This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Dear New London,
I know we’ve just met, and I’m leaving in a few days. But I find criticism is easiest to take from strangers. Let me be honest – you’re not living up to your potential. You were built with all of the right elements. You have narrow streets, a well planned downtown, wonderful history, narrow storefronts, beautiful buildings (ok, a few too many giant churches for your own good, but not the worst flaw to have), you’ve got a nice train station, a waterfront view, and you’re a major ferry stop. But it’s clear you’ve let yourself go.
Don’t get me wrong – I know it’s not your fault. You saw all of the other towns growing and getting rich. However, say it with me, you’re not Mystic and you’ll never be Mystic. It’s just impossible to compete with an 80’s movie starring Julia Roberts and a waterfront that isn’t cut off by a train. But Mystic is shallow anyway, with it’s giant parking lot for the tour buses and its Disneyland-like renovated homes and sailboats.
I know you saw Mystic and believed all you needed was a giant parking structure of your own, and to widen your streets, and to tear down all of those buildings that weren’t so pretty and put in more parking. But you were so close to perfect. Now instead of beautiful old shops that are walkable, pedestrians can’t carry a conversation over the 30mph traffic flying by. And parking lots have eaten up most of your downtown. And instead of revising your zoning to let infill bring new buildings with new people to shop at your downtown you kept your old zoning rules. Then you let in that condo where the first two floors are parking lots. And to bring in some cash you were desperate for you let that developer put in that block wide concrete office building in the middle of downtown without any retail – just blank walls.
I hope you didn’t really think you’d lure drivers out of their cars by adding big parking lots. How did that work out for you? Did you intend to have your main street filled with porn shops and bars? Are those new streetlight banners helping? How about the security cameras?
But it’s not too late, New London. Sure you’ll never approach the beauty of your namesake in my lifetime or perhaps a dozen lifetimes, but with a bit of work you can be a thriving city again. Start with a serious road diet. Yes, people want to cut through your downtown to get to the freeway, but that doesn’t help you at all. I’ll let you keep that parking structure for now, but replace that block wide and five block long parking strip with human scale retail and housing. Change your zoning just outside downtown to let homes be built close to one another and end your parking requirements. Up your height maximums to four stories – you don’t have to be a suburb if you start acting like a city.
I wish you luck. Call me if you find the willpower to change.
P.S. Ok, I took another trip to your city, and I have to give you some credit. State Street looks reasonably nice. It’s 2-way with slow moving traffic, which has resulted in some nice shops. I also realized that you’ve suffered from the same state-inflicted torture as other cities, as the nearby freeway and bridge most likely created your perceived need of wider roads downtown. But I urge you: ignore this freeway. Put your road on a diet and don’t fast-track potential visitors right through your downtown.
(sorry about the off-topic post, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find parallel arguments about Seattle)