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Legacy of "Progress" Gone Sour

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

The Destruction of Old Moodus Center

How a 1967 federal urban renewal project transformed a rural Connecticut town.

by KEN SIMON    

PART 1: This three-part series on the Nathan Hale Plaza in Moodus was originally published in 1982. It details what East Haddam residents were promised when a federal urban renewal program was sold to a small, rural Connecticut town.

A 1960s view of old Moodus

The Nathan Hale Plaza in the Moodus section of East Haddam is clearly nobody’s pride and joy. Exasperated town officials have called the deteriorating conditions of the shopping plaza an unsightly embarrassment to residents; the townspeople complain about the litter, refuse and the muddy ruts that surround the seven-store building, as well as the inadequate variety of goods and services available there; tenants complain about the lack of expansion space and the level of maintenance; and the corporation that owns the property pleads poverty in its defense.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nearly two decades after the start of the project that gave birth to the 12-year-old plaza, folks around here remember what they once had, what they were promised and what they received, and the blood begins to boil once more.

It was to be a shopping center that was "modern in every way, its design reflecting the ageless good taste of the rural and peaceful surrounding countryside." What area residents got was something quite different. Today that plaza stands as a painful reminder of promises forsaken. "They offered us a grand plan," says one resident. "And then we built early aluminum."

On February 3, 1967, East Haddam’s citizens turned out to decide in referendum whether to authorize the undertaking of East Haddam Renewal Project No. One. Conn R-100. The residents decided for the project by 751 to 312 and approved funding of East Haddam’s share of $166,827. It was, said then-First Selectman Charles Wolf Jr., "the most important decision that East Haddam has made in its 200-year history."

It certainly was a moment of triumph for the project’s sponsors. For three years they had labored hard on the $1.5 million plan, spending $100,000 to develop it and another $10,000 to sell it to the townspeople in an aggressive public relations campaign.

The ambitious plan, which had as its goal, "to spur the rebirth of Moodus," involved the purchase and demolition of 33 of the 34 buildings within the 27.5-acre project area, which encompassed the entire Moodus business district. Seventeen private residences and 16 commercial structures were to be razed. The 20 businesses, 33 families and 3 individuals in the area would be relocated. After demolition and clearance of the land, area roads would be realigned to improve intersections and the agency would then contract to erect a new business district.

All this was to be done with the help of the federal urban renewal program.

Urban Renewal and a Bulldoze Mentality Sweeps the Country

Triggered by the Housing Act of 1949, the urban renewal program authorized the federal government to pay municipalities [sic] from two-thirds to three-fourths of the difference between the cost of acquiring and clearing a blighted area, and the price the land brought when sold to a private developer for redevelopment, who would then follow a plan drawn up by the local renewal agency. The Act’s initial aim was to clear slums, but it was soon broadened to finance redevelopment of the nation’s cities and towns by authorizing clearance of land for non-residential reuse, and setting up funds for the rehabilitation and conservation of old houses and neighborhoods.

More than 1,500 urban renewal projects were undertaken in some 750 U.S. cities and towns. Across the country, the planner’s knife carved out new areas in which were erected apartments, office towers, industrial parks, retail complexes and cultural centers. Fueled by tens of billions of federal dollars, this euphoric, masterplan view of economic redevelopment met with mixed results and aroused controversy everywhere it was considered. Millions of Americans, mostly minorities, were forced to relocate, hundreds of thousands of businesses were forced to close and ill-conceived projects became hundred-million-dollar boondoggles.

Many urban renewal master plans did succeed in stimulating revitalization. Sometimes the master plan failed. Moodus’ Nathan Hale Plaza is a legacy of one such failure.

Most observers here agree that what was billed as "progress" turned out to be the exchange of one nuisance with a lot of charm for another nuisance with none. A former Main Street merchant calls what happened, "the raping of the town." Mort Gelston, the former director of the project, once its chief cheerleader, labels the results, "the wrecking of Moodus."

How did we get from "rebirth" to "wrecking," what went wrong, and why are there still matters of controversy. There are no easy answers; some of the key participants in this small-town drama have since died, project records are incomplete, and people’s memories are rubbed by time and prejudicial perspective.

What is clear is that what started as discussions about the parking and traffic problems in the village mushroomed into a campaign whose main theme was that Moodus Center was a rundown and hazardous area that was impossible to save. It was, all the experts concluded, necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. This is the story of how that destruction came about.

