Downtown Norwich/Chelsea Landing: Norwich, Connecticut


It was a grand vision put forth in a 1971 waterfront plan — and a $12-million dollar gamble by a local developer who had faith in the plan — that saved historic downtown Norwich. The neighborhood, some 350 years in the making, continues its progress with the guidance of synergistic planning efforts, community involvement, and tens of millions of dollars in public and private investments that have both preserved and enhanced the downtown's natural and man-made assets.

Designated Area

Bounded by the Yantic River to the west; Shetucket River to the east; Norwich Harbor to the south; and Oak Street, Willow Avenue, and School Street to the north.

Downtown Norwich overlooks picturesque Norwich Harbor, which has become a world-class marina. Photo courtesy Keith Ripley.

Planning Excellence

With buildings of monumental character and dramatic views because of steep-slope terracing, downtown Norwich boasts streetscapes of unusual historic integrity and variety. Located at the confluence of the Shetucket, Yantic, and Thames rivers, this compact neighborhood exudes 19th century charm while offering 21st century amenities. The rivers, key to neighborhood's initial prosperity, are a recreational resource today. A $12 million world-class 200-slip marina replaced an abandoned coal distribution site.  Adjacent to Norwich Harbor is the Howard T. Brown Park with boat launching site and pedestrian paths.

Shortly after Norwich's 1659 founding it became a bustling port, and water-dependent industries flourished. Downtown served as an early, New York–to–Boston transportation hub, but the city's geographic advantage evaporated when the interstate highway system passed it by. Intent on reestablishing itself as a regional transit center, downtown recently inaugurated a $22 million Intermodal Transportation Center that, ultimately, will connect bus, rail, and ferry.

The 1929 stock market crash signaled downtown Norwich's decline. Textile mills headed south. New construction slowed. By 1970, the neighborhood was a hub for the disenfranchised. Downtown turned to planning for guidance and possible solutions. The 1971 waterfront plan jump-started redevelopment, and 10 years later a historic resources inventory led to the 64-acre Downtown Norwich Historic District being added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A merchant-funded plan in 1982 resulted in the creation of a downtown development corporation that encouraged building facade improvements, renovations, and adaptive reuse.  Streetscape improvements, including brick sidewalks and period streetlamps, were made in 1992. A $3.38 million plan, approved by voters in 2010, is funding code corrections, lease rebates, and low-rate loans.

Redevelopment is focused on increasing the number of moderate- and high-income residents to spur economic activity. The neighborhood has roughly 500 housing units, ranging from stately mansions to affordable apartments, such as The Wauregan, a renovated 1855 hotel. Housing for artists is available in a former shoe factory located in the heart of the neighborhood's vibrant arts district. The district has two live theaters, the Slater Memorial Museum and the 1850 Otis Library. With support from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the $18.9 million mixed-use Mercantile Exchange with 100,000 square feet of office space was built in 2004.

A host of events throughout the year reflect the neighborhood's cultural and ethnic diversity, including the Taste of Italy and the River Fest-Dragon Boat Racing that celebrates the most concentrated Asian community in the region.

Constructed in 1860, the Romanesque Revival Rockwell Building is a flatiron-inspired structure located in the heart of downtown Norwich. Photo courtesy Keith Ripley.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Historic Architecture and Street Design

  • Downtown's oldest home built 1737; a brewery is oldest commercial structure built 1741; 13 structures from 18th century, 55 buildings from 19th century, 30 buildings from 20th century
  • 19th century architecture includes Italianate, French Second Empire, High Victorian Gothic, and Greek Revival styles; most prominent houses are  John Fox Slater (1843) and Buckingham Memorial (1847)
  • Downtown Norwich Historic District, added to National Register (1985), comprises 64 of 74 acres
  • Clustering of buildings creates visual character; unique streetscape derives from combination of dense development — relieved by occasional open squares — with irregular road pattern
  • Street design results in narrow, angular lots, necessitating development of triangular buildings with rounded apexes and buildings with distinct facades on the two streets on which they front
  • Adaptive reuse dates to early 1800s; rise in commercial property values led to conversion of residential structures; 21st century adaptive reuse creates theaters, restaurants, apartments

Planning and Redevelopment

  • 1971 waterfront plan envisions recreational use of rivers and adjacent shoreline
  • Local developer, Ron D. Aliano, invests $12 million to transform coal distribution point into marina
  • Downtown merchants raise $20,000 to fund "Downtown Norwich" redevelopment plan (1982)
  • $230,000 streetscape project (1992) results in installation of brick sidewalks and period streetlamps
  • Norwich Community Development Corporation administers funding for development of $18.9 million, 100,000-square-foot Mercantile Exchange (2004); first new downtown office building in 30 years
  • $10.5 million upgrade of Otis Library completed 2006
  • Wauregan Hotel (1855) reopens after $18 million restoration (2006); has 70 affordable housing units
  • Voters pass $3.38 million proposal (2010) providing favorable financing to businesses and grants to owners of historic properties to renovate uninhabitable upper floors; $1 million encumbered to date
  • Vibrant Communities Initiative (2012) seeks to guide historic resource redevelopment
  • $70 million invested over 10 years; $8 million in pipeline includes two mixed-use waterfront projects

Transportation Hub

  • Site of city's first public landing (1684), which attracted merchant ships from as far as West Indies
  • Steamboats connect downtown to New York (1816), trains link neighborhood to Boston (1832); streetcars introduced 1880s and electrified in 1892
  • Marina at American Wharf is $12 million public-private project (1989); $1 million upgrade 2012
  • $22 million Intermodal Transportation Center with 162 parking spaces, taxi services, rail connections is operations base for Southeast Area Transit District (2012); will link to future maritime services
  • The Harbor Management Commission is developing a kayak trail along the waterfront with will connect to the Uncas Leap Heritage Area
  • The entire downtown area is very walkable place with numerous sidewalks

A 1971 city waterfront plan guided redevelopment of the Norwich waterfront as a haven for recreational use. Photo courtesy Keith Ripley.

Scenic Resources, Arts and Entertainment

  • Downtown overlooks picturesque Norwich Harbor; at confluence of Shetucket, Yantic, and Thames rivers; terraced downtown built on steep, lower slopes of Wawecus Hill
  • Heritage Walk starts from Howard T. Brown Park ; follows Yantic River, ends at Uncas Leap gorge
  • Spirit of Broadway Theater, an 80-seat, black-box theater, located in historic firehouse
  • Norwich Arts Center features 600 square feet of exhibition space; ArtSpace provides artist housing
  • Slater Memorial Museum, a Romanesque Revival house (1886) displays fine and decorative art
  • Community's ethnic diversity celebrated with annual River Fest-Dragon Boat Racing, Taste of Italy 
  • "Rock the Docks" at Howard T. Brown Park and "Norwich First Fridays" attract residents, visitors
  • The downtown neighborhood is surrounding by hills, many of them containing historic residential neighborhoods of their own (e.g., Jail Hill, Laurel Hill, Little Plain)