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Developer's Plan In Hartford's North End Pits Homeownership Proponents, Green Space Champions


October 18, 2009

HARTFORD - Developer Albert Gary has a plan to use vacant land at Brackett Park in the city's North End for a housing development, the second time in a year he's proposed using city-owned open space for private construction.

And, for the second time in a year, Councilman Luis Cotto says "no thanks."

Mayor Eddie A. Perez supports Gary's project, and in a letter to the council characterized the land as an "outdoor recreational space." Cotto considers it parkland.

"This is a park with swings, a slide, a gazebo, basketball," said Cotto, chairman of the council's parks committee. "Not only is it a park that's convenient to people there, but it's a much needed park in an area that does not have [enough open space]."

Earlier this year, a development group led by Gary proposed turning a large part of Keney Park into an equestrian center. That effort failed.

Now, another venture of his, Toraal Development LLC, wants to buy 5 acres of city land at 54 Westland St. for $175,000 and develop it with 20 two-family, owner-occupied homes, 20 rental units and a roughly 3-acre park. The rental units would be set aside for people with annual household incomes between $35,000 and $50,000.

To build the $7.8 million project, the developers have gotten a $3.25 million grant commitment from the state and $800,000 in state money that is funneled through the city. They expect to get $3.76 million from sales.

The question now is whether the plan can get the support of the city council.

"It's basically underutilized land that could be used for housing or green space," said David Panagore, the city's chief operating officer. "They're two competing values and both of them are good. But the question for the city, and the question in front of the council, is, which do we value more for this site?"

Gary says he's heard the complaints about losing a park but says his team is addressing it by keeping a playground and making it more accessible.

"If you go out there and look at that place, it's not being used for recreation at all," Gary said. "We're offering more of a neighborhood recreational facility."

But more important, Gary said, is that he's paying a market-rate price for city land, paying all related fees and taxes and putting property back on the tax rolls. He's also providing "much needed homeownership," and creating construction jobs along the way.

Councilman Matt Ritter, whose planning and development committee has already held a hearing on the plan, supports the development. One neighborhood group, the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, supports it, although its initial decision on the project a few years back was not unanimous. Six neighborhood residents who came to speak during the council's committee meeting on the matter supported it, too, Ritter said.

"This is going to be affordable, middle-class housing in an area where homeownership rates are low," Ritter said.

When Gary's development plan came up for consideration two years ago, some on the council were concerned that a defunct company owned by Gary still owed the city more than $150,000 on an earlier development loan. That money is still owed today, Panagore said.

City attorneys originally balked at the idea of giving Gary and his partners former city licenses and inspections Director Abraham Ford Jr. and one-time housing director and mayoral chief of staff Ralph Knighton more money.

But Corporation Counsel John Rose later reversed that position, saying in 2007: "I can't tell people you can't deal with this entity because this guy who used to be president of [another] entity owes us money."

Sharon Patterson-Stallings, a school board member and ACORN neighborhood chairwoman who lives on nearby Clark Street, didn't like the plan four years ago and doesn't like it now.

"I'm still against it, totally against it," Patterson-Stallings said. "This is green space that our children and this neighborhood use."

She agreed that the city needs homeownership opportunities. "But what about all these abandoned buildings that are in the North End?" she asked. Tear those down and rebuild there, she said.

"I will protest this forever," she said. "This is something that we've organized against and we're preparing to organize again against."

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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