Is downtown Pawcatuck ready to pop?

April 8, 2018 GMT

Stonington — For decades, town officials have tried with mixed success to revitalize the commercial and residential properties of downtown Pawcatuck.

Their frustration has grown as they looked just a few yards over the Pawcatuck River into downtown Westerly, where a renaissance has taken place over the past decade. Renovated commercial buildings are occupied and the many restaurants and bars are filled with patrons on Friday and Saturday nights.

But now there is a renewed optimism that Pawcatuck is finally on its way to developing a vibrant downtown like its neighbor across the river.

The town’s Economic Development Commission and planning officials have encouraged investment and redevelopment through recent changes in the zoning regulations and are considering the creation of a plan that would reinvest additional taxes from investment back into the neighborhood.

The town’s Beautification Committee has continued to undertake projects to spruce up the downtown — last fall’s Bricks and Murals project painted historical-themed murals on the side of buildings — and the town has appointed an official to enforce blight regulations.

The town had been without a director of planning for four years, until Jason Vincent, who held the position from 2002-07, was lured back to town from Norwich in 2016 and has since been one of the driving forces behind the zoning changes.

Two longtime eyesores could see new life: a long vacant building next to the bridge that has been bought by a California man, and the former Campbell Grain Building, which is slowly being dismantled.

Some businesses have found success downtown, such as Mel’s Downtown Creamery, Mia’s Cafe, Bogue’s Alley deli, Get Fired Up, Irish Rose Tattoo, Connecticut Community Credit Union, C.C. O’Brien’s and Best Energy. New apartments above Mel’s at 37-39 West Broad St. are rented.

And while buildings that housed a bank and restaurant still are vacant, some property owners and successful business owners remain bullish on the downtown. They have improved their properties and are planning to do more.

There’s also talk among planning and economic development officials about the town acquiring the overgrown 5.6-acre former circus lot at the end of Noyes Avenue from the Town of Westerly and possibly building a pedestrian walkway over the Pawcatuck River at the end of Coggswell Street that would connect with downtown Westerly in the area of the train station and the Savoy bookstore.

“We’ve made a lot of structural changes. The downtown hasn’t popped yet but it’s on the verge of popping,” said First Selectmen Rob Simmons. “If I was an investor seeking real estate in the town, I’d invest in Pawcatuck. That’s where you’re going to get the most return on your investment. It’s where the opportunity lies.

“We’re clearing the obstacles to development but the work is by no means done. We now have to attract private investment,” he added. “We also want to make sure the municipality does not get in the way. We have to stay the course and not be cynical.”

The newest business to arrive in the downtown is Revive Salon, which is located in a two-story brick building at 29 W. Broad St.

“I just have a really good feeling about being in downtown Pawcatuck. There’s a young, fresh vibe down here and I want to be part of the rebuild,” owner Jen Keena said. “It’s almost a little cityish.”

Keena said she was attracted by the brick building and the visibility for her business, which is passed by 26,000 cars a day. Since moving to her new location in September, she said her business has tripled.

‘People will come’

One of downtown’s biggest believers is Jim Lathrop, who owns Best Energy in the visible space he leases at the corner of West Broad and Mechanic streets.

He has been trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to acquire the two buildings on either side of his, one of which was badly damaged by fire and is boarded up. He also owns the building at 29 W. Broad St., which is home to Keena’s salon, a tattoo shop and an engineering firm. He is in the process of renovating the second floor into two apartments.

“It’s these and other blighted properties in the downtown that have really affected everything else,” he said, adding that the town has been unable so far to take advantage of the enormous volume of potential customers that pass through the downtown each day.

“If we just get these buildings updated, people will come. I’m fully rented now and when I finish the two apartments, they will rent quickly,” he said. “There are people who want to come down here.”

Lathrop said that his grandfather used to run a tire shop in the same building that he is in and then his father ran his business there, as well. Since opening Best Energy downtown more than five years ago, Lathrop said his business has increased.

“So it’s the romantic notion of my family business and the traffic,” he said about his decision to move downtown.

