Nearly Two Years Of Debate, A Compromise On The 410 Asylum St.
August 1, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
A nearly two-year battle for the soul of an empty downtown building
has ended in compromise between the nonprofit developer who wanted
to turn it into apartments for the homeless and Hartford's mayor who
wanted anything but.
In the end, everyone gave a little.
But the deal, in its early stages, is a triumph for Hartford Mayor
Eddie A. Perez, who in recent years has been vigilant about having
input on the future of downtown and its development.
After six months of discussions with the mayor, the leader of
Common Ground Community, which owns the historic building at 410
Asylum St., decided against transforming it into a supportive housing
Instead, the New York City group decided to redevelop the building
- a prime piece of city real estate across from Bushnell Park -
into about 70 mixed-income apartments, said Rosanne Haggerty, its
founder and president.
Twenty percent of the apartments would be available to low-income,
working-class people; the other 80 percent would go to moderate-income
renters, possibly the young professionals who don't earn enough
to afford the other high-rent apartments being built downtown,
The 12,000-square-foot ground floor of the building will be used
for street-level retail, probably a restaurant fronting Asylum
Street, and a few smaller businesses facing High Street, Haggerty
Common Ground still plans to build a supportive housing complex
in Hartford, just in another neighborhood yet to be determined.
"Life is short," said Haggerty, a West Hartford native. "We're
trying to get some important work done in housing, and we're trying
to get that done in the most positive way."
From Haggerty's perspective, the new deal gives her group a chance
to plan two buildings in Hartford rather than just one. And both
plans dovetail with Common Ground's core mission to end homelessness
and rehabilitate historic buildings, all while creating jobs and
affordable housing opportunities for artists and lower-income professionals.
"There is such an intense need to build a housing infrastructure
in Hartford, so now we can bring our experience to bear in a couple
of projects," she said.
The mayor has argued that 410
Asylum St., six stories high with commanding views of the state
Capitol, would be ideal for condos or high-end apartments similar
to those being built in the heart of downtown. He said the new
proposal on the table for 410 Asylum St. fits in with the vision
for the area he calls "downtown
"It's the first real housing deal in that area," Perez
said. "We've been able to convince her [Haggerty] that there's
a bigger potential, a bigger impact and a bigger common good."
The low-income housing component does not bother Perez, since,
he said, it is balanced by the higher-income units.
"The more mixed, the better it is," Perez
Under the general plan, which will not be submitted to the city
until the fall, allowable income limits for tenants of the low-income
apartments would range from $31,600 annually for a single person
to $45,200 annually for a family of four, Haggerty said.
The income limits for the moderate-income apartments range from
$50,000 annually for a single person to $80,000 annually for a
family of four.
The figures are not final and are subject to change as Common
Ground works out the details of its financing.
For Perez, the happy resolution of 410 Asylum St. is a success
amid a recent string of setbacks in his attempt to shape the future
of the city. In the last year, WFSB-TV, Channel 3, MassMutual and
ING Group have announced plans to depart for the suburbs, despite
the mayor's intense lobbying.
The recent debate over 410 Asylum St. began in September 2003,
when the property's previous owners, Milton and Betty Hollander,
donated the building to Common Ground after the state and city
thwarted the Hollanders' efforts to build a parking lot there.
The couple placed a legal restriction on the property, saying Common Ground must
develop it into affordable or supportive housing and may not sell it to a private
developer, Haggerty said.
Though it had never submitted a plan to the city, Common Ground
envisioned replicating in Hartford the success it has had with
supportive housing in New York City. Haggerty envisioned a mixed
community of low-income housing for the homeless that would include
an on-site medical and mental health care staff. Half of the units
would be reserved for homeless, the other half for low-income workers
To bolster support for her original plan, Haggerty used a time-tested
strategy: She helped arrange bus trips from Hartford to New York
for anyone curious to see the prototypes of her supportive housing
idea. She spoke at numerous community meetings, addressing questions,
complaints, fears and tirades - all in the name of cultivating
Neighborhood groups were ambivalent, not quite the civic groundswell
that is needed to counter a mayoral veto.
Board members of the South Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization
Zone were split between those who defended the right to give the
homeless a nice section of downtown to live in and those who said
supportive housing does not belong in the nucleus of a burgeoning
downtown community. The group never took a stance, said Allen Ambrose,
chairman of the neighborhood group's board.
All the while, Perez was using his leverage against the supportive
housing project if it was to be proposed against his will.
The project would rely on low-income and historic tax credits
as a key source of financing. Getting those tax credits requires
support from the local government. And Perez told the state agencies
who distribute those credits that he did not want supportive housing
at 410 Asylum St., his chief of staff, Matt Hennessy, said.
Having it there would jeopardize the first spurt of new market-rate
construction downtown in decades, the mayor argued.
"They needed assistance from the city on various things," Hennessy
said. "It's not the policy of the city to imperil major investment
Common Ground would also have needed the council to support an
ordinance change to overrule a city law that prohibits supportive
housing within 1,000 feet of a single residence occupancy house,
Hennessy said. The YMCA, which offers single rooms for rent, is
within 1,000 feet of 410 Asylum St.
At a stalemate, the mayor and Haggerty began negotiating in January.
"Can you swap the building with a city building?" he
asked her, suggesting the old board of education building north
of downtown, where the new public safety complex is being built.
Can you consider building high-end apartments? Sell it to a developer
They eventually agreed to a mixed-use design that could satisfy
the mission of Common Ground, appease the mayor and blend with
the surrounding development.
In turn, the mayor offered his support in finding a suitable site
for supportive housing.
"It's really great when you can get the [political and civic]
support," said Diane Randall, director of Partnership for
Strong Communities, a housing advocacy group. "It works best
when that can happen."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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