When Bob Daglio talks to his friends about the big change he
and his wife, Elizabeth, recently made - moving from the suburbs
to downtown Hartford - he frequently hears: "Gee, I've been thinking
about doing that."
Seven months ago, with their children grown and after buying
a second home on Cape Cod, the Daglios sold their house in Granby
and moved to a downtown apartment.
"We like the city," said
Bob Daglio, a 60-year-old commercial real estate broker who walks
to work at CityPlace. "We can walk to the Wadsworth; we
can walk to church; we can walk to a restaurant; we can walk
to the park. We've spent an entire Saturday never getting in
our cars and being outdoors, going from place to place. You can't
do that in the suburbs."
Once one of America's wealthiest cities, Hartford has hardly
been a magnet for the affluent in recent decades. Households
that earn more than $125,000, at least double the median household
income in Connecticut, make up a significantly smaller share
of the population in Hartford than in the nation's largest cities,
and even in economically distressed cities such as Philadelphia,
Baltimore and Newark.
But from downtown Hartford to the West End, developers are betting
that aging baby boomers and a housing boom that has inflated
the value of suburban homes - giving boomers a fat wad of cash
if they choose to sell them - will start to change that. Within
the next six months, a number of new housing ventures will be
asking renters to pay $3,000 a month for a downtown apartment,
or asking buyers to pay more than $400,000 for a city condominium.
There are early signs that the wealth boom that has visited
so many U.S. cities in recent years may be stirring in Hartford:
At the Goodwin Estate in Hartford's West End - a new luxury
development built around a historic mansion that a few years
ago had decayed so much that it was home to a pack of wild dogs
- the four homes that have sold for more than $500,000 during
the first five months of 2005 match the number of homes that
sold at that price in all of Hartford in each of the 2002 and
2003 fiscal years. When a suburban couple bought a 2,000-square-foot
condominium in the mansion for $625,000 this year, appraisers
were unable to find a comparable, per-square-foot sale in Greater
Hartford, said Anne Francis, sales manager for Goodwin Estate.
"I have just been floored [by the sales]," she said. "We
have been doing very well."
In the two weeks since the developers of The Metropolitan condominiums
put banners on the side of the downtown building, they have received
more than 250 inquiries from potential buyers for units that
will run from $200,000 to $400,000. Saws screeched and drills
whirred Friday as workers rushed to complete the sheetrock, flooring
and tiles for two model units to open to the public this week.
Trumbull on the Park, a 100-apartment complex that will open
in October, has received about 40 reservations. Developers say
the strongest demand is for units that will rent for between
$2,000 and $3,200 a month.
Someone able to spend $3,200 a month on housing could buy a
very nice house in the suburbs: Realtors say that amount of money
would cover roughly a $500,000 mortgage. But developers say they
think lifestyle choices will drive the downtown market.
"What I'm seeing is a lot of people that are just sick
and tired of the suburbs," said Martin J. Kenny, the developer
of Trumbull on the Park. "The anonymity of city life is
appealing to people that have spent what seems like one lifetime
in the suburbs. Not every mom wants to be a soccer mom forever.
There's an afterlife."
During the 1990s, as housing prices fell in Hartford and hundreds
of owners walked away from properties that had bigger mortgages
than the properties were worth, a venture like the 36-story Hartford
21 apartment tower, which will replace the Hartford Civic Center
mall, would have been economic suicide. Rents have not been set
yet, but apartments in the new tower will rent for at least as
much as other new buildings in the city, the developers say.
Where cities in other parts of the country, especially in the
West and South, bolster their economies by the political annexation
of fast-growing suburban areas, developers in Hartford now say
they can help the city by annexing some of the region's affluent
baby boomers and young professionals.
"The goal has always been to import the affluence of the
suburbs into the city," said Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, chairman
and chief executive officer of Northland Investment Corp., who
as the developer of the $162 million Hartford 21 project may
be making the biggest real estate bet downtown. "What does
Hartford need? It needs the affluence of the suburbs. But it
can't geopolitically expand, so you are going to have to attract
that affluence into the city."
For decades, Connecticut's demographics have been tilted in
favor of the suburbs. With the population bulge of the baby boomers
in their 20s, 30s and 40s, the dominant demographic group was
having children and raising them, primarily in the suburbs.
"Suburbia is the archetype of the familiar private space,
where you can feel in control and raise your family and have
a real sense of safety. But when the children leave the nest,
you may want an environment that is easier for you to access," said
Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy at St. Louis University.
"What you get is a kind of a housing mismatch, where you
have these suburban homes on large lots that may not meet the
lifestyle of at least some of the baby boomer generation when
they reach retirement," he said. "They want to have
amenities close to them, that fit their lifestyle, especially
once the children have left."
