When will Brookfield rebuild its downtown area?
For longtime residents, it’s one of those unanswerable questions. But according to First Selectman Steve Dunn, there actually is an answer: “Soon.”
“There’s been talk about rebuilding downtown for the 35 years I’ve been here,” he said. “But I truly believe that now it’s starting to come to fruition.”
The primary instrument for that long-awaited progress is, Dunn and other officials believe, its Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), an outline for how a town wants to develop over the next 10 to 20 years that serves as a guide for local decision-makers. As of July 1, any Connecticut municipality failing to adopt a POCD at least once every 10 years is deemed ineligible for discretionary state funding unless special dispensation from the Office of Policy and Management is secured.
But while every municipality may be required to draft a POCD, that does not necessarily mean that the POCD will be adhered to … or even noticed. Such was the case with Brookfield’s last POCD, completed in 2004.
“It sat on the shelf for five years,” said Planning Commission Chairman Jon Van Hise, “and nobody even looked at it. With this one, we spent 18 months putting it together as a commission, and we want to make sure it doesn’t just sit there too.”
The town’s new POCD contains some 180 recommendations of various sizes and complexity, which often cross board boundaries, meaning that whatever private fiefdoms may exist within given departments, the town expects those differences to be put aside so that Brookfield can move forward.
“We can’t really do this unless everyone is involved,” said Dunn. “We’re still in the early days, but I’d say it’s going well so far. The Board of Selectmen, which I’m on, has been very positive. Zoning is the big one, and they’re already working with Parks and Rec and the Inlands-Wetlands Commission on several projects. We also have a new economic and community development manager [former Newtown Economic Development Coordinator Betsy Paynter] who’s meeting with a lot of the boards and commissions.”
“They’re not ignoring it, so that’s progress,” added Van Hise.
At the center of the plan is, of course, the center of town: The Four Corners, a community landmark named for being the historic junction of State Routes 7 and 25 and for the quartet of gas stations on each corner of the intersection. Dunn said the town is already in the midst of upgrading the area’s streetscape via new sidewalks, additional traffic lights, retail stores and apartments.
Still at issue is parking along nearby Main Street, which was recently switched from angle-in to parallel, reducing available spots from nearly 50 to 18. “Nobody, especially in this day and age, wants to drive around for 10 or 15 minutes looking for a parking space,” Dunn said. “It’s critical that we work together to address that.”
Presumably that will prove to be less contentious than the drama surrounding The Renaissance project in the Four Corners neighborhood on Federal Road. Developer Thomas Briggs proposed constructing a six-story apartment building, contravening Brookfield Zoning’s limit of three stories. In addition, Briggs’ plan called for The Renaissance to be composed entirely of affordable housing – something that Van Hise said set off alarm bells.
“We’re not against affordable housing, but wanted to limit it to 30 percent,” Van Hise said. “There was a lot of concern in town over safety. That’s when our First Selectman got involved.”
“There was no way a six-story building was going to be built in Brookfield,” Dunn declared. With Briggs citing the state’s 8-30g affordable housing rules – which the first selectman characterized as “basically letting a developer do anything he wants to as long as he obeys health and safety regulations” – Dunn played what proved to be a trump card.
“I told him, ‘You can build this building, circumvent Zoning and everyone else’,” he said. “But I also told him I had no doubt that I could stop him for six years by taking it to court, and costing him and the town both a million dollars.”
The result: The Renaissance will now consist of four stories – one of which is an underground parking garage – with a mix of commercial and residential space; 30 percent of the latter will be affordable housing.
Briggs could not be reached for comment.
Also underway in Four Corners is construction on Brookfield Village on Federal Road, four mixed-use buildings consisting of about 24,000 square feet of commercial space on the first level and 72 apartments on the second floor.
Last but hardly least is the Brookfield Library. Currently in a 9,000 square foot space at 182 Whisconier Rd., the facility is seeking a 32,000 square foot space, possibly in the Four Corners neighborhood, according to New Library Committee Chairperson Christina Cumberton.
“On a per-capita basis, we’re at 0.58 square feet,” she said. “Newtown Library is 1.33, and the state average is 1.11. We just need more space for people … as it stands now, if someone in a wheelchair wants to get past our computer area, the person using the computer has to get up and move.”
The library has received a $1 million construction grant that expires on March 1, 2018, Cumberton noted. “We want to pinpoint a location by the end of the year,” she said.
Dunn remains convinced that, with the forward momentum already at play, Brookfield’s decades-in-the-making rebuilding will be a reality soon enough.
“How many towns in the United States are completely rebuilding their downtown?” he asked. “I’m thinking one … and Brookfield can do it.”