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Movement on Blight

By Kerri Provost

April 04, 2012

One objective of the Livable & Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative is to crack down on blight.

Still waiting for that crack.

One property — 387 Capitol Avenue — looks no different than it did one year ago. Mailboxes overflow, as nobody lives there or maintains the property. Litter collects on the front stoop. An appliance was discarded there in February. Other than getting increasingly smashed to bits, it remains there in April.

All the while, there is much fanfare about the planned demolition of the Capitol West Building on Myrtle Street.

Action on this property should not shock anyone. Mayor Segarra has mentioned it often. While it had not been included in project lists of One City One Plan — Hartford’s Plan of Conservation and Development — last June, it was mentioned during the January 2012 Livable & Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative (LSNI) meeting.

With all eyes on Capitol West, it is easy to overlook the near total inaction on other properties. The blight of 387 Capitol Avenue is but one example of what Frog Hollow residents — and those using Capitol Avenue to visit the State Capitol, Legislative Office Building, State Library, and Armory — must look at daily.

According to the LSNI Demonstration Area’s Project List — the Lawrence-Ward Area covers nearly all of Frog Hollow — the City is supposed to be focusing on six blighted properties beside 387 Capitol Ave in this section of Hartford.

These properties include:

147 Lawrence Street , 142 Park Terrace, 3 Putnam Heights, 147 Ward Street, 41 Wolcott Street and 47 Wolcott Street.

In March 2007, Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) submitted a blight complaint letter to the City of Hartford against 142 Park Terrace. The City claimed work had begun to take place on this property in June 2007, but documentation from a meeting of the Frog Hollow NRZ reports that no work was evident.

The blighted structure was removed in June 2010.

Today, 142 Park Terrace remains a neglected vacant lot.

The sidewalk along 142 Park Terrace is destroyed. This new, vacant lot affords a view of other blighted properties lining Park Street, none of which, for whatever reason, made it far enough up someone’s list to be named as priority items, despite the fact that at many Frog Hollow NRZ meetings, a complaint is logged about this area that abuts Putnam Heights.

The January 2012 LSNI report states that 142 Park Terrace has been “completed” and “removed.” The photos above and below were taken in March 2012:

It is unclear how 142 Park Terrace was included on the LSNI list and then determined to be “removed” when no action appears to be occurring on this parcel. Between the deteriorated sidewalk and the accumulation of litter, it still fits the definition of blight as “any other condition reflecting a level of maintenance which is not in keeping with community standards or which is an element leading to the progressive deterioration of the neighborhood.”

3 Putnam Heights shows some progress, but again, this is slow. It is notably the only property on the Central District LSNI Property list to have seen considerable visible improvements since the start of the LSNI. This structure had experienced a fire in June 2010.

Another property that had been on the original list is 147 Ward Street, which is not even in the assessor’s database. In the January 2012 LSNI report, there was no mention of this property, though it is clearly still blighted:

There is a potential developer for 41 & 47 Wolcott Street, which was an item of discussion at the January 2012 Frog Hollow NRZ meeting. Tentative plans had been drawn up by that meeting, suggesting work on these properties was taking place well before the City had any involvement in blight remediation.

In fact, the foreclosure process began for 41 & 47 Wolcott Street back in August 2010.

Initial communication on the formal complaints against 41 & 47 Wolcott Street were sent in June 2007 by the Frog Hollow NRZ.

It appears progress is being made, but the fact remains that complaints on these two parcels go back several years.

The property on Lawrence Street is not a beauty queen, but was by far one of the least blighted properties observed in the neighborhood:

Its inclusion on this target list, when there are numerous other properties in worse shape, seems to suggest that the City was seeking the appearance of early successes– ones that could be fixed easily or ones that people were planning to work with already. Though in the early stages of LSNI there was mention of an attempt to reach out to the owner of 387 Capitol Avenue — despite it having been condemned in 2010 and being delinquent in taxes for several years — the most action seeming to occur on this property was the rumored foreclosure delivered in a manner that made nearby residents think the building was being burglarized.

Although the LSNI January report states that 66 properties were surveyed with two or more potential violations and 16 with four or more potential violations in Frog Hollow alone, no details were provided in their report about the addresses or nature of violations.

Is the City’s official assessment accurate?

The Frog Hollow NRZ identified approximately 80 “deteriorated parcels” in the 2009 Strategic Plan, many of which continue to be problem properties.

A simple walk through the neighborhood, at no charge to taxpayers, can provide insight into which properties need to addressed.

Here are just a few.

Owned by the Southern New England Conference Association of Seventh Day Adventists, 64 Babcock is crumbling.

In June 2007, the Frog Hollow NRZ drafted a letter to arrange for a meeting with the owners of this property to discuss its condition. The organization again noted in 2009 that this property was blighted, but that it is literally falling apart was not enough to make it a priority for the City of Hartford. In the past, the owners of this property have expressed the desire to expand the adjacent church (174 Russ) which they also own. Standing in the way of that expansion is 64 Babcock. This parcel meets several of definitions of blight:

Missing, broken or boarded windows or doors

Collapsing or deteriorating exterior or interior walls, roofs, stairs, porches, floors or chimneys

Crumbling foundation walls which contain open cracks or breaks

Without entering the building there is no way to comment on the conditions of its interior.

Traveling further down the street and crossing Park, Babcock becomes Affleck Street. This property, clearly blighted, is near a community garden space:

According to the assessor site, 166 Affleck is owned by someone living in Brooklyn, NY.

