Downtown Has Brighter Face, A Resident’s Viewpoint

Downtown aerial
Aerial of Downtown courtesy of Morgan Kaolian.

Two Boots took a walk on Downtown Bridgeport. Some hand-wringing is going on over this. Communications professional Doug Davidoff who resides Downtown says the neighborhood has a lot more going on than the naysayers assert. He shares in this commentary that follows a response to OIB comments and perspective as a relatively new resident.

I’ve lived and worked in Downtown Bridgeport for nearly six months now, walking the streets day and night with few real concerns for my safety. I like my new home a lot.

Since moving away from Fairfield County for college 40 years ago, I’ve lived, worked, and been involved in the planning process for downtown areas in Durham and Raleigh, N.C.; Indianapolis; the South Loop area of Chicago; and in an inner-ring suburb of Boston. I returned to Fairfield County last year and, having become adjusted to city life over suburban life, gravitated to Bridgeport’s downtown. I’m so glad I did.

The Two Boots announcement is a shocker, but even more shocking: the tone of the analysis here. Some of you have lived in the area a very long time, but it’s clear you don’t know downtown intimately–like day and night, every day, months at a time. And you don’t know how downtowns work–here, or anywhere.

So let’s take up the news at hand: Two Boots closed. Restaurants come. Restaurants go. They had a good run. They were were the wrong size. The block they are on has six dining establishments by my count, from Leisha’s Bakeria on Lafayette Circle at Fairfield Avenue to Fruta Juice, the new French-Vietnamese Can Tiin, ‘A Vucchella, Bagel King and the venerable Murphy’s. Three are relatively recent additions by local entrepreneurs.

Restaurants are often the precursor to more retail development in reviving downtowns. Restaurants come. Restaurants go. McDonalds closed on Main Street. A few doors down, the new owners of the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise invested thousands in redecoration and modernization at the same time.

Sweet Treats opened. Funchal has two locations. Tiago’s is great. Tony’s too. Barnum. Metric. Amici Miei. Moe’s More. Some will go. More will come. Some will stay a long time, like Joseph’s and Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s. We count on them, like institutions.

A new retail establishment, not a restaurant, is the Bridgeport Community Pharmacy on Fairfield. It’s owned by Dawn, a 45-year-old pharmacist who always dreamed of owning her own pharmacy. I’m now patronizing it. So long, CVS in Fairfield.

Downtowns revive block by block. To really understand a downtown, you have to walk each and every block. Watch what’s happening. Consider the possibilities. Mourn for the past. Dream for the future. Plan for the possible.

Let’s now look at what’s been said here with respect to Two Boots and downtown in general:

— A “ghost town?” Well, compared to a more glorious past, that’s an understandable perception or guess but it’s also incorrect. According to the Downtown Special Services District, downtown has about 7,500 workers during the day and about 2,500 residents at night in about a half-dozen major developments. With the Security Building opening this spring, the Forstone development on the south side of McLevy Green about to begin, Kuchma’s new block about to begin, and the announcement of 250 new units going in this year next door at Steelpointe, we’re looking at having 3,000 to 3,500 residents of the combined downtown and Steelpointe areas on both sides of the Pequonnock within just a year or so. That’s a small town. (In rural New England, that’s a big town.)

— What can downtown Bridgeport offer? Density. Cool architecture. Civic spaces. History. HCC. Major offices. Proximity to Seaside Park and UB as well as SHU, Fairfield, SCSU and other colleges and universities. A transportation center. A sports and entertainment venue. Lodging in TWO hotels (don’t forget the Hampton Inn coming into Steelpointe, as well as the Holiday Inn). The center of a fine local bus system that works. The library. Local, state, and federal offices. Courts. Arts. Increasingly: small creative businesses and hints of the digital and creative economy. Funk. Spirit. Verve. Jazz. Real streets, sidewalks, and streetscapes. No cookie-cutter stuff to speak of. The promise of a waterfront that might work again. (Okay, that’s a stretch. Or is it? The study to plan for it has already begun.)

