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Connecticut Highway Seeing a Renaissance in Shelton-Derby Area Due to New Funding

Tue June 18, 2024 - Northeast Edition #14
CT Insider

The Derby-Shelton Bridge over the Housatonic River is undergoing a face-lift to make it more aesthetically pleasing and link the downtown areas of both communities for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicle traffic.
Photo courtesy of Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments
The Derby-Shelton Bridge over the Housatonic River is undergoing a face-lift to make it more aesthetically pleasing and link the downtown areas of both communities for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicle traffic.

The town of Shelton, Conn., has been widely thought of as the economic success story of the state's lower Naugatuck Valley for many years, but economic development experts and public officials in the area say other communities like Derby along the Connecticut Highway 34 corridor are now starting to catch up.

"Shelton has always been more aggressive in terms of public policy in transforming itself from a mill town," said Brian Marks, a senior lecturer of economics and business analytics at the University of New Haven. "But in fairness to communities like Derby and others in that part of the valley, redevelopment is not instantaneous. It takes time."

For Derby, it appears the time is now. A mix of public sector dollars and private investment is offering the promise of breathing new life into the state's smallest city.

After a 20-year wait, a multi-million-dollar Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) reconstruction project is currently underway along a portion of Conn. 34 near Derby's City Hall. When completed, it will feature two lanes in each direction, a landscaped center median, wide brick sidewalks with period lighting and plantings.

At the same time, the Derby-Shelton Bridge over the Housatonic River is undergoing a face-lift to make it more aesthetically pleasing and link the downtown areas of both communities for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicle traffic when the work finishes in July. The changes also will provide better access to link Shelton's Riverwalk with Derby's Greenway Trail.

"This project will be transformative for downtown Derby and has already served as a catalyst for two new projects," said Bill Purcell, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The Trolley Pointe development at 90 Main St. will have 105 apartments and include workforce housing units, while just a few blocks away, a 95-unit apartment complex called Cedar Village is being developed at 67-71 Minerva St., CT Insider reported June 16.

Marks said that as the apartment complexes are completed and people move into them, economic development officials in Derby will need to maintain a delicate balance.

"Those areas that are going to see more economic growth are the ones that skillfully handle mixed use projects," he explained. "The commercial elements that are offered in Derby and other communities need to be complementary to what is already in place."

Rick Dunne, executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, said that in some cases, new businesses in Derby that duplicate those in Shelton should be able to coexist.

"There's not enough capacity at restaurants in Shelton if you want to go out and get something to eat on a weeknight," he told CT Insider.

In a few years, Derby's train station will benefit from an $84 million upgrade of the Waterbury branch line of the Metro North Railroad.

That project includes improvements to every station on the line, which, in addition to Derby, includes those in Ansonia, Seymour, Beacon Falls and Waterbury.

Samaia Hernandez, a CTDOT spokesperson, said the rail line construction is slated to start in summer 2025 and be completed in 2027.

Among the upgrades to the Derby train station are a raised and heated platform, additional parking for commuters and portals for buses to connect passengers with trains.

Highway Corridor Runs Past a Mix of Developments

The Conn. 34 corridor differs from the Berlin Turnpike, one of the state's better known commercial roadways, which is largely commercial on either side of the road from Meriden to just outside Hartford. In contrast, Conn. 34 has a mix of commercial and residential properties that have frontage on the highway.

One example of that is the Residences at Kestral, a 34-unit apartment complex on Roosevelt Drive in Seymour, overlooking the Housatonic River near the intersection of Conn. 188. That also is the case in Orange, where homes give way to farms and the Fieldstone Village retirement community west of the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

In speaking with CT Insider, Jim Zeoli, Orange's first selectman, explained that the mix of residential and commercial zoning along the Parkway was deliberately built decades ago to prevent communities hemmed in by gridlock from Conn. 34 to the north and U.S. Highway 1 to the south.

"We consider ourselves to be a town, not a city and we're happy about that," he said.

Located between downtown Derby and the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Orange are several retail strip centers, the most well-known being Hilltop Commons, populated largely by national or regional retailers.

A little further down Conn. 34 from Hilltop Commons, more businesses have opened in recent years, including a new Splash Car Wash that began operating at the end of 2023.

The Milford-based chain was founded by Mark Curtis, who also serves as its CEO. He said that that stretch of Conn. 34 is undergoing a renaissance.

"When you see businesses come in and develop in a certain area, you want to come and develop too," he told CT Insider. "This has been a good location for us. We feel this is an underserved area and it draws people not [just] from Derby, but from surrounding communities like Woodbridge, Orange and the northern part of Milford."

But Dunne said along the stretch of Conn. 34 between Orange and Derby, "there just isn't a lot of land to support strip commercial centers."

Highway Is Ripe for More Development

According to Donald Klepper-Smith, an economist with South Carolina-based DataCore Partners, there is no reason Derby and other Conn. 34 corridor towns could not see an increased level of economic development.

He noted that Shelton has benefited from businesses and consumers who want a Fairfield County address without having to pay the higher prices that they would incur if they were in Greenwich, Stamford or Norwalk.

Klepper-Smith, who served on the Governor's Economic Advisory Panel in Connecticut during Gov. Jodi Rell's administration, said that with the new apartment complexes being built in Derby and neighboring communities, the Conn. 34 corridor will likely begin to see the increased development that Shelton has seen for the past decade or so.

"It all comes down to access and affordability," he told CT Insider. "You have people looking to bypass the sky-high prices of lower Fairfield County, but still be close enough to have access to that part of the state. And people are looking at what it costs to maintain single-family homes and weighing it against the cost of apartment and the flexibility that it offers."

The publicly-funded improvements also have set up Derby for a future that is less focused on automobiles, according to Dunne.

His hope is that someday there will be a dedicated busway developed in the lower Naugatuck Valley following the Conn. 8 corridor and include a stop in Derby stop route and lead into the area's industrial parks.

"I hope Derby doesn't fall into the trap of creating a lot of surface parking," he said.

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