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A Catalyst For Redevelopment

City OKs Planning Phase To Revive Vacant Site On Albany Avenue

April 4, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

About the only thing people use the vacant lot for at Albany Avenue and Woodland Street is as a pedestrian shortcut - from one well-trafficked city thoroughfare to the other.

Now, though, residents and retailers have formed one neighborhood organization out of several in an effort to revive the vacant square at the street corner that is the center of much of the city's African American and Caribbean life.

Real estate agent and former state representative Clyde Billington is at home here, just blocks from where his father worked as a longtime synagogue caretaker, just down the street from his own alma mater at the old Weaver High School. With the thriving Artists Collective at his back, Billington looks at the desolate, torn up pavement that shows no sign of its former life as a Mobil gas station and sees promise - a drugstore, a large restaurant for community gatherings, a potential post office, a "town center."

"This is a gateway into Hartford," he said, watching a steady stream of traffic flow by the empty square. "And it's more or less the center of our community."

Or, as George Scott of Scotts' Jamaican Bakery puts it, "The site is absolutely critical to the development of the neighborhood. We are trying to raise the whole level, the whole tone of the avenue."

"These are big - I wouldn't call them dreams, but visions," Scott said.

The city redevelopment agency has approved the establishment of a new redevelopment zone for the area. Once completed, the plan will give the city a better negotiating position with Exxon Mobil, which the mayor says has been less than cooperative in talks about the property's future. And, should negotiations fail, the city will have the right to take the property through eminent domain as a last resort.

"The community comes first," said Billington, who is president of Upper Albany Development Inc., the new community group leading the charge on the issue. "And that's what eminent domain is all about - what's best for the community. And there's no doubt that what's best for the community is to clean up this area."

When the station stopped pumping gas within the past few years, four different neighborhood groups began to think about the site's future: the Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, Upper Albany Neighborhood Collaborative, Upper Albany Main Street and the Upper Albany Merchants Association, Billington said.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez told the groups that they would have to figure out a way to work together before they could get his full support.

So in November 2003, the groups established Upper Albany Development, Inc., and began to consider their options for transforming the old gas station into the new neighborhood centerpiece.

"I said, `Figure it out, give me a plan and I'll support the plan ... show me a unified community stand,'" Perez said. "That's what they did. ... And they didn't leave people out or run over people who were less powerful."

The new organization held several community meetings over the years, looking into plans that would allow them to acquire the property, Billington said. "But the question was, how do we get this pivotal site? And it's been rather tough trying to do that," he said.

The group approached Mobil on various occasions seeking the company's cooperation, but got none, he said. So together, they decided to approach the city for a redevelopment plan - despite the concerns that the city's involvement would mean a loss of citizen control.

"You can influence it strongly, but you lose control because the decisions are going to be the city's," Scott said. But, Scott said, the flip-side of the bargain is that the city has the muscle to do what the citizens can't. "The reality is, if anything is going to be done, this is the only way it is going to be done," he said.

State statutes give municipalities the right to establish redevelopment plans, and one of the benefits of the plans is that they give those municipalities the power of eminent domain - to take private property for a public use. The last plan approved by the city was in June 1998 for the corner of Sigourney Street and Homestead Avenue, said Mark K. McGovern, acting executive director of the city's economic development commission.

"We had hoped that it would be done out in the market place, and that the community would do it as part of a negotiated situation with private property owners," Perez said. "But Mobil has really stood in the way of that."

Efforts to reach Mobil officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Other neighboring sites could make their way into a redevelopment plan, officials said, but nothing is certain. As the city moves forward in the next few months, funding sources for the plan will also be investigated. The project could cost anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000, money that will be identified as the planning process progresses, Perez said.

"We're going to seek to gain control of it, either through negotiation, or through eminent domain," McGovern said, but he added that taking the property is only a last resort. "You only go that route when negotiation has failed."

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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