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Wins And Losses: The Eyes Have It

December 31, 2006
Commentary By Christine Palm

It's time for our annual tally of wins and losses in the department of urban Eyesores and, conversely, Sites for Sore Eyes. But be forewarned: In the absence of an official buzzer or countable innings, the score is, admittedly, subjective.

First, a bummer: Capitol West, the mammoth Myrtle Street office building featured in our August Eyesores, is still a black eye on the city's skyline, especially from I-84. Alas, no real sign of improvement.

Now for some successes. Although Hawthorn Street, the fabled playland of Katharine Hepburn, remains a disgrace, there is movement. The city recently sold a lien on a rubble-strewn lot there to Aetna, with the understanding that the company will own and develop the property once foreclosure proceedings are complete.

Now, it may be coincidence, but last February, soon after we excoriated the city's Rising Star promoters for their unintentionally juvenile billboard on I-84 ("Come To Hartford. I Swear, It's fun"), down it came. It was replaced by a more grown-up version touting downtown attractions.

There's some change over on Parkville's Bartholomew Avenue, too. Gone is the clattering lamppost that once hung precariously from the factory with the Spaghetti Warehouse sign. (It may have simply blown off in a high gust.) And that despoiled lot at 26 Congress St. we complained about in June? Neat, tidy and untrammeled. The flagstone slabs are gone and it is once again suitable for strolling, lunching and dog walking.

Among other wins: Despite some graffiti on a utility box, the new Pope Park entrance still looks great. Park advocates have kicked off Phase 2 of the restoration by closing Pope Park Drive to vehicles. Up in the North End, Spring Grove Cemetery's active volunteers continue to raise money - and the historic cemetery's profile.

And in what Marilyn Rosetti, director of Hartford Areas Rally Together, calls "a perfect example of the power of the pen," a boarded-up block-long building at the corner of Shultas and Franklin may soon have new life. Rosetti said that "within two days of the [April] Eyesore on the building, the owners got in touch with our problem property committee. They came with a nice spiral-bound notebook full of plans for a mixed-use building. We're hopeful."

We heard from a reader, Don Brooks of Cypress, Calif., who lived next door on Shultas Place as a child and remembers many thriving businesses in that building, including an A&P, Riley's Drugs, Al's Fruit Shop, Pross' Package Store and Krofts' Groceries.

Nancy A. Roberts, a reader from Concord, Mass., proves there's nothing like a primary source when researching old buildings. Roberts, whose father, Dr. Wilmar Allen, was director of Hartford Hospital from 1936 to 1954, lived in the Queen Anne at 95 Niles St. featured as a Site for Sore Eyes in March. She wrote of a sunroom fountain that was "a gargoyle-like creature" and two Chinese teahouses in the boxwood garden. Roberts also remembers that "in the cellar under the rear stairs was a small room that was used, we were told, for hiding the `fruits' of Prohibition days."

Finally, Hartford's Facade Improvement Program continues to make a huge difference in brightening the face of the city's retail and commercial areas, especially along main arteries such as Park Street and Albany Avenue. Since the early 1990s, the city has spent about $8 million in federally funded Community Development Block Grants and state bond money to improve more than 200 buildings, from small shops like Mister Pizza on Blue Hills Avenue to large architectural gems like 1 Congress St. (the Flatiron Building).

Chief Planner Ken Anderson and his crew deserve tons of credit for systematically chipping away at blight and encouraging commerce by coordinating deferred zero percent loans to business owners so they can afford to repoint brickwork, power-wash walls, install metal cornices and lighting, paint trim, add decorative awnings and improve signage. Two businesses we profiled recently benefited from these loans: Red Rock Cafe on Capitol Avenue and T.W. Raftery on Broad.

Here's hoping 2007 will see fewer blighted buildings, new retail facades and, most of all, a more civil stewardship of the public spaces we share.

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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