November 28, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
A request by two former city officials to build houses on the site of a city park is poised to be approved by the city council tonight, over the objections of some residents and a national low-income advocacy group who say the plan takes away one of the few green spaces left in Hartford's North End.
The council will consider the favorable recommendation of its housing committee for the city to sell what is known as Brackett Park to Toraal Development LLC, a company whose principals include former city licenses and inspections director Abraham Ford Jr. and former housing director Ralph Knighton.
Their company's plan calls for building 20 two-family houses on the 7-acre park site at 54 Westland St., in the city's impoverished North End.
The houses would be available to families of low to moderate income, in this case families who earn between $35,000 and $50,000 annually, said Albert Gary, the third principal of Toraal Development. Each house would have two units: one for the owner and a separate apartment that can be rented by the owner for additional income.
"We're actually contributing to developing wealth in the neighborhood," Gary said.
"There's not too much stock out there for family incomes of $35,000. So this opens that up to them. Not only is it affordable housing; it's really market housing being affordable to moderate income families."
Leaders of a North End neighborhood group approved the plan earlier this year, despite some rancorous opposition from longtime residents who say that a for-profit development has no place on a public park. That decision by the board of the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Zone prompted its housing committee chairman to resign in protest.
"By my count there were more residents who were opposed to the project than supported it," said the former housing chairman, Rex Fowler.
Though it may not be well-maintained or beautiful, Brackett Park is the place where many children in the North End play, said Christopher Allen-Doucot, a neighborhood activist who runs the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House on nearby Clark Street.
The North End, he and other opponents argue, is a bazaar of vacant lots and abandoned buildings - places that should be a priority for investment by anyone who wants a stake in the neighborhood.
"Yeah, we need housing," said Sharon Patterson Stallings, a Clark Street resident and recently elected school board member. "But look at the empty lots. Look at these abandoned buildings. Renovate those."
Stallings said that the national group ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - has taken up the cause for keeping the park.
Building on a city park is generally not allowed.
But Brackett Park, while listed on the city's park website, is not deeded as a park. What is known as Brackett Park is on the site of the former Brackett