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Advocates say transit-oriented development is misunderstood. Their walking tours aim to change minds

Hartford, Connecticut, USA September 25, 2018 CT Fastrak, bus ticket selling kiosk.
Alexander Farnsworth / Getty Images
iStock Editorial
Hartford, Connecticut, USA September 25, 2018 CT Fastrak, bus ticket selling kiosk.

Less than a 5 minute walk from Noroton Heights rail station, Darien has a number of multifamily housing projects in the works.

With a crowd of several dozen spectators behind her, Evonne Klein pointed to a construction site. While today the space is still underway, it will soon be part of Darien Commons – the largest retail plaza adjacent to the New Haven rail line. The village-style community spanning over about 9 acres would host several three story buildings.

“It’s a mixed-use, mixed income development. It will be home to shops as well as restaurants. It will be home to 122 one and two bedroom apartments,” she said as she led a “walking tour” of housing developments near the Noroton Heights rail line.

The tour, sponsored by several housing organizations including Darien Talks Housing and Desegregate CT, aimed to highlight housing solutions near transit that fit the community but also improve housing affordability. It’s one of many tours being conducted across Connecticut to promote transit-oriented communities or transit-oriented development (TOD).

The approach encourages communities to strategically use space around transit stations for different multi-family housing developments. Out of 40 “transit towns” with at least a train or CTFastrak station, only 25 allow as-of-right multi-family homes on some percentage of land near transportation, according to a report by DesegregateCT.

Darien is one of the communities that has welcomed transit-oriented development in some areas around their rail line thanks to zoning changes over the years. But there is still a long way to go for Darien and many other communities in the region.

“Zoning decisions made by locally or appointed people, past and present, determined so much about where we live. Decisions of the past have shaped our towns and cities. It’s all about zoning. And what we know is that the more housing options available, the more vibrant the municipality,” Klein said.

Yet, statewide bills on transit oriented development have met some resistance in the legislature. A bill introduced this year, required towns to allow at least 15 housing units per acre within half a mile of a rail line or CTFastrak station. Opponents highlighted concerns about density, losing local control of zoning decisions, traffic and more. The bill died in committee.

TOD-supporters say it boils down to misinformation.

“It’s no secret that here in Fairfield County, when we talk about multifamily and affordable housing it can be a highly fraught and controversial topic…But at the end of the day, we - the collective we - all want the same thing: a safe and healthy home, access to good education, good recreation, and job opportunities, ” said Christie Stewart, the director of the Fairfield County Center for Housing Opportunity.

Stewart said advocates are hosting tours to show residents that transit oriented development is an approach that can help increase housing, but also be in line with what towns want and need.

Joanna Walsh joined the walk because she wanted to see these multi-family developments for herself. She’s a Darien homeowner who lives on the other side of the Noroton Heights rail station.

“There’s always a lot of scare tactics when people start talking about affordable housing, about all the things that could go wrong,” Walsh said. “[Transit-oriented development] seems smart. Most people I know moved to Darien so their commute wouldn’t be very long.”

As a resident of Darien over the last eight years, she says she sees how people are often priced out. The average rent is over $3,000 a month in Darien – three times more than the average rent for Connecticut, according to U.S. Census data.

“It’s not an easy place to live if you are paycheck to paycheck and I think we lose a lot of great possibilities for other people to move into our town. I think life only gets richer when you open the doors to things that might not be part of your normal day to day,” Walsh said.

She says more transit oriented development in Darien and beyond could be a solution to making communities more diverse.

U.S. Representative Jim Himes agrees.

“You’ve got this dynamic where economically vibrant areas, like this one, almost by definition because of market focus become unaffordable – first to our senior citizens and young people,” Himes said.

He applauded the event for opening a door to more information.

“People have this image that affordable housing means 12-story brick buildings, but you just saw what affordable housing looks like in the 21st century,” he said. “People need to understand that you can build housing and you can build affordable housing in ways that are consistent with whatever you memories are of the town.”

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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