My husband and I moved to Westerly in 2017 to live in a walkable downtown. Our dream was to be able to walk to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the library, and shops. Westerly has evolved over these five years beyond our dreams, with the addition of movie theaters, live entertainment and other attractions. And, even though we are in our 70s, it seems we have reversed the natural progression and gotten healthier and stronger.
But there is a bigger story here than two people enjoying their golden years. There are few opportunities for others to live in walkable communities like ours, while at the same time downtowns need such a customer base to survive. Though Westerly and Pawcatuck seem vibrant now, the recent past reveals a different story, a tale of ups and downs. Ask the retailers and restaurateurs how challenging it is. Success is far from guaranteed.
So, if downtowns require such effort, why not just let market forces determine what form of commercial development thrives, whether it be strip malls, regional malls or historic downtowns? Because it’s not just market forces that cause one to win out over the other, but government forces, such as transportation and tax policies that influence the outcome. And the outcome can be far from good. An overemphasis on the car and highways has created sprawl development which has negatively impacted our physical, mental, and civic health. It has robbed us of our opportunities to use our legs to walk and breathe fresh air. For example, it is unsafe to walk from one strip development to another, even if they are adjacent to one another. Congestion has made travel unsafe and unpredictable, ratcheting up anger and anxiety.
The town center is a critical public space, not just for commerce, but for civic life. Informal meetings with neighbors and friends or even perfect strangers are part of the glue that holds us together. Lucky for us then that transportation planners, legislators and town officials are starting to turn the tide in ways that will support downtowns. We recently attended a public meeting at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton hosted by the Connecticut Department of Transportation presenting plans for a feasibility study for extending Shoreline East, Connecticut’s commuter rail, to Westerly. Cell phone data analysis has led the study leadership to conclude that connecting to Westerly is a critical component of success for commuter rail expansion. As part of the study, they are also looking at adding stations in Stonington and Groton, with biking and walking to stations a priority. Among the goals of the expansion is to get people out of their cars, improve air quality and public health, reduce I-95 congestion and improve connectivity for everyone, not just car owners. The meeting was packed with officials from both states who praised the study, which will be completed in the fall. The project management team told us that service to Westerly with one-hour headways could be achieved with minimal investment, implying that this could happen sooner rather than later.
With the prospect of commuter rail coming to Westerly and Pawcatuck, these towns will become more livable than ever. Regular rail service will bring more people to downtown to shop and play. It will allow residents to get to jobs in Connecticut without the dangers and wasted time spent in heavy traffic. This is the moment to intensify housing in our downtowns so that more people will be within walking distance of shops and services. Spaces above ground-floor retail, the Campbell Grain property and other possibilities should be developed for living. Ordinances requiring dedicated parking for each apartment should be relaxed. This is our chance to reverse decades of environmental and civic degradation, and we in Westerly and Pawcatuck are fortunate to have such a good head start.
The writer is the former CEO of New London Main Street and a consultant to the Avery-Copp House in Groton who coordinated the launch of the Thames River Heritage Park and water taxis in 2015.