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Bringing The North End Back Into Downtown

Tom Condon

August 22, 2010

When the city's plan to incorporate the facade of the historic Second North District School on High Street into the new public safety complex fell through, all too literally, no one was angrier and more upset than Bill Hosley.

Hosley used to run the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, now called Connecticut Landmarks, which owns the lovely Isham-Terry House just down the street from the 19th-century brick school building. He came to see that the North End was, he said, Hartford's Lower East Side, an area that had been home to many immigrant groups and had "so much history." Knowing that many suburbanites steered clear of the area, Hosley began leading tours to show off the historic churches, cemeteries and architecture.

The area was once an integral part of downtown, but was cut off by the hugely unfortunate siting of I-84 through the middle of downtown Hartford. But the partial platforming of the highway in the 1990s gave hope of reconnecting it once again to the city's core. In recent years, an opportunity presented itself. The city planned to build a $77 million public safety complex north of the highway. The plan that developed would use the facade of the former school, making it, as it once was, the centerpiece of a Victorian neighborhood.

The interior of the building was gutted and the facade left standing for months, in the winter. Then part of it collapsed and officials announced they couldn't save the rest of it. Whether it could have been saved or not opinions differ dramatically it was a major loss. Hosley was beside himself.

To recoup something from the loss, Hosley proposed a "One Percent for Heritage" plan, in which the owner or developer would donate 1 percent of the cost of a project to benefit cultural resources in the area. In the case of the Second North School, the beneficiaries might be Isham-Terry, Old North Cemetery, Keney Clock Tower, Union Baptist Church or other landmarks.

The idea is based on the "One Percent for Art" programs that exist, in some form or another, in hundreds of cities across the country, including Hartford and New Haven.

In truth I don't know if this is the best way to achieve what Hosley has in mind. Some of these "1 percent" ordinances, such as Hartford's, suggest, rather than require, a 1 percent donation. It's also not clear that there is $770,000 available in the budget from this project. As for future revenues, I don't know how many major building projects will be coming down the road in the next few years.

But however the mayor and city council choose to get there, there ought to be a major investment in this part of the city, to preserve the existing assets and plan for its infill and general redevelopment.

Despite the ravages of highway construction, neglect and abandonment, there are still some significant Victorian structures in the area two flatiron buildings, for example that could be the heart of a renewal of the area into an urban, mixed-use adjunct to downtown. It's not too much to hope the new public safety complex will add to the Victorian look and feel. Renewing this area and reconnecting it to downtown would, by definition, make downtown Hartford bigger and invite more business and jobs, as well as more middle-class residents. It would recreate gateways to North Main Street and Windsor and the Albany Avenue commercial district and the road west.

Maybe the way to do it is to combine the planning of this area with that now being done for I-84, led by the Hub of Hartford group. If it were possible to turn the highway into an urban boulevard, or to bury the highway, that would open the connection to the North End, and put this once-elegant neighborhood back into play in a meaningful way. It is the essence of smart growth.

CORRECTION

In my June 20 column on Coltsville I said "TIF" stood for or tax instrument financing. It stands for tax increment financing.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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