Complete Streets: Here’s how streetscapes, bike lanes and sidewalks can spur major economic development
Complete streets is a concept that economic development experts have talked about for decades, and it’s an approach to planning, designing and operating neighborhoods — particularly downtowns — that enables safer access for people, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transit users.
Increasingly, Connecticut cities and towns are embracing the concept to make their communities more attractive for residents, businesses and even visitors to live, work and play.
It’s also seen as an economic development tool, making downtowns and other areas safer and more aesthetically pleasing in order to lure businesses and developers.
And large sums are being invested to kick-start complete streets projects. The city of New Britain, for example, is nearing completion of a $45 million investment that has repaved and extended sidewalks, and added bike lanes and racks, safer street crossings and new landscaping along streetways.
That work may not be flashy or grab headlines, but New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said businesses and investors have shown more interest in the Hardware City because of those infrastructure investments and other efforts. It’s helped entice developers like Avner Krohn, who has built, or is building, hundreds of market-rate apartments in the city, she said.
“When you create these spaces and make them more friendly and walkable, you will see an economic development impact,” Stewart said.
Other municipalities including Hartford and West Hartford are also making sizable investments in complete streets projects.
Mary Donegan, a professor in urban and community studies at the University of Connecticut, said the complete streets concept has been around for awhile, but need and vision for it intensified in the 2000s.
“Here in the United States, we began to focus more on streetscaping as part of the pushback of the urban renewal period; it really increased in the 2000s,” said Donegan, who has been affiliated with UConn since 2017. “It pushes back on the idea that you need to have a car to get around. What were cities built for, cars or people? Once you switch the mindset that it is for people, you can then focus on helping people move and feel safe to enjoy communities when streetscapes come in.”
Complete streets projects – depending on the scope – can be expensive and in some cases cost tens of millions of dollars. Funds, at least in Connecticut, are often available through state entities like the Department of Transportation and federal government, Donegan said.
Communities that have walkable downtowns often spur interest from developers and investment. Donegan singled out New Britain as an example of how to get streetscape projects moving forward.
Some of the city’s complete streets plans are being done near CTfastrak bus stops, in turn making those areas more desirable for residents while also encouraging transit-oriented development.
“New Britain has done such a great job, as they have had a complete streets plan for about a decade now,” Donegan said. “They have a long-term vision and it’s been easy for them to chase the money.”
Stewart, who is in her fifth, two-year term, said recent private development in the city is reaching $100 million, helped in part by streetscape improvements that make New Britain more appealing.
One of the well-known complete streets projects in recent years was the build-out of the $7.4 million Beehive Bridge, which turned a dull concrete highway overpass into a honeybee sculpture that adds an artistic sense to an old industrial city.
Investments like that, Stewart said, have helped renew interest from developers like Krohn, of Jasko Development.
In one of his earliest projects, Krohn took a long-neglected building on Main Street and renovated it into a mix of first-floor retail and luxury apartments. He also renovated the Rao and Raphael buildings into mixed use.
He’s now in the middle of two of his largest New Britain projects — “The Highrailer,” a 114-unit apartment building going up at 283 Main St., and “The Brit,” a nearby 100-unit residential development being erected at the corner of Main and Bank streets.
“The extensive city and state investment in the planning and execution of the streetscape projects has spurred continued development from Jasko and others,” Krohn said. “When a downtown is walkable, pedestrian-friendly and beautiful, new businesses and residents feel compelled to live and work within that environment. Interconnectivity within the downtown and the neighborhoods is key to the overall growth of the city and its success.”
New Britain’s complete streets strategy started over a decade ago and has focused largely on downtown, but Stewart said she wants to expand those efforts into other neighborhoods.
The city of Hartford is in the midst of either recently completing or working on four complete streets projects valued at $125 million, according to Aimee Chambers, Hartford’s director of planning.
One includes redesigning Albany Avenue to make it more pedestrian friendly. Another project on Farmington Avenue is expected to start next year and will focus on pedestrian safety and urban design, Chambers said. It will have various beautification aspects to it, including new light poles, trees, flower and planter beds.
Complete streets projects are aimed at making travel safer with new roundabouts and signals, creating bicycle facilities for riders, and making areas greener and more friendlier for residents, businesses and bicyclists, Chambers said.
“The end result is about beautification and mobility around the city,” Chambers said. “We are trying to encourage more feet on the street and, in turn, more utilization of our businesses and to explore the environment more. There is a lot of development in the city and these (complete streets projects) are a good way to continue to spur development.”
The town of West Hartford recently adopted a new transit-oriented development zone that includes its Elmwood and Flatbush CTfastrak bus stations, with hopes of marrying rapid transit with denser, more pedestrian-friendly development.
The town has also focused on complete streets projects within that zone.
Its $3.8 million New Park Avenue Complete Street Improvement project dates back to 2017 and is expected to be completed at the end of 2024, according to James Brennan, West Hartford’s assistant town engineer. It entails making improvements on almost a mile of road on New Park Avenue from New Britain to Oakwood avenues.
It will, among other things, take four traffic lanes down to three while also adding bicycle lanes. That will help support recent residential projects in the area including 616 and 540 New Park, which have added, or will add, dozens of new apartments in town, bringing more feet to the street.
“Streetscape improvements are a fundamental way to enhance the viability of a street or neighborhood,” Brennan said.