— Parking? Crowded on the 200 and 300 block of Fairfield, yes. Sometimes crowded on other blocks. Antiquated meters that aren’t internet-app enabled like in New Haven and Norwalk. But we’re working on the meters and we actually have plenty of street parking though I can quibble about the design of it on this block or that–like the way it works against 24/7 residents in the vicinity of the buildings were residents live. But that’s because the policies didn’t anticipate the residents and no one has yet advocated for adjustments. Generally, parking is a concern but not the critical problem people here seem to think it is. I live with it day and night. It’s not my Number One or even my Number Two concern. My relatives come to visit or dine downtown and never complain either. They are here often.

— Panhandling? A deterrent? There’s precious little of it. Those of us who live here know you can count the regular panhandlers on the fingers of one hand. If they frighten you, check your stereotypes and irrational fears but don’t blame the reality.

— The DSSD not “special” and not “services?” I see its service offerings daily. I see its meetings and its staff. “Special?” Yes, it offers services and programming unavailable elsewhere in the city and paid for by local property owners in the DSSD “teardrop” territory. That’s what special. As in, not ordinary.

— Slices of pizza at Amici Miei, among other places. So, there. (Harumph. You judge your downtown by availability of pizza slices; I relish in Starbucks and Dunkin and Fruta Juice and Sweet Treats. To each their own food vice, and each vice can be served right now downtown. Yes, we lost McDonald’s and we’ve gained lots of local brands and other chains. Overall, we’re winning. As noted, on the same block, Dunkin invested. The Chinese food place and Subway and Moe’s are there, too, in the same vicinity, several of those with nearly round-the-clock hours.)

— People don’t FEEL safe, you wrote. But the reality is they CAN feel safe. The reality is the downtown is indeed safe and has constant public safety patrols. FEELING safe is a marketing perception that can be changed. But the ability to reasonably be safe is today’s reality, day and night and weekends. Try it!

— The cost to park is a deal-breaker? Give me a break. $2 for two hours at a meter. Less than the price of a cup of coffee. Even if you’re on the next block, you’re not far away. Feeling unsafe walking one block? Read the previous paragraph. And rejoice that you’re being healthy by walking a few hundred steps both ways to and from your car.

— A quick thought: Downtown is supposedly “a ghost town” but we’re also “shoehorning in these restaurants.” Those two criticisms are diametrically opposed. It can’t be both. Clearly, this is a perception problem … downtown is a ghost town because too much is going on? The confusion is in your perception.

— “Other than the occasional event?” Let’s talk about “occasional.” Arena and ballpark events are “frequent.” Live music is “frequent” in several venues. Talks at the library and elsewhere are frequent. Summertime, the Farmers Market and live music on McLevy Green are both weekly. What’s “occasional” about this? I know what’s “occasional!” It’s the description of how frequently you choose to entertain yourself in the center of your own city because your fears block you, which is the perception (but not the reality) we have to address. Make better choices and enjoy both the frequency and variety of activities available right now.

— “Foreboding atmosphere?” Yes, on some blocks. But on many blocks, activity. Look around. Not as much as in other cities, and that’s a problem. But the seeds are there and they’re sprouting. It’s a block-by-block thing. The only way to appreciate it is to park your car and walk each block. Which means feeling safe. You ARE safe but you don’t feel safe. Hence, foreboding in general. In reality? In the downtown core? Not super active on every block, but foreboding? Some of that is perception. Some of it is lack of investment activity. It’s a very strong word. What’re the elements contributing to your dread?

— A shuttle system? Like trolleys? It’s an idea whose time has not yet come. Or consider this: city buses. They crisscross downtown. You talked of a shuttle system to get to the train and bus station. Why replace the bus with … a bus??