The Roots of Moodus: Mills, Farms, Resorts All Contributed to Growth

During the late 1800’s, Moodus boasted of some 14 twine and cotton mills lining the banks of the modest Moodus River. Mechanicsville, it used to be called, in honor of its industry. It was on the river bank, hard by the mills, that the town’s business district developed in response to the growing number of workers settling in the area. In the late 19th century, six merchants were situated in old Moodus Center, within walking distance for the mill’s workers.

Later, during the early 1900’s, area farmers began to take in summer guests eager to enjoy the beautiful countryside and small-town atmosphere. Soon, a dozen or so resorts were attracting 50,000 visitors a year. Several thousand summer residents added to the bustle as they returned to their seasonal cabins and cottages. From the 1920’s to the 1950’s, Moodus Center grew with the town’s vacation industry. By all accounts, those days were the heyday of Moodus.

Downtown Moodus, as it was grandly called, was located at the intersection of Rte. 151 and Rte 149 opposite the village’s town green. The Moodus River, more accurately a canal at this point, flowed directly behind the string of 14 Victorian buildings that comprised the business district. The buildings, located mostly on the north side of the street, encompassed an area of about one-eighth mile long and contained some 20 commercial establishments. The topography of the area was such that the buildings were constructed with their back portions overhanging a deep ravine, through which the river flowed. In many cases stilts were used rather than normal foundations to support the buildings. Behind the stores, the drop from street level to the canal was 50 feet.

By the early sixties, however, Moodus Center was showing signs of its age. The resort business was in decline and downtown Moodus looked somewhat weary in spots, shopworn and dated. Traffic was sometimes snarled and parking space was at a premium, especially during the peak summer periods. Many residents preferred to do their serious shopping in neighboring towns, which offered a wider range of facilities. The situation in town developed a certain sense of urgency when the river behind the town’s shopping strip began to stink. For years, the town’s health director had warned about contamination of the river by raw sewage. Now the stench was awful, especially during the summer months.

Traffic Was First Worry, but Soon "Blight" Became Key Issue

It was at a June 1961 meeting of the one-year-old Planning and Zoning Board that the subject of Moodus Center first appeared on the public record. Board Chairman Julian Rosenberg suggested that the commission start expanding its activities in the planning area and that Moodus Center, where it was "commonly accepted that traffic conditions aren’t as good as might be desired," would be the likely place to start.

Over the next few months, the question of what to do about improving Moodus Center was discussed among the town leadership. Through the efforts of Rosenberg, and two popular town politicians, local resort owner and state representative Jack Banner, and First Selectman Sam Pear, a Moodus businessman, state urban renewal officials were contracted and invited to speak to the zoning board.

On October 9, 1962, three experts from the state urban renewal assistance program spoke to the board and its guests, who included Banner and Pear. The officials spoke at length on the benefits of a coordinated plan of community development and the urban renewal program. This "workable plan of development" would be done by professional planners of the town’s own choosing, with the U.S. government paying most of the costs. If the study showed that an area was "blighted" and eligible for the urban renewal program, the federal government would pay three-quarters of the cost of such project, with the town and state each paying one-eighth.

At this point, according to the minutes of the meeting, there was a flurry of questions and comments from those present, "which elicited the information that for such a program to get federal support, it must provide for the razing of those buildings that were designated as substandard." It was then suggested by Banner that "the problem in Moodus Center is only one of parking; the buildings are not in the main substandard, and could be made adequate merely by some concrete shoring operations." The officials responded that under this program federal aid to improve parking conditions was available only in areas that were judged to be in need of redevelopment, which by definition, includes substandard buildings that would need to be demolished.

"Modernization" of Center Touted to Improve Town's Culture and Progress

After more discussion, those present agreed that the program was worth looking into on a step-by-step basis, and it was decided to enlist the support of the town’s businessmen and professionals for the program.

Over the following months, urban renewal and redevelopment became the main topic of conversation on Main Street. Many people agreed that something should be done and that this was a chance to get it done at little cost. "We didn’t have the choice but to do the project," recalled Charles Wolf Jr., first selectman from 1966 to 1970. "Everybody wanted to spend someone else’s money. When the federal government came down here, they really painted a rosy picture of what would happen. And we figured that it was our money anyway. If we didn’t take it, somebody else would."

The lure of something for nothing and the prospect of a vastly improved shopping district proved a powerful combination. The town’s leadership started lining up in a bipartisan effort in support of the project. The business people in town, though skeptical at the time, were reassured that the program would mean increased sales; the town’s property owners were told they would receive fair market value for their properties and center. Everybody, it was emphasized, would benefit.

