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Hartford's Front Street: Does It Matter Anymore?

By Dan Haar

April 01, 2011

At the moment when the New York Yankees were about to score their first runs of the season Thursday afternoon, three women who work downtown and live in outlying towns took a walk past Front Street.

They crossed a vast, quiet Constitution Plaza with its sea of red pavers, and turned left through the Front Street promenade, all dressed up right down to the landscaping, but with nary a tenant. It's been this way for going on a year now.

Their destination: Starbucks, across Columbus Boulevard in the Connecticut Convention Center/Marriott Hotel complex.

With all that's happening downtown a psyched community of neighborhood residents, some new stores, a library that's cooking, a non-corrupt mayor who understands the big picture it seemed to me that the snake-bitten Front Street project didn't matter so much anymore.

There it sits, 13 years in the planning, probably more than $23 million in the ground, a nicely designed, 60,000-square-foot collection of storefronts in two buildings connecting the convention center to the rest of the city. The latest news is that Cinema Grill, which signed a lease to open a theater that would occupy a third of Front Street starting this spring, isn't coming.

As near as we can tell, Cinema Grill doesn't even exist anymore in its home state of Georgia. A new theater is taking its place at Front Street, or so we're told.

Front Street, flawed from the start as a forced retail development in a city that doesn't support retail, was so important a decade ago. We needed vibrancy and this was the way to get it, part of a $1 billion state gambit on the capital city.

That was before downtown had all the apartments, before the city showed signs that, yes, it can fight through hard times and not come out looking like Youngstown.

Does Front Street really still matter?

"It does matter," said Valerie Mikalonis of Granby, one of the women walking to Starbucks.

She and her friends would do some shopping on their lunch hours if the stores would open, they said. Considering the economy, they're very understanding that the developer the third group to run Front Street has not filled the space.

"I think it would be a nice benefit, not essential by any means," said Briana Brumaghim of Plymouth.

It is essential, Mikalonis retorted, to the people who live nearby.

Maybe, maybe not. Brumaghim has it about right. After all the handwringing and false starts, this project comes down to a nice benefit in a city that knows what works and what doesn't, but can't make it happen because we've made too many mistakes in the past.

But the vision of excellence is in front of us. And if we needed a reminder, the noted Harvard urbanist Edward Glaeser told a packed house at the Lyceum in Frog Hollow earlier Thursday. Glaeser's new book, "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier," landed him on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Glaeser believes that urban density, charged with energy and ideas, brings all sorts of good. New Census data show that the counties that grew fastest and performed best in the last decade were the densest, he showed in a talk at the Partnership for Strong Communities. But as Glaeser warned, that doesn't mean mindless building is a good thing.

"The hallmark of declining cities is they tend to have a lot of structures and infrastructure relative to people," Glaeser said, showing a slide of Detroit.

New York is the upside example. "The reason New York was able to come back is that knowledge is more important than space," Glaeser said. "At our heart, we are a social species."

So what does that say about Front Street? Glaeser doesn't know the details of it, but he asked, "How much demand is there for this product?"

That's the billion-dollar question. Mayor Pedro Segarra, who shared the stage with Glaeser, made the point that this is an especially unpredictable time for the economy. He added, "I'd like to go to a movie after I get out of work in city hall."

In other words, it's a single. Not a home run, not the double or triple it would have been if Front Street had kept its apartments, as originally planned. But with spring in the air, on the day of hope when another baseball season opened, a single was a nice thing to think about.

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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