The Day – Old Lyme Economic Development Commission Pushes Coastal Revitalization Again

Old Lyme — The Economic Development Commission is again calling for the revitalization of Route 156 and Sound View Beach.

It will take strong leadership, a cohesive vision and broad community support, which EDC member Howard Margules says has been lacking in many efforts over the decades to take advantage of the beautiful and ecologically significant coastline of the city.

In a proposal authored by Margules, he described commercial areas from Route 156 at Mile Creek to the police station and Hartford Avenue as “beset with significant issues,” including economic decline, parking, public nuisance and burning.

“Out-of-town investors have been sitting on empty commercial properties along Route 156, in some cases for more than a decade, which projects an image of declining economic vitality,” he said. he writes.

A stark example is the once-thriving Cherrystones restaurant, which has stood empty since its closure in 2012.

Resident Carolyn Miranda, who has spoken at various public meetings about the need for improvements along the coastline, spoke during EDC’s public comment period to describe the National Highway as bordered to the north by vacant and unattractive commercial properties and on the other side by beautiful marshes, vistas and well maintained homes.

“If I was an out-of-towner driving to Sound View, I’d be a little confused and wonder what’s going on here,” she said. “Nice on the right, really bad looking city on the left.”

In the Sound View area, Margules said residents are mixed as to how much development they want. “Some don’t want it, some just want to restore retail, and some would like to see a mix of residential and retail.”

The commission proposes that the Board of Selectmen establish a Gateway Project Committee to develop a master plan for the area that reflects the views of the entire city. The idea is similar to the process guiding the redevelopment of Halls Road, where a committee uses a master plan designed for $48,000 by architects from Glastonbury-based BSC Group as a framework for change.

Margules pointed to EDC’s extensive efforts 20 years ago to lead change along Highway 156 and at Sound View Beach as a missed opportunity. The work led to the creation of a new village district in the commercial section of Hartford Avenue but did not revitalize it.

“And it wasn’t the first effort,” Margules said. “They all fall into a black hole somewhere and nothing ever seems to get done.”

According to The Day records, in 2001 the EDC hired an architect to survey the area, and the findings of the resulting report served as the basis for the Sound View Task Force and eventually the new village neighborhood. The 2005 bylaw update relaxed some of the city’s strict zoning rules to encourage homeowners to renovate their buildings.

At the time, Sound View was still trying to recover from a seedy reputation cultivated when, from the 1940s to the 1970s, Hartford Avenue was lined with 13 bars, a strip club and a brothel. The naval submarine base banned its sailors from visiting during World War II.

According to Margules, subsequent efforts to resuscitate the area have taken a “piecemeal” approach that lacks a holistic view of the coastline.

In 2013, the city obtained a federal transportation grant administered through the state’s DOT for improvements including a bike path, green space, and restrooms as part of a project selected as a priority by the regional council of governments. While the city green and restrooms were scrapped due to cost, changes to the streetscape included handicapped accessible sidewalks, “bumps”, landscaping, improved drainage, supports bicycles and a cycle path to share the road.

Most recently, the city’s Community Connectivity Grant Committee used a $400,000 state grant to add 5-foot-wide sidewalks to the western portion of Hartford Avenue and part of the road. 156, and is finalizing a plan for a bus stop along the national road.

Margules and Joseph Camean, a member of the commission and chair of the task force 20 years ago, agreed that any hope for meaningful change rests on strong leadership.

“The city is very, very good at studying issues and we’re not as good at implementing them,” Margules said. “We need this leadership.”

Camean said he didn’t want to impose a burden on the selectors, but added: “Somehow I think it has to come from them.”

The commission voted to present its proposal to elected officials in February.

First manager Tim Griswold said on Thursday he wasn’t sure what EDC had in mind but acknowledged “overall this area could be developed a bit more”.

“I think we would probably be open to some ideas,” he said. “We’re still working on the Halls Road stuff, so we probably can’t juggle too many balls at once.”

Margules said the Gateway project committee should include representatives from the Sound View Commission, each beach association, planning, zoning, affordable housing, port management and economic development commissions and the agent of application of zoning.

He suggested that the committee would also need a consultant like the Halls Road group.

The EDC member described Old Lyme as being at a disadvantage because there are no planners to take on projects like these. This is why a committee of skilled and dedicated volunteers is so important, according to Margules.

Professional planners take a holistic look at transportation, economic development, housing and environmental protection to help guide community growth.

Day records show that Old Lyme had its first and only town planner more than 20 years ago. Harry Smith, who now works in Branford, left after a year on the job to take on a planning role in Colchester, according to the report.

Selectmen had created the position on the recommendation of an employment consultant and with the aim of improving public service in the land use departments.

Griswold, the then and now first manager – he held City’s first seat from 1997 to 2011 and now again from 2019 – said the job ‘has not been renewed’ .

The city currently employs Dan Bourret as Land Use Coordinator, a role that includes enforcing zoning and inland wetlands bylaws.

City planner job descriptions generally require a higher level of education and come with a higher salary. “At the moment it’s not on the table,” Griswold said of adding an urban planner.

Coach Martha Shoemaker said she couldn’t comment on the proposed EDC Gateway project because she didn’t know enough yet. But, she said, “if we go ahead with some of these plans for Halls Road, Route 156, etc., we should have a planner on board.”

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