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Legacy of "Progress" Gone Sour

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Could Old Moodus Center Have Been Restored?

As Moodus Center was being demolished, residents began to have second thoughts

by KEN SIMON    

PART 3: This is the final installment in the story of a 1967  urban renewal project in Moodus, Connecticut. After much planning and debate, the ill-fated project was about to bring about the destruction of old Moodus Center. As demolition loomed,  some residents began to have second thoughts. Was urban renewal the right solution after all?

The razing of old Moodus Center

The first building to be razed for the Moodus renewal project was the former Bernie Brennan residence. Once the rectory of St. Bridgetís Church, the 70-year-old house was an architectural gem, boasting beautiful Gothic window and door frames. When local resident Raymond Schmitt salvaged parts of the house for use in his Johnsonville restoration, a few people had second thoughts about the wisdom of destroying the old mill town of Moodus. By then, however, it was too late to stop.

To be sure, not all the buildings in the renewal area were as delightful as the Brennan house. For the most part, however, they were typical of the type of structure now prized by towns like Moodus. Local residents remember those buildings and the unique small-town flavor of old Moodus and many cringe at what happened. "It hurts," says one person who was closely associated with the renewal project. "Especially when you see what a place like Chester is doing. It takes time and a guy like Dave Joslow, who puts his dollars on the table, hires experts and rehabilitates."

Chester Learned From Moodus

"What happened in Moodus saved towns like Chester from a similar fate," says David Joslow, a Chester businessman whoís rehabilitated many buildings in his town. "We learned from your experience."

Joslow remembers that Chester was as "threadbare" as Moodus. Today town buildings are in mostly pristine condition, the houses and yards well-kept and the business conditions relatively bullish. "Lots of people in Chester wanted to do the same thing as what was tried in Moodus," Joslow says. "I tried like hell to stop it." Joslowís first project was a dilapidated barn, which he converted into attractive office space. That was the first of many renovation projects in town. "People basically donít have lots of imagination," he says. "You have to fix up a building or two to make people see what an asset they have. You have to have private investment."

Ironically, while preparations were being made for the destruction of Moodus, just four miles away in the village of East Haddam there was a more organic type of "redevelopment" taking place. After the Goodspeed Opera House was renovated in 1963, saved by a spirited fundraising and consciousness-raising campaign, the surrounding area started to undergo a transformation as residents began prettying up their once shabby houses and grounds and new stores sprang to life. It was an early expression of the values that could have saved old Moodus center. Unfortunately it happened too late to have an effect on the renewal project.

Once the town opted for urban renewal funds, fixing up the town was no longer a viable solution. "With the influx of federal dollars, you had to play their game," explains Jim Gibbons, an urban planner with the UConn Extension Service in Haddam. "In order to accomplish smaller goals, you had to follow federal regulations and guidelines and at the time of the Moodus project urban renewal was oriented to demolition. To many critics of the program at the time, the correct title was Ďurban disruption.í As an outsider, I think this was part of the problem with the Moodus project: It disrupted the neighborhood."

Around the time of the Moodus project, federal planners shifted the emphasis to rehabilitation. "If the Moodus project had happened later," says Gibbons, "it might have kept the merchants in business and the residents in place. In retrospect, it would have been an ideal project for rehabilitation."

There are some people, however, who still remember the town as "ugly and dangerous" and about to "fall into the river." They maintain that the project was the correct solution, that it was necessary to eliminate the blight and give the town a fresh start.

Moodusís Sewage Problem

"I think that the people who are doing the crabbing about redevelopment have forgotten what the place looked like," says former first selectman Charles Wolf Jr. "If they could go back and remember what it smelled like on a hot August day Ė It just wasnít good.

The sewage problem was a strong factor in fostering the passage of the urban renewal plan. The record, however, clearly shows that the situation would have been correctable without requiring the wholesale demolition of the town. In 1967, a survey by a state sanitary engineer had found the Moodus River to be contaminated in 21 areas. According to town records, only four of these points were within the renewal area. The other 17 were corrected by summer of 1968. If rehabilitation had been opted for, it would have been possible, those involved with the project now admit, to have installed a communal septic system to bring the buildings up-to-code.

The newly enacted sanitary code could have been used as an enforcement tool and low-interest loans or a grant could have financed the project. Still another alternative at the time was the installation of a full-blown sewer system. At that time, the federal Economic Development Administration, the Farmers Home Administration and HUD all gave grants and loans to establish such systems.

"There should have been more concern with the individual structures and not so much concern with the sewage," concludes Jim Gibbons. "You can engineer anything."

In hindsight, itís clear that project guidelines deeply affected the perception of the problems and the possible solutions. "The line between something structurally safe or something needing demolition was left to the local surveyors," notes Jim Gibbons. "In many cases, it was not an ironclad form. The goal of the program then was demolition and the creation of marketable parcels of land, which in many cases necessitated clearance of structures incompatible with re-use. One of the guidelines of the program was that a certain percentage of the structures had to have major structural deficiencies. You put yourself in a corner."

