To take a drive in Washington Depot through the hills of Litchfield County is to glimpse a more agrarian, rural Connecticut that has largely disappeared from more developed portions of the state. Stately colonial homes, quaint churches, and charming little shops lend a rustic, historic feeling and beckon thousands of visitors each year interested in antiques, crafts, Fall foliage, and fine dining. The pace of change in the last 100 years has been restrained, aside from the impact of the automobile and the Flood of 1955.
Much as the railroad altered the landscape in the 19th century, so did the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century. Local industries such as dairy farms, quarries, and ice struggled to compete with the new influx of products from competing markets. Passenger and freight rail service fell out of use and was discontinued. Increasing numbers of seasonal tourists, arriving now in their own personal vehicles, provided a new opportunity for economic growth.
In mid-August of 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane struck within a week of each other. Strong winds and heavy rain battered the region. Upstream, the accumulation of high volumes of water, silt, and debris into the nearby Shepaug River, caused a damming effect at local bridges. On the morning of the 19th, a bridge north of town failed, deluging homes and businesses along Main Street with several feet of water.
The damage wrought by the flood forever changed the landscape of the town. The economic and civic center of the community along Main Street, featured prominently along the banks of the river, was all but abandoned. Several buildings that survived intact, such as the Washington Drugs store, were relocated out of the flood plain to comprise a new commercial center called Bryan Hall Plaza, built facing the Town Hall and former rail depot.
However, the reorganization of parking and circulation within the plaza left much to be desired. Haphazard use of materials blurred the distinction between parking lot and sidewalks -- as well as the separation between public and private spaces. The use of parallel parking spots on the Town Hall side of the plaza created an extraordinarily wide drive aisle, resulting in vehicular traffic not maintaining lane separations. Inconsistent curbs and inadequate drainage caused intermittent ponding in certain areas. Since the late 1980s, several studies and plans for the Plaza were conducted with the intention of addressing these deficiencies, yet none came to fruition. In 2015, the Town received a grant from the State and selected TPA to devise a plan for improvements.
TPA worked with Plaza businesses and other stakeholders to understand how the public interacted with the space. A number of alternate plans were explored in sketch format before a consensus was reached.
The final plan reorganizes elements of parking and circulation to create a unified, cohesive layout that is efficient for both pedestrian and vehicular needs. Altering the parallel parking to standard 90 degree spots adds 15 new parking spots without increasing the existing footprint of the lot. New concrete sidewalks, relocated adjacent to parking stalls, are now ADA compliant and present a consistent aesthetic befitting of the commercial center of town. New ornamental, full-cutoff LED lighting increases pedestrian safety without causing light pollution or visual trespass into adjacent residential neighborhoods.
Portions of the parking lot were regraded to reduce flat, poorly drained areas as well as create new ADA-compliant sidewalks. New catch basins now collect stormwater runoff and convey it to a subsurface infiltration gallery under the parking lot. New bike racks and an EV charging station promote add amenities for green transportation which was one of the goals for the funding grant.
One-way circulation is enforced through the median islands which features granite curbs and setts in addition to permeable pavers. Strategic cut-throughs allow vehicles to easily access parking on the other side of the aisle. Native Hackberry trees and Coreopsis plantings provide shade and ornamental interest.
Business in the Plaza today is brisk, with dozens of individuals stopping by hourly to visit the post office, banks, pharmacy, grocery store, and other businesses. The project has also helped spur other improvements in the vicinity including renovation of the Art Association, a new outdoor patio for Washington Market, and the establishment of the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens.