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North End Rehab At Risk

Tom Condon

October 18, 2009

Belying its public image, Hartford's Albany Avenue has seen steady and positive change for a decade. It started with a community arts and cultural center, followed by new housing, an expanded health clinic, many new businesses, a brilliant new University of Hartford arts building, a new YMCA.

What is supposed to tie it all together are improvements to the street itself except that the state is backing off.

The avenue, part of Route 44 and once a graceful thoroughfare, is now a choked and noisy commuter road, dangerous for vehicles and pedestrians.

The reconstruction plan, in the works for years, is to turn the raucous avenue into a boulevard, with trees and other streetscape improvements, better drainage and lighting, decent parking and bump-outs to make crossing the street safer. A fortuitous opportunity to do the work presented itself when the Metropolitan District Commission got the go-ahead to begin its long-awaited $1.6 billion clean water project, which will build separate storm and sanitary sewers to stop the overflows into local basements and waterways that now occur in heavy rains.

Part of the project involves Albany Avenue. Since the street would be dug up anyway, here was the perfect opportunity to redesign and rebuild the road.

In a letter to Mayor Eddie Perez dated July 15, state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie praises the project but said due to scarce funds and uncertainty about federal funds, the department "cannot commit financial resources as originally planned" to the project. That means the project will be delayed, vastly scaled back or shelved.

That decision cannot stand. Failing to complete this project would be the ultimate in penny-wise, pound-foolish public policy.

It would scuttle more than $2 million worth of design and engineering work that would have to be done over. It will halt development projects that are dependent on the redesign of the road and delay the desperately needed sewer project. Most important, it will block a decade-long urban revival that is working.

Since Marie's announcement, supporters of the project the city, Upper Albany Main Street and other community organizations, and the Capitol Region Council of Governments, which did the original planning study have worked feverishly to find a way to get the project done. They now propose dividing the work into phases.

The Albany Avenue street reconstruction project is planned from Homestead Avenue to Bedford Street, a distance of more than a mile. But the MDC sewer project will go only from Woodland to Brook streets, a distance of about three-fourths of a mile.

By doing just that section concurrently with the sewer project, the state's initial commitment will drop from $22 million to $14 million. Proponents are also seeking other funding sources, which could drop the state's contribution to the $7 million to $8 million range. All hope the DOT can see its way clear to making that investment.

A Comeback

Albany Avenue, like much of urban America, took an awful beating in the postwar years, due to middle-class flight, urban riots, drugs and gangs. In the public eye it became a linear crime scene.

But that impression was misleading. Despite the disinvestment, crime and failed attempts at revival, the avenue kept many of its small businesses, some taken over by newly arrived West Indians.

A decade ago, good things began to happen. The Artists Collective opened in 1999 and immediately became a focal point for the avenue. The University of Hartford's business school and the Upper Albany Merchants Association formed a partnership that led in 2002 to the successful Micro Business Incubator, in which business students go into workplaces and work with avenue merchants.

University officials and merchants, backed by St. Francis Hospital and the MetroHartford Alliance, worked together to create an Albany Avenue chapter of Connecticut Main Street, part of a national program that revives downtown commercial districts through economic development and historic preservation. Connecticut Main Street is now the umbrella organization for many avenue programs and is heavily involved in the redesign of the road.

Meanwhile, the Christian Activities Council renovated or replaced beautiful Queen Anne houses on Deerfield Avenue off Albany, one of several housing initiatives. Community policing is taking hold.

There's more to come. A new library branch is in the offing. Main Street, the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone committee and the city have invested millions of dollars in a planned mixed-use development at the corner of Albany and Woodland street. But this project works much better if the road is redesigned.

The Albany Avenue corridor is vital to the revival of Hartford. It is an active neighborhood in its own right, a commuting corridor and a connector to downtown. This may be the most important road project in Hartford.

Although DOT spokesmen have limited their comments to those in Marie's letter, the Capitol Region Council of Governments reports that Albany Avenue is one of 18 road and highway projects the department is delaying or canceling in the Hartford metro area.

State Issue

Mark Twain said lack of money is the root of all evil; it does happen to be the root of this problem. Connecticut has relied heavily on federal funds for highway projects, but changes in the federal transportation funding formula in recent years have meant less money for Connecticut. This has forced the state into triage mode, focusing what money there is on its major projects.

To its credit, the new DOT administration is trying to tackle this problem by developing a rigorous capital financing plan that will correct the problem in the long term, said Lyle Wray, CRCOG's executive director. But it also means a backlog of projects and a lot of difficult decisions in the short term. He said he doesn't believe all 18 projects must be shelved, and supports the Albany Avenue project.

What should happen though the Wizard of Oz would have to visit the Capitol and bestow courage on state leaders would be a higher state investment in transportation. The 14-cent gas tax cut in 1995 has cost the state about $200 million a year enough in one year to cover the 18 threatened projects. Whether that happens or not, someone's got to find the money to complete the Albany Avenue project.

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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