Greetings from PAC 001, where an open forum on the proposed bookstore relocation is about to begin. Seats are filling up quickly; so far I spot about 20 or 30 community members, a suited Centerplan representative, a small handful of students, and one or two professors (including Susanne Fusso, famed Professor of Russian Language and Literature). The average age in this room is probably well over 35, which is interesting. Where are all the students? (Update: As of the start of the forum, many more students have streamed in, and there are probably well over 130 people here, of pretty much all ages.)
Community members both inside and outside of Wesleyan’s campus have weighed in on the proposed development. Many, like Wesleyan alum and parent Jen Alexander ’88 and Red & Black owner Ed Thorndike ’89, are against it. Mayor Drew, on the other hand, is all for it, mostly on the grounds of job creation. If recent comments are any indication, there will be some strong views raised at this forum.
Wesleying’s liveblog coverage begins past the jump.
Inspired by the strong viewpoints, I filmed a few quick video interviews with some of the Middletown residents who spoke up. Those should appear on the blog tomorrow.
Oh, and probably goes without saying: many Wes people have strong feelings about this proposal but couldn’t make it to the forum. That’s what the comments section’s for — write in.
“Alright, thank you, we appreciate the input.” Forum’s over.
“I don’t think we’ve considered all options,” concludes Alexander. “We can do better.”
Jen Alexander ’88, owner of KidCity (I think?), speaks: “I hope the University doesn’t participate in turning that chunk of Washington Street into commercial development. From 2003 – 2006, I was one of the people on the bookstore transition committee.”
Question: “If this doesn’t go through, does Wesleyan have a plan for any of that property? How does it fit into your housing plan of all this extra stock?”
Mr. Centerplan says, “We believe that there were urban downtown vitality issues that we believe we can address.” But it’s clear that nobody in this room believes this development will address those issues.
Centerplan’s new argumentative tactic: point out that this development is good because it’s not Walmart.
CEO of Centerplan: “We look for opportunities of real estate that achieve success not just financially… We could develop Walmarts if we wanted that.”
Virgil: “I feel like you haven’t really addressed a mission statement for this project. You haven’t made it clear why you want to build this building. Like… why??? I think it’s a real question.”
Virgil ’15 chips in and notes that the Argus and WESU are both housed above the current bookstore and that half of WESU’s current volunteers are from the community: “We actively try to cultivate a connection between the Wesleyan students and the Middletown community.”
Nate Peters says, “I think there might have even been one or two positive comments on the blog” — referring to the Wesleyan blog about this project.
Centerplan is asked what obstacles they foresee in the plan, but doesn’t want to answer — says they haven’t really spent any money on “professionals to analyze those issues.”
CEO of Centerplan jokes, “The discussion is what, 50-50?” Says, “You’ve made your opinions known very respectfully, and I appreciate that.”
Student: “What would happen to the building that the bookstore’s currently in?” Notes that she pretty exclusively eats at Red & Black and WesWings, and “It’s a shame that a business that’s shown so much loyalty to students is being put in danger by the school.”
Seven- or eight-year-old kid just sat down next to me. Hoping he chimes in about KidCity’s architecture.
“We believe in the value of historic structures and what they mean for the city,” says a community member. “Your erosion of that residential core is just gonna push back another block. Those people living behind this development — it’s not gonna be a very pleasant experience.”
Comment from a white-haired community member: “A historical observation about the evolution of the campus. I think many years ago Wes recognized that it was too big and too spread out and didn’t have a center. So they spent a lot of money getting a planner to help them decide where to put the new student center. And they put it there, and it was critical to finally getting a center of the campus.”
Same community members: “If Wesleyan is instrumental in bringing in national retailers that have never been here before, it doesn’t really sound like Wesleyan is supporting Middletown.” Centerplan: “Fair enough.”
Middletown resident: “I think everybody here knows, though nobody has said specifically, that Middletown is a very charming town. And unique. And I think one of the main reasons is because we don’t have national chains, aside from drug stores. You’re proposing to change all of that, with this project.”
A Middletown resident asks if they’ll still go ahead with the proposal of Middletown doesn’t support the zoning changes.
