The physical plant and infrastructure of a city, i.e. the layout of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure play a huge and probably decisive part in molding the behavior, attitudes, and habits — in other words, the culture — of the society of folks it contains.
After all, in relation to the total range of human habitats in time and space, the city (especially those which are planned) are, at their heart, physical constructions. Accordingly, development projects — especially public ones undertaken by the City of Danbury — should be scrutinized and constructively criticized by the any civically conscious resident. No less than the future of Danbury is at stake in the way these decisions are arrived at and carried out.
Danbury, through its own impetus and state incentives, has brought in an urban planning consultant, Good Clancy, to help develop a state-encouraged Transit-Oriented Development plan for downtown. Although the plan ostensibly focuses on transportation (especially as regards commuting), it is of comprehensive planning importance for the city because of the ripple effect its actualization will have on necessarily integrated/interdependent nature of the entire physical city going forward.
Despite what the omnipresent suburban sprawl would indicate to the average person, it is actually our downtown, the focus of TOD, that will determine the nature of the city for generations to come. TOD is certainly a good thing in concept: It is environmentally minded and aims, at least in part, to exploit the city’s significant mass transit assets and make Danbury more pedestrian and bike friendly.
However, without grassroots input, this project can take the well-worn path into an antiseptic, gentrifying, land value/profit commercial initiative only, a commercial end in itself having little to do with the city and its residents.
The current centerpiece of the draft master plan is to “co-locate” the bus station (presently on Kennedy Avenue) next to the present train station, using land along Pahquioque Avenue. On the surface, this seems like a neat idea, but how exactly would this expensive project enhance the city in terms of social and small business benefits? It only obviates a very manageable 5-minute walk through the heart of the downtown business district. Maybe there is a better way (better signage or a shuttle?) to achieving the very worthy goal of better connecting the two transit centers.
The “infilling” of vacant lots on the Still River with new buildings, another primary facet of the plan, might also bring benefits — both aesthetic and fiscal — but without “living input” from residents. Again, outside forces will hijack the infilling and all that will remain are bones of the plan with the deracinated, locally alienating, and rent-increasing sterility we have seen in other flashy, tourist-driven downtown development projects like that in Stamford.
We, within Danbury, need to “infill” the Good Clancy plan from the ground up. The city, ideally, should exist for its inhabitants.
To obtain this livable and living city that is the only way forward, in the long run, for all parties, there needs to be more public advocacy and discussion before the concrete flows. Money from the state to begin the first phase of the TOD project has arrived, and while this is reported to deal only with sidewalk and crosswalk improvements in the vicinity of the bus and train stations, the opening moves can set the tone for the rest of the project. Do these opening phases leave open the possibility of more public spaces or places to sit down, if desired? Do they presuppose and/or set the table for future discussions on more affordable housing downtown?
The draft of the overall TOD plan is on the city website or at City Hall. Use public hearings and/or individual communication to express your concerns, ask questions or just stay informed. Let’s be sure the promising TOD plan is a DOD (Danburian-Oriented Development) plan and not just another externally driven end in itself.
Moreover, this is an opportunity for the city to try to define itself and take more municipal agency within a very uncertain national and state scene.
James Root is a Danbury resident.