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Room For All In City's Future

Commentary by Stan Simpson
October 22, 2005

It wasn't so long ago that Hartford haters scoffed at the notion that a convention center and 5-star hotel would actually be built downtown. And if they were built, then obviously no one would want to come, right?

Wrong. Since its June 2 opening, the convention center has hosted 118 events, including nine conventions and trade shows, and 70,000 patrons.

The same naysayers insisted that luxury apartments and condominiums would never find a market in Hartford. Who'd want to plunk down top coin to live in a place with a much-maligned school system and a reputation for crime?

These days the place once known for its insurance companies is bursting with high-end housing newly opened, under construction or in the works. The YMCA is just the latest to join the gold rush, cashing out its downtown digs and selling to Northland Investment Corp.

So far, most of the downtown housing has been new construction or renovation of empty buildings, with little displacement of existing residents. Still, looking at the apparent appeal of pricey units, this is beginning to look like a familiar story - the preliminary to eventual full-blown gentrification in the neighborhoods. Out with the old residents, in with the new.

"I see a mushrooming effect pushing poor people out of the city," said Clyde Billington Sr., 71, in his 40th year in the real estate business. "There's no doubt about it. There's nothing being done to keep working people in the city, not with the kinds of rents they're charging downtown. There's nothing wrong with the city moving up. I'm for that. But at the same time you have to make it possible for people who don't have money to enjoy the American way of life."

It's actually an encouraging problem for a poverty-wracked city with one of the lowest home ownership rates in the country.

How do you provide for an expected influx of middle-class and well-to-do homeowners without totally shunning those who have little means?

Yvon Alexandre, a city entrepreneur, said homeownership for low-to-moderate earners is the only way to balance the surging development.

Hartford's conversion of several federally funded public housing projects into single-family homes and affordable rentals will promote what Mayor Eddie Perez's office calls "income-diversity."

In 2002 and 2003, according to his office, nearly 2,100 home purchases were recorded; 35 percent to 40 percent were first-time buyers. Ethnically, there is almost an equal mix of Latinos, blacks and whites moving in.

Perez's chief of staff, Matt Hennessy, says it's premature to talk about gentrification. And, he says, the city's expected growth should be just another indication to the region that "it's not just the city of Hartford's obligation to serve as the center for affordable housing."

Alexandre, who owns a North End shopping plaza, views the redevelopment of the city as an opportunity for everyone.

"We have to encourage people to become property owners - now," said Alexandre. "I think you're definitely going to see a shift (in where developers invest) because they're running out of real estate downtown. Five years from now, I don't think there's going to be any properties to be had, especially in the North End."

I've been telling anyone who will listen that when I look at North Hartford, particularly Albany Avenue, I see a street poised for a Harlem-like resurgence. That's the good news.

A sobering aside is that most of the old guard in Harlem did not benefit from its latest renaissance.

In fact, many couldn't afford to live there anymore.


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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