A year ago, the first tenants moved into the graceful seven-story building at 410 Asylum Street in downtown Hartford, a major step in what historical preservationists (and hockey announcers) call "a great save." What was going to be a parking garage is instead a home to hundreds of people. A year later, it is well on its way to being a major success story — if they can just get a coffee shop.
The owners of an adjacent building acquired 410 Asylum in the late 1990s and planned to tear it down for parking. This, sadly, has been the fate of much of downtown Hartford's architectural patrimony. But not this time.
Preservationists were quick to point out that the structure was one of the few surviving neo-Classical Revival buildings in downtown Hartford. It was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, whose portfolio includes the old Madison Square Garden, as well as many of New York and Connecticut's splendid old theaters.
Also, location, location. It's part of the wall of buildings that are the backdrop for Bushnell Park and the Capitol across the street, an aesthetic that would be diminished by demolition. So state officials threatened to go to court. Mayor Mike Peters, who unlike so many politicians could speak in simple declarative sentences, said:"That building is not coming down while I'm the mayor."
The owners, a couple named Betty Ruth and Milton Hollander of Stamford, then did something that doesn't happen nearly enough — they changed their minds. Instead of dragging the parking proposal through the courts, they gave the building away for housing. Who they gave it to was of vital importance.
That would be Rosanne Haggerty, founder of the nonprofit group Common Ground. She had developed an international reputation — two "60 Minutes" profiles, a MacArthur "genius grant," etc. — for turning historic properties into supportive and affordable housing. Though her early successes were in New York City, she is a West Hartford native who wanted to do a project in downtown Hartford.
After a spirited debate with Mayor Eddie Perez over the tenant mix, in which both sides compromised, Haggerty got the green light for the building she renamed "The Hollander." Of the 70 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, 56 would be "affordable," meaning that tenants could earn no more than 60 percent of the area's median income (the limit is $23,690 to $45,960 depending on family size) while the other 14 units are rented at market rate. The apartments were all rented by the spring.
Common Ground, using historic and low-income tax credits and other resources, invested $22.5 million into rehabbing the building. The building has a host of energy-saving features — a green roof, advanced recycling system, low-flow toilets, insulated windows — and is the first building of its kind in the state to win LEED (Gold) certification.
When Haggerty got involved, some thought she was really creating a homeless shelter. There's a place in cities for homeless shelters, until society can provide enough supportive housing, but this isn't a shelter. Tenants are carefully screened. Some are retired, a few are disabled but most work, in a great variety of jobs ranging from nurse and insurance worker to bus driver and cake decorator. Sharon M. Gowen, the building's manager, said the tenants are all doing well, are not doing anything amiss, are "just leading their lives."
Gowen, a bright and engaging woman who is a retired Fannie Mae executive, showed me through the building on Monday. It has the feel, even the smell, of a well-managed building. "I like tidy," she said. The apartments are very nice; we popped into a sixth-floor with a spectacular view of the park and the Capitol. I can imagine opening the window for Monday Night Jazz or having some friends over the fireworks.
A number of tenants have dogs, and Gowen says dogs are good for cities. "Dogs put (human) feet on the street. Dog walkers meet other dog walkers, so they help people get to know their neighbors."
The most challenging part of the project has been the first-floor commercial space. The building always had retail on the first floor — a piano store, a bank, etc. Common Ground has tried mightily to get a grocer into the first floor, as well as a local coffee house and other businesses. It's been tough, not just because of the recession, but also because excavations for the MDC sewer project are going on right outside the door.
Gowen said the thought now is to "whitebox" the commercial area — clean and prepare the space — and then do some serious marketing. "We'll be OK. I've got a heck of a building here," Gowen said. She also said her organization is rethinking the grocery store.
Conventional wisdom has always been that downtown needed a large grocer. None of the big guys have been willing to commit. Maybe they know something. Gowen said people in cities "shop often, buy small and buy less on each trip " than their suburban counterparts. So maybe the small food stores — another is opening up the street — plus the community-supported agriculture drop-offs in the summer are enough.
In any event, I hope the success of Hollander inspires more rehab and infill housing that working people can afford. If Hartford is ever rescued from parking lots and highways, this may be the building that turned the corner.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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