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Sprucing Up The City's Blighted Gateways

Capitol West, The `Butt Ugly Building,' the Clarion Hotel Could Benefit From A Redevelopment Plan

August 7, 2007
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

Marketing dollars can't erase the image of decay and desolation that vacant, rundown buildings have projected for years at some of the most traveled entrances to downtown Hartford.

But now, the city is developing a proposal that could boost redevelopment of the some of the most blighted commercial areas in and around downtown.

The proposal would create a redevelopment district encompassing some of downtown Hartford's biggest eyesores: "Capitol West," which hugs the Asylum Street exit off I-84 west; the H.B. Davis building on Main Street, nicknamed by city officials the "Butt Ugly Building"; the end of the Trumbull Street exit off I-84 west; and the long-vacant Clarion Hotel on Constitution Plaza near the Founders Bridge.

A fourth property - Broadcast House, next to the hotel - also could be included.

All ofthe properties are now empty and three - Capitol West, H.B. Davis and the Clarion - have been that way for years.

"It's fair to say blighted properties create a hardship for the city," said John F. Palmieri, the city's director of developmental services.

Over the years, there have been redevelopment proposals for at least two properties - Capitol West and the H.B. Davis Building - but they haven't gotten past the planning stages. The city hopes the redevelopment district will succeed where individual efforts have, so far, failed.

A proposal for the redevelopment district could be ready by early fall and would need approval by the redevelopment agency and the city council. If approved, the district would allow the city to acquire properties and later sell them to developers. The district also would give the city the option of using eminent domain laws, but that practice is controversial.

Although the state tightened up its eminent domain laws this year, towns and cities are still able to invoke the power to eradicate blight.

If the city acquires the properties, it may have to pay more than they are now worth or meet the asking prices sought by owners. And the city may, in turn, have to sell them at below-market rates to make tracts attractive to developers who may first have to demolish the structures on the sites.

In Asylum Hill, a plan by the owner of Capitol West, Joshua Guttman of Brooklyn, N.Y., to create 97 apartments or condominiums in the building has been shelved, the news coming as little surprise because the only change since the proposal was made last year has been more grafitti painted on the building.

Coleman Levy, an attorney representing Guttman, said his client believes that there isn't enough demand right now for more residential units in and around downtown Hartford.

When told of the plans for a redevelopment district, Levy said it was difficult to comment on a proposal that hasn't been written. "But anything that's going to make the area more viable is a positive development," Levy said Monday.

Tens of thousands of motorists pass by the Capitol West building daily and many use the Asylum Street exit to reach downtown or the city's insurance hub, home to companies with a national reach, Aetna and The Hartford.

It has long been a source of frustration for leaders in Asylum Hill.

"You can't get into Asylum Hill on the highway without seeing that building," said Bernie Michel, chairman of the neighborhood revitalization zone in Asylum Hill. Many in the neighborhood believe it should just be torn down, he said.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez said last year he believed the Clarion Hotel on Constitution Plaza, its layout outdated and its interiors deteriorating, should be torn down and perhaps replaced with a residential tower. Some say the best plan would be to redevelop the hotel and Broadcast House sites because they sit next to each other on the plaza.

That sounds attractive, but developers who have approached the hotel's owner - the Maharishi School of Vedic Sciences - say negotiations are difficult and terms impossible to meet. In a decade, nothing has come of any talks over the hotel.

On Main Street, a plan to raze the "Butt Ugly Building" and build condominiums on the site and an adjacent city-owned parking lot collapsed in April. It also turned controversial by an agreement to pay a $100,000 "lease termination fee" to the former operator of the parking lot.

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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