Was Moodus a Slum?

Although the survey taken to judge the condition of the buildings within the renewal area is missing from project records, a careful reading of the real estate appraisals done for each piece of property in the project shows that for the most part the structures were far from the slum buildings that were described on the renewal application. The appraisers rated most of the primary structures in "fair" to "good" condition. Additionally, the photographs attached to each appraisal picture buildings that in most cases would today be good candidates for rehabilitation.

"The buildings in Moodus were very similar to those in Chester -- some built on stilt foundations, some close together," says David Joslow. "If you stringently interpret the stateís building and fire codes, you can justify ripping down any building that was built more than five years ago. People can use that to justify anything. They use administrative regulations to get their own way."

Local resident Sam Rogow, an early opponent of the project, put it this way: "You donít rip down your house if it needs repairs. You repair it."

"We lived here day-in and day-out," says Joe Pear, who with his brother Sam owned the general store in old Moodus. "We didnít realize what we had. People from out of the area always thought we had a quaint town. "You only realize what you have when you see what others have. What we have now is nothing."

Might Have Been

"I thought at the time that we should have taken what we had and made it into a nice community," says Pear. "Each merchant would have had more pride and competition would increase." Ray McMullen, who was the townís druggist for 37 years, agrees. "I donít think the town quite realized what was taking place. I think that given a chance, Charlie Bernstein, Sam Pear and the others might have fixed up the town rather than what happened. It was a homey town."

Most people agree with Pear and McMullen. Given enough time and whatís happened in surrounding communities, itís likely that the area would have eventually improved by private initiative, either by the then-present or future homeowners and businesspeople, "as the merchants get older, they sell their businesses and buildings one by one. You just go from one generation to the next."

"In hindsight, rehabilitation and selective demolition to provide for off-street parking was the way to go," says Gibbons. "More selective demolition might have saved the area. It might have kept the merchants in business a little longer and they would have had a chance to pass their businesses on to new blood. A lot would have been accomplished through the use of painting, landscaping, coordinated signing and necessary road improvements. It would have been more in keeping with what has since happened in the town. This would have been preferable to praying that those people once tossed out of their stores and homes would remain. What you basically did was to say, Ďweíre going to get rid of you.í"

"I just wish that the project had taken place a few years later," says Gibbons. "When the philosophy of preservation was prominent and when the feeling that every town was going to boom wasnít so strong. Maybe in retrospect, we could have seen what private enterprise would have done. Maybe urban renewal wasnít the way to go in Moodus. Maybe the state could have been persuaded to make some road improvements and so on."

Itís debatable whether the extensive road improvements that were made were necessary or whether more modest improvements would have worked. "If you provided some off-street parking and relieved some congestion, perhaps the road system wasnít so bad," says Gibbons. "What you ended up with was a highway. There are some planners who feel that congestion helps to make an area successful. Look at the Goodspeed area. That certainly isnít an ideal traffic pattern, but it works."

"We have lots of people in Chester that say Chester isnít viable," notes David Joslow, "that thereís no enough parking. Well, Iím a city boy and this parking situation doesnít seem bad to me. I donít mind walking a block or two. You donít need a thruway through town."

Other Options for Moodus

There clearly were other options besides urban renewal available to the town around that time. It was a time of lavish spending at the federal level. A guidebook published by the Independent Bankers Association of America in the early seventies listed nearly 1,000 programs at the federal level for rural developments. In addition, Connecticut had its own, more modest urban renewal program where the state and the town split the cost fifty-fifty. There were still other alternatives to wholesale destruction: Special zoning regulations combined with low-interest loans could have spurred the fixing up of the area under a less ambitious renewal program. Also, the town could have opted for special tax assessments or bonding to finance off-street parking or road improvements.

The renewal of Moodus was a case of unfortunate timing, a result of the myopic view of "progress" that was popular at the time but later fell out of favor. Many townspeople now agree with Walter Bielot, who once owned a small grocery store adjacent to the renewal area. "In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to fix up old Moodus Center and redevelop across the street. We would have had both the old and the new."

"A rehabilitated Moodus Center that retained neighborhood characteristics and preserved unique structures would have been very compatible with the Goodspeed area," Gibbons says. "People attending the Goodspeed would be drawn to the area. But it was too early to predict this." The old town on the hill is gone forever. What took its place is, in the view of many residents, a poor substitute. "Whatís valuable to people are things that add to the quality of life," says Joslow. "A sense of community, human scale, sidewalks, trees, these are whatís attractive to people. Anyone can have a strip shopping plaza. What you did in Moodus was to disperse the town. Thatís very sad."

"Itís a shame," says town resident Peg Sievers, "that the children of today donít even know what we had Ė that this town existed."

Part 1. Legacy of "Progress" Gone Sour

The first article in the 1982 award-winning newspaper series that detailed what East Haddam residents were promised when a federal urban renewal program was sold to them in 1967.

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.


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