Ninety minutes into the discussion, and Middletown residents still have serious complaints and points to bring up. I’m getting really hungry. Does anyone want to get dinner?
Somewhat of a mass exodus out the door, but the discussion is still going. A community member is arguing that there won’t be a “gateway,” that we should have a main proposal along the main drag, “not up a few blocks. It just won’t work.”
She’s still speaking. “If this next project is not good for Middletown, don’t do it. Or find a different space. Or do it differently.”
Same alum/Middletown resident goes on: “I think that’s a violation of what makes this town attractive. When I got divorced, I couldn’t live anywhere else in the country. I decided, this is the town I want to live in. There is a downtown, but the residential area is right close to it. There’s no sprawl.”
The older alum quips, “He would turn over in his grave, but I can’t forward him the email.” Didn’t catch who the “he” was, but that garnered a lot of laughs.
An older Middletown resident and alum says “this meeting is a little late in the game. We should’ve had this many months ago. Because Wesleyan needs to think about basic things — like what direction do we want the campus going in.”
Nate Peters says they still have to make a decision about whether or not students will be able to use their meal plan at the new bookstore.
Current Wesleyan student (can’t see who it is) points out that we already have food and Red & Black Cafe at the current bookstore and that if Wesleyan doesn’t own the new building, we won’t be able to use our meal plan at establishments in the new building. Says: “What I’m hearing is that we’re getting a new bookstore on the other side of a dangerous street that has food establishments where we can’t use our meal plan.”
Nate Peters is speaking again and reiterating that there are no additional costs for Wesleyan to move the bookstore.
WSA rep Zach Malter ’13 speaks up: “I want to echo the concerns of safety. That Washington Street intersection can be pretty bad, and unless you address that, I can’t see myself getting behind this proposal.” Suggests a more good-faith proposal to solve the traffic issues which this development obviously exacerbates.
Same community member responds again: “I guess you’re thinking of real in terms of a corporate store. Well, I think small businesses are real.”
CEO of Centerplan says, “I don’t think it’s necessary to get personal,” then gets personal: “I have a four-year-old daughter. I go to the Armado’s bookstore. And we don’t have in Middletown a real bookstore, whether for children or adults.”
Community member: “I’m a third-generation toy collector, I love children’s books. But you seem to lack an understand of the geography, and if you went inside Amado’s, you’d know they have a bookstore for kids. If you went into Main Street Markets, you’d see they sell a wide variety of books for all subjects.”
“In my view,” responds Centerplan, “the Wesleyan campus doesn’t have any physical linkage to the Middletown environment.” He says this will help people on Main Street and people in Wesleyan patronizing the same location, and it’ll bring people together. But why doesn’t Broad Street Books already do that?
“I have a friendly question,” says one community member — causing laughter all around. “I want to understand what is the ‘linkage’ that you’re talking about? Does that mean people are walking and they’ll go to the bookstore?”
Carbone: “To me, it makes me feel sick.” Applause.
Someone (I think that’s Buru Style drummer Bill Carbone?) is saying, “Whether or not you decide it’s a residential neighborhood, it’s on the edge of one.” Points out that he lives on Pearl Street and says, “I really hate to think of the gateway to Middletown being chain stores.” Applause from others.
“We’re here to listen to you specifically,” says Centerplan, “and to give you enough information about the project to answer your questions the best we can.”
Centerplan: “The specific people who have said they’re in support of this are Mayor Dan Drew and Larry [something], Director of the Chambers.”
Centerplan: “I think everyone here has made the point that you don’t think Wesleyan should relocate its bookstore. You’ve made the point.” Goes on, says, “We will need to decide to present a formal application to the city to develop this area without Wesleyan as a tenant.” Says we have the right, as citizens of Middletown, to oppose it. “We present our argument and so does the opposition and it’s decided at that point whether it goes forward or not.”
Great question from student: “You say that you’re here to get our input. So what would it take for you to realize that this is not what the community wants? How can we officially tell you that we do not want this and what would it take for you to say, ‘Okay, enough is enough.'”
A student (I think?) agrees that it’s important to integrate Wesleyan and Middletown culture, but “I completely disagree that this is the way to do it.”
