Norwich named to national 'best neighborhoods' listing

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Nov. 18, 2013
Downtown Norwich was named one of the country's great neighborhoods by the American Planning Association, a national organization for municipal planners. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Downtown Norwich was named one of the country's great neighborhoods by the American Planning Association, a national organization for municipal planners. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The American Planning Association has designated downtown Norwich and Chelsea Landing as one of its top 10 neighborhoods in its annual “Great Places in America” listing. The APA cited Norwich’s historic architecture (some of which dates to the 18th century), its redeveloped marina area, the Mercantile Exchange building and the Wauregan Hotel, among others, as examples of community investment in revitalizing the downtown area while preserving its heritage.

Norwich received kudos for its eclectic mix of period architectural styles of “unusual historic integrity and variety,” its streetscape improvements, the Intermodal Transportation Center, and community events like Taste of Italy and Rock the Docks.

The APA, a national organization for professional municipal planners, officials and citizens, compiles its annual listing of exemplary streets, neighborhoods and public spaces based on open submissions. Among the standards it uses in judging are accessibility to several property uses (residential, commercial, mixed) and modes of transportation (pedestrian, bicycles, boats, etc.); a visually interesting mix of architecture and landscape; and an environment that encourages social interaction and community involvement.

Among the other resources cited by the APA in Norwich were the Vibrant Communities Initiative, which aims to guide development of historic resources, the downtown arts district, the riverfront and the city’s melting pot of cultural diversity.

Outgoing Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said that the award recognized the levels of both public and private investment in the city over the past decade or more. “Ten years is just a blip when you look at a city that’s 350 years old,” he said. He said that the current private-to-public ratio of investment in downtown bonding is 3 to 1. “That’s a nice ratio. You want to encourage that,” he said.

The Mercantile Building is a prime success story in the city, said Nystrom. The Mashantucket Pequot tribe took over a trust in the structure, turning it into a state-of-the-art commercial space and using it for tribal offices prior to renting it out to other tenants. The top two floors are still largely unoccupied, he said, but their spectacular views of the harbor should make them desirable spaces.

Nystrom said that Norwich could become even more pedestrian-friendly by rearranging traffic patterns and by re-routing Route 2 out of the city center, where it makes crossing to Howard Brown Park difficult for walkers. Eliminating heavy through-traffic would ensure that “people coming in there [in cars] are coming because they want to be in Norwich,” rather than en route to somewhere else. New traffic patterns could also allow for expansion at Brown Park and attract more pedestrians to downtown, he said.

As an example of ongoing private investment, Nystrom cited plans for the Harp and Dragon Pub to construct a terrace expansion onto slopes adjoining the building’s rear for outdoor dining. The terraces could accommodate more expansion, all the way to the hillside behind the now-closed People’s Bank. That expansion could allow other businesses to use the structure’s elevator to provide handicapped access to the terraces, he said.

Jason Vincent, vice-president of the Norwich Community Development Corporation, said that NCDC members have also discussed expanding sidewalk space in several areas of downtown, including Main Street, Broadway and Franklin, to accommodate sidewalk cafes at restaurants during good weather. The plan would have the added benefit of slowing down vehicle traffic through downtown, he said.

“The places people like to visit are the places where they feel safe and comfortable,” he said. “Most of downtown is not comfortable for recreational walkers, especially by the waterfront.” Increased foot traffic would draw business, he said.

NCDC President Robert Mills said that such a change would require cooperation from many entities, including police, businesses, and the state, since it involves state roads. But the results could be worthwhile, like the earlier city improvements cited by the APA, some of which date back to the 1970s. “These kinds of improvements take decades,” he said.


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