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A Short, Sad History

Plaza Mayor was supposed to be the grand gateway to Park Street

Daniel D'Ambrosio

October 02, 2008

On a 1640 map of Hartford, it shows up as ox pasture along the road to Wethersfield. By 1821, the empty city lot next to today's homeless shelter in the former South Park Methodist Church was officially on the corner of Main Street and the newly named Park Street previously Malt Lane.

Park Street took its name from South Park, then the only park in Hartford and now the South Green. The empty lot across from the green is at the center of yet another unrealized dream for Hartford; this one to build a magnificent gateway to the Park Street business district.

By 1869, the area around South Green was up-scale, with many of the large, expensive homes that still stand to this day, including gunmaker Sam Colt's. On the currently empty lot, there was a building owned by E.D. Tiffany, president of 1st National Bank, and a director for Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, which had assets over $25 million then. Tiffany lived nearby at 1 Wethersfield Ave.

Next door to Tiffany's building at 15 Main St. lived William Tuller, an inspector for Colt's Armory down the hill alongside the Connecticut River. And next to Tuller lived Horatio P. Blair, 27 Main St., who owned a business selling steam and gas fixtures at 176 Asylum Ave.

By 1917, the plumber Max Hartzmark owned a building at 5 Park Ave. on the corner lot. His son Joseph, a student at Trinity, still lived at home at 309 Capen. An attorney named Salvatore D'Esopo owned the property next door to Hartzmark at 7 Park Ave., his practice located at 902 Main St., and his home at 36 Willard. Traveling down Park, at the corner of Washington Avenue, was the showroom for the Packard Motor Car Company of New York.

Jeremiah O'Callahan owned the property directly on the corner of Park and Main by 1920, but left behind no personal information the Connecticut Historical Society was aware of. Ditto for Annie T. Bronk and Cornelius Coleman, who owned nearby properties but lived elsewhere Farmington Avenue and Seymour Street respectively.

We do know that dentist Abraham Goldberg owned a large property along with some partners at 87-97 Main Street, next to the South Park church, which Richard Malley, director of collections access for the Historical Society, speculated might have been a tenement. Harry and Sarah Wolfson had a grocery store around the corner at 115 Park, and must have lived above the store, according to Malley's reading of the record. George Maretto owned the property next door to the grocer, but we don't know anything about him.

John Ferrucci, executive director of the homeless shelter in the South Park church, watched as all four buildings on the lot, which appeared from the outside as one building, were demolished in 2002 following a fire that broke out on the top floor of the abandoned building next door to the shelter. Some of the buildings dated to 1870, said Ferrucci, and were quite beautiful inside, with tall windows and marble mantelpieces. Those buildings were untouched by the fire, according to Ferrucci, who said it was a shame they were torn down.

Ferrucci sees to it that what became the empty lot next door is kept clean. That helps, but it would be hard to characterize the weedy expanse, surrounded by a battered 8-foot chain-link fence with gaping holes and a skewed gate, as attractive.

Particularly when you consider that what is supposed to be here by now: A grand Mediterranean plaza reminiscent of public squares in Barcelona, stretching across Park Avenue to the abandoned lot on the other corner, which isn't kept clean by South Park Inn.

Plaza Mayor, as this proposed gateway to the Hispanic community centered on Park Street is known, was to be filled with shops, condominiums, town homes and a main square facing the South Green from an expanse elevated above Park Street.

"I'm frankly heartbroken that we sit today with nothing having happened," said Ted Amenta, the Willington architect behind the vision for Plaza Mayor.

Amenta, 65, has worked on commissions all over the world, and in New York, during his long career, including the Citicorp Center at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. Now semi-retired, he works out of a studio in a converted barn on his Willington property near Storrs, where he said he's currently designing a "couple of resorts in the Bahamas and a couple of hotels in Ukraine."

Plaza Mayor began in 2005 with a proposal for what South Park Assistant Director Brian Baker derisively referred to as the "twin towers," a $64 million project with more than 40 condos in residential towers of about 20 stories each flanking Park Street, a banquet hall and a boutique hotel, along with the 40,000-square foot plaza and an equal amount of retail space.

Praised at first as "bold and ambitious" by city officials in an October 2005 story in the Hartford Courant, the project soon ran into local opposition for being too grandiose, and over the ensuing months began to shrink. One year later, in October 2006, Plaza Mayor had been halved to a $32 million project, its towers wilting to no higher than five stories, and its banquet hall booted.

By 2006, the funding issue had also reared its ugly head, with the city saying it had never committed to $17 million in public funding Amenta was quoted as saying his development group believed the city implicitly agreed to. The city did commit to contributing $6 million. But a year later, in November 2007, the Courant reported Plaza Mayor still didn't have the money to move forward. There's been hardly a word on the project since, but it's not difficult to imagine where things stand now, given recent events on Wall Street.

Nevertheless, Sarah Barr, director of communications for Mayor Eddie Perez, responded to questions posed via e-mail regarding Plaza Mayor by writing, "the Mayor is happy that everyone is still working at this project. Local merchants are dedicated to seeing this through and he is encouraged that no one is giving up."

In fact, Ted Amenta did give up, turning over his interest in the project to his partner, famed New York developer Damon Hemmerdinger, when they went their separate ways in the spring of 2007. Most recently, Hemmerdinger opened The Shops at Atlas Park, a $300 million outdoor shopping mall in Glendale, N.Y., designed by Amenta.

And it is Hemmerdinger, not local merchants like Carlos Lopez of the Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA), who ultimately controls the fate of Plaza Mayor, according to Lopez.

Lopez opened the furniture store Luis of Hartford on Park Street 35 years ago and developed the nearby Mercado. He was one of five members of SAMA who invested in Plaza Mayor. But these local merchants have only a 30 percent interest, according to Lopez.

"Mr. Hemmerdinger in New York is the one in charge," he said. "We don't really have much to say any more. They have control over the project."

Worse yet, Lopez said things have gotten decidedly chilly since Amenta, Hemmerdinger's long-time partner, left the project.

"We don't get the warm reaction (from Hemmerdinger) we got with Mr. Amenta," said Lopez. "When we lost Ted, we lost the connection."

Lopez said he has a hard time even getting Hemmerdinger to return his calls, citing a recent example when he left for vacation for three weeks after placing a call for an update on the project, and returned to find he had never gotten a call back.

"We're sort of in the air, I don't really know what's going on," said Lopez.

It is true, however, that Lopez and his partners in SAMA remain committed to the project. Lopez points out it took him 10 years to get Mercado up and running back in the 1980s. And he's willing to hang in there with Plaza Mayor, even if it does appear to exist only in the same vapor world as Front Street, the shopping and entertainment extravaganza that's supposed to be part of Adriaen's Landing, the redevelopment of downtown.

"It's a very important corner," he said of Park and Main streets. "We need something to happen there."

Tell us what you think.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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