When my esteemed editor requested a column in reference to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recent attempt to update regulations for Northford Center and North Branford’s Central Plaza, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only is town planner Carol Zebb asking for the town’s input at their next meeting on March 17, but as a self-proclaimed town planner (and engineer and architect), I felt there were a number of considerations to make that could prove beneficial.
The issues at hand, as Zebb sees it, include open space, pedestrian right-of-way and uniform building policies. She is right to seek upgrades, and they are actually long overdue.
These areas, although they might be our most densely and lucrative commercial areas, do present a number of challenges. The issue of open space is one that presents a conundrum. Where surrounding communities have town greens and parks around which everyone can gather, we have parking lots.
Northford’s town green is about as big as my living room, and when you go to the park you see locked gates separating us from much more substantial amounts of water company property. There is nowhere to build outwardly. So where, and how, will we expand open space and support a thriving public sphere without stifling local business?
As far as pedestrian right-of-way, we don’t even have infrastructure set up for pedestrians to come to the centers to begin with. A majority of the town’s population is situated at the furthest points from the town centers, which forces people to get behind the wheel, and creates pockets of isolated culture. Bike lanes at some points are inches across. Right-of-way for pedestrians hasn’t been addressed yet because there haven’t been enough pedestrians to force the issue. But with gas prices rising, more people should be looking for alternative methods of transportation—especially when it comes to just getting around town.
Coming to a decision on uniform building standards will require a decision on how we want our town to develop. These standards relate to a ten-year plan developed in 2009 pertaining to commercial development. Over the next eight years, I cannot see the town making any lasting positive changes if we maintain the parking lots and strip malls that support us. While it wouldn’t make sense to get rid of these businesses that have treated us well for years, we need to integrate a new system with the old.
While there isn’t a lot of area to grow outwardly with our commercial endeavors, and while we cannot do away with parking lots, it may be time for North Branford to start utilizing a new dimension of our town’s space.
Vertical zoning has traditionally meant that homes were built on the upper floors of buildings in which businesses used the ground level. In recent years, though, more architects and planners are beginning to use the old concept to build upwardly with different means of integrating social structures.
Perhaps we will never have a town green like Guilford or Branford. But imagine if the town had a system of pedestrian and bike bridges that interconnected by way of crossing over our commercial centers. These areas could be expanded so that they were more than simply lanes for alternative traffic. A platform that rose above the ground could be expanded into a space for anyone to gather and meet. Only when people have space they care about will they gather around it and support it. Maybe, then, we will attract more business to the commercial centers.
This would also take care of the issue of pedestrian right-of-way. Not only would traffic be increased to the center without adding cars, but we would have advanced the cause of bike lanes and pedestrian transportation without interfering with our roads. The old issues of right-of-way would be dodged entirely. Situating several ‘on-ramps’ for these paths and bridges would allow people to stay away from the roads until the moment of necessity—crossing them—at which time they would ride over traffic, and come into the town centers by means of an ‘off-ramp’. Consider Northford center as an example. There are hiking paths already behind Stanley T. Williams. People coming from that part of town could ride through the community center, up a ramp, over a bridge crossing both Route 22 and 17, and safely into the center.
As far as finding a design standard, these networks of vertical zoning could be built in accordance with however we chose to develop our regulations. Building materials would play largely into that decision. Further, murals and public art could help create a galvanized effect.
There are a number of other benefits, as I see it, to considering vertical zoning. Town planner Carol Zebb has said herself that one of the greatest challenges facing the Planning and Zoning Commission is finding architects and engineers to volunteer their time. But an ambitious project like this could help such people make names for themselves. We would attract the kind of people to help us develop that we need—ambitious, progressive, and clever.
Furthermore, if we found ways to integrate these paths and open vertical space, we could cultivate another of vertical zoning’s similar projects—vertical farming. Agriculture is one of our town’s best attributes, and to have people learning to farm and have surplus crops will only help in a turbulent economy where the value of everything seems to fluctuate.
And though it wouldn’t be a cure-all, having bridges, paths, and meeting areas that cover portions of the road would help during winter months to keep some of the snow—albeit temporarily—of the road. We might even be able to trap it somehow in order to save it to help with farming in the spring.
Maybe this is an ambitious project. And perhaps I’m not the town planner I thought I was. As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “If you can’t cook, you shouldn’t design a kitchen.” But we do find ourselves in the unique position of making radical alterations to our town that has really not seen much meaningful renovation to our town centers in years. That is why it is important to bring every idea to the table on March 17, the date of the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. We also have an ace in the hole—local Catherine Smith, who was just named by Governor Malloy as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. We could find ourselves with some tremendous community planners in the near future. We just need to have a vision in mind that suits us when they get here.
For some examples on how vertical zoning is being designed to integrate into communities already, see: