By NICOLE JACQUES
Master downtown Bristol developer Renaissance Downtowns urged citizens to “stay the course” in supporting Phase 1 development plans for Depot Square during a public dinner held at Nuchies in Forestville on May 19.
Following weeks of public meetings at which some Bristol residents expressed doubt in the slated actions proposed by the development company, Renaissance officials sought to use the Nuchies dinner as an opportunity to describe the progress they made over the last four years under partnership with the city, as well as answer questions from the public while providing explanations of the next steps to come.
“We’re at a crossroads—now it comes down to the general public” said Nuchies co-owner Dave Pasqualicchio, who introduced the Renaissance team and urged residents to continue their support of the long-awaited development plans.
“Anything can work, but it’s going to take work, and hard work,” said Pasqualicchio. “Everyone has challenges, even Renaissance…[Downtown development] is not going to happen overnight.”
Ryan Porter, director of planning and development for Renaissance Downtowns, said that over the four years Renaissance has been involved in Bristol, progress has been made.
Since aligning with the city in May 2010, Renaissance has brought over 2,600 members to revitalization support organization Bristol Rising, and has held over 150 public outreach meetings. Physical developments such as the demolition and reconstruction of 11 Summer St., the relocation of McDonald’s, and encouraging and supporting the opening of downtown businesses such as Barley Vine and Bare Bones have also been part of the process, said Porter. Porter also addressed concerns raised at the May 13 City Council meeting, at which a number of residents expressed disapproval for what they called a “change of plans” on Renaissance’s part in the development corporation’s decision to continue Phase 1 with the construction of an apartment complex.
“The plan has not changed,” said Porter, who called the the concern a misconception. “We still are going to be delivering [the originally proposed project] here in Bristol.”
Some residents also expressed concerns over the pace of Renaissance’s accomplishments over the last four years, saying more progress should have been made during the time period. Porter explained that the track of development has been normal, if not faster than other communities, citing similar projects such as West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, which took years to complete after initial ideas surfaced in 1999 and construction began in 2005.
Renaissance’s next steps in the Phase 1 plan (which included the relocation of McDonald’s) includes construction of a five-story apartment building, with a first floor reserved for retail spaces. Rental prices for those apartment spaces are expected to range from $750 per month for a studio apartment and upwards of $1,000 to $1,400 or more per month for one- and two-bedroom spaces (approximately $1.85 per square foot).
Construction on that part of the phase, however, may not begin until anywhere between nine months to about a year from now. Porter said financing the project is the current roadblock, with an estimated $11.7 million in private funds still needing to be raised.
Renaissance finance plans have asked the city for $6 million in public funding for the construction. In addition, officials from the organization are currently exploring state CHAMP grants, EB3 financing, and bonding as supplementary financing options.
Renaissance stressed the financing issue should not be viewed as a setback.
“The answer cannot be that we abandon the thought of downtown development,” said Don Monti, president and CEO of Renaissance, continuing on to say that the public investment is necessary.
Despite the presentation, some residents remained skeptical, saying the project may be giving Bristol something that it does not want.
“I know [Renaissance’s] intentions are good, but I’m nervous—I’m very nervous about what’s happening. I don’t like it,” said Steve Cohen, an early supporter of Renaissance, who said he does not feel comfortable with the city zoning changes made for the project.
Others who voiced their opinions at the dinner said that although the project may make some people nervous, that does not mean the city should halt work on it.
“The Bristol residents keep saying not here—I say why not here?” said Linda, a current West Hartford resident and long-time Bristol homeowner. “If you want to change Bristol stop trashing it and change your town—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Fred Hall, a Bristol resident, is also optimistic about the project.
“This is not a lot of pie-in-the-sky talk—this is real,” said Hall. “Let’s make this happen and have us be looked back on as the greatest generation in the [history of] Bristol for what we’ve done.”
While construction for the next steps of Phase 1 remains months away, Renaissance said it is important now and in the coming months that citizens remain active in supporting the 75 businesses that surround the downtown area.
“Nobody is going to take this project seriously if we don’t get things going, so we need to get things going,” said Porter.
Renaissance’s finalized Phase 1 plans for Depot Square are due to the City Council by June 16.