.

In Berlin’s Kensington Village along Farmington Avenue, a new brewery occupies a historic building next to the train station that was completed in 2018.

A new three-story, mixed-use development by Newport Realty Group and Lovley Development has 16 residential units almost fully leased, with a main-floor gastropub ready to open in early 2023.

Federal funding helped remediate a nearby brownfield, opening up coveted land for more transit-central development.

Tony Valenti of Newport Realty Group said the state, local and private collaboration works.

Further, projects with collaboration, whether it’s remediation through grants or strategic village center planning, are more likely to show success due to the state and federal investment, therefore they become more attractive to developers.

“Berlin had an advantage because there was land available near the train platform, and that’s not always the case in other areas,” Valenti said.

A train station puts a location on the map, and in Berlin, Valenti said the risk was greatly mitigated by the state’s TOD partnership.

“I’m not sure how we can’t succeed there,” he said.

An increase in train ridership — another TOD goal — will likely come once these buildings are occupied, and people are using the rail line more often to get to places where they can live, work and play, Valenti said.

Zoning regulations revamp

In Enfield, the prospects of an economic development boom around a new train station are just starting to emerge.

Town officials said the state DOT is crafting conceptual designs for a new $35 million station, with a public informational meeting planned for spring of 2023.

In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced more than $13.8 million in federal grants for environmental review of the train-station site, which will be located near a 700-unit apartment complex called Bigelow Commons.

This grant will also help officially begin engineering, final design, and construction of the new station, which will include a 500-foot boarding platform, utility building with a waiting area, and station parking.

The project is part of the Enfield multi-modal transit center adjacent to the station site, with up to seven parcels combined for 1.5 acres of redevelopment area, town officials said.

The town is currently seeking proposals for redevelopment of the former Strand Theater property and Lamagna Activity Center properties in the Thompsonville Village around the new station.

Private development plans around the Thompsonville station call for mixed-use development with 3,200 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and 55 new housing units above.

To date, Enfield has invested $1.3 million for demolishing and remediating the municipal sites for the new TOD development, town officials said.

Don Poland, managing director and senior vice president of urban planning at East Hartford real estate advisory firm Goman+York, said the Hartford Line effort thrives on the state laying a solid foundation for cities and towns to then take the wheel.

Revamping zoning regulations to allow for new and mixed-use development in certain areas is often a necessary first step required on the local level.

As state-backed work around train stations moves forward, municipalities will become more engaged and then do what they can to allow for that development to occur, Poland said

He agrees that state projects like train stations are the spark needed for an economic development transformation.

“Ultimately, the train station kind of becomes an anchor, and it attracts some initial interest in investments and it attracts interest from the community to loosen up their zoning to allow for different kinds of development to occur,” Poland said. “Once you start having some investment occur, and especially if it’s successful, and it’s generating some interest, generating some vibrancy, then you’re going to see more investment flow into the area.”

TOD report card

The state Department of Transportation has not provided updated transit-oriented development data, but prior to the pandemic, a one-year report card was issued on the progress of the Hartford Line.

According to the report, Meriden was called an early TOD success story, with the construction of three mixed-use transit-oriented development projects with 295 residential units, 31,000 square feet of commercial space, a 273-space parking garage, 14-acre town green, and demolition of the Mills public housing project and other nearby buildings.

Ongoing public and private investment in Meriden’s TOD projects exceeded $150 million, according to the report.

Wallingford freed up downtown land for development by shifting existing industrial development to the north. A town center zoning district and reduction of off-street parking requirements helped spur mixed-use and economic development there, the report said.

In 2019, one year after the Hartford Line launched, it recorded 665,471 passengers.

However, ridership was derailed by the pandemic, dropping by nearly 90% at its worst point. It has rebounded since then.

The Hartford Line carried 318,071 passengers in 2021, up from 264,192 in 2020, according to the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.

Hartford Line riders this summer experienced schedule changes and supplemental bus service while safety and construction work was completed at the Hartford Union and Longmeadow, Mass., stations.

The Hartford Line was anticipated to spur $430 million in transit-oriented development in Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Windsor and Windsor Locks, according to the DOT’s 2019 report.

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