The city is about to pull the plug on the long-promised gateway to Hartford's Hispanic community
July 28, 2009
The proposal to build Plaza Mayor — the much-hyped gateway to Park Street — is on its last legs. The city sent a letter signed by Hartford Development Services Director David Panagore on June 26 to developers Damon Hemmerdinger of New York and Carlos Lopez of Hartford, warning them that if there's no progress on the project by Oct. 1, the Hartford Redevelopment Agency will have to consider pulling the plug.
Last October, we recounted the short, sad history of the ambitious development that was supposed to be built at the corner of Park and Main streets, creating a connection between downtown and Hartford's Hispanic community.
Today, it remains two vacant lots on either side of Park Street, one kept clean by the staff of the homeless shelter next door in the former South Park Methodist Church. Plaza Mayor promised shops and condominiums and town homes in two four-story buildings, and a main square tying it into the South Green across Main Street. Last year, Ted Amenta, the Willington architect behind the vision for Plaza Mayor, told the Advocate he was "heartbroken that we sit today with nothing having happened."
Lopez and Hemmerdinger were given what is known in bureaucratese as "initial disposition approval" for Plaza Mayor in March 2007, meaning they had first dibs on the property for development. To get final approval they would have to prepare a plan that passed muster with the Planning and Zoning Commission, and demonstrate they had the money to carry out the plan.
Mark McGovern, Panagore's deputy director, said the city worked with the developers throughout 2007 to get a plan ready for P&Z, but that the effort eventually fizzled.
"It was early 2008 when things slowed down considerably," said McGovern. "There has not been any recent activity with them."
Hence the city's letter saying if funding and P&Z approval isn't in place by Oct. 1, HRA will consider pulling the property from Plaza Mayor.
"We understand the challenges that you have faced in trying to attract financial resources to the project. It is understandable given the slow down in lending and subsequent recession that we all now face," wrote Panagore. "However, the Park and Main site, as a gateway to Park Street and as a critical link with downtown, is in need of attention and the City must begin exploring other options for its development if Plaza Mayor can no longer be executed, as proposed."
Unfortunately, Lopez, a local businessman who opened the furniture store Luis of Hartford on Park Street 35 years ago and developed the nearby Mercado, won't really have any say over the fate of Plaza Mayor. Lopez told the Advocate last year, that while he and four partners are investors in the project, they only have a 30 percent interest.
It's Hemmerdinger, a major New York developer with offices on Fifth Avenue, who calls the shots on Plaza Mayor, according to Lopez. And Hemmerdinger isn't telling anybody, including Lopez, what he has in mind.
McGovern confirmed it is also the city's understanding that Hemmerdinger controls the fate of Plaza Mayor, but he said he hasn't had any recent contact with him either. Hemmerdinger had not replied to Panagore's letter as of last week, although McGovern was able to confirm that Lopez received the letter.
Neither Lopez nor Hemmerdinger returned calls for comment from the Advocate.
While the fate of Plaza Mayor hangs in the balance, McGovern said it would be premature to comment on what the city might do next to find a developer for the weedy, forlorn lots. But it needs to do something.
"Park and Main is very important to the city," said McGovern. "It's a gateway to Park Street and the South Green trident area and presents an opportunity for a mixed-use development in an important area of the city."