On September 19, 1963, the first public hearing was held. A second hearing was held on February 11, 1964. About 150 people came to each meeting. Although transcripts were made, the full minutes cannot be located and available minutes of the hearings are sketchy. But the presentation was apparently persuasive. It was explained to questioning residents that they would approve all steps of the project’s planning in a step-by-step process. The hearings ended, according to the minutes, with the people in "considerable agreement that East Haddam should look into redevelopment."

Plans were formulated by the Zoning board to establish a local renewal agency and on July 30, 1964, the five-member East Haddam Redevelopment Agency, was approved by voice vote at a special town meeting.

The agency immediately contracted with the New Haven consulting firm of Raymond and May, specialists in urban renewal projects, for help in preparing its application for planning funds. Preliminary maps were drawn up and basic data were collected.

On October 28, 1964, the Workable Program for Community Development, the first requirement in applying for urban renewal funds was completed by Raymond and May. It emphasized the importance of the retail center in Moodus and stressed the need to modernize the area to compete with commercial development in outlying areas. The modernization of Moodus Center, the plan stated, would help develop a better community, which would in turn foster economic and cultural growth.

Area Deemed "Blighted" and Not Worthy of Rehabilitation

Ninety days later, the renewal agency and its consultants completed the application for surveying and planning funds. It found that the proposed project area was indeed blighted. Fifty-two percent of the 33 buildings in the area were found to be structurally substandard and in need of clearance. Forty-one percent had minor deficiencies that could possibly be rehabilitated if the plan warranted. Seven percent were found to be standard. Although the actual survey of buildings is missing, an examination of the criteria used to judge the buildings and recollections of townspeople suggests that the "substandard" buildings were judged to be so mostly because of their wooden stilt foundations. In order to qualify as a blighted area eligible for renewal, a minimum 20 percent of the buildings within the area had to be of substandard construction, warranting clearance.

In addition, the application found that the proposed project area suffered from several environmental deficiencies: overcrowding of structures due to severe topography; buildings inadequately converted for new use; a poor mix of residential and commercial use; severe traffic hazards due to steep inclines and acutely angled intersections; inadequate parking facilities; deficient curbs and sidewalks; and a polluted brook, "whose odor contributes to the unsanitary and unhealthy atmosphere which prevails in much of the project area."

In the three and one-half years since the problem of traffic was brought up at a planning and zoning meeting, the area had, according to the application, taken on the atmosphere of a slum. On December 2, 1964, the Redevelopment Agency issued its first resolution: "The proposed urban renewal area is a slum, blighted, deteriorated, or deteriorating area appropriate for an urban renewal project."

The survey and planning application was approved at a town meeting and submitted to the Federal Housing and Home Financing Agency (HHFA) in January 1965. The application was approved in September and HHFA advanced $106,163 to finance the preparation of a detailed urban renewal plan.

Selling the Razing and Rebuilding Morphed into a Pitch for "Progress"

Raymond and May began work on the plan in October 1965. Buildings were thoroughly inspected, residents and businesspeople in the area were surveyed and topography drainage and market studies were undertaken.

While these activities were taking place, the members of the agency, its consultants and the 10-member Citizen’s Advisory Committee began an all-out campaign to sell the project to townspeople before the February 1967 referendum, then about a year away.

A model of how the area would look after renewal was commissioned and brochures were printed to be distributed to all residents. A series of six newsletters sent to all residents and a string of more than 50 press releases published in area newspapers repeatedly pointed out the advantages of the project: progress and modernization at no cost to local taxpayers. The most important component of this sales effort was the series of open meetings held with all the civic, religious and social organizations in town.

A January 15, 1966 story in the Middletown Press reported one typical presentation, this one at the St. Bridget’s Ladies Guild.

The first agency member to speak was the Rev. Eugene Solega, the local Roman Catholic priest. Talking about the harmful effects of deterioration, Solega pointed to the success of the Constitution Plaza in Hartford, built in an area, "that previously resembled a little Bowery." Such communities, said Solega, "contribute to moral decay, family breakdown, delinquency and crime." It was a theme that would be repeated by Solega at every opportunity, including pulpit moralizing on the project during religious services. Former project director Mort Gelston credits Solega’s efforts as a key factor in convincing townspeople of the proposed renewal project’s worth. Solega later resigned from the Agency when he was transferred to Old Saybrook by his superiors, who were concerned about his local politicking.

Choice for Townspeople Became "Progress" or "Further Deterioration"

Other agency members, according to the Press article, compared the lack of progress in Moodus to the redevelopment going on elsewhere and the depressive effect this had on property values and future development. It was emphasized that studies showed that nothing could be done with the present center due to the limiting topography and that to best plan for future growth a new center should be built. It was further stressed that the local business people would be given preference in the new development and that all but one merchant in the present center had indicated an interest in relocating. After Old Moodus Center was razed, the project area would then be beautified with landscaping and planting and a park would be established in open public land.

