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Asylum Hill Revitalization Progressing, But Buildings Stand In The Way


December 08, 2010

In the late 1990s, a neighborhood group in Hartford's Asylum Hill drew up a list of nearly 50 blighted properties as part of an action plan for revitalization.

All of those properties except one have either been renovated or knocked down, reflecting a sustained effort to maintain and improve the neighborhood in good times and bad. The lone holdout is a dilapidated Queen Anne-style house at the corner of Laurel and Niles streets.

It isn't for lack of effort. Several people and groups have tried to buy it but complain that the owner wants too much, asking $300,000 at one point. Even price tags of $150,000 to $250,000 would be too high, they say, considering the top-to-bottom renovations that would be needed to make it livable again.

The successes in Asylum Hill are clearly evident in the 1880s houses along Ashley, Garden and Sargeant streets, many refurbished by the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance Inc. Those efforts, boosted by government funding, have spurred nearby homeowners to take more pride in their neighborhoods, not only fixing up their houses but refusing to tolerate drug activity and prostitution.

of the Capitol West building overlooking I-84 and the renovation of the apartment building at Ashley and Garden streets, with street-level retail, including the defunct Ashley Café.

Despite those bright spots, big obstacles still remain: owners holding out for their price, properties in poor repair, fire-damaged houses, and scarce funding.

Some properties can stand in the way of progress for years, reinforcing the perception that an area is unsafe, even when nearby properties have been transformed. Property values also can be held down, affecting what buyers might be willing to pay.

A brick Victorian in top condition across the street from 370 Laurel, for example, has been on the market almost a year, its owner dropping the original asking price of $289,000 three times to the current $235,900. It last sold for $259,000 in 2005.

While the weak housing market is likely a factor, those familiar with the neighborhood say the owner of 370 Laurel holding out for a price can't be helping. "If someone has unrealistic expectations of what they can get for a property, it's a real challenge for the neighborhood," said Kenneth D. Johnson, the alliance's executive director.

The Laurel Street house creates a particularly powerful impression because of its striking architecture and the fact that it stands on a corner, immediately setting the perception of the street for anyone making the turn.

Its soaring turret and rough-hewn brownstone foundation are reminders of a grand past. Now, its windows are largely boarded up; plywood covers the front door and is secured with a padlock; the front steps are missing entirely.

Last winter, the Corporation for Independent Living, which has renovated more than 100 houses in Hartford ( including playing a prominent role in the Mortsen Street-Putnam Heights renovation in Frog Hollow), took a look at 370 Laurel St.

Although some original trim, flooring and mantlepieces remain, the interior has been gutted of plaster walls and would need extensive work, including all new wiring and plumbing, said David McKinley, vice president of development for the Hartford-based nonprofit.

As it is, government subsidies would be needed because a renovation would cost more than the house would be worth later, McKinley said. He estimates renovations could cost as much as $300,000.

"I can't imagine anyone paying $100,000 and making it work," he said.

McKinley said the corporation still remains interested in pursuing the project. "To me, what's most disappointing is what the neighbors have to look at every day," he said. "Fortunately, it's a house that can be saved. Structurally, it's fine."

Sallie Toussaint, an actress and model, is one of those neighbors. In 2002, she bought and renovated a Victorian on Niles, a former crack house that's next to 370 Laurel St. She, too, tried to buy 370 Laurel four years ago, but her bank wouldn't finance a mortgage of more than $110,000, though she had agreed to pay more.

She ended up losing a chunk of her deposit in a dispute with the owner, George M. Lewis of West Hartford.

Toussaint, a former Miss Connecticut USA, has taken a big stake in her neighborhood, co-founding the Niles-Laurel Street Block Association.

The Laurel Street property embodies what the block association is trying to fight. "It lowers our property values, ruins the aesthetic and attracts bad behavior," Toussaint said.

Lewis couldn't be reached for comment. According to public records, he bought the property in 1995 for $48,000.

A sign tucked into a second-story window at 370 Laurel says it is "For Sale by Owner," with a telephone number. When the number was called, it kept ringing and eventually turned into a busy signal. That sign has been in the window since at least 2007, when it was mentioned in an Internet blog.

The house also is well known to Hartford city officials. Lewis has racked up $19,000 in fines under the city's anti-blight ordinance and is fighting them in court. A trial is scheduled for August.

Toussaint is blunt in her criticism of what the neighborhood has to contend with. "You walk around that corner," she says, "and ugh, you want to vomit."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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