In this issue I would like to take a look at our city planning. Ever since the demise of the industries which anchored our traditional neighborhoods, Waterbury has been literally at the crossroads, unable to decide whether to seek a return to its industrial past or venture onto a road less traveled.
To this day, the administration calls the traditional neighborhoods “vibrant” and the “strength of the city” which, I think, are hypocritical statements, considering the thinly veiled efforts to undermine their character. I am not pinning this on the current administration alone, since this trend has continued for decades. Instead of biting the bullet and establishing a balanced development plan, based on manufacturing, business and housing, successive mayors have chosen the path of least resistance. Results are there for all to see – nearly a billion dollars in debt, the highest unemployment in the state and city infrastructure being eroded by the building boom.
Over the past decades, the residents have been offered wild expectations from the I-84, Brass Mill Mall, Downtown Redevelopment, ITZ (“Information Technology Zone”, in case you have forgotten), new schools and even the renovation of the City Hall. The housing boom and its inevitable failure may very well become the straw that will break the city’s economic back.
On the other hand, our traditional neighborhoods have lost their cohesion due to economic and demographic changes. Like many other cities and towns across the country, Waterbury has lost its employment core and, therefore, much of its middle income population. Our population has aged. More and more residents have less time and incentive for maintaining lawns and gardens, being either too busy or too weak physically. Yet, many of the residents still cling to the belief that their rights will be defended by the administration they had elected.
Unfortunately, Waterbury residents have to reconcile with the sad truth. Even if the political machine were to reverse its trend, it would take years to change the reliance on an unproductive tax base. Services must be paid, kids have to be educated and revenues have to be secured. Unless the residents put up a fight to ensure some sense in the city’s planning and development, our quality of life will keep sliding down, while taxes will keep rising.
The housing surge is being frequently compared to the “Condo-Mania” of the Santopietro era. Joe, however, lacked the tools and real estate expertise and interests. Things have changed. With the complicity of the Board of Aldermen and “usual suspects”, Charter changes and ordinances have been “crafted” to provide for smooth sailing toward the abyss.
The housing development is now stacked against the residents. Besides the nebulous zoning map, the residents now have to face an ordinance determining the structure of boards and commissions, weighting it in mayor’s favor.
Corporate Counsel, the only legal authority expected to defend the interests of the residents, is essentially an employee of the mayor, as is the City Planner. Even though Mayor Jarjura maintains that his real estate interests are separated from his administrative duties, his involvement with major developers leaves the question of “guilt by association” open.
The New City Plan was to solve our development problems. The project dragged on from 1999 (ref. “N Synk”, in January 2004 OBSERVER) to its alleged completion in 2005. Ironically, the plan has never been implemented and more money is being poured into it as we speak. The latest is a $175,000 contract with Woodard & Curran Inc. for “updating” the city’s zoning map (Rep-Am of 7/20/2007).The administration has been dragging its feet, allowing developers to plan our city ‘scape, while shedding crocodile tears over the concerns of the residents. My guess is that obfuscation will continue until the day the housing construction market will be declared dead. What then?
The reality is disturbing. In its pursuit of relatively easy income from developers’ fees and eventual property tax revenues, the administration has allowed housing to grow, while keeping the city infrastructure dormant. Assuming, therefore, that the new residences will be occupied, the city inhabitants will be faced with proportional loss of various features hitherto taken for granted.
Some of my comments are derived from personal experience as a member of the City Plan Commission, from which I resigned after two years, due to health reasons in November, 2005. It was an eye-opening experience.
Considering its importance within administrative structure, the City Plan department has been one of the most neglected. For a number of years, prior to the hiring of Mr. Sequin as the City Planner, that office had been practically fictional. My working career experience had taught me that productivity is judged by the number of units of product per unit of time. Thus, the efficiency of Mr. Sequin and his tiny staff amazed me. I’m sure that they’ve been forced to cut corners. In any case we, the City Plan commissioners had to scramble to keep up.
Between monthly meetings of the Commission, the tiny City Plan staff had to process and evaluate not only new projects, but also a slew of modifications etc. to pending applications. Prior to meetings, sometimes the day before, the commissioners received 4-6 large manila envelopes, sometimes almost 2 inches thick, filled with plans, reports etc. for specific applications. These were accompanied by “pro and con” recommendations from the City Planner. In addition, immediately prior to a meeting, we were handed additional documents. I often had to form my opinion on the basis of the City Planner’s recommendations, having had no time to digest the slew of details.