When the project came up for a vote, concluded the agency representatives, the townspeople would have a choice between the revitalization of the entire community, or the continued depreciation of the already obsolete section, with a corresponding decrease in values throughout the town.

A $4,000 Model Was Key to Acceptance by Voters

Perhaps the single most powerful factor in convincing the townspeople of the project’s value was the three-dimensional scale model that appealingly showed the project area after renewal. The full-color, four-foot-by-five-foot model, which cost $4,000, was attractive indeed, complete with lots of landscaping and a modern, small community feel about it.

The model was on continuous display throughout the town. "It looked like Venice, Florida," said Don Klinck, owner of an East Haddam insurance agency. "When you saw that model and how beautiful it looked, it was hard to be opposed to the project."

To augment the appeal of what was promised, color slides of a successful urban renewal project in Washington, Connecticut were concluded in the Agency’s presentation. The community of 2,600 had erected an impressive, Colonial style complex after their old shopping facilities had been destroyed in a flood. Thirteen stores were located in the beautiful plaza which looked quite similar to what was depicted by the scale model.

In October, 1966, Part One of the application, the renewal plan and relocation program, were submitted to the HHFA. The sales campaign now moved into its final stages.

An eight-page, illustrated brochure was distributed to all residents detailing parts of the program and itemizing what East Haddam would receive for its estimated $166,827 share of the project cost:

-- Elimination of blight and hazardous conditions.

-- Nearly $2 million in public and private improvements, consisting of $964,000 as the federal and state share of the project and an estimated $1 million in new, private construction.

-- Opportunity for new growth and new business for merchants due to the modernized facilities, good circulation and adequate parking.

-- Increased shopping facilities for residents, providing additional goods and services.

-- Open land for public use as a park.

-- A substantial increase in the town’s Grand List of taxable property.

Opposition Was Scarce as the Project Gained Momentum

The message had been made clear to the community. The present business center was inadequate, couldn’t expand and would continue to deteriorate. Through urban renewal, a modern shopping center could be built at no cost to the town and with increased facilities.

Few people questioned the veracity of any of this. As New Era columnist Bernie Brennan, a resident of the renewal area, wrote, "This urban renewal project has some pretty good backing. It has the federal government behind it. That’s good enough for me and the next guy."

Bob Kulpa, a local real estate agent and an early critic of the project, recalled the feeling of most townspeople at the time: "The normal person was a believer. They believed the model. They assumed that the government was going to follow through. What the government took away, it would give back. We assumed it was some great power."

It was a thoroughly persuasive pitch. And for those people who didn’t think that the project would be a panacea for all the real or imagined ills of Moodus, speaking up was to oppose the forces of progress, modernization, patriotism and expert authority; an awesome combination. Many people who had second thoughts on the need for the project or what was planned were intimidated.

"At the time, my husband and I were against demolishing Moodus," recalled Martha Monte, a town librarian, "But the model looked so good and everyone at the meeting was so gung-ho. So we didn’t speak up."

On January 19, 1967, the last public hearing before the referendum was held, with 150 residents in attendance. The slides were shown, the model was on display and the array of benefits were restated in detail. It was indicated that the taxes generated from the redeveloped area could be $20,000 a year rather than $7,000 received from the present property owners. It was also indicated that the center would contain a post office, bank, supermarket, hardware store, drug store, clothing store, paint shop and restaurant. Once more, townspeople were promised a public park, improved traffic conditions, elimination of the Moodus River contamination and a revitalized economy. It was, as one resident put it, "a real rosy picture."

On February 3, 1967, the townspeople approved the project by a two-to-one vote. Just six days later HHFA notified project director Mort Gelston that the project was approved and that $770,000 of the federal share was being reserved pending receipt and approval of Part Two of the application, which were the legal commitments and other necessary paperwork. On March 17, 1967, the state committed to its share. Six months later, the local agency finally completed Part Two and submitted it; approval was granted on September 22, 1967.

The Redevelopment Agency was now ready to begin the execution phase of the project. It began to make preparations for the acquisition of properties, clearance and site preparation, relocation and redevelopment.

It was then that things started to fall apart.

Part 2. Urban Renewal Flops in Moodus

What happened during the "execution phase" of the project when the federally-funded grand plans for a bigger and better Moodus collided with the cold realities of the marketplace.

Part 3. Could Moodus Have Been Restored?

The ill-fated redevelopment project was about to destroy old Moodus Center. As people began to have second thoughts, what other revitalization possibilities could they pursue?


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