Like a fat kid stepping to the other side of a see-saw, the
baby boomers are pushing a demographic shift in Connecticut.
The number of state residents aged 45 to 59 - people in their
peak earning years, who are less likely to worry about poor urban
schools - grew by 13 percent over the past four years, according
to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The number aged 25 to 39 - the
group forming families and having children - dropped by 27 percent
between 2000 and 2004.
once a dirty word in American urban politics, but leaders such
as Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez and civil rights lawyer John
C. Brittain now say they are in favor of having more rich people
Perez said that an influx of wealthier residents would not be
gentrification unless they displaced poorer residents. The city
is building a range of housing for working-class and middle-class
residents, and could use more housing in the $350,000 to $750,000
range, Perez said. Even the new luxury housing planned for downtown
would still make up only a small portion of the housing stock,
"Diversity is a good thing," Perez said, even if it
means more Republican voters in Hartford. "It's OK. We'll
finally have an election in town."
Brittain, one of the lead lawyers in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school
desegregation lawsuit, said the city would benefit by attracting
more upper-income white people to projects such as Hartford 21.
"I've changed my view, and I say it unabashedly in public," Brittain
said. "Where I was an opponent of white gentrification in
the '70s, I am now a supporter [of the idea] that you need to
have a mix of racial - of particularly white racial, and certainly
upper-income - integration in blighted urban areas in order to
improve those areas, and improve everything else with it.
"So I'm in favor now of some gentrification, with the proper
safeguards for the adequate relocation of any existing tenants,
including racial and language minorities," Brittain said.
Swanstrom was the co-author of a recent study that found metropolitan
Hartford was the most economically segregated city among the
nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas in 2000. Hartford was
the only metro area in the country in which city dwellers had
less than half the income of suburbanites.
And that means Hartford probably has a long way to go before
it sees the kind of luxury-loft urban development that New York,
Washington and other cities with superheated real estate markets
The wealth gap between cities and suburbs tends to be more extreme
in the Northeast than in the South and the West, where cities
are more likely to be able to annex growing suburban areas. But
even among compact Northeastern cities, Hartford stands out for
its economic segregation, Swanstrom said.
"The poor are unusually concentrated within the central
city" and the wealthy outside the city limits, Swanstrom
Even though the median sale price of housing in Hartford is
up 64 percent since 2000, suggesting an influx of affluence,
prices are still lower in the city than in almost all of its
suburbs. Condominium units in neighborhoods such as Asylum Hill
still sell for under $60,000. And one of the prime selling points
for the Goodwin Estate is not the urban location; it's the proximity
to West Hartford Center.
There is not so much an influx of rich people into Hartford
as an influx of middle-class people who made money on their suburban
homes in the recent vibrant real estate market and are ready
for a lifestyle change, said Thomas D. Ritter, the former speaker
of the state House of Representatives, who recently bought a
home at the Goodwin Estate.
Goodwin Estate is not an age-restricted development, but Ritter
said he knows of only one school-aged child in the 17-acre development
of townhouses and condominiums.
While many people are interested
in city living, "a lot
of people did not want to live here when their kids were in school," Ritter
said. The complex is still under construction and won't be complete
until the end of the year; only 10 of the 63 homes have yet to
With their two children grown, Bob and Chris Healey traded their
3,100-square-foot home in Glastonbury for a 1,100-square-foot
condo in the Goodwin mansion last year. They said they don't
see themselves as part of an incoming wave of wealth.
"I think of ourselves as being mainstream, just average
bears, by no means affluent," said Bob Healey, a 59-year-old
lawyer. The couple was the first to buy and move into a unit
in the mansion, last September.
"We're at that time in our lives when we can take more
time for ourselves," said Chris Healey, also 59, who works
at the Hartford Club. "We can take the time to see shows,
and fine dining, and things like that in Hartford."
Even though the floor area in their new home is small, they
have 23-foot ceilings, and the couple said they gained a sense
of freedom as they pared down their belongings. Bob Healey now
has a 10-minute walk along Asylum Avenue to his office. He said
he didn't count on how much pleasure he would get seeing the
leaves change color last fall, knowing he wouldn't have to rake
About a year ago, he was working out at the downtown Hartford
YMCA and ended up talking to Bob Daglio. Both of them realized
they were planning to sell their homes in the suburbs and move
to the city. Healey and Daglio recalled how a guy on another
exercise machine down the row piped up, Hey, we're planning to
do that, too.
So though they have met with their share of skepticism, the
Healeys say, they have a sense that they are part of something
building in Hartford.
"I think everybody who has made the move here probably
was met with some comments like, `You're moving to Hartford?'" Healey
said. "Clearly, what you need [in Hartford] is for a critical
mass to develop, and without any claim of authorship, I'm sensing
that people are beginning to opt for this."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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