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Developing Connective Tissue in Downtown

By Kerri Provost

September 28, 2010

Nobody argued when David Panagore announced that “We are the epitome of the Eisenhower Interstate system.” Those with an interest in downtowns would be hard-pressed to justify any continuation of advocacy for the poor designs that have dissected cities, sucking the life force out of them. Today, we are given the task of recreating a vibrant downtown, which means addressing issues like walkability.

Hartford’s Chief Operating Officer, David Panagore, participated on Monday evening in a HYPE (Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs) sponsored discussion regarding the direction of development in downtown. The MetroHartford Alliance Conference Room on Pratt Street was filled, allowing for a fairly intimate conversation between about two dozen individuals who had some interest — they live, work, or recreate — in downtown.

Panagore explained how the “Six Pillars” were a fine goal to have at one point, but now, to complete the economic development, these pieces (Connecticut Convention Center, Capital Community College moving into former G.Fox building, etc.) must be connected. Two ways of creating connections is through sustainable communities and the iQuilt project, which he said is a great concept, but bears a bad name.

Something blocking progress, he said, was the way that buildings throughout the city operate independently of one another. This point resonates when one thinks of the attempts to open a grocery store in downtown– there are several organizations/individuals making noise about it, but nobody seems to be talking with one another. A convenience store that recently opened on Main Street has been surveying customers about their needs, hinting that they may expand. I have seen at least three similar grocery store-related surveys in the last year or so. Energy is being placed into doing research that has already been done, several times over. As one HYPE member said, regarding the perception that there is a food desert downtown, people do not know what is there. She was referring to Rose Gourmet, a grocery store and deli on Pratt Street which would special order items for customers. In recent years, the store has reduced its stock, likely because people were not supporting the business. Someone else said that farmers’ markets are only seasonal, which shows an ignorance of the year round regional market (a bit out of downtown. The C-Town on Wethersfield Avenue is closer and open even during blizzards) and the Billings Forge Farmer’s Market, which is about one block from the Legislative Office Building. Ideal for everyone? Perhaps not. But options for feeding ourselves very much exist, yet nobody seems to know or acknowledge that they are there. During the conversation, it became clear that part of the “grocery store problem” was in the disagreement over what one is. Someone who said he lived downtown (he actually lived in Frog Hollow, but these “luxury rental apartments” are promoted as being in downtown) was located right next to a supermarket. He could literally cross the street and be there. Instead, he said he would get in his car to drive to West Hartford. Even though a Stop & Shop was about five blocks away from his residence, he left the city, now loving his place in Blue Back Square where he says he can walk to Whole Foods. The “grocery store problem” is only partially real;and partially, it’s a creation of limited beliefs in what a grocery store should be, and a sign of our fast-paced, why plan ahead? culture. With a little ingenuity, patience, and planning, one can, without difficulty, purchase bulk items from a larger store, and subsist just fine on fresh food from farmers’ markets. Try telling this to people who expect gourmet grocery stores to be open at their convenience, but not too convenient, after all, what kind of people are going to be out at two in the morning? Though hardly representational of everyone or even most who came out for the discussion, the aura of gentrification, in the negative sense, was present.

Considering all the discussion about vacant retail spaces, there was palpable optimism in the room. Mayor Segarra, coming from one event and heading off to the gym in about an hour, made a surprise visit and added to that air of optimism. At the table were two people who had very recently moved to Connecticut from far and away, one whom I believe said she had been here for three days. No matter how cynical one is, meeting the capital city’s mayor within one’s first week in Connecticut is pretty cool.

The Front Street Mall District, which was supposed to make an announcement in August, apparently has some businesses contracted to go into the empty, brand new storefronts. They never made a public announcement in August and have been tight-lipped about which companies would be coming to the area near the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Public Library, City Hall, and Connecticut Convention Center. They are so tight-lipped, in fact, that they would not even tell Segarra, who said they gave him detailed descriptions of the types of businesses, but never named names. A few blocks away, the Hollander is having trouble renting its retail space. Between high rents and the ongoing MDC project which makes the half the building appear wholly unattractive, it’s not surprising. When the project is completed, the Hollander will again be able to make claims of being in an excellent location– close to Union Station and across from Bushnell Park. Panagore explained that retail is the last to fill, after restaurants and residents; Hartford 21 is effectively 100% occupied, he said. There are people living downtown, but there is “no pressure,” Panagore said.

