By Jonathan Lerner
Unlike other small urban areas in its region, the city of Middletown, New York, has been gaining population and jobs. About 28,000 people live there, a nearly 10 percent increase since 2000. Among its centers of employment and vitality are a community college and a state university branch; a college of osteopathy, which opened in 2014 in a disused hospital; and a satellite campus of an English-Chinese bilingual college that is moving into part of a former state psychiatric institution.
Middletown grew up in the 19th century as a rail hub, and has an attractive, intimately scaled and largely intact historic downtown. But rail and manufacturing disappeared in the mid-20th century, and retail moved to the outskirts — the typical story. While not one but two craft breweries—those heralds of urban renaissance — have opened recently downtown, many commercial spaces remain vacant. Residential neighborhoods are deteriorated, with a high poverty rate.
“There is this notion of moving back to cities and walkable communities,” says Jonathan Drapkin, president and CEO of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a nonprofit regional planning organization. Drapkin and others want to see that trend happen in small towns with good, urbanistic street networks and underutilized building stock.
Pattern for Progress is one group that’s helping to do that, working with communities in the nine-county Hudson Valley area. This year, Pattern initiated a program called Community Builders, “a six-month intensive commitment of resources” to build leadership capacity in eight individuals who are championing “anchor projects that can encourage growth and revitalization in existing urban places,” Drapkin explains. Two of these projects are in Middletown.
On the main commercial street, a 20,000-squarefoot former Woolworth store is to be transformed. An open-air pedestrian corridor will cut through its center, creating a connection to parking behind the building and functioning as the terminus of a spur off a rail trail under development that passes nearby. The remaining sections of the Woolworth building will be renovated into four turnkey retail spaces. “What’s hampering us is the big empty stores,” says Maria Bruni, Middletown’s director of community development. “We have great retail starting, but we’re running out of places for smaller shops.” Besides enhancing connectivity, Rail Trail Commons, as the project is called, could be a model for adapting other problematically large buildings.