Wednesday, September 6, 2017

New England Villages: Washington Depot CT

I have recently been working on a project which looks at the viability of using historic New England village centers as a framework for supporting 21st rural development.  The idea is that the village model can be updated to support sustainable development in the countryside and to serve as a counterweight to large-lot, exurban sprawl.  I did some field visits recently and thought I would share some highlights.

Washington Depot is the main village center in Washington, Connecticut, a town of about 3,500 people, located about 50 miles west of Hartford.  What first drew my attention to the town was a reference in David Owen’s Green Metropolis.  That book (available here) mostly talks about the (counterintuitive) environmental virtues of New York City, but contains a fascinating discussion of Washington:
Among the most picturesque and locally cherished sections of my town are the old village green and the oldest of our three small business districts.  Both arose long before cars or the concept of zoning, and both have numerous fundamental features that standard zoning regulations explicitly forbid in new construction: the lots are small, the buildings are close to each other and close to the road, public parking is scarce, and commercial and residential uses are mixed, seemingly arbitrarily.  These features—which are among the defining characteristics of the village centers of all picturesque old New England towns…are the ones that make visitors stop their cars and take photographs.  Yet nothing remotely resembling either neighborhood could be built in our town today under our basic regulations for business or residential districts, because as is the case in most towns, our standard rules regarding lot coverage, building setbacks, parking spaces, and the separation of uses, among other things, prohibit them. (page 112)

Washington Depot is today a charming, compact village center nestled in the Shepaug River valley, with an excellent mix of shops and services, although few residents.  The upscale nature of the place is exemplified by an excellent independent bookstore and a J. McLaughlin shop.  Could it become a mixed-use, walkable/bikeable, sustainable village center, modeling rural density in a beautiful, green setting?  Absolutely it could.  The town’s master plan recommends adding infill development, building out the street grid, and providing sidewalks, traffic calming, and other measures to fulfill this goal.  And the town has commissioned a preliminary study (map follows) of potential sites for infill development.

Unfortunately, there are also real obstacles:
·      The zoning issues that Owen mentions are at least in part a result of NIMBYism led by upper-income transplants from the city who want to keep their version of a rural lifestyle, which means large-lot development,
·      There is no public sewage system, and
·      The village center is in a 100-year floodplain.

The master plan indicates that under current zoning the town’s population could more than double in the future – most of it in large-lot, single-family homes, weighing heavily on the environment.  Hopefully, the Washingtonians will choose a better future for their charming town.

Following are a few photos of the village and the conceptual infill development map.

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