Centerplan says something about parking on It’s Only Natural and Eli’s Cannon and everybody yells and says he’s wrong. Didn’t catch what the comment was.
Commenter: “We can’t address this! You just said it’s the state’s problem!” Centerplan responds vaguely, says “it’s a problem that will need to be addressed if this project moves forward.”
Commenter concludes: “I think this is just in La la Land.” Major applause.
Commenter points out that when you make a left turn onto Washington Street, you can sit through three traffic lights. “The traffic is absolutely horrendous.” He’s absolutely right — I’ve always wondered why there isn’t a green arrow for left turns.
Commenter continues, says he’s seen major streamlining of Route 66. “The state has been working for decades to increase traffic on that road.” Says “I’m completely sympathetic with the project, I just think the location is a disaster waiting to happen. To pretend that the traffic is not a problem is to go in the face of 30 years of expanding that road and seeing traffic increase and increase and increase.”
Comment from resident who’s lived in Middletown for 38 years: “I’d just like to say, I don’t like this idea.” Major laughter and applause.
Community member says “This is really not something to be handled lightly” and wonders if the state can get involved in constructing on Route 66.
Comment from Middletown resident: “When I work at night, I hear accidents. I’m very familiar with this. There’s a little complacency about this.” Centerplan responds: “There’s no complacency.”
Centerplan: “If you agree with that, you get up, you run from office, you change zoning laws, and you become part of the solution, just like I did.” Random cranky audience member: “I’ll do that!” Applause.
Professor Schatz just turned around, smiled at me, and muttered, “Socialism.”
CEO of Centerplan: “You don’t ever prevent that from happening. Anywhere.”
Her question continues: “This is a very difficult economy that we’re in. Local businesses have been climbing up slowly. It’s come a long way [since the ’80s] and not without the work of local people like KidCity. If it’s zoned commercial and Starbucks suddenly decides, ‘We’re out of here,’ you have no control over that. How do you prevent that from happening?”
Middletown resident: “There’s been lots of fender benders, there’s been one person killed. I live on Pearl Street and cross Wash. every day. It takes 11 seconds to cross. I have almost never seen a Wesleyan student push the button. They never push the button! I just think you really need to keep that in mind.”
Same audience commenter responds: “When money is spent at a national chain, money goes to China. Or Taiwan.”
CEO: “I don’t believe in the argument that if a Chipotle comes in, Mondo is hurt. We believe in competition.”
Centerplan CEO responds, “It’s good for everyone when companies of the stature we’re talking about express an interest in this environment.”
Excellent question from a community member: “I’d like to know what it is that prevents you from inviting local businesses into this space and if there’s anything communities can do to make it possible.” Centerplan CEO: “We welcome local businesses. And we welcome national businesses.”
Community member says there will be an article on the front page of the NYT questioning Wesleyan’s negligence in putting a bookstore across from a major highway. Some applause.
Question from a community member: “Have you given any consideration to the Hamlin(?) Street property?”
More from Prof. Bachner: “I am fundamentally disturbed by the idea that this is the right solution. I don’t think it will draw students to Main Street any better. I think it’s a potentially tacky gateway to downtown.” Audience members snap in agreement.
Prof. Bachner argues that this development “will take away from businesses on Main Street” and therefore contradicts the idea of “synergy” that Centerplan keeps mentioning.
Professor Bachner is now speaking, really passionately: “I’ve lived in lots of different urban areas — New York, Boston, New Haven, Portland, Oregon. There are different kinds of ‘business.’ Not all traffic means you’re ‘vibrant.’ It’s not just ‘everybody’s out grabbing lunch.'”
“There is a traffic issue on this side,” admits Project Manager. “That’s obvious. The question is how to resolve that.” Hard to hear the rest of his comment.
“I don’t buy the idea that this will bring Wesleyan closer to downtown,” says an adult community member. “I just have to tell you, it’s all connected.”
CEO of Centerplan uses the Yale bookstore as an example and says that’s analogous to what they’re proposing. Advice for developers: never compare Wes to Yale while talking to Wes. Or Yale.
