Putting the University of Hartford where they did, away from
downtown, on the border of Hartford, West Hartford and Bloomfield,
ensured that it would miss many of the advantages of an urban
university and embrace some of the disadvantages of a suburban
Though much of the campus is in
the city, it's far enough away from virtually all urban amenities
that students and others have to drive to them. It has never
had its own college town. But there's a chance - a chance of
a lifetime - for this to change.
Part of the campus adjoins the Westbrook Village housing project.
City housing officials have formed a local planning committee
to discuss the future of the Westbrook Village site.
The opportunity is to turn the 71-acre site into a college-oriented
community, with housing for people of varied incomes, bars, clubs,
coffee houses, a movie theater, offices, shops and other amenities.
Senior citizens, who increasingly like to retire near college
campuses, could live there, along with married graduate students,
staff and faculty and former tenants of the project.
There could be a jogging path along the North Branch of the
Park River, which winds through the site. There's also a rail
line, offering the chance for transit-oriented development, or
at least transit. The Annie Fisher elementary school is there.
A new magnet, the University High School of Science and Engineering,
is being planned for the area just north of Annie Fisher.
Though it is reasonably well kept up, Westbrook Village is close
to the end of its useful life. It was built in the early 1950s
by the state as a moderate income housing project, a companion
to the Bowles Park project on Granby Street further north. There
were only a handful of such projects in the region.
As with so many public housing projects, Westbrook and Bowles
were fine for a time, a longer time than many other projects.
But eventually many of the moderate- income people moved out
and were replaced by poorer people. The buildings began to show
their age; crime increased.
Westbrook Village's 83 barracks-style brick buildings have 360
units, but a fourth of them are vacant. The main reason is that
the Hartford Housing Authority cannot rent to families with children
age 6 or under, because of lead paint in the common areas, officials
Last year, the housing authority put out a request for qualifications
from developers interested in pursuing a redevelopment of the
property, which triggered some college town ideas. But for a
variety of reasons, the request was pulled back. Now the process
is being rekindled.
Lancelot Gordon, interim executive director of the housing authority,
formed a new planning committee. The University of Hartford initially
wasn't on the committee, but has now been added.
The first priority for any
renewal of the housing must be the well-being of current tenants,
and university officials agree. "We
are very sensitive to the needs of the tenants," said John
Carson, a senior aide to university President Walter Harrison.
With that understood, the university should be a dominant player
in this process. This could be the future. Harrison has set the
groundwork by engaging the school in the Upper Albany and Blue
Hills neighborhoods. He's got business students working with
merchants on Albany Avenue and he's turning a former car dealership
into a $25 million performing arts center.
A university-oriented remake of Westbrook Village would give
the school a presence on Albany Avenue, a better connection to
the neighborhood and access for the thousands of commuters who
pass each day. It would give the school its town center.
Whether New Haven, Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill, a university town
draws people who create excitement and help foster a fervid intellectual
Some first-tier teachers and students won't go to a college
that doesn't have a college town. This is why the University
of Connecticut has embarked on a plan to build a town center
The University of Hartford can take a similar step. The school
expanded its architecture program last year, and has created
a Center for Integrated Design, drawing on the resources of the
architecture, engineering, graphic design and business programs.
The center could play a role in creating a new university town.
There are issues, to be sure, always starting with money. The
university may not be ready to embark on another capital campaign,
but there are federal grant programs that may apply. If this
is a good idea, there's a way to build it.
Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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