What kind of town do we want Branford to be? That’s the question at the heart of the debate over the proposed Costco development, planned for a strip of land off of Exit 56, the gateway to the Stony Creek community, where I have lived since 1993. (A public hearing on the proposal takes place on April 16 at 7 p.m. at Branford High School.)
There’s an illuminating story posted on the Branford Eagle on April 14, about a previous plan to develop the parcel (and adjoining lots) back in 1979. The plan then: To create a “supermall” that would have been, reports said, the second largest in the nation, featuring anchor stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Sears.
The piece artfully implies how lucky Branford was to escape the building of the supermall. Many of these faceless hulking buildings with endless parking lots have been abandoned across the country as the culture of retailing has gone online. Macy’s in New Haven closed long ago. Sears announced it would be closing 200 stores last December. Radio Shack, a mini-mall mainstay, recently closed its stores in New Haven and Branford.
Press reports say that the town is divided over the plan, with those in favor citing the jobs and increased tax base.
Opponents talk about the increased traffic, and point out that the cost of providing services to the development would offset most gains in tax revenue.
But I think this debate misses the bigger point. I moved to Branford in 1993 because I appreciated that it was not overrun with big-box national chains. It felt like it had a strong local identity. That didn’t change much when Wal-Mart arrived, largely because it was tucked away, out of sight of Main Street.
Essentially, Branford is a quiet suburb. But in many metropolises, it would be a neighborhood inside the city limits. Think about it: I live at the eastern edge of Branford, and I am less than 12 miles from Church Street in New Haven (and I have to leap-frog a whole other town – East Haven – to get there). That’s about the same distance as mid-town Manhattan is from Inwood Hill Park at the far tip of the island – before you even get to the Bronx or Riverdale.
So for many of us who live in Branford, it’s a quick hop to Home Depot or TJ Maxx on Frontage Road in East Haven. Making the decision to re-zone the proposed Costco parcel in Branford in order to green-light similar development off of Route 56 is nothing less than endorsing sprawl – the kind of sprawl that hurts urban economies, and damages the very thing that makes shoreline living attractive: a low-density, low-traffic quality of life.
One way to contain sprawl, and provide the access to the kinds of shopping people seem to want, is to restrict such retail to places where it already exists. Voila: Frontage Road in East Haven. (Where, by the way, sits the now vacant XPect Discounts store.)
On the Shoreline, Guilford is moving forward with a plan for a Bed, Bath & Beyond and gourmet food market off of Exit 57. If Costco rises up one exit west, surely the strip malls will follow in between.
Before making a decision, the town should be open-eyed: What will we be trading off for our easy access to inexpensive cases of toilet paper and fine bath towels? What will be the experience of living here? Will the comparatively reasonable but still barely living wage jobs and a small bump in our tax base be worth what we will be giving up? These are the questions we need to answer, because once we break ground, we won’t be able to turn back.