Legacy of Progress Gone Sour
The country's smallest urban renewal project destroyed historic Moodus village
By KEN SIMON
In the 1960s, the old center of Moodus was shopworn, had limited parking, and sometimes smelled of sewage. A town committee was formed, consultants were hired and a plan was hatched to secure "free" federal urban renewal funds for redevelopment.
A public relations campaign to sell the project to residents was begun. It was a successful campaign.
In 1967, East Haddam residents voted 2-1 for a "modern" village to replace what they had.
What happened next was a disaster. Despite the predictions of economic progress, the project ended up destroying the heart of the Village of Moodus,
How it started (top) and what we got (bottom) after a disastrous renewal project of Old Moodus Center.
Residents lost the historic village and gained an ugly and small aluminum shopping plaza. How the town came to this decision is the subject of this award-winning newspaper series first published in 1982 in the Lyme Gazette. The series was updated and published in 2016 in the East Haddam News.
Towns dream, just like people dream. They dream of a spacious shopping plaza to serve local needs; they dream of a rebirth, old business districts made new; they dream of progress and modernization.
East Haddam had such a dream 50 years ago. How that dream turned into a nightmare makes for a cautionary tale as the town prepares to undertake the revitalization of the former town office site across from the Goodspeed Opera House. The outcome of that development will impact the local sense of place and economy, Many town residents hope for a better outcome this time.
How issues of traffic and sewage turned into what was perhaps the country's smallest urban renewal project that ended up destroying the historic center is the subject of this award-winning series.
In 1961 the newly established East Haddam Planning and Zoning Board started to discuss parking and traffic issues in Moodus Village.
Conditions in the historic village were not, according to board minutes, “as good as might be desired.” Despite initial misgivings, town officials soon decided to look into “free” federal urban-renewal funds. The catch was that the urban renewal program heavily favored a bulldoze-and-rebuild mentality.
Project funding was only available to “blighted” areas. How the initial traffic issues grew into a declaration that Moodus was a slum not worth preserving -- and how town residents were persuaded to approve the town’s “renewal” -- is the topic of Part 2.
So far in the series, we saw how Moodus residents were systematically sold a bill of goods using a swanky model of town center perfection and the lure of state and federal funds to pay most of the cost of the project.
The price of modernization was to deem the current town center blighted, and consent to the razing and rebuilding of downtown Moodus.
As the project rolled on, opposition was scarce. The voices of the few naysayers were squelched.
In Part 3 we will see how the glittering promises of urban renewal were broken one by one.
We've seen in prior installments how the Moodus urban renewal project began to fall apart.
While efforts to modernize downtown Moodus continued to limp along, encountering one problem after another, residents endured a five-year dispiriting construction mess all over the renewal area.
In this installment we will learn how personalities, financing, non-binding agreements, the town’s small size, and other setbacks continued to undermine the promised benefits of urban renewal.
We've seen how as the ill-fated project continued to unfold, personalities, financing problems, non-binding agreements and other setbacks continued to undermine the promised benefits of urban renewal.
This installment looks at alternatives to federal urban renewal, and how Chester, a nearby town in a similar state of disrepair, embraced and enhanced its historical charm to become economically viable in the modern world.
Could old Moodus Center have been restored? As Moodus Center was being demolished, residents began to have second thoughts.
This installment caps the story of how this misguided 1967 urban renewal project brought the historic Moodus business district and surrounding residences to the ground. Townspeople, who had approved the project after years of planning, PR campaigns and public meetings, were promised a modern village center.
Sadly, when the project stumbled to its conclusion, many former supporters were appalled at the outcome. It was a town nightmare.
The ill-advised attempt decimated the heart and unique character of the old mill village. Longtime residents still miss old Moodus and speculate on what the business district could have become with a more selective approach.
Painting by Robert Sweeney