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Hartford's Dutch Point A Model Housing Project

February 11, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

The Bush administration, which seems increasingly incapable of getting anything right, has continually tried to kill Hope VI, the federal program begun in 1992 to remove and replace dysfunctional public housing.

A reason to keep the program stands on Wyllys Street on the southern fringe of downtown Hartford, not far from the lovely Church of the Good Shepherd.

What used to be there and on the surrounding "superblock" was the sad, squalid, drug-infested barrack-style Dutch Point Colony public housing project. What is there now is a colorful and delightful assemblage of urban forms on small, well-connected city blocks, the first phase of a $73 million project that is reinventing the dreary, low-income project as a lively, mixed-income rental and ownership development.

The first phase of the project, 73 rental units, just opened and residents are pouring in. When finished, there'll be 198 units, a mix of rental and ownership.

If the rest of it looks this good, it will be one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the city. I can't say that for the other Hope VI projects in the city, but thanks to heavy neighborhood involvement, this one is first-rate.

The demolition and reconstruction of Hartford's large public housing projects over the past decade, thanks to Hope VI and other funding sources, was essential. The projects had become uninhabitable.

They all followed the same trajectory. They were all built around World War II as transitional housing, a place for a veteran or factory worker to get a start and then move on. The first generation of residents did just that, and look back fondly at the experience. But as factory jobs disappeared and the projects became permanent housing for poor people, their character changed. Drug-dealing and related crime made them dangerous; age and the elements made them decrepit. They had to come down.

The new versions of Charter Oak Terrace, Rice Heights, Stowe Village, Bellevue Square and now Dutch Point are all better than what was there, although almost anything would have been. Hartford's story has been repeated across the country as one failed housing project after another has fallen to the great swinging ball.

Some cities just took down old housing and built new housing. Others used Hope VI to build inspired, brilliantly designed new neighborhoods. Hartford has done both.

The former Charter Oak Terrace was split into commercial and residential components. The commercial side is a Wal-Mart with a bunch of fast-food joints. This does provide some jobs and commerce, and people in the area tell me they like it, but it's still a major underachievement.

It's hard to believe that a clean, 70-acre site with railroad, highway and, when it is built, busway access, close to West Hartford's New Park Avenue corridor, with no zoning issues, couldn't do better than a big box. With any kind of decent planning, the retail could have been built there along with office, factory or distribution facilities. Maybe that will happen someday. At present, we're left to wonder what might have been.

The housing at the former Charter Oak site is a standard suburban subdivision, as might be found in Tolland or wherever. It features "snout houses," with garages sticking out of the front, an odd choice considering some families appear not to own cars.

Across the street, the old Rice Heights project, while also not unpleasant, is oddly vertical for a hilltop development. The row of identical quasi-townhouses along the crest of Brookfield Street merely replaced a row of identical brick houses. This can't be laid at the feet of the Hartford Housing Authority - the state was heavily involved in the person of Peter Ellef, who also inserted himself in the notorious Fort Trumbull project in New London. Ellef is now a federal inmate and one hopes he's in the laundry and not on the building committee.

The former Stowe Village has solid-looking duplexes, attractively laid out. It looks pretty good, more like an urban neighborhood. One potential problem is that the streets are wide and straight, which encourages speeding; the other is that the development is kind of off by itself, not connected to much of anything. That impression may be dispelled when the second phase, which is now underway, is finished. Still, anyone who remembers the open air drug market, graffiti, litter, violence and general hopelessness on Kensington and Hampton streets will be awed by the difference. Not that they aren't busy elsewhere, but the Hartford police must be thankful the seemingly endless drug raids at the projects are pretty much over.

The former Bellevue Square was a thinning out of the old project known as "The Brickyard." Some of the three-story brick apartment buildings were torn down; others were remodeled. Grass, trees and a cast iron fence make the area, now called Mary Shepard Place after a beloved former resident, look considerably better. The recent opening of a shopping center nearby is a plus for residents.

What happened at Dutch Point was different. The housing authority went in with another quasi-suburban design, and the neighborhood said no. Carol Coburn, executive director of the Coalition to Strengthen the Sheldon/Charter Oak Neighborhood Inc., drove around the city with residents of the old Dutch Point, who would get dibs on the new housing, and asked them what they liked. They liked Columbia Street, the block of eclectic homes designed by Hartford's great 19th-century architect, George Keller.

Coburn, Linda Osten, Patrick Pinnell and other of the neighborhood group's troops along with David Block of Community Builders Inc., the developer, battled for that kind of look at Dutch Point, and they got it. The design of new buildings by Stull and Lee of Boston combines flat and pointed roofs, towers, porches, fences and vivid colors that work well together and combine nicely with the buildings already there. It is a pedestrian-scaled, traditional urban neighborhood, with buildings fronting onto old and new streets. The design could be brought over to the Front Street redevelopment to good advantage.

This was the way Hope VI was supposed to work. I'm not prepared to say why it didn't work as well at the other sites. There were some good builders and architects, and some that appeared to have political connections. One could not help but note the allegations of corruption and bid-rigging that emerged from the housing authority last year, and wonder at the possible connection.

There's a new housing authority board of directors. There's one more major housing project to make over, Nelton Court in the North End. The authority ought to see to it that the process follows the one at Dutch Point. Done right, Hope VI is a tremendous boon to American cities.

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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