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Don't Let Dust-up Sink Crucial Hartford Project

September 10, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

The Hartford Housing Authority is poised to initiate a critically important new development, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redefine the University of Hartford campus and the northwest corner of the city. Because of this, the recent brouhaha at the authority is unsettling and demands close attention.

The project is the remake of two aging housing projects, Bowles Park and Westbrook Village. These postwar, brick barracks-style buildings sit on nearly 140 acres in the Blue Hills neighborhood. Many of the buildings are in bad shape; about a quarter of the Westbrook units are unoccupied because of lead contamination. The authority determined more than a year ago that the projects were in need of renewal. A planning committee was formed, with representatives from the authority, tenants, the General Assembly, the University of Hartford and the city. The committee was formed to decide how the projects should be redeveloped and to designate a developer.

Things seemed to be moving along fine. Then, earlier in the summer, well-respected developer John H. McClutchy Jr. of Stamford, one of three developers chosen as finalists in the project, withdrew without comment. Late last month, seemingly out of nowhere, Lancelot Gordon Jr., the housing authority's executive director, was fired for what have been reported as violations of the agency's financial policies.

The transgressions, involving about $11,000, included hiring a private detective to review the security of authority buildings, paying to have his agency-issued 2005 Ford Explorer painted and repaired, misusing an agency credit card while attending out-of-town conferences, improperly expensing a health club membership, and buying two laptops, one of which was lost or stolen while Gordon traveled for work.

At least some of these expenditures do not seem out of line, which has raised the question in some quarters of whether there was anything else going on. As he was heading out the door, Gordon charged that the effort to oust him was payback for his efforts to correct misconduct at the authority, including "efforts on the part of commissioners to influence bidding on significant projects."

Westbrook-Bowles is the most significant project on the authority's agenda. Is someone trying to shake it down?

Gordon has chosen not to elaborate on his accusations. If he can, he should. Thus far, the evidence isn't there. Courtney Anderson, chairman of the housing authority's board of commissioners, said the selection process was "very public," and that he had no idea what Gordon was talking about. "We assumed he was blowing off steam."

Kathleen Dorgan, an architect and planner from Storrs who served as a consultant to the planning committee, thought the group did its work very well. "It was wonderful process, with great participation, great support from the community."

The committee has chosen Boston-based Corcoran Jennison, one of the pioneers in converting public housing projects to mixed-use communities, as the developer. The selection must be approved by the agency's board of commissioners.

There are more levels of review. Westbrook and Bowles are state housing projects - most projects are federal - and will require approval from the Department of Economic and Community Development and possibly the legislature to become mixed-use developments. The project will also need financing from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez has asked the city's audit commission to investigate Gordon's claim. The attorney general might want to take a look at it as well. The integrity of the agency is important, and so is the project. The Westbrook Village area could be developed with the University of Hartford into a mixed-use, mixed-income university village, something along the lines of the Storrs Center project planned near the University of Connecticut.

This would give the U of H dimensions it lacks; a place to gather, eat and shop that wouldn't involve getting in a car, graduate student housing, an entrance on Albany Avenue. The university should be a co-developer.

Westbrook and Bowles would enhance the entrances to the city from the west and north, solidify their neighborhoods and provide better housing for city residents.

Both projects now have about 770 units. The land could hold as many as 2,000 units of better housing.

"It's an enormous opportunity," Dorgan said. "It will be a terrible loss if the project doesn't go forward."

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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