— More lighting? A good idea, in spots. Not my biggest concern, and I’m walking day and night. More security? On top of the cops I see all the time? I have better security than you do.

— Jeff Kohut and I are just going to have to keep disagreeing. He’s just in a different place than I am. He wants downtown fed by organically grown local industrial jobs, not outsiders visiting or moving in from the suburbs, specifically Fairfield. Industry is hard, ask Paul Timpanelli or read local history (I know Jeff is aware of this, so I am being a bit snide here). He criticizes a planning concept that brings mixed uses and mixed incomes to urban environments with new investment, and then he extols Fairfield for having essentially the same results. He wants Bridgeport to be more like Fairfield, except he doesn’t want Bridgeport to be more like Fairfield. He wants to do development a hard way, when another way is already working. What Jeff is correct about, in my opinion, is we need to agree on the right paradigm for our city. It was recommendation #1 by the Economic Development & Small Business Committee of the Mayoral Transition Task Force, I think.

— Retail doesn’t help downtown, or people? Because buying everything from big boxes and online is better? When did retail become a pariah? Especially in a downtown intrinsically built for street-level retail commerce?

Losing Two Boots hurts. We move on. Go have coffee, a salad, and one of the excellent made-in-the-store oatmeal cookies at Fruta Juice or a slice of quiche at Leisha’s Bakeria. Music at Tiago’s and elsewhere. It’s a loss. It’s hardly fatal. Meanwhile, come visit downtown more often and look around. It’s coming along and it’s better than you fear it is.

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15 comments

  1. The only thing this guy has right is Amici Miei has pizza. Kudos! It is quite evident he is part of the fraternal Flat Earth Society, and he spends too much time in downtown Bridgeport and needs to get out more.

  2. His name is Doug Davidoff. He is one of OIB writers who live in the downtown teardrop? Are there any others who in addition to living there, and studying it from a walking perspective, have also had 40 years of experience seeing major development happen in other US cities?

    Doug is attentive and active. He is also genuinely polite and respectful. So if you wish to disagree with him, come with your facts as well as your opinions, and expect an intelligent discussion. He is also like a newcomer to many of our suburbs, in that he brings talent, a new view of what is ongoing, and energy to work for change. How many of those folks do you know? Thank you, Doug, for a true local and current view from street level of life in the “downtown teardrop.” For those of us who love the City, perhaps you can organize some informal ‘walks’ or ‘chats’ with others, posted on OIB, perhaps with an occasional guide to downtown features (new or historic) and a finish at a local establishment for hydration. Time will tell.

  3. Great piece Doug, I go to Metric, Tiago’s, Holiday Inn and to Two Boots for live music and have never had a problem with parking or a feeling of insecurity. Although a person’s perception is their reality, their perception isn’t always reality.

    I believe Two Boots leaving had more to do with the perception of downtown and Bridgeporters, like a lot of OIB posters not going down to patronize and enjoy all that these downtown establishments have to offer.

  4. Doug: I appreciate your enthusiasm and optimism for Bridgeport and our downtown. I love Bridgeport. I want to see Bridgeport prosper as much as any of its more ardent supporters.

    And yes, I do extol the attractiveness of our neighbor Fairfield–all of it, including its truly alluring downtown.

    But Bridgeport and Fairfield are, of course, neighbors of quite different descriptions, with different assets.

    Fairfield has a great downtown by way of several factors, but the underlying factor that brings about the resonance of those other factors is the overall socioeconomic condition of the town. Plain and simple. There are plenty of gainfully employed Fairfield residents (families) who appreciate the option of being able to spend time and money close to home, at any attraction that might decide to locate in Fairfield. There are also plenty of residents from nearby towns which don’t have significant “downtown” areas/venues for community gathering/socialization/recreation who are happy to have access to Fairfield’s downtown offerings. This also helps Fairfield’s downtown.

    But the main factor that sustains Fairfield’s downtown are prosperous Fairfield residents with plenty of disposable income, the vast majority of whom don’t live in the downtown sector.

