By LISA CAPOBIANCO
As Bristol moves forward with the “master planning” process for downtown redevelopment, the planning consultant recently spoke with city officials about the constraints and opportunities for the site.
During a Bristol Development Authority (BDA) Downtown Committee meeting last Thursday, Milone & MacBroom reviewed existing conditions of Centre Square—the former Bristol Centre Mall site that was originally known as Depot Square. Milone & MacBroom has partnered with the BDA for the master planning project, which will form a redevelopment plan for Centre Square that connects to and integrates well with the existing downtown.
From a development standpoint, steep slopes, buried conduits and utility easements influence where buildings can be placed on the site, said Tom Daly, senior project manager of Milone & MacBroom.
“Anyone who has parked…across Town Hall there’s that steep bank, and that’s a little bit of a challenge in terms of how is the development going to work out, and how is it going to interact with that street, which is obviously so important to a good, positive downtown development,” said Daly.
Daly said several old easements associated with the former Bristol Centre Mall exist on site, and recommended the city to start looking into the abandonment process with Corporation Counsel.
“It’s more of a legal thing,” said Daly. “Abandonment of those easements is something that the city may want to start looking at…because that’s a timeline. We need to start having that conversation so it doesn’t hold off any development.”
However, positive conditions of the site include adequate utilities (public water, sanitary sewer, gas and electric) to support future development.
“Those are all good things that future developers don’t have to worry about,” said Daly, who also commended the city for developing a streetscape element downtown.
Daly said storm drainage improvements will be made as the site is developed. Since the site currently is paved, downstream infrastructure is sufficient to handle peak runoff.
“As these developers come…they’ll be dealing with their own drainage, and working both with Public Works and Engineering to do that,” said Daly, adding that the city also may want to have a more detailed study on the site’s environmental conditions and constraints.
From land use and zoning to market assessment to transportation and parking, the consultant firm also reviewed a variety of topics that may influence Centre Square development.
According to zoning regulations, the entire site, which is in the BD-1 (Downtown Business District 1) zone, allows for most retail, service, institutional and office uses. Although form-based regulations establish a development framework that compliments existing buildings on Main Street and North Main Street, some regulations, including the 10-foot maximum ‘build-to-line,” may conflict with the site’s constraints (i.e. steep slopes) in some locations, said Patrick Gallagher, planner I of Milone & MacBroom.
“We may have a developer coming up to the Planning or Zoning Commission asking for a variance because they won’t be able to hit that 10-foot build-to-line,” said Gallagher.
Surrounded by the highest density residential parts of Bristol (the West End and Federal Hill), the site’s disjointed land uses on Riverside Avenue are a poor gateway to downtown, reported Gallagher.
“One of the biggest land use challenges is Riverside Avenue,” said Gallagher. “It really doesn’t give a positive sense of entering a nice, walkable Main Street. Memorial Boulevard is great, but it doesn’t naturally flow traffic into our site like Riverside Ave. does.”
To date, the Centre Square site has 1,490 public parking spaces as well as 705 other public parking spaces in downtown Bristol. The downtown area also has 4,400 private parking spaces.
Businesses on Main Street and North Main Street currently rely on surface parking on the Centre Square site, said Gallagher.
“We see this particularly as a challenge for Main Street—there’s not a lot of parking behind the buildings,” said Gallagher. “We need to work closely with Main Street businesses as we develop the site to make sure they still have access to a conveniently located and proper amount of parking.”
When addressing transportation, Gallagher said low traffic volumes on Main Street and North Main Street compared to other commercial corridors in Bristol (i.e. Route 6) contribute to retail market challenges.
However, there is an opportunity to connect North Main Street and Main Street streetscape designs through the site, said Gallagher.
“We see this as an opportunity to tie it all together,” said Gallagher. “The streetscape in front of Barley Vine is fantastic with the planters and benches for outdoor dining.”
Although bus service remains limited in the remainder of Bristol, said Gallagher, the CTfastrak service provides good connections to Hartford and New Britain markets—a potential benefit for employers seeking to relocate.
“In that respect, CTfastrak is a positive for the site,” said Gallagher.
When addressing the residential market, Gallagher said the city’s high residential vacancy rate (14.5 percent) and low rents indicate a weak market demand for new housing units to date.
“We don’t see this as an appropriate market at this current time for additional residential development,” said Gallagher.
The proposed development by Bristol Hospital is an opportunity to build a “critical mass” of retail, along with increased programming of the site. The hospital has proposed a 100,000 square foot medical office building on the corners of Riverside Avenue and Main Street, which will be a combination of its medical offices that are leased throughout Bristol and other towns.
To date, the hospital has sent out an RFP to eight development firms, and is expecting to have proposals returned by Sept. 20, according to Tiffany Fernandez, project lead for the site.
“It’s a great start, but it alone [Bristol Hospital’s proposed building] probably won’t result in a resurgence of retail,” said Gallagher. “We need additional things beside Bristol Hospital to build that critical mass, whether it’s events downtown, programming.”
For more information about the downtown redevelopment process, visit www.BristolCentreSquare.com.