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Two Ideas, Many Questions

COMMENTARY by Tom Condon
July 17, 2005

Park Street is Connecticut's Calle Ocho, the main commercial stem in the Hartford's major Latino neighborhood. Park connects to Main Street, the historic center of the city. There's open land at the northwest and southwest corners of the Park and Main intersection. For several years, city officials have been laying the groundwork for a gateway development there that would celebrate Latino culture and connect Park Street, physically and symbolically, to downtown.

The idea is excellent. The city put out a request for proposals earlier this year and received a disappointing two responses. The proposals, made public last week, are intriguing but raise a number of questions.

The grander of the two is from a group of prominent Latino businessmen, and involves two high-rise towers, one of 17 stories and the other, 10 stories. The $64 million proposal calls for more than 40 condominiums, a chapel, a boutique hotel, a banquet hall and, as the crowning touch, a 40,000-square-foot "plaza mayor," of the type found in the center of many Hispanic cities throughout Spain and the Americas. (To clarify a point of some confusion, the architect/developer is Ted Amenta of A & Co. of Willington and New York City, not Tony Amenta of Amenta/Emma of Hartford and Cambridge.)

The second proposal is for a traditional-looking $26 million complex, with apartments, offices and retail space. It is proposed by Joseph and Frank Citino of Providian Builders, who've built hundreds of units of housing in the city.

The larger project raises questions of scale. It looks like a lost nephew of the Travelers Tower. Travelers is downtown, amid other high-rises. This development would be many blocks farther south, where the buildings are three- or four-story. The towers seem out of whack, a baseball bat in a pencil jar.

Perhaps the goal is to redefine the surroundings. If so, I question the timing. It would be a gateway to a block of Park Street that is low-rise and fragmented, except for an office building set back on Hudson Street. It would be a large door to a small house.

The most intriguing aspect of the two-tower proposal is the plaza, surrounded by a loggia or arcade. The first person I ever heard suggest the idea of a Hispanic plaza at the Park Street gateway was Trinity College Professor Luis Figueroa. Figueroa said many Hispanics who come to Hartford from the islands find the New England street layout disorienting, and that a neighborhood plaza would be a major draw.

Yes, as long as it worked. Most Hispanic towns were designed around a central plaza, so it is difficult to airdrop one into an already-built city. In Latin cities, the roads meet in the plaza, and the uses change during the day, from selling fruits and vegetables to informal sports and paseos in the evening.

Nothing looks worse than a large empty space that's dead. Boston's City Hall Plaza, for example, is a blank that nothing seems to be able to fill. Before the Park Street plaza went ahead, there should be some assurance that it would be used during different times of the day. Also, wouldn't the tower block the sun for half the day?

Finally, as planner Patrick Pinnell notes, the plaza would be quite close to another public space, (sadly neglected) South Green. There would have to be a way to make these two spaces work together, lest they compete with each other.

At four stories, the Citino proposal matches the scale of the neighborhood quite attractively, if the renderings are indicative. The complex would offer 75 apartments, and Joseph Citino said he was planning to have a 55-and-older age limit. Hmmm. The Latino population is the youngest in the city, so wouldn't there be a cross-generational demand? Wouldn't there be a market for people who wanted to walk to work downtown or at Hartford Hospital? And might the two homeless shelters in the neighborhood, though they are well-run, inhibit marketing?

Also, both of these proposals have a lot of space for retail. Don't we ever learn? Adriaen's Landing is having trouble attracting retail. And, if part of the goal of this project is to bolster the Park Street commercial corridor, wouldn't new shops compete with existing ones to some degree?

On the other hand, a major Hispanic restaurant, as the Amenta group proposes, would be welcome.

Both of these projects seek public subsidy, $17.2 million for Amenta and $5 million for Citino. Does there come a point, in our lifetimes, when the taxpayers get off the hook on Hartford development? The city will have to study the economics of both proposals closely.

In any event, the gateway has to be developed. There should be public process and discussion. The developers have provided a good starting point.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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