“The nooks or the kindles or the iPads or what have you…” lol.
Professor Schatz finally notices me typing away behind him. Hi, Professor Schatz!
Plus, “It won’t be ours to operate; it’ll be ours to collect rent.” (High five!) (Not really.)
Mr. Centerplan says there’s a changing idea of a bookstore, “they become a place to have an experience more than just buying books” (I’m paraphrasing” and “that’s part of the retail’s challenge to make any bookstore work.”
First student comment comes from Marj Dodson ’13: “As a student here, I haven’t bought a single book from the bookstore. We’re moving away from the idea of a bookstore. So basing this on the idea that students will buy books from the bookstore is a little problematic.”
Same commenter: “If Wesleyan’s not part of the equation, there’s still equal vacant square footage on Main Street for you to move forward with this project.” CEO of Centerplan says he doesn’t know what’s vacant on Main Street.
Question from a community member: “There’s about equal square footage that’s vacant on Main Street. Why not have the bookstore there, skip this idea of ‘linkage’?”
CEO of Centerplan says that’s a planning issue and that they “will consider it.”
Comment from an alum: “My name is Andrew Watt. I am a graduate of Wesleyan, class of ’02. And I live on Pearl Street.” Talks about studying urban areas and cites parking across from Russell House. “Russell House and Wash. Street are two of this city’s 200-year-old corridors. These are the things that have made Middletown successful. And your building is pulled back from the street. Can it come up to the street so it represents the urban fabric you say it is?”
If Wesleyan decides not to move the bookstore, will this project still go forward? Centerplan responds: “It will probably go forward with a two-floor building, not a three-floor building.”
Community member shouts out something about a previous car accident: “I heard her head sound like a watermelon when it hit the curb.” CEO of Centerplan ignores this.
The same commenter responds: “Main Street runs in the opposite direction. Washington Street runs east/west.” The Centerplan dude says, “I’ve crossed Main Street thousands of times in the past 15 years.”
Another adult male voice pipes in: “I want to bring this back to the safety of Washington Street. When you go down Washington Street in the afternoon, when the sun goes down, you’re just completely blind.” CEO of Centerplan points out he drives on Main Street other day.
CEO of Centerplan: “I think that’s a fair point.” But mentions he goes to Dunkin Donuts and Javapalooza — “I go to all of them. And all of the coffee shops do well. It’s a legitimate point, but I don’t know if it’s a part of the discussion this afternoon.” More hands shoot up.
Another adult community member speaks up: “My concern is bringing in national chains, bringing in food service — my worry is that might detract from really great local businesses on Main Street.” (Cue round of applause from many audience members.)
CEO pipes up: “From our point of view, bringing Wesleyan into the Main Street corridor is beneficial to the community.”
Jason Schatz ’14: “Wesleyan has a personal history with branding.” (References the Admissions’ website’s “Are You Wesleyan?” brouhaha from 2009.) “What elements of the brand do you want to emphasize?”
Jason Schatz ’14, WSA rep, speaks up: “If we want it to be as close to the Main Street as possible, frankly I think we should leave the bookstore where it is.” Centerplan says the new location will be visible and available to “folks in and outside of Wesleyan community.”
An unidentified community member speaks up, says it will become more congested. CEO replies: “I hope it becomes more congested! We want people to come.” Lots of groans in the audience.
Responding to parking concerns, CEO of Centerplan says “I’m guessing 90 or 100 parking spaces will be available on site.”
“I go to Eli’s Cannon. And I go to O’Rourkes. And I cross Washington Street every time I do that.” Translation: “I’m still alive, so it can’t be dangerous, right?”
CEO of Centerplan responds to Professor Hill and explains the concept of a Walk/Don’t Walk signal. Thanks, Centerplan. “We all live in an urban environment. This is not sprawl.”
Professor Hill: “Increasing traffic is a nightmare, frankly.”
My thesis advisor, Patricia Hill, speaks: “My main concern about this project is the location. That intersection is already congested. Crossing Wash. Street is dangerous. I was horrified to hear the idea that children might be drawn across the street in greater numbers to the bookstore.”
Opening the floor to comments. At least 10 hands shoot up.
