Here's one early Christmas present to return: The Hartford's plan to demolish the old Connecticut Mutual building and put up a parking lot.
With Hartford's long, sorry history of knocking down buildings and neighborhoods, you would think somebody — especially the top officers at a Fortune 100 corporation and their historic "preservation" consultant Bill Faude — might have learned a lesson.
This is 1950s-style thinking that cities throughout America have long abandoned, except here, where vacant lots remain sacred ground. Just look at Providence, a booming city that learned the economic development benefits of a downtown full of old buildings with history.
The original Connecticut Mutual headquarters was built in 1926 and designed by renowned architect Benjamin Wister Morris, whose ideas were behind Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Now known as the MassMutual building, this hulking majestic structure is a reminder that Hartford was once someplace, instead of a parking lot off the interstate.
More vacant space is not what Hartford, or The Hartford, needs. This is not going to transform America's Filing Cabinet into a happening city.
Remember the grand plans when the Statler Hilton and 1911 Hartford-Aetna buildings were imploded years ago? They are parking lots now. Lovely.
Don't forget that this city nearly razed the Old State House. Front Street, which is supposed to evoke memories of the long-demolished East Side neighborhood, remains a hideous lot. We have acres of asphalt in front of the Bushnell and north of downtown. We need more of this?
"You can level the whole city and build a whole lot of new stuff and say that is great for development," lawyer and historic preservation advocate Rafie Podolsky told me. "But you eliminate the character of the city that was there before. We have already lost huge amounts of it."
The Hartford, business leaders and Mayor Perez have smeared lipstick on this pig of an idea by reminding us how we're talking about one of the city's few remaining corporate giants. We're told that The Hartford wants to expand and how parking for workers is at a crisis point. And besides, they say, nobody wants this ancient old building.
How many times has this cheap trick been pulled from the corporate playbook — create a crisis and start the clock ticking? How about some civic leadership from one of our leading corporate citizens? How about talking with neighborhood groups before applying for demolition permits days before Christmas?
"It may be a wonderful idea to tear the building down. But the timing is so poor," said Jacqueline McKinney, vice president of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. "Put a parking lot on that and that will make that part of Garden Street no man's land."
If the old Hartford Public High School — whose destruction is still lamented today — were still standing along Asylum, these characters would probably be telling us why it needs to be torn down.
It's all baloney. There is plenty of parking already on the 16-acre Connecticut Mutual site. There's room for the much-hyped magnet school to make Mayor Perez happy. More important, there are a lot of possible uses for this parcel, a potential transportation hub adjacent to downtown, Union Station and the Asylum Hill neighborhood.
Sure, I agree with MetroHartford Alliance President Oz Griebel when he tells me we must support a major corporation with 7,000 employees that wants to reinvest here. That doesn't mean we have to embrace short-sighted ideas.
The Hartford spokesman Joshua King says there is still time for someone to come up with a plan to save the original building.
"We are absolutely open to ideas that present an economically viable reuse of that building that also meets our need for future flexibility," King told me.
Just don't believe it when they tell you this is some kind of holiday treat for Hartford. It's the same tired old gift we've been getting for years.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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