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Arena Talk Shifts Focus To North End

City Officials Want Boom Downtown To Cross I-84

December 30, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

A new sports and entertainment arena on the northern fringe of downtown Hartford is more talk than anything else right now, but the chatter is putting the spotlight back on efforts to undo the geographic and economic isolation of the city's North End.

Cut off by I-84, the North End is seeing a small wave of investment as city officials seek to pull the downtown development boom across the highway. A new public safety complex, new housing, and new retail are all in the works.

And Thursday, Mayor Eddie A. Perez confirmed that the city is in serious talks with a developer and potential business owner interested in redeveloping the city-owned "12B site" at Main and Trumbull streets.

"We have a real conversation that we can't go public on about 12B," Perez said, adding that any deal is far from certain and that the interested party is still considering other sites.

The parcel also has been mentioned as the potential site of a new $250 million arena. On Wednesday, Massachusetts developer Northland Investment Corp. said it is interested in building the facility.

There certainly are many variables. But put all the pieces together, and some developers, city leaders and community advocates are seeing renewed hope for an area they now refer to as "Downtown North" and the surrounding neighborhood.

"There is nothing [in the city] that is as open and is asking for a big change, in my opinion, than the North End," said Daniel O. Merida, one of the two developers involved in the project to build new housing and retail at 1450 Main St.

The difference between downtown and the North End is stark.

Cross I-84 and the change is evident in the span of just a few blocks: parking garages, college students and new hotels on one side, vacant lots and a huge, boarded-up building at 1161 Main St. on the other.

"It's a barrier," Mark Pellegrini, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association, said about I-84. "Not so much because of the distance, but because it's kind of a barren crossing."

But the way R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel sees it, the barrier, more than the highway, had long been a suffering downtown economy.

"Not enough has come out from downtown to make some of the parcels on that end [of the city] in economic demand yet," said Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance.

Now that much of the first wave of Hartford's redevelopment is either in progress or complete, city officials are turning some of their attention to the city's surrounding neighborhoods.

In Downtown North and the surrounding area alone, at least three major projects are underway.

At 1450 Main St., Merida and his team plan roughly 50 affordable rental units and 20,000 square feet of retail on a former city-owned property, although exact plans have not yet been finalized.

At 25-73 Albany Ave., developer Rony Shapiro plans to build a retain building of roughly 14,000 square feet on property formerly owned by the city.

And on High Street, the city is working to combine its fire and police functions in one main headquarters facility.

Perez says his goal is to continue expanding the area's potential for retail.

"I'm not talking about Westfarms mall kind of retail; I'm talking about neighborhood retail that expands," the mayor said.

The way Perez looks at it, the area needs more residents, and it needs a major employer with roughly 1,000 to 2,000 employees.

"An arena could complement that," he said, adding that it would put feet on the street. "But the arena by itself doesn't do it."

As to whether a new arena would help or hurt those efforts, opinions differ.

W. Reggie Hales, president of the Hartford Enterprise Zone Business Association, which represents North End merchants, said what the neighborhood needs isn't more major attractions, but restaurants, small shops, and small entertainment.

"To build another entertainment venue would be redundant and a waste of money," Hales said. "You need something that's going to come downtown and entertain people, feed people and, more importantly, create jobs."

Griebel reiterated what he said were some of the concerns with a downtown football stadium in the late 1990s.

"Does an edifice like that cut off downtown?" he asked. "If you put a major edifice that's only occupied in certain times, what does that do to economic flow? Does it become the barrier?"

Pellegrini said planners largely agree that a new arena is typically something that caps - rather than initiates - economic development.

"They're like the icing on the cake," he said. "Whether or not these big bang projects really are the things that cities are built on or around, I'm not so sure about that myself. You need everything to make it work."

Arena or no arena, Pellegrini said it is possible to overcome the physical separation between downtown and the North End.

"If you can create a pleasant enough experience, you can overcome the distance over the highway," he said. "Stores or restaurants or shops or street vendors - any kind of activity that would add life to and interest in that kind of passage. You have to create something that is not otherwise there."

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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