Walking down Ward, one sees a structure on the corner of Broad which is partially boarded up

Schoolchildren wait for the bus in front of 951 Broad Street.

Further down the street, at the corner of Ward and Wolcott, one sees the beginning of an extremely blighted block, something one would not expect so close to the State Capitol of one of the wealthiest regions of the United States. Though there are plans in the works for 41 & 47 Wolcott, other parcels on this short block have not been declared priorities.

The street next to Wolcott — Squire — is equally desolate:

Crossing back over Park and heading down Lawrence, one can spot blight that also did not get named as priorities by the City:

In theory the vacant lot is better than a decrepit building. People can not hide inside a structure to engage in illegal and dangerous activities. In 2010, a teen was reportedly forced into an abandoned building on Squire Street and sexually assaulted. Other activities in abandoned buildings have resulted in structure fires, which are especially threatening in densely populated urban areas.

But for those who live near vacant lots, the improvements can seem minimal. In the summer, when the yards are not maintained, grass grows high, giving a disheveled look to the neighborhood as well as a place of refuge for rodents. They inevitably become seen as a place where litter and illegal dumping are safe. The few exceptions to this fate generally involve the adoption of the space by Knox Parks for use as community gardens.

Further down Lawrence Street, near Russ, one can view yet another blighted structure. How can something so obviously blighted not be included on the list of target blighted properties? Several years ago, this exact question came up in a neighborhood meeting. Some, apparently, did not count properties as being blighted once the windows are boarded up. Now, with the Anti Blight Ordinance, guidelines are spelled out so that there is little subjectivity regarding what counts as blighted premises.

Wrapping up this condensed blight tour involves a glance at Summit Street and more of Park Terrace.In November 2011, 433-435 Summit Street was destroyed by fire.

While LSNI is supposed to provide a measure of transparency and accountability, it is unclear how evenly this is happening across the districts. Although the Frog Hollow NRZ had been informed by Constituent Services that the Central District’s “Captain” would be making a presentation at three of its meetings, this appearance has yet to happen. At the March 2012 Frog Hollow NRZ meeting, residents were informed that if they would like this LSNI update to occur, then the quasi-municipal organization would have to make a special request.

The NRZ represents the more involved residents who tend to understand how to retrieve the information they need. If these types of organizations are struggling with the opacity of City government, how must it be for the average resident who lacks the time and resources to obtain the same information?

After searching high and low — the City of Hartford website is so disorganized that even if this LSNI document is on there, one could not find it while still working two full-time jobs — I was able to obtain a copy of the March 2012 LSNI quarterly report. Without having the segments explained, one can only guess what the rationale is behind certain actions:

What about the sidewalk along Ward? Though suffering from a heavy coating of litter, this is possibly one of the least troubled sidewalks in the neighborhood. What about sidewalks not named, like the broken mess at 142 Park Terrace or along Summit between Park Terrace and Zion? The sidewalk along Babcock is uneven in places. The rolling terrain of wobbly brick along Park Street is another issue.

If community input is needed about street lights and stop lights, then perhaps someone could make the effort to attend neighborhood meetings and talk with the community. Complaints are lodged at these meetings, as they have been for years, about everything from lights needing repairs to broken sidewalks to the absence of trash cans on various streets in the neighborhood. After all, one of Mayor Segarra’s goals for LSNI, the implementation of One City, One Plan, is to “ensure that each City office and department is held accountable for operating in a fiscally accountable manner and for getting results that advance the City’s interest.”

A little outreach goes a long way to building community cooperation and support.

Meanwhile, West District Captain Brey Golding attended at a recent West End Civic Association at which residents were able to learn about what was happening in their section of the city, as well as voice concerns about different property issues. Residents at that meeting took advantage of this opportunity and provided her with information about what items they wanted fixed in that neighborhood. Below, one can see variations between districts:

This chart does not provide timelines for action; perhaps it is expected that residents will have memorized the Anti Blight Ordinance.

Expediency matters when attempting to preserve historical structures. Lucas Karmazinas of FuturePast Preservation says, “regarding an ideal amount of time in between identifying blighted properties and taking remediation in order to better preserve historic buildings [...] many factors are always in play, but sooner is always better.”

Given our climate, moving at a snail’s pace is not advantageous.

“One of the biggest challenges facing many historic buildings in the city is the number of vacant and blighted resources that remain open to the weather or uninvited guests, human or animal,” said Karmazinas. “The impact of moisture, unregulated interior temperatures, and animal waste accelerates deterioration, and illegal occupancy increases the propensity for fire damage.”

The chart created by the City of Hartford also does it indicate the strength of these initiatives. Karmazinas spoke about the need for bold action:

Taking aggressive steps to identify and secure these buildings, as well as to hold property owners accountable for their physical condition, as well as building and safety code violations, would go a long way towards their preservation. Perhaps going as far as to initiate a more aggressive program of seizing the property of particularly egregious violators through eminent domain in an effort to return them to productivity and a preserved state would be worth exploring. At a lower lever, just doing a better job of identifying and addressing blight conditions such as graffiti, broken windows, unkept properties, would play to the “Broken Window Theory” of disinvestment and disenfranchisement.

While there are legitimate legal concerns about too boldly taking actions, there must be a middle ground between the near-absence of political will and acquiring all blighted properties for whatever use the City deems appropriate.

Some community members are speculating that these recent initiatives are more self-congratulatory than effective. After all, Capitol West, vacant since 1994, is only now being acted upon. People are cheering the impending demolition, just as they cheered that of the H.B. Davis building, while not noticing the deteriorating structures outside of what can be seen from vehicles on the Interstate.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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