OLD LYME — One possible solution for encouraging development on Halls Road in Old Lyme, but still providing the town with control over aesthetics, could be the creation of a “village district.”
On May 13, the Halls Road Improvements Committee presented ideas for the future of Halls Road, a commercial district designed in the 1960s, to the Town Of Old Lyme Zoning Commission.
Compared to the current commercial district, designed in the automobile-oriented 1960s, the committee presented sketches that envisioned a more walkable Halls Road with mixed-use, multi-story buildings set close to sidewalks, along with crosswalks, greenspace and possibly a park. The sketches also included space for a large grocery store and parking area set behind the newer buildings along Halls Road, approximately where the Big Y is now.
The desired effect, explained Edie Twining, a member of the Halls Road Improvements Committee, would be to create a neighborhood with similar aesthetics to Lyme Street, the heart of the town’s National Register historic district, considered the “character” of the town.
Grounding the project in an appeal to history, Twining showed a series of drawings depicting a narrative of Old Lyme development, beginning in 1868 when center of town was on Lyme Street, accessible from Ferry Road, which connected to the ferry and the rail line.
“Main Street had a mixed use of everything — stores, homes and businesses — and it was a walkable situation that made sense in that day because people didn’t have cars and got around by horse and buggy.”
Then, about 1885, the automobile was invented, beginning a revolution not only in transportation but in municipal planning.
Fast forward to 1961 when the A&P supermarket, then on Lyme Street, asked for a bigger space, prompting the town to create a commercial zone on Halls Road that could accommodate parking. In the 1970s, the A&P asked again for a larger space, the current location of the Big Y supermarket.
“There was an attempt at making it a community area by creating that covered walkway that goes all the way from the Big Y all the way down to Bowerbird,” Twining said. “But, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never walked that stretch. There’s not really much to do along that road, it’s all about parking lots.”
The shopping center was designed with typical commercial requirements: 60-foot setbacks, parking in front of the buildings, and ample parking for all of the shops.
“But they never really recognized that here was no center to this place and as you drive down Halls Road what you see are parking lots. The shopkeepers can’t really advertise their shops because nobody can see the shop windows until they get past the parking lots and next to the buildings,” she said. “People drive across Halls Road because it’s too dangerous to walk across the street.”
Redesigning Halls Road as an “expanded town center,” echoing what Lyme Street was in 1868, would entail allowing the construction of two- or three-story, mixed-use buildings that would transform the street from a strip mall, where no one can congregate, to a walkable area with sidewalks and public gathering space, Twining said.
The establishment of a village district, which would overlay the Halls Road commercial zone, could accomplish the committee’s goals for redevelopment, said Zoning Commission Chair Jane Cable.
“I think what you’re going to need is a village district, which will for that area only will change the setbacks, heights, and the mixed uses that you’re looking for,” said Cable. “I think you have to create that area, define it, and then have special zoning for that area.”
A village district designation could allow the town to control the appearance of new construction in terms of scale and architecture. The new district would require an amendment to the town’s zoning regulations.
“I think both shopping centers are nearing their ‘sell-by’ date and decisions will be made in 5 to 10 years about replacing those buildings,” said Cable. “It would be nice if there was some real thought about the placement of those buildings.”
The businesses along Halls Road provide about $220,000 in tax revenues, which could be increased to an estimated $575,000 by adding mixed-use retail spaces, according to Twining.
Bonnie Reemsnyder, First Selectwoman, told the commission that a first step toward the transforming Halls Road is to redesign the street’s right-of-way, which is the area between the paved roadway and private property lines,
Halls Road is a state road, which gives the Connecticut Department of Transportation jurisdiction over the right-of-way, which extends about 10 or 15 feet from the road on both sides, and includes much wider swaths near the Lieutenant River. Reemsnyder assured the commission that the state has been cooperative in allowing towns to develop town centers along state roads.
“The right-of-way is where we’re going to do the work and it’s vital that we have community input,” she said. Changes could include adding sidewalks, small parks, streetlights and park benches.
Reemsnyder said the town has applied for a federal grant through the Transportation Alternatives Program to help fund the project.
Over the last year, the town and committees have stepped up efforts to encourage and shape development on Halls Road.
The Hall Road Improvements Committee is working to develop a masterplan for Halls Road, a policy document that would guide development, but would not be enforceable.
As requested by the Economic Development Commission, the town appropriated $50,000 in the 2019-2020 budget to hire the nonprofit Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) to perform an economic development study that will include a survey of local businesses. The collected data will assist in the planning and development of Halls Road.
“Change keeps on happening, Halls Road won’t remain the same,” said Reemsnyder. “What we’re saying is we should have some influence on that change. We’re not trying to impose change, but to influence the change that is going to happen.”
The Halls Road Improvements Committee is planning an open house at Town Hall on Saturday, June 15, to show pictures of potential improvements to the right-of-way and to ask for public input.