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Bristol Makes A Fresh Start Toward Downtown Redevelopment

After a dozen years of delays and false starts, the city broke ground Tuesday morning on what it hopes will be a turnaround project for its downtown.

Mayor Ken Cockayne took the controls of a John Deere excavator to rip up the first chunk of the old parking lot at the Bristol Centre Mall site.

Over the next year, contractors and city workers will put a road and sidewalks through the 15-acre site. Starting in December, Bristol Hospital intends to have another set of contractors erect a three-story medical office and lab building on one corner of the property.

“We’re making history here today; we’re changing the landscape of Bristol,” said John Lodovico, a hospital board member and long-time advocate for downtown revitalization.

“This is going to kickstart downtown development,” said Justin Malley, executive director of the Bristol Development Authority.

When the city bought the deteriorating, half-vacant mall for $5.3 million 12 years ago, then-Mayor Gerard Couture was counting on quickly tearing it down and building a state-financed complex of civic facilities surrounded by new private development.

But demolition was delayed more than two years by lawsuits and the plodding pace of a new city administration. Meanwhile, the $40 million in state funding evaporated.

In the years since, national-brand retailers have shown no interest in building downtown, while prospective investors have concluded that large-scale market-rate housing wasn’t feasible either. Many civic leaders predicted that the extension of Route 72 from I-84 to Route 229 would lure mid-sized retailers with the promise of easy access for shoppers, but that hasn’t happened either.

The city waited several years for Renaissance Downtowns to build a series of mid-rise apartment towers with a 100-room hotel, stores and restaurants. The company never could put together financing, though, and last year Cockayne suggested an entirely new idea: having the hospital construct its planned complex of physicians’ offices and labs downtown.

“We’re both helping each other. Bristol Hospital is going to be able to expand and continue to grow, at the same point you’re bringing 500 people downtown every day,” Cockayne said, looking toward hospital President Kurt Barwis.

“It’s because of your project that we’re now negotiating with another developer who is looking to build multi-story buildings with commercial on the bottom and apartments and/or office space on top,” Cockayne said. “Its your project that’s giving us the vibrant downtown that we all want and deserve.”

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