During my stint, the most memorable event was the battle waged by the residents of the Country Club Road neighborhood against a developer. What made it different was the fact that they had hired a very capable attorney, Mr. Dennis Buckley, leveling the playing field somewhat. I stress the “somewhat”, because Mr. Buckley lacked the added resources fielded by the developer for their attorney, Ms. Gail McTaggert, Her motto was to the effect that, if regulations are met, the plan must be approved. Amazingly, the neighborhood had nearly won! But, all of a sudden, the curtain of impartiality parted, the Corporate Counsel sanctioned another vote, an obliging commissioner changed his and the rest is history. Who would deny that in Waterbury politics is not a contact sport? Unfortunately, most cases reflect an unequal contest between neighborhoods and developers. One can only guess that, behind the scenes, there also are banks or lending institutions promoting their investment interests. Their objective is to “wear down” the opposition.
Individual residents venting their frustrations at hearings have had little or no effect. The only recourse residents have is through organized neighborhood groups; even these, however, have had limited successes.
Still, everything considered, the City Plan and other Commissions have been an important factor in stemming the housing tide. Would you rather have WDC call the shots?
Based on personal experience and observation, I would like to comment on some issues which, in my opinion, typify the concerns of various neighborhoods about the infrastructure.
Traffic Safety. Waterbury is a hilly city and many streets date back to horse and buggy days. As such, the visibility is often poor and there are no sidewalks for the pedestrians. Many secondary streets serve as busy connectors between heavily populated or commercial areas. Many of these lack traffic signals or even simple stop signs. Residents, therefore, have legitimate concerns regarding the impact of over-development on safety.
Adding to the problem is the lack of coordination between state and city. A few years ago I was a member of the Rt.69 Advisory Committee tasked with recommending improvements to the DOT. I had repeatedly asked for changes at the messy intersection of Store Avenue and Meriden Road. No dice. Now, with city’s consent, developers have added a bank and a donut place, exacerbating the traffic woes.
Drainage and Sewers. Last year, a storm dumped 6 inches of rain in 3 hours. There was heavy damage in the areas of Highland Avenue, Watertown Avenue, South Main and even a foot of water in the Palace Theater basement. One only needs to look again at the reports in the Rep-Am issues of June 3rd and 4th 2006. Mayor Jarjura declared a state of emergency. FEMA was not impressed, since it had been a minor event compared to Katrina and other disasters. The event, however, further exacerbated the concerns of the residents all over the city.
Fire safety. I found the attitude of the administration very worrisome. The residents of Bucks Hill area have long complained about the water pressure. Same goes for other new housing locales where added water consumption is not being alleviated by improved water distribution. What I found disturbing is the recommended use of sprinkler systems expected to contain fires pending the arrival of firemen. We have a great fire department, but I think that, in this case, the Fire Marshal is keeping his fingers crossed. Another point of worry is the fact that housing associations within developments would be responsible for the maintenance of the systems.
Quality of Life. We live at a time of rapid changes. New housing, especially condos, are viewed with suspicion because of their evolution. Most of these developments involve out-of-town companies out to “make a buck” on a future sale. Many owners buy condos as an investment and then frequently rent them to questionable people. Residents are fearful that, as these processes continue, the quality of life in their neighborhoods will suffer. A new factor is the deteriorating housing market. Many mortgages were obtained from subprime lenders and / or by first time buyers unable to meet the payments. This is going to overload the banking industry with properties they will have to “unload”, without much regard to the type of buyers.
Compliance. During my stint on the City Plan Commission I questioned the practice of granting excavation or building permits subject to a developer’s eventual compliance with certain conditions. In my opinion that made sense only if the city had enough inspectors to verify and enforce the stipulations. It would be nice if a knowledgeable reader could pick up on this issue. As is, I have my doubts whether the developers always comply.
Education Cost. A rise in student population translates into budget problems, which always concern us taxpayers; not all consider Waterbury a “welcoming city”. The 55+ housing has assuaged many concerns about the influx of new students. The fact of life is that owners will not want to see any of that housing remaining vacant, once the original owners depart. What will prevent the legal eagles from finding a loophole to relax the age restrictions? In the meantime, other than taxes, the residents at the 55+ sites will not contribute much to the city, since many of them will retain ties with other locales and, unfortunately, downtown Waterbury does not have much to offer.