For more than 75 years, Elm Street has been the epicenter of downtown New Canaan. Once called “Railroad Avenue” due to its proximity to the train station, Elm Street is arguably the most identifiable road in town, providing New Canaan with a Rockwellian charm with a mix of independent businesses and upscale chains that draw local and out-of-town shoppers alike.
“Everything needs a spine, it is what makes the train go,” Rick Franco—owner of Franco’s Wine Merchants— told NewCanaanite.com. Franco’s is one of the oldest businesses in New Canaan and one of the first to set up shop on Elm Street, originally as a grocery store during Prohibition.
“There’s a certain amount of comfort that is generated here by the one-way street and shops. Elm Street offers a very comforting first view of the town for potential homebuyers. People who are considering moving to New Canaan and maybe if they make an unassisted visit and just come here to look around at first, when they see Elm Street there’s a certain sort of welcoming that is offered without any fanfare.”
As state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) of New Canaan said: “I truly believe downtown New Canaan is what sets us apart from many of the surrounding towns and many of the towns in the state. When I was on Town Council I tried to promote in any way I could ways to make New Canaan a destination for foot traffic through downtown.”
During his time on New Canaan’s Town Council and prior to being elected to the state legislature, O’Dea has been an advocate of projects such as sidewalk construction and outdoor dining, both of which have augmented New Canaan’s vibrant downtown pulse. According to O’Dea, both initiatives were met with resistance from merchants and residents for no other reason than it was a change from the norm.
“I understand nobody likes change,” O’Dea said. “What I would say to people is, before you have a kneejerk reaction and say no to change just because of the change, think about and look at it.”
One proposal for change that had a major impact on downtown New Canaan was “The Circle Route.” Downtown traffic eventually got to be so bad that in 1973 a development plan was proposed to the Planning and Zoning Commission to extend Cherry Street—which ran one-way, west-to-east, and whose eastern terminus used to be at Main Street—all the way to Locust Avenue. Another recommendation was to reverse the direction of traffic on the one-way stretch of Elm Street between Main and Park. The change, the study noted, would redirect traffic toward the heart of downtown New Canaan at Main and Elm, changing the overall flow through downtown to a clockwise rotation and thereby lessening left-handed turns at critical intersections.
While the Cherry Street part of the plan passed and is now an indispensable part of the downtown traffic flow, Elm retained the same one-way, east-west direction it’s had since it ceased being a two-way street in the 1950’s.
In recent years some residents have unearthed that 1973 proposal, trying to resurrect the aborted part of the plan to reverse the traffic on Elm. O’Dea, for one, would fully support the idea.
“I think that’s a phenomenal idea,” O’Dea said. “Instead of bringing traffic to a head at the railroad station, to have it flowing the other way and maybe having people driving home through the downtown area and pick something up from the downtown merchants instead of being forced away.”
Even so, for at least one such downtown merchant, such a change is all but inconceivable.
“From the bottom of my heart, I can’t even think about traffic on Elm Street going the other way,” Franco said. “I wish I could say, ‘let’s think about it a bit.’ Or ‘that’s a little interesting.’ For the life of me I cannot. It’s like asking somebody to put an unusual topping on a hamburger or something.”
Franco continued: “If you have a really nice garden, you should be sure to water the garden and take good care of it. Please take good care of Elm Street.”