July 5, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
At midnight, the U-Stop convenience store serves as many things:
purveyor of potato chips, vendor of cheap cigars, or simply a
place to be if, in Hartford's early morning hours, you need a
place to be.
To some North End residents, the store is more nuisance than
convenience, an address that ranks high among locations where
police routinely visit. In March, two brawling men had a shootout
inside the store, striking a 16-year-old girl in the face and
leg as she bought candy and soda.
Havens for loitering, drug dealing or other activities best
done in the dark, late-night or all-night convenience stores
like U-Stop are simply not necessary in Hartford, say neighborhood
leaders. At their urging, the city council is considering a proposal
that would prohibit convenience stores from being open past 10
p.m. citywide and prevent new ones from opening.
"They're convenient," said Helen Nixon, chairwoman
of the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. "But
convenient for whom?"
Laws that curtail 24-hour businesses have been passed by towns
and cities nationwide, including New Haven, which in 2003 limited
late-night commerce to its more populous downtown core. Hartford's
proposal, however, is languishing, as city lawyers question whether
it's legal and political insiders wonder whether it's viable
since its sponsor, Councilman Kenneth H. Kennedy, has little
clout among the powerbrokers at city hall.
"I have serious reservations about its legality, let alone
its enforceability," corporation counsel John Rose Jr. wrote
in an e-mail to Kennedy last month.
Rose declined to discuss his legal concerns. He did say that
the council is not the appropriate body to pass such a law since
it is a matter of planning and zoning - and should be taken up
by the planning and zoning commission. For now, the idea remains
before the council's planning and economic development committee,
which tabled it pending an official opinion from Rose.
Hartford police say they frequently make arrests in or near
a number of city convenience stores for an assortment of offenses:
receiving stolen goods, selling liquor on Sundays and selling
illegal drugs. Some of the stores have also been the scene of
shootings or gunshots fired or have been magnets for large crowds,
In addition to U-Stop on Barbour
Street, police recite from memory the stores they consider "hotbeds" of
criminal activity: King Kong Grocery on Mather Street, the
Smoke Shop on Capen Street, a shop outside the former Dutch
Point housing project. The state's attorney's office contacted
owners of the store property near Dutch Point last year, warning
them that the business, and the crimes committed in its vicinity,
were running afoul of the state's nuisance abatement laws.
An assistant state's attorney ordered the owners to close the
store no later than 9 p.m.
In New Haven, businesses in largely residential areas may not
stay open between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. without special
permission. Late-night businesses are still permitted, however,
in small sections of the city's core, which is more densely populated
and where officials are hoping to bolster a vibrant downtown
"If there's a lot of people somewhere, then there's not
a lot of trouble," said Felipe Pastore, deputy corporation
counsel in New Haven. "If you're in an area that's sort
of quiet and you have a store that's open there, that's going
to draw all the bad things to it."
Champions of the proposal in Hartford say those who venture
to a convenience store past 10 p.m. are not usually people with
a case of late-night munchies. Rather they come in search of
the other conveniences sold at just about every after-hours convenience
store: rolling papers and individually sold cigars, the insides
of which can be gutted and stuffed with narcotics. Another big
seller, police say, are decorative glass vials with a fake rose
inside, which, when the flower is removed, can be fashioned into
a crack pipe, police said.
"If I need some groceries, I'm not going to go out of my
house at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning," said Frank Barrows,
a West End resident advocating for limiting convenience stores.
But some convenience store owners say that's exactly what people
come searching for.
"From 8 to 12 [midnight], that's when the stores sell the
best," said Adrian Cruz, speaking on behalf of his cousin
Maryann Diaz, who manages the U-Stop store. "Sodas, bread,
everything. There's a lot of people who buy then."
Cruz and Diaz, who said the U-Stop usually closes about 2 a.m.,
said business would suffer under a more restricted schedule.
Even if the council decided
to take action, it might not be able to limit the hours of
existing businesses. "You generally
cannot retroactively change the rules of the game with regard
to zoning for uses that are already there," said James Schwab,
senior research associate at the American Planning Association.
If an existing business is truly a health or safety hazard,
it can be dealt with through criminal nuisance laws, not by zoning
rules, he said.
Kennedy, who first proposed the convenience store resolution
in May, has asked that the issue be revisited at the next council
meeting this month. He said it's a basic quality-of-life issue,
not a political one.
"Every resolution I seem to put forward seems to have legal
issues. There's an undertone that's slightly frustrating," said
Kennedy, a lawyer who has had a rocky relationship with Mayor
Eddie A. Perez and his allies on the council.
"You try not to think that there's possibly other motivations.
You really don't want to think that," Kennedy said. "My
gosh, all this is, is the neighborhood folks trying to get something
through. This is a neighborhood issue, it's what the neighbors
want, let's help them."
Perez declined to comment on Kennedy's proposal.
"It's being studied right now," said mayoral spokeswoman
Sarah Barr. "Upon further study, he'll get back to you on
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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