    With the “10,000 workers and 2,500 residents” who live and work in Bridgeport’s downtown, shouldn’t it be able to sustain a handful of restaurants and entertainment venues?

    No Doug; you are not seeing the whole picture regarding Bridgeport and its downtown. Something is obviously missing, and it isn’t downtown workers or residents, it’s a prosperous, larger community/tax base that can sustain the level of commerce needed to make our downtown a viable location for all kinds of venues–retail, arts and entertainment/dining, service, financial, etc. If we could maintain a sustainable nucleus of a full assortment of downtown retail, dining-entertainment, and commercial venues, we could then use our other draws (beach, zoo, arena-ballpark, museums) to attract residents of neighboring towns to Bridgeport/downtown to create a larger, sustainable, downtown mixed-sector package to play into Bridgeport’s overall commercial activity/tax-base growth. (And shuttles are not the same as buses following fixed routes and schedules. When thinking of shuttles, think “convenience/flexibility.” Shuttles don’t have to be “trolleys,” they can take the form of vans roving about the downtown area, concentrated around the bus and train stations.)

    So Doug; we are speaking in terms of the same goals, but we obviously have different perceptions of our shared reality. (If you don’t think reindustrialization is a goal that is considered desirable and attainable by the majority of Americans, then you have not been following the red-hot presidential campaign continuing to unfold as we speak. And you certainly don’t want to cite Paul Timpanelli when speaking of Bridgeport and development!)

    When it comes to Bridgeport and development, Doug, all I can say about your perception of Bridgeport is you need to spend more time in all parts of our city, every part of it. And get to know a cross section of its long-term and not-so-long-term residents. And, also realize Bridgeport cannot be compared to Boston (or any other large city)–entirely different histories/evolutions and geographies. We are what we are. We became notable and prosperous for entirely different reasons than Boston. Our main asset is industrial land and transportation, and a manufacturing history with significant residual value to the present-day Bridgeport. We are not going to reinvent ourselves as Boston, Baltimore–or Fairfield. I’ve seen a good part of the world, and I know Bridgeport can’t, and shouldn’t try to, follow the development path of other cities on our way back to prosperity. We are unique and married to our history. For better or worse. (Better, I think.)

    In any event, Doug, after you’ve had time to become more intimately familiar with Bridgeport’s people and history, I suspect at some point we will be able to work together toward a common goal of a prosperous Bridgeport.

  5. Great posts by both Doug Davidoff and Jeff Kohut. Optimism and a positive anger working together for a common cause to better our city. There is a bright light shining for the future of Bridgeport. Thanks to both of you.

  6. Well. Mr. Davidoff straightened us out. My first job downtown was in 1968 at Sears in Lafayette Plaza while I was in high school. Most of my employment has been in downtown Bridgeport. I’ve seen many changes, beginning with ‘urban renewal,’ which Lafayette Plaza was part of.
    A disturbing part of the current efforts to create a relevant downtown based on residential development uses public and private funds that require rentals be ‘affordable.’ That means Section 8 housing, essentially contracted public housing. This is an approach to revive downtown?
    Where did you get the 10,000 figure for people employed downtown? People’s Bank alone has reduced their headquarters population by 50% in the last eight years. (COB CAFR Report.)
    I must compliment you for investing in downtown property. Which property did you purchase? Oh. You rent an apartment? Forgive us taxpayers for being cynical. Many of us have seen efforts made to make a difference (Phil Kuchma is an example). We’ve enjoyed the various rebirths. Your observations are refreshing but many of us have a view based on more than a six-month observation.

