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