EAST HADDAM — While there are no current plans to redevelop Moodus Plaza, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission recently created a new zoning district around Moodus center that aims to guide future development toward a walkable, mixed-use village that more closely resembles the Moodus that many residents remember.
Since the federal urban renewal project of the 1960s razed the original Moodus Village and replaced it with strip malls, Moodus Plaza has been a symbol of regret for the people in town who agreed to trade their village for a vision of a modern, prosperous future, bankrolled by the federal government.
The project failed to achieve its promise of turning Moodus into the modern, thriving retail center of a growing town – a saga that was thoroughly detailed in a retrospective by reporter Ken Simon – and many residents of the town have regretted approving the project.
“As we know now, it was a terrible error,” said Bob Casner, chair of the Economic Development Commission for the town. “So now, what do we do to try to overcome it?”
Casner said the Economic Development and Planning and Zoning Commissions worked together to try to come up with regulations that would promote development that would resemble Moodus Village in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He said the hope is that a village with design elements reflective of the town’s historic structures would make Moodus a more attractive place to shop.
Set far back from the street, the existing plaza, with its sprawling parking lot, represents a 1960s vision of modern progress. The new Moodus Center District regulations envision a walkable village where multi-story buildings line the sidewalks and contain a mix of ground floor retail and upper floor office and residential spaces.
“We’re looking to make it so the stores have a better appeal to people driving down the street, so they could see what stores are there and what services are being offered, because they would be closer to the street,” Casner said.
Before the change, zoning regulations restricted each building to one apartment, which could only be occupied by a store’s operator.
The new rules allow building owners to rent out multiple apartments and the extra income may provide incentive to developers, Casner said. Multi-story buildings may also contribute to the architecture of the village and provide rental housing, which is in short supply in East Haddam.
Town Planner James Ventres said he doesn’t expect any immediate changes from the regulations, and Casner said they were looking forward 5 to 10 years. But, neither envisions the current plaza lasting forever, and the idea of the new zoning district was to put regulations in place for whenever that transition does happen.
“There’s been complaints about the Moodus Plaza ever since the 1970s when it was built, but I had a land use attorney tell me one time, ‘Get your regulations in place, because every building doesn’t last forever,’” Ventres said. “Sometimes it’s easier to rebuild than to renovate. So, we’re just putting things in place to answer the question of – would a new development on that parcel face the street with some design, rather than that big open parking lot?”
Ventres said that there won’t be any 25-unit apartment buildings popping up in the Moodus Center with no water and sewer, but there is room for developers to potentially put in septic systems and wells that could accommodate three or four apartments in the upper floors of a building. They should also be able to accommodate a range of businesses.
“Restaurants, laundromats, hairdressers are huge water consumers, but if you get enough space, you can make it work there,” Ventres said. “The former lumberyard site has plenty of expandability. It’s not a dead end, there are things that can be done.”
New construction and major renovations of existing buildings would all need to be approved by special exception, which would include an architectural review process meant to ensure any project is “in harmony with and contains elements of buildings constructed between 1820 and 1940.”
The regulations allow for building up to two-and-a-half stories. Ventres said the half-story could push developers toward building pitched roofs that would fit in with the desired architecture for the area.
“That matches the cadence of the streets,” he said. “You take a look at the rest of Falls Road, or you go on to Plains Road, there are some larger structures built in the late 1800s and early 1900s that have some style to them.”
Concerns raised about the new regulations included the architectural requirements that would make building more expensive and less attractive to developers.
Casner said there is no doubt that the regulations will make new buildings and major renovations more expensive, but making the village a more attractive and inviting place to shop could allow those businesses to draw more visitors to the area to spend their money in the Moodus center.
“Tourism is a big part of our town, and we want to make it attractive for people to stop and shop here,” Casner said. “We’ve got to up the quality of our structures and up the quality of our services and capture more of the dollars that are traveling through town.”