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City Sees Potential, Makes A Plan

Perez, Officials Focus On Revitalizing 'Downtown West' With Housing, Entertainment, Retail

August 9, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

There was a time not so long ago when it seemed few in the city had the political, administrative and financial capacity to think big and act the part.

So then-Gov. John G. Rowland and city business leaders thought big for them, single-handedly jumpstarting the effort to remake downtown Hartford. Now - $2 billion of public and private investment and a new strong-mayor government later - Hartford's municipal leaders say they are taking control of their development destiny and declaring that this is their time to lead.

Enter what Mayor Eddie A. Perez calls Downtown West - a new label he has attached to one third of the city's downtown, an area that Perez thinks is in major need of forethought. Of its 134 acres, 22 percent is surface parking lots - generally accepted development underachievers that pay little in property tax and make a lot in cash. Here, Perez and his staff see opportunity - for housing, entertainment, retail and parking of the garage variety.

To that end, the city completed in May an initial study of the neighborhood, one that is more inventory than call to arms. Looking at the area parcel by parcel, the study by the city's Planning Division identifies development "anchors, challenges, and opportunities" and plans a series of actions that include beginning discussions with property owners, seeking funding for a new public garage, and more. The goal: to make a plan where there is none.

"My hope is that this [Downtown West] effort will have the city's vision of what every parcel should be used for," he said. "When we look at those potential sites and somebody comes in and says to me, `Why did you draw a line around my property,' I'll say, `Because it's not being used to its best potential and we think we should talk about it.'"

The study is the foundation for a discussion with the private sector and the beginning of a phase that could bring infrastructure improvements to the neighborhood, Perez said. And it will place this mayor, a former community organizer, in the position of grand negotiator.

"I've done that all my life - I've put two people together to get what I think should be happening," he said.

People are beginning to notice, said Dean Pagani, spokesman for the Capital City Economic Development Authority and the former spokesman for Rowland. "There is a new accountability," he said. "We know where the buck stops and it's not with a bunch of city councilors who said, `I wanted to do that project, but I couldn't get six other votes.'"

In the 1990s "there was a concern that if the state was to write a large-scale check for large-scale projects and hand it over to the city, that the city wouldn't be able to manage projects of these scales with these kinds of budgets," Pagani said. "The city is in the process of proving that it can do this kind of work on its own."

Just because the city may be learning to believe in itself doesn't mean that others immediately will. The fact that some major employers have decided to take their business elsewhere is a clear sign that confidence alone doesn't breed results. And although there are several large development projects in the works - condominiums at 101 Pearl St., a gateway redevelopment project at the intersection of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street, another gateway project at Park and Main streets, and more - it's too soon to tell if they'll be successful.

But if the bet of the initial state investment in downtown Hartford was that development would beget development, then it is this next step that is the true test, officials say.

"What we want to do is to set the stage," said John F. Palmieri, director of development services, the department that has its eye on the city's future. "If we didn't do this, then who else might say, `Hey, there's some opportunities to really create another several thousand units of housing in the middle of our city?'"

A Turnaround

Jonathan C. Colman remembers when Nicholas Carbone was deputy mayor in control at city hall. Until 1980, when he was assistant city manager for community development, city leaders were interested in planning and development and had the capacity to handle it, he said.

But from 1980 until relatively recently, he said, city officials were unwilling or unable to do any serious planning.

"They weren't doing any strategic thinking, planning or even negotiating with potential developers to implement what was their vision for the city," said Colman, who is now the president and CEO of The Rideshare Co. and a town councilman in Bloomfield.

"I agree with that," said former Mayor Mike Peters. "Because in that time, the late '80s and early '90s, we had fallen on hard times. All we were trying to do was retain the resources that we had, make sure that what we had here was staying."

The current mayor agrees, too.

"We haven't had a plan of development for about 30 years," he said. Sure, there's a document called a Plan of Development, he said. "But there's a difference between a document and something that policy leaders have agreed on, [with] implementation by the administration, and that is dynamic enough that you can change it as the environment changes."

By the time of the infamous decision to leave Hartford without its Whalers in 1997, the state had lost confidence in the city's ability to manage development projects, Pagani said. That's because good projects were often lost to bad politics, often dying at the city council along neighborhood lines.

Today, while Colman admits that reasonable people might disagree with the direction that Perez and his staff choose, the fact that there is direction at all is worth noting, he said. "I'm impressed."

Councilman Robert L. Painter points to change around the city, from Pope Park to Albany Avenue and from Main Street to South Green, and is encouraged, he said.

"What the city has done for so many years has been to deal with crises and to try to stimulate development but without guiding what that development should be," said Painter, a Republican and the city council's minority leader. "It's exciting," he said. "And it's exciting because it makes sense. It's not just a response. It's a proactive, planned, business-like approach to the city."

Making A City Work

Peters, the former mayor, sums up the Downtown West problem in a sentence.

"I serve a $7 hamburger and people got to pay $8 to park," said Peters, owner of Mayor Mike's restaurant within that zone.

And Perez says one of his first goals for Downtown West is to identify a way to solve the parking problem. He and his staff also will soon begin talks with property owners about turning this much-vacant part of the city into an urban center, with new housing, retail, entertainment and parking developments, he said. The challenge of the discussions will be persuading private property owners to keep in mind the city's developing plan for the area, he said.

James Varano, owner of downtown venues Black-eyed Sally's, Pastis, and Pig's Eye Pub, has been looking at those blocks for 15 years, he said.

One of the nagging problems has been that once visitors go east of Union Station, "there's these huge holes," he said, referring to the surface parking lots. "Sometimes you'd walk blocks and it would feel like a no-man's land there."

"The more we can fill in these holes and make it a walkable city, it would do wonders," he said. "With some good planning, I think that will naturally happen."

But whether that type of change comes from the bottom up or top down is another question, said Steve Campo, executive director of the TheaterWorks.

"I think that market forces, and the presence of a real population, a real constituency in downtown Hartford, is really going to be what steers how things go in downtown," Campo said. Yes, there's been a lot of growth recently, he said. "But I'm not sure that there's a vision, and I'm not sure that even if there is a vision, that that vision is anchored in the things that really make a city alive in an organic sort of way."

"The fabric of small, interconnected businesses," he said. "That's what makes a city work."

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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