Don Poland's recent op-ed column (Hartford revitalization: Case study in bad policy, March 25) has triggered a lively discussion over the merits of the project and its various subsidies. Here are two views from others involved in the project. What do you think? Tell us by voting in this week's poll at HartfordBusiness.com. Or write a letter to the editor or a guest column. Contact us at editor@HartfordBusiness.com for details.
For several months, we at Becker & Becker Associates, a design and development firm, have been working with the city of Hartford to revive the Bank of America building at 777 Main Street as a mixed-use, residential and retail property. The project is part of a multi-front effort at the state, federal and local level to bring thousands of new residents to the city's downtown. It reflects Becker & Becker's mission to revitalize our cities' core neighborhoods by boosting residential growth through the reuse of historically important places and structures.
Across Connecticut, we have completed similar projects — projects that have helped transform our state's cities. In Norwich, we undertook the total renovation of the Wauregan Hotel, a storied 200-year-old building that had languished for years, and converted an eyesore into a beautiful and bustling center of activity. In New Haven, we took an empty lot on the site of the former Shartenberg department store and built 360 State Street, a 32-story mixed-use tower. The building has drawn praise as a model for sustainable, environmentally-friendly design while bringing hundreds of new residents downtown, spurring the creation of two dozen new businesses and over 100 new jobs. As then-Sen. Chris Dodd noted at our opening, “Through projects like 360 State Street, regions can keep their young people, attract new knowledge workers, put existing residents back to work, and accommodate the baby boomer generation as they enter retirement.”
These successes show how strategically-targeted public investment can catalyze more significant private investment, fostering growth and vitality in our city centers. This is a crucial process for Hartford, where for decades planning decisions emphasized razing downtown neighborhoods, building highways to facilitate suburban access, and devoting the city's center to corporate and institutional showplaces. As a result, Hartford's downtown is clean, beautiful… and lonely. Though cultural and commercial amenities exist, they represent discrete opportunities in discrete locations, and are treated as such: people drive in to the city center, do something, and drive home.
Today we're seeing a new appreciation of what a city traditionally offered. People want to use their cars less. They want to be able to walk to a park or theater, to a restaurant, to work. This is why the downtown housing market in Hartford is a robust one. A revival of Hartford's center rests on its resurgence as a vibrant, multi-faceted residential neighborhood. Our project is part of a groundswell of interest in this resurgence.
“Lively, diverse, intense cities,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of American Cities, “contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”
777 Main — originally the headquarters of Hartford National Bank — is an architectural treasure. Built by the innovative firm of Welton Becket, designers of numerous mid-century modernist buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it opened in 1967 to widespread acclaim, marking a proud moment for the city of Hartford. For the last two years this signature building has sat empty and unused, creating a void at the city's core. Over time, such a void can signal civic surrender. That's why a project like 777 Main Street has both symbolic and practical value. Saving a landmark core structure conveys an appreciation for a city's past; retooling it as an engine of growth and dynamism marks a commitment to the future. Significantly, Becker & Becker's work at the Wauregan in Norwich has won awards both for historic preservation and for economic development.
Restoring existing buildings is a highly efficient use of resources. It's much less costly than starting from scratch — especially when, as with 777 Main Street, 20 percent of the project is funded through federal historic tax credits, accessible via the building's inclusion on the National Register. Connecticut has been a chronic underachiever in returning federal dollars of this kind to our state, and we are glad to help reverse this, with Hartford as beneficiary.
Restoring and adapting existing buildings is also quicker: 777 Main Street is a seed, to use Jacobs' metaphor, which will bloom quickly. And its pace is being hastened further by cooperation among the various entities — the CRDA, HUD, DECD and the city itself — that embrace the importance of this strategy and are pulling together to effect the kind of development that smart-growth advocates have been recommending for years.
It's not hard to envision the vital downtown we all want. Hartford is on the right track, seeking to preserve its cultural heritage while jumpstarting a revitalizing growth. We at Becker & Becker are proud to be part of the effort. The vision of 777 Main Street is one of opportunity, excitement, and hope.
Bruce Redman Becker is president of Becker & Becker Associates in Fairfield.