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Downtown Housing For Modest Incomes

Nearly Two Years Of Debate, A Compromise On The 410 Asylum St. Building

August 1, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

A nearly two-year battle for the soul of an empty downtown building has ended in compromise between the nonprofit developer who wanted to turn it into apartments for the homeless and Hartford's mayor who wanted anything but.

In the end, everyone gave a little.

But the deal, in its early stages, is a triumph for Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who in recent years has been vigilant about having input on the future of downtown and its development.

After six months of discussions with the mayor, the leader of Common Ground Community, which owns the historic building at 410 Asylum St., decided against transforming it into a supportive housing complex.

Instead, the New York City group decided to redevelop the building - a prime piece of city real estate across from Bushnell Park - into about 70 mixed-income apartments, said Rosanne Haggerty, its founder and president.

Twenty percent of the apartments would be available to low-income, working-class people; the other 80 percent would go to moderate-income renters, possibly the young professionals who don't earn enough to afford the other high-rent apartments being built downtown, Haggerty said.

The 12,000-square-foot ground floor of the building will be used for street-level retail, probably a restaurant fronting Asylum Street, and a few smaller businesses facing High Street, Haggerty said.

Common Ground still plans to build a supportive housing complex in Hartford, just in another neighborhood yet to be determined.

"Life is short," said Haggerty, a West Hartford native. "We're trying to get some important work done in housing, and we're trying to get that done in the most positive way."

From Haggerty's perspective, the new deal gives her group a chance to plan two buildings in Hartford rather than just one. And both plans dovetail with Common Ground's core mission to end homelessness and rehabilitate historic buildings, all while creating jobs and affordable housing opportunities for artists and lower-income professionals.

"There is such an intense need to build a housing infrastructure in Hartford, so now we can bring our experience to bear in a couple of projects," she said.

The mayor has argued that 410 Asylum St., six stories high with commanding views of the state Capitol, would be ideal for condos or high-end apartments similar to those being built in the heart of downtown. He said the new proposal on the table for 410 Asylum St. fits in with the vision for the area he calls "downtown west."

"It's the first real housing deal in that area," Perez said. "We've been able to convince her [Haggerty] that there's a bigger potential, a bigger impact and a bigger common good."

The low-income housing component does not bother Perez, since, he said, it is balanced by the higher-income units.

"The more mixed, the better it is," Perez said.

Under the general plan, which will not be submitted to the city until the fall, allowable income limits for tenants of the low-income apartments would range from $31,600 annually for a single person to $45,200 annually for a family of four, Haggerty said.

The income limits for the moderate-income apartments range from $50,000 annually for a single person to $80,000 annually for a family of four.

The figures are not final and are subject to change as Common Ground works out the details of its financing.

For Perez, the happy resolution of 410 Asylum St. is a success amid a recent string of setbacks in his attempt to shape the future of the city. In the last year, WFSB-TV, Channel 3, MassMutual and ING Group have announced plans to depart for the suburbs, despite the mayor's intense lobbying.

The recent debate over 410 Asylum St. began in September 2003, when the property's previous owners, Milton and Betty Hollander, donated the building to Common Ground after the state and city thwarted the Hollanders' efforts to build a parking lot there.

The couple placed a legal restriction on the property, saying Common Ground must develop it into affordable or supportive housing and may not sell it to a private developer, Haggerty said.

Though it had never submitted a plan to the city, Common Ground envisioned replicating in Hartford the success it has had with supportive housing in New York City. Haggerty envisioned a mixed community of low-income housing for the homeless that would include an on-site medical and mental health care staff. Half of the units would be reserved for homeless, the other half for low-income workers and artists.

To bolster support for her original plan, Haggerty used a time-tested strategy: She helped arrange bus trips from Hartford to New York for anyone curious to see the prototypes of her supportive housing idea. She spoke at numerous community meetings, addressing questions, complaints, fears and tirades - all in the name of cultivating grass-roots support.

Neighborhood groups were ambivalent, not quite the civic groundswell that is needed to counter a mayoral veto.

Board members of the South Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization Zone were split between those who defended the right to give the homeless a nice section of downtown to live in and those who said supportive housing does not belong in the nucleus of a burgeoning downtown community. The group never took a stance, said Allen Ambrose, chairman of the neighborhood group's board.

All the while, Perez was using his leverage against the supportive housing project if it was to be proposed against his will.

The project would rely on low-income and historic tax credits as a key source of financing. Getting those tax credits requires support from the local government. And Perez told the state agencies who distribute those credits that he did not want supportive housing at 410 Asylum St., his chief of staff, Matt Hennessy, said.

Having it there would jeopardize the first spurt of new market-rate construction downtown in decades, the mayor argued.

"They needed assistance from the city on various things," Hennessy said. "It's not the policy of the city to imperil major investment in downtown."

Common Ground would also have needed the council to support an ordinance change to overrule a city law that prohibits supportive housing within 1,000 feet of a single residence occupancy house, Hennessy said. The YMCA, which offers single rooms for rent, is within 1,000 feet of 410 Asylum St.

At a stalemate, the mayor and Haggerty began negotiating in January.

"Can you swap the building with a city building?" he asked her, suggesting the old board of education building north of downtown, where the new public safety complex is being built.

Can you consider building high-end apartments? Sell it to a developer who will?

They eventually agreed to a mixed-use design that could satisfy the mission of Common Ground, appease the mayor and blend with the surrounding development.

In turn, the mayor offered his support in finding a suitable site for supportive housing.

"It's really great when you can get the [political and civic] support," said Diane Randall, director of Partnership for Strong Communities, a housing advocacy group. "It works best when that can happen."


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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