When state officials started the "cluster strategy" of economic development in the 1990s, they somehow managed to leave out the insurance industry. Organizers took this vital sector of the local economy for granted. It was already here.
That actually was a reason to pay attention to it (as subsequently they did). It's almost always easier to build on what you have than to start fresh.
In that same vein, Hartford's leaders ought to put the pedal to the metal and make Union Place the premier entertainment district in the state.
It, too, is already there, already drawing throngs of (mostly) young people. In addition, several steps are underway to improve the area. What it needs is what developers sometimes call in-fill. This means getting the parking into garages or satellite lots and filling in the too-numerous surface lots with appropriate buildings.
Union Place - it's both a street and an unofficial district comprising, more or less, the four blocks between Union Station and the former Civic Center - was always a mix of hip and seedy. In the 1960s and '70s, young people would hit bars such as Mad Murphy's. After closing time, the legendary Connecticut Lunch would be full of hookers, revelers, gamblers and the occasional night police reporter.
City officials never appreciated or took proper care of Union Place. If they had, they never would have allowed the demolition of the Mad Murphy's building and the other structures on Union Place between Allyn and Asylum streets, and the placement of a hideous billboard on the corner of Allyn and Union Place.
Nonetheless, the area has prospered. After the train station was renovated in the 1980s, the excellent restaurant Hot Tomato's moved in. New restaurants and clubs joined older ones. The place is packed on the weekends.
Hartford is trying to become a convention city. A convention city needs an entertainment district. There'll be a few things besides the Arch Street Tavern, eventually, down near the convention center. But Union Place can be the uncontested destination, the place to go, if a few sensible steps are taken now.
Some are underway. Business owners, at the behest of city councilman Robert Painter, have formed a group and are moving to improve security and take care of litter and other problems. They've made real progress.
The city's parking authority is embarking on a study of the area's parking needs. Mayor Eddie Perez has begun to look at the area's economic potential. The owners of the Capital Building at 410 Asylum will begin renovations next year to create 65 apartments, market-rate and subsidized, in the building.
It appears that we will regain our federal funding designation for the Hartford-New Britain busway. Though the busway itself is still some years away, this opens the door to transit-oriented development around the station.
Also, the Greater Hartford Transit District has begun aggressively marketing space in Union Station, which has been underused for years. "It's a phenomenal building and there are great opportunities here," said Vicki Shotland, who will become executive director of the district on Jan.1, replacing Art Handman, who is retiring. As a good first step, Hot Tomato's is planning to expand into part of the station's great hall early next year.
The key for Union Place is to bring the pieces together. The Capitol Building will need parking, as will the renovated Bond Hotel. The office building at 370 Asylum needs parking. A smallish 600-space garage along Allyn Street could solve those problems and be a boon to the club district. Put another garage (with a movie theater on the top floor?) on the surface lot west of the train station, and there should be a chance to develop some of the neighborhood's empty land.
I'd love to see some three- or four-story structures like the great building at 74 Union Place, with restaurants, stores and clubs on the first floor and apartments upstairs.
Downtown is coming back. People are moving into new apartments. New restaurants are opening, and places are actually staying open on weekends. The Star Shuttle bus service continues to thrive, as I thought it would, and makes Union Place all the more accessible. So the timing is propitious to make it a top-drawer place to socialize.
As a first step, let's get rid of the leading eyesore. As Ronald Reagan might have said: Mr. Perez, tear down this billboard!
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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