  7. Doug contradicts himself. He says there are so many people who work and live in downtown, like over 10,000. That’s exactly the point. So many people, well where are they? Go to Two Boots and there are five people at most when there isn’t a band and sometimes even when there is an event. Cross the street to the Italian place, two people at most on a weekday. This shouldn’t be the turnout for 10,000 people. Something must be terribly wrong. And as for the shortsighted comment about irrational fears, it doesn’t matter if the fear is rational or not rational as long at it stops a potential consumer, renter, owner, shopper from coming to downtown. Perception is everything duh, and Bridgeport has a bad rep so the number one thing is it needs to make the downtown feel safe. Doug also lists off so many places, but these places just come and go. Fruta and Juice will not last, nor will that bakery. For every new place that comes another one goes, they just don’t last. Where I agree with Doug is there is so much potential like the beach and the universities, but the city wants to put in more public housing. And one of the problems with the city is it keeps focusing on the huge projects like Steel Point and downtown north but ignores the details and the short-term wins. People are visual. Ganim’s beautification project was a big win for many because it was visual. People remember Ganim for details like this and I hope the administration promotes this type of thinking into downtown. Downtown has to create a positive and appealing mood. It does not do that at the moment.

  8. Lennie, thanks for elevating my composition from a long comment to a blog post, as well as some copy editing. I worked from memory, and tonight I remembered I got an important number wrong. The working daytime population is actually 7,500–if tonight’s memory is better than yesterday morning’s memory. (DSSD quoted the numbers at a downtown residents’ meeting last fall.) Inflating a number that much is dangerous, I apologize and correct this.

  9. Tom, BptPorter, et al.,
    I appreciate your historical perspective and current observations of Downtown. I consider Two Boots’ exit a deflating event and we cannot be wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses because we have to look at a problem realistically if we are going to solve it.
    I too have seen the bad history of Urban Renewal after Downtown was killed by highways, malls and white flight. By the same token I remember what Downtown looked like fifteen years ago and what it looks like today.
    I do not agree with Tom that Affordable Housing necessarily means public housing. Take for example, Reads Artspace that was subsidized by Low Income Housing Tax Credits (and Federal Historic Tax Credits). The income schedule required is based on the Area Median Income which means all of the very wealthy Fairfield County. Standard formula for Affordable Housing is at or below 50% of AMI of Fairfield County and that means market housing for Bridgeport in particular. This has stabilized the population Downtown. The strategy of housing repurposing of vacant buildings to revitalize Downtown is working and as with other cities such as I Ninth Square in New Haven- commercial and retail lags behind residential. Once a critical mass of residential population is reached Downtown we will have the proverbial tipping point to move to the New Urbanistic walkable community based on Transit Oriented Development we are striving for.
    Don’t forget, 15 years ago Reads was slated for the wrecking ball. Can you imagine?!

  10. What we have is the Bill Finch Boomtown USA!
    Now build a new train station on the East Side and take more people away from Main St.
    Where are the urban planners?
    Where’s the Master plan for the center of Bridgeport?
    This hodgepodge miscellany of development is a joke!
    Is the East Side the new center of Bridgeport?

  11. Give the guy a minute. Would you like to see a half-baked plan put forth while the administration is in the midst of trying to identify an adequate replacement for Kooris?

  12. I thought the article by Douglas Davidoff regarding Downtown was excellent. I, like Mr. Day and JML, spend many hours patronizing downtown establishments. There are many happy people living downtown. They are not caught up in the Bridgeport past. They like the change in the city. They, like me and a few in the blogosphere, are optimistic. I hope Ganim will be able to have a strong Development director who will keep the city moving forward. I am not happy Two Boots closed. They were definitely a great asset to downtown. We will move forward and sooner or later we will have the perfect mix after they build another 1200 of housing. I, like Douglass Davidoff, have faith.

  13. *** Let’s stop living in the past years of Bpt. It is what it is right now and it’s not very good! And I don’t see it getting any better when there’s no money to be gained in the long term by any new business merchants entertaining thoughts of opening any stores, etc. in the downtown area of Bpt while it’s still a ghost town after 6pm any day of the week, no? ***

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