Claims this development will service not only Middletown, but also “the region, in a very real way.”
Interesting statement: “We love real estate. We love building things. But whenever you do that, you put that out in the world and the world criticizes you. But we enjoy that.”
Says that one of the flaws of Middletown is the “disconnect.” That’s why we need “linkage.” More “linkage” makes Middletown more better.
“The second concept of linkage is Wesleyan itself. And I would never presume to know what’s best for you all, and that’s why you’re here today,” says CEO of Centerplan.
Do all developers use the words “linkage” and “synergize” this much?
The CEO of Centerplan is speaking again, and points out that the folks who own these homes — some of the ones that will be demolished — have not chosen to make investments in their residential use. Also, it’s not the business center of Middletown.
“It is truly, in my view, a potential location that creates linkage between the central location and the Washington Street corridor.”
Architect: “The site is pretty steeply sloped, and we’re developing an architecture that relates to that.” Admits: “Yes, we are taking down some historic structures. And as I’ve long said, we don’t live in Venice.”
Jeff Biano, the architect behind the project, is now speaking and showing blueprints of the building.
Developer is touching on sustainability and says “the theme around this project is to be environmentally friendly.” Now saying that they plan to “break ground in the Spring of 2014.”
Wait, correcting himself. Spring of 2013.
Spotted: Ron Schatz, Professor of History, fan of Connecticut record stores.
The goal, in developer’s terms: “To create a building that will really fit in with the surrounding environment. I’m personally not a fan of these buildings that try to make a crazy statement that people are really scratching their heads about.”
Now he’s about to go over the “nuts and bolts” (loving the cliches) of the project. Says some of the buildings on the site are really in disrepair.
“We are really open and receptive to your comments . . . so that we can respond to those,” says Mr. Developer. “The first step is to kind of open that dialogue.”
Okay, these are the good reasons, according to the developer:
1) “You have the opportunity to really create a modern, state-of-the-art bookstore on a level that is on par with other universities.”
2) “Certainly enhancing the offerings of the bookstore — allowing it to have digital merchandise.”
3) “Having it be a social hub — another hub on the campus environment to provide that platform for communal interactions.”
Plan is to “really create a center of gravity for students to mingle and socialize and add some energy to Washington Street,” says the developer. “We actually think there are a couple of really good reasons to [relocate the bookstore].”
Counting at least four faculty members I’ve taken classes with at this forum just makes me feel old.
“…But it became clear to us that just a simple retail location is not really doing justice to the opportunity we have here. [ . . . ] How do we add something to this program to make something we can all be proud of?”
“We thought there were certain retailers users who were interested in Main Street and Wash. Street,” explains the PA. So we began to think about how to put a project together with certain nationals…”
Students are still streaming in and filling up the aisles. Spotted in the front row is WSA President Zach Malter ’13.
“Our plan is to move Centerplan Developments into this building, as well as it being the home of some retailers — and Wesleyan’s bookstore.” Now he’s introducing his colleague, the project manager (I think?).
“We’re neighbors and we’re part of the [Middletown] community, and we intend to be that for a long time,” says Centerplan CEO, referencing their developing the building where Mondo is on Main Street.
The CEO says he’s spent a good portion of his life in public service and “understands many of the concerns firsthand.”
Spotted: Demetrius Eudell, Professor of History and African-American Studies.
Centerplan: “Because of the nature of Wesleyan asking us to join them in an investigation of whether or not to relocate your bookstore to our site, it became public earlier than is typical for us. We don’t have much to present in specifics.”
CEO of Centerplan Companies is now speaking and says he will introduce the project manager, who is the “key person who’s going to work on this assignment,” as well as the architecture from Middletown.
Attendees are still streaming in. Every seat is full, and students are standing up at the back of the room.
Nate Peters is opening the discussion and making one brief comment: a reminder that “Wesleyan has not made any decision at this time regarding the bookstore or what will happen to the existing building. What we’re looking for is your input.”
More students filing in, as well as Professor of English Sally Bachner. Nearly every seat in PAC 001 is filled — that’s fuller than any montly WESU meeting I’ve attended in this room.