A quick look around downtown Hartford shows that changes are underway.
The "Butt Ugly" building at the mouth of the city's core has been torn down, along with deconstruction projects all around the area. Construction of high-end apartments downtown has tapered off in recent years, but even the more moderately priced apartments now being planned will carry substantial rents. And recently, the biggest change of all was revealed, with the University of Connecticut announcing that it would move its West Hartford campus into downtown sometime this year.
Redevelopment of downtown Hartford has occurred in fits and starts, from the construction of Adriaen's Landing to the current iQuilt project, with mixed success. These plans focus on drawing in more affluent consumers from the Greater Hartford area, either by offering food and entertainment to entice them back into the city after dark, or by building high-end apartments to place them closer to work.
In this regard, Hartford is similar to many other American cities, trying to harness the energy and money of young people and empty nesters who have had enough of suburban sprawl, long commutes and high gas prices. They are moving back into the cities, and municipal governments are both eager and struggling to manage this wave of gentrification.
Bringing a suburban campus back into downtown is perhaps the clearest example of the "back to the city" movement, as the campus that fled the city for greener suburban pastures 40 years ago returns home. UConn's move may represent the next step in the gentrification process for Hartford. UConn will bring more people downtown for classes, and inevitably dining, entertainment and housing.
A gentrified Hartford is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, a more diverse city is a good in itself, and an increase in high-earning residents can pay real dividends for everyone in the city. But what is generally missed in planning for new high-rise apartments and upscale shopping is the reality of the city.
Downtown Hartford saw several businesses fail last year, including three on Pratt Street alone. Not coincidentally, many of these businesses were aimed at a more upscale audience. Meanwhile, one-third of the 124,000 people who call Hartford home live at or below the poverty line. Front Street and expensive grocery stores are not what these residents are asking for, but rather affordable housing, real shopping options to fit modest budgets and improved public transportation.
As city planners and private developers generate ideas for how to capitalize on UConn's return to downtown Hartford, it is critical that the needs and wants of the city's current residents are central to those plans.
North End and South End residents must not be shut out of a new, vibrant downtown area. A range of housing and shopping options should be available, not just shops and apartments tailored toward a more gentrified population. The failure of both upscale and modestly priced shops downtown, the above normal vacancy rate in Hartford's office buildings and retail space, and the total lack of a night scene in the city should inspire more creative approaches to revitalizing downtown, with UConn's new campus as a part of the plan, not the exclusive focus.
Colleges have become a major driver of urban economies, but those economies must not cater strictly to the college crowd while excluding everyone else. There are thousands of people in Hartford who love their city and want to participate in its renaissance. They deserve a chance to do so.
Jamil R. Ragland, 27, of Hartford, is finishing his final semester majoring in American studies at Trinity College.
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Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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