When Segarra showed up, the attention shifted away from Panagore a bit, as he fielded questions about blight, police brutality, streamlining city services, and The Whale. I can not say it enough: having a mayor who arrives sans entourage, who does not rely on a public relations official to filter his messages, and who stays busy doing the right things is exactly what Hartford needed.

Segarra said that he has been having more frequent meetings with the Hartford Preservation Alliance and has asked them to provide him with a list of five priority properties that need to be preserved so that they avoid the same fate as the Lyric Theater, which had to be partially demolished after chunks of the building began falling to the sidewalk below. The Mayor said that he was asked to throw a brick through a window at the 1161 Main Street structure on demolition day, an invitation he declined, saying he would lay a bouquet of flowers down in front of it instead. This property should be cleared of asbestos by next Monday. A mid-October date was given as the possible day for the structure to come down.

Along a theme of building up, rather than just knocking down, the Mayor said that he has been supporting the Hartford Police Department “as a department,” but that if/when serious issues such as police misconduct or brutality arise, he has already established respect with them and can demand it back. As he put it, the residents pay for the wages and very good benefits that the police receive, and most of these residents do not have such benefits themselves (amen). But beyond the need to step in when problems arise, Segarra said he has been discussing “professionalizing” the police force. He has spoken with Capital Community College about the possible Police Science degree, which would provide a background in psychology and sociology, among other things. For the work they do, Segarra said, they really need more than a high school degree.

Segarra and Panagore seemed to echo each other on the need to make the City work better. The necessity of undoing messes created by previous administrations came up throughout the evening. While not necessarily reflecting a mess, the desire to expedite certain City services was expressed. Segarra mentioned that nearby towns and cities offer online permitting, something Hartford is considering. This past summer, residents were finally able to pay their taxes online.

During the One City One Plan discussion, the two most important issues, as described by participants, were transportation and parks. Segarra has stepped up to deal with the often disgraceful condition of parks. In late August, during the Week of the Parks, 13.59 tons of illegally dumped materials were removed. Monday evening, Segarra acknowledged that while that week’s activities were a start, they barely scraped the surface of what has to be done to restore Hartford’s long neglected parks. One improvement mentioned was the plan to have outdoor ice skating in winter, possibly at Bushnell Park, or possibly at the former landfill site. The Mayor quickly expanded beyond this simple idea, saying that it could be a winter sports park, like a scaled down Okemo. Winter recreational activities in Hartford are currently sparse, and as he put it, the landfill could remain a dump, or it could be used for something. With the Hartford Wolf Pack slated to become the Connecticut Whale, some people have had the hope of replacing the AHL team with an NHL one, a goal that Segarra said we would support, if there is enough interest to sustain it. Right now, Hartford residents, by and large, are not hockey fans. Asking any financial support of an NHL venture from residents would not make sense, since such interest is largely coming from the suburbs. Developing a winter sports park and culture are a few steps that can be taken to encourage residents to take an interest in hockey. Segarra explained how relationships between the ice rink at Trinity College, an outdoor skating rink, the Hartford Whale, etc., could foster that interest in ice hockey among residents.

In the meantime, Panagore encouraged people to continue coming to Hartford. That seems overly simple, but he has a point. I recently went to a new hairdresser who was fantastic except for one thing: she said she had not been in or through Hartford in over two years. How does one work in a neighboring town, live within twenty minutes, and never come into the city? I constantly overhear people whine and lament that there is nothing to come to the city for, yet I have to turn down invitations and events constantly because there are only so many places I can be at once.

This weekend there is a gem & jewelry show at the Expo Center. At the Connecticut Convention Center there is a Land Trust Alliance Rally. The Connecticut Forum will hold a dialogue called “The End of Civility?” at the Bushnell, where there is a West Indian dance troupe performing as a separate event. There will be a Home Show at the civic center. Greater Hartford Children’s Latino Film Festival will be held at the Wadsworth Atheneum. There will be a rowing competition on the Connecticut River this Sunday. The following weekend marks the start of the 2010-2011 season for the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale. Antony & Cleopatra opens at Hartford Stage on October 7th. Broke-ology continues at TheaterWorks. There is far more going on than what is in this small list. As one of Monday evening’s participants said, people visit (or refuse to visit) Hartford not because of parking rates; they “come here for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” There are plenty of reasons to come to Hartford. The question, really, is what excuses are being made to not come, at least once in awhile?

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
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