A study will determine if downtown Ridgefield’s less developed neighbor, Branchville, has the potential to leverage its train station and become a vibrant transit-oriented development.
Located about a mile from the center of Ridgefield, bordering Wilton and Redding, Branchville has a train station with infrequent service on Metro-North’s Danbury line and a strip of retail on either side of busy Route 7.
With a $256,000 state grant in hand, the town is a few months into a study of its train line, infrastructure and needs.
While train stations were the hub of activity a hundred years ago, many of these types of towns in the state need to be revamped, said Jonathan Chew, senior project manager for the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which is conducting the study.
“What’s around railroad stations hasn’t really been thought through terribly well in the past decades in terms of its ability to make use of the railroad station,” Chew said of Branchville.
A push from the Legislature is making towns take another look at their transit-oriented areas and build up healthier economies around the train station, Chew said.
Hartford-based Fitzgerald and Halliday Inc. is the consultant for Branchville’s study. The firm released a survey to residents last month to gage what they want out of the town, Francisco Gomes, a project manager for the firm, said. The former mill town’s development has been somewhat haphazard and there are vacant storefronts, he said. Last week, the firm held the first charettes, or planning workshops, with the public.
Gomes said the firm has worked on the four corners development in Brookfield and was part of the team in the South Norwalk station, where they worked on urban design improvements, some of which are being implemented. He said that area is complementary to Branchville.
Gomes said, lately, Fitzgerald and Halliday has been busier with transit-oriented development, seeing more projects being solicited.
He said his firm’s goal is to help towns figure out how to become livable, pedestrian-and-bike-friendly communities with access to nature, recreation and retail. The teams make recommendations, but plans can take time to pan out.
Gomes predicts Branchville’s study will take about another year and a half.
Gomes said he is working with a comprehensive team that includes the first selectmen of Ridgefield, Redding and Wilton, private property owners, residents, business owners, town engineers and planners.
The agencies are working with the Department of Transportation to see if the line can increase service and electrify the rail line, but that would be in the future, Gomes said. Now the train sees about 145 customers board the Branchville train each day, according to Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The town is planning in anticipation of better service, Gomes said.
“The region wants to plan for a village center that’s a little more robust and a little more active than would be there and afford opportunities to people interested in living and working in the area if and when service enhances,” he said.
Lars Anderson, operations manager of the Little Pubs, which has had a location on Route 7 in Branchville since 2009, said the train service is unreliable. His employees that use it often are late because the train does not come, or they end up taking a bus. The train station parking lot is never full, he said.
Anderson is skeptical about plans to develop the town. There is not much foot traffic now because cars speed by on Route 7, he said, and there are no sidewalks. A few of the retail locations have been vacant for months or are revolving doors. He foresees it being difficult to transform the town,
“I think it’s a long shot,” Anderson said.
Still, he said he thinks it’s great the town is interested in making Branchville a destination and he would welcome new, neighboring businesses that would help Little Pub during lunch hour. The location has worked out so far for Little Pub because the authentic British-style restaurant with a phone booth out front is a destination, drawing people from Redding, Weston, Wilton, Danbury and Pound Ridge, New York.
Laura Ancona, co-owner, with husband Joe Ancona, of Tusk & Cup Fine Coffee down the street from the pub, said improving the train service is key.
“If they could solve that problem, I think that would be a game-changer for our town,” Ancona said.
Joe Anocna’s family has been in Branchville for about a century, Laura Ancona said. While there has been a lot of change, like the recent addition of a CVS, she said now the town is ripe for more development and improvement, it just has to be done right. Mixed-use buildings would be viable, she said.
Anderson said it seems the town wants to make Branchville the new center of Ridgefield, which could prove to be impossible. But Gomes said his firm is not interested in turning Branchville into a competitive or alternative district to Ridgefield’s downtown. It would have services Branchville residents need in town — for which they would not have to travel to the center of Ridgefield — that would also serve train commuters.
To Laura Ancona, it’s time to give Branchville some attention.
“Branchville’s been the stepchild of Ridgefield’s Main Street,” she said.
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