‘Bethel Forward’ revitalization plan swings into action

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Some nine years in the making, Bethel’s plan to revitalize its downtown area is finally underway, with 13 redevelopment projects on the agenda, including several expected to break ground as early as next spring.

The ambitious “Bethel Forward” program — which includes redeveloping more than 200 acres both in the main downtown district and around its train station — grew from a 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development, which sought to identify redevelopment goals, leading in turn to a 2010 feasibility study and, ultimately, a 188-page master plan that was approved in August.

bethel-forward-logo“We wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to review and discuss what we were thinking about,” said Janice Chrzescijanek, Bethel’s director of economic development. “That included not just government, but businesses and residents as well.”

During the research phase, the town determined that housing demand would require adding about 1,000 units and commercial demand would require the addition of roughly 53,000 square feet over the next 20 years. Bethel has a population of about19,000.

Town officials secured $250,000 for Bethel Forward, consisting of a $100,000 state grant and money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Miami-based urban renewal firm DPZ & Partners was chosen from among a dozen bids in July 2015 to compile the master plan, with a bid of $234,000.

Key to any plan, most agreed, was developing the 100-plus acres surrounding Bethel’s train station, located in an otherwise fairly deserted area at 13 Durant Ave. “They’re all industrial properties,” Chrzescijanek said, “many of which have been abandoned for some time. They are prime properties for turning into mixed-use developments.”

New railroad crossings connecting the east and west sides of the train station are also planned.

One of the feasibility study’s findings was that “it was very important to include Greenwood Avenue, which is more or less our Main Street,” Chrzescijanek said. Although only slightly more than a half-mile from the train station, Greenwood — which encompasses a variety of small businesses, restaurants, strip malls and an independent movie theater — exudes a separate identity from the train station area.

“We did not want to create two downtowns,” Chrzescijanek said. “The plan instead is to create something that’s complementary, not competitive.”

For all that, there are several vacancies along Greenwood, which the town hopes to fill with stores that do not duplicate what is already in place, including a supermarket, bookstore, pizzeria and yoga studio.

One business about to get underway is Broken Symmetry Gastro Brewery, which won residents’ approval at a town meeting two weeks ago to lease what had been the Bethel Cycle shop at the town’s old train station at 5 Depot Place.

The microbrewery’s owners — who include Lisa Tassone, owner of mainstay restaurant La Zingara, and Paul Mannion, owner of the Green Grunion food truck in Danbury — now need to get the necessary permits and licensing to brew and sell their wares, in addition to refurbishing the space, which has remained vacant for about a year. They hope to open by spring 2017.

Meanwhile, within steps of the existing train station, a 26-unit apartment building called The Grand at Bethel officially opened on Nov. 14 at 25 Grand St. The project was first proposed in November 2014, gained approval in January 2015, had its groundbreaking in July 2015 and welcomed its first residents in June of this year.

“That’s an example of doing something quickly — and right,” Chrzescijanek said.

Three other industrial-to-residential projects are also within walking distance of the train station. Directly south of the depot is a 6-acre site at 11 Durant Ave., consisting of a warehouse and the home for school buses serving the nearby town of Redding. That property is being developed by Danbury-based Development Asset Group to create 150 apartment units and up to 20,000 square feet of commercial space at a projected cost of $27 million.

Two projects on the west side of the tracks are on Grassy Plain Street — about three acres being turned into 195 mostly residential units encompassing 183,000 square feet at a projected cost of $25 million — and Paul Street, where a 3-acre site is being developed into 150 mostly residential units.

Still pending is the adoption of new zoning regulations to accommodate all this activity, “which we hope to have by the end of this year,” Chrzescijanek said.

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