George Scott, Hartford's Jamaican patty impresario, had a beef with one element of a new report about how to add vitality to the capital city.
The internationally renowned consultant Urban Land Institute kept identifying the corner of Albany Avenue and Main Street as the primary entrance to the city from the Farmington Valley.
Hold up, Scott said at a forum Friday at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The real gateway from the 'burbs is much farther up Albany Avenue, near the entrance to the new performance arts center the University of Hartford is now constructing. It's where West Hartford, parts of Bloomfield and Hartford all converge.
Scott's quibble was well-grounded. Although he obviously appreciated the consultants' work, Scott said that the error in identifying the gateway points to the importance of more neighborhood involvement in big plans for the city.
"My concern," said Scott, owner of Scott's Jamaican Bakery, "is to make sure ... that there is enough representation at the neighborhood level, to make sure there is strong coordination and recognition of what is happening in the neighborhoods - and tying it in with what's happening downtown."
Ray Brown, chairman of the institute, smiled and nodded. "Sign him up," he said, referring to Scott.
The institute, composed of land use experts, goes around the world - at the invite of municipalities - and lives in the designated city for a week. Members of the group immerse themselves in the community and then give an unfettered - and free of charge - assessment.
The main thing the consultants do is encourage community involvement and leadership in crafting a long-term vision for development. Without the perspective of folks vested in the city, the consultants' observations aren't worth much.
The funny thing about consultants is that they rarely tell you anything new. But with a fresh set of eyes they usually have a better appreciation for amenities than the folks who invited them.
"You've got a beautiful city here," said Andrew Irvine, a landscape architect from Denver and a member of the institute's team. Institute members were impressed with the historic buildings, the parks, efforts to reconnect to the Connecticut River and the city's restaurants and cultural diversity.
The group identified significant assets - hospitals, insurance companies, vacant land and buildings, a proposed downtown public safety complex and the expanded Connecticut Culinary Institute on Sigourney Street - that they felt could be used to leverage new economic development.
"The time is right to develop a collective vision for the city," Irvine said.
Brown reminded the audience that the vision must be clear. "You've got to decide what kind of city you want to be," Brown said. "It's not enough to say, the way many cities do, `We want to be a great place to live, work and play.' What does that mean? It means you're unfocused. That's what it means. By trying to be everything to everybody, you lose yourself."
I can't help but wonder, as I drive through the neighborhoods, why the city can't lose those abandoned eyesores - the "Butt Ugly Building" on Main Street; the Capitol West atrocity off Myrtle Street and that four-story brick albatross on Homestead, just to name a few. They give the misperception that Hartford is stagnant.
And, yes, that adds to the trepidation of motorists approaching the gateways.
Wherever they are.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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