Although it will lengthen the process, the Hartford Housing Authority was right to pull the plug on talks with a developer over the renewal of the Westbrook Village and Bowles Park housing projects. The project is too important to start without a meeting of the minds.
Since 2006, the housing authority has been trying to strike a deal with Boston-based developer Corcoran Jennison to redevelop the two aging, barracks-style projects near the University of Hartford in the northwest section of the city. But the authority and the developer could not agree on who would control the construction process or manage the finished product. On Tuesday, the housing authority ended negotiations and said the project would be put out to bid again.
The project represents the biggest development opportunity in the city. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redefine the University of Hartford campus, to create a mixed-use, mixed-income community that connects the school to the Albany Avenue corridor while providing better housing and possibly job opportunities for current tenants. The land abuts the lightly-used Griffin rail line that goes from Hartford to Bloomfield and Windsor, which could allow a transit-oriented development. The University of Connecticut is building a kind of college town adjacent to the campus in Storrs, which will add another dimension to the UConn campus. An urban version of the same thing could provide the same benefits to the University of Hartford and the Upper Albany and Blue Hills neighborhoods.
Bringing all of this together calls for the most creative efforts of the best designers and builders available. At the moment, it is not clear the best and brightest want to come to Hartford.
Corcoran Jennison is a well-regarded firm. It does business in 15 states, has won numerous awards and is considered a pioneer in converting public housing projects to mixed-use communities. But it could not reach an agreement with the city, and over the last several years, at least two other prominent developers backed away from the Bowles-Westbrook project.
If the city is to attract a top-tier firm, which is essential, the authority's directors should look at the project through a developer's eyes. A developer coming to Hartford to bid on this work will have to make a large upfront investment. The city's political atmosphere is unsettled, to say the least. The funding for the project is not in place. Taken together, this represents more risk than many developers are comfortable with.
The housing authority, in turmoil a few years ago, has clearly stabilized under board chairman Mark Ojakian and executive director Alan Green. But the authority is juggling many things at once: an upgrade of scattered site housing with $5 million in stimulus funds, replacement of the squalid Nelton Court housing project and completion of the ownership portion of the new housing on the site of the former Dutch Point housing project. Does the authority have the capacity to direct a development that could cover almost 140 acres?
Perhaps. One of the options Mr. Green is considering would have the authority do a master plan and parcel the work to several developers. Another possibility would be to create a state development entity with the housing authority as a partner, on the order of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which oversaw Adriaen's Landing and other downtown development of the past decade. The Westbrook-Bowles project was built by the state (for people with moderate incomes), and its renovation will require the involvement of several state agencies. A state-city partnership might provide the resources and stability that developers want.
This project could change the face of the city and add another dimension to one of Hartford's major institutions of higher learning. Let's get it right.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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