Dave Hammond, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said he and his members have worked closely with Vincent to target certain areas that would benefit from rewriting of zoning regulations to spur investment. One of those initiatives resulted in the new PV-5 zone for 156 properties in the downtown that expands the list of permitted commercial uses, loosens restrictions on floor-area ratio, open space, setbacks, height, parking and other requirements, increases the density for mixed commercial and residential projects and streamlines the permitting process.

“Pawcatuck is never going to look like downtown Mystic but we need to contemporize the uses that are allowed there,” he said.

Another initiative resulted in the establishment of the Heritage Mill District, which allows a wide variety of commercial uses in the underused mills along Mechanic Street and River Road, beyond their historical manufacturing use.

It also streamlines the permitting process by allowing planning staff to approve some uses without zoning commission review and loosens lot size requirements.

These efforts and others have not been without community input. Last year alone, the EDC, along with Vincent’s office, held 20 community forums in various areas of town to get comments and suggestions on development and zoning issues from residents, businesses and property owners.

‘Barriers to investment’

What may turn out to be the most significant change to drive investment is the town’s decision to decrease the “lookback” period on improvements that trigger costly flood elevation improvements.

Previously, property owners were limited to investing 50 percent of their property’s value on improvements over a five-year period if they wanted to avoid having to comply with current flood elevation requirements. That often deterred property owners from investing and led to properties being abandoned, according to Hammond.

Now, they can spend up to 50 percent in one year, allowing them to make significant investments over a few years without the additional cost of flood upgrades.

There is also an effort to get the flood gates along River Road certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would lower insurance rates for businesses and property owners in mill areas. The town has also obtained a grant to study a walkway along the river behind the mills.

“We’re trying to remove the barriers to investment,” Vincent said. “There’s not one golden bullet, we have to try a lot of different things.”

“You have to have consumer confidence to attract investment. Each step we’ve taken is designed to do that,” added Hammond.

The two men pointed out that unlike downtown Westerly, downtown Pawcatuck does not have a “major benefactor.” That is a reference to mutual fund company chairman and philanthropist Chuck Royce, who has renovated the Ocean House, Watch Hill Inn and Weekapaug Inn and owns and has rehabilitated many downtown Westerly buildings and properties.

Hammond said the EDC is in the early stages of looking into creating a tax increment financing district, which would provide needed funding for downtown improvements.

It works like this: The additional taxes generated through private investment in the downtown would then be reinvested into downtown upgrades such as sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and possibly a pedestrian bridge into Westerly at the end of Coggswell Street and the development of the so-called “circus lot” a vacant 5.6-acre parcel at the end of Noyes Avenue that has frontage along the river.

“If neighborhoods look attractive, people will want to invest in them,” Vincent said.

Linking Westerly and Pawcatuck

The pedestrian bridge project was first designed 15 years ago to link up with a proposed Westerly riverwalk that never happened. The bridge, which would need to span just 75 feet of the river, would link the end of Coggswell Street, which is home to the Riverwalk condominium project and two renovated mixed-use buildings, with High Street in Westerly in the vicinity of the train station and the Savoy bookstore.

Existing stone abutments could be used. The project is estimated to cost about 67 million elementary school renovation project and fund repairs to the deteriorated Stillman Avenue bridge, which connects Pawcatuck and Westerly just north of the downtown.

The town also has to pay off the $2.2 million it has borrowed to create the Mystic River Boathouse Park.

“I just feel we have public sector obligations first,” he said.

Lathrop sees potential in the circus lot, which is so named because circuses were once staged there. It is owned by the Town of Westerly to provide drinking water for its system that serves customers in Pawcatuck. The property and its pump house, though, are now overgrown and abandoned, as there are concerns its water supply is no longer drinkable due to potential industrial groundwater contamination across the Pawcatuck River.

Located on the west side of the Amtrak line and occasionally used by the homeless, a makeshift tent could be seen there this past week.

Lathrop envisions a public park with a riverfront walkway that would head east under the railroad overpass and provide access to the proposed pedestrian bridge and the downtown area. It also would provide a link with a vacant parcel of land on Liberty Street across from the Dairy Queen and the Charter Oak Federal Credit Union. Late last month, members of the EDC and the Beautification Committee toured and discussed the circus lot.