Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Why Not A College Town?

COMMENTARY by Tom Condon
April 3, 2005

Putting the University of Hartford where they did, away from downtown, on the border of Hartford, West Hartford and Bloomfield, ensured that it would miss many of the advantages of an urban university and embrace some of the disadvantages of a suburban school.

Though much of the campus is in the city, it's far enough away from virtually all urban amenities that students and others have to drive to them. It has never had its own college town. But there's a chance - a chance of a lifetime - for this to change.

Part of the campus adjoins the Westbrook Village housing project. City housing officials have formed a local planning committee to discuss the future of the Westbrook Village site.

The opportunity is to turn the 71-acre site into a college-oriented community, with housing for people of varied incomes, bars, clubs, coffee houses, a movie theater, offices, shops and other amenities. Senior citizens, who increasingly like to retire near college campuses, could live there, along with married graduate students, staff and faculty and former tenants of the project.

There could be a jogging path along the North Branch of the Park River, which winds through the site. There's also a rail line, offering the chance for transit-oriented development, or at least transit. The Annie Fisher elementary school is there. A new magnet, the University High School of Science and Engineering, is being planned for the area just north of Annie Fisher.

Though it is reasonably well kept up, Westbrook Village is close to the end of its useful life. It was built in the early 1950s by the state as a moderate income housing project, a companion to the Bowles Park project on Granby Street further north. There were only a handful of such projects in the region.

As with so many public housing projects, Westbrook and Bowles were fine for a time, a longer time than many other projects. But eventually many of the moderate- income people moved out and were replaced by poorer people. The buildings began to show their age; crime increased.

Westbrook Village's 83 barracks-style brick buildings have 360 units, but a fourth of them are vacant. The main reason is that the Hartford Housing Authority cannot rent to families with children age 6 or under, because of lead paint in the common areas, officials acknowledge.

Last year, the housing authority put out a request for qualifications from developers interested in pursuing a redevelopment of the property, which triggered some college town ideas. But for a variety of reasons, the request was pulled back. Now the process is being rekindled.

Lancelot Gordon, interim executive director of the housing authority, formed a new planning committee. The University of Hartford initially wasn't on the committee, but has now been added.

The first priority for any renewal of the housing must be the well-being of current tenants, and university officials agree. "We are very sensitive to the needs of the tenants," said John Carson, a senior aide to university President Walter Harrison.

With that understood, the university should be a dominant player in this process. This could be the future. Harrison has set the groundwork by engaging the school in the Upper Albany and Blue Hills neighborhoods. He's got business students working with merchants on Albany Avenue and he's turning a former car dealership into a $25 million performing arts center.

A university-oriented remake of Westbrook Village would give the school a presence on Albany Avenue, a better connection to the neighborhood and access for the thousands of commuters who pass each day. It would give the school its town center.

Whether New Haven, Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill, a university town draws people who create excitement and help foster a fervid intellectual environment.

Some first-tier teachers and students won't go to a college that doesn't have a college town. This is why the University of Connecticut has embarked on a plan to build a town center in Storrs.

The University of Hartford can take a similar step. The school expanded its architecture program last year, and has created a Center for Integrated Design, drawing on the resources of the architecture, engineering, graphic design and business programs. The center could play a role in creating a new university town.

There are issues, to be sure, always starting with money. The university may not be ready to embark on another capital campaign, but there are federal grant programs that may apply. If this is a good idea, there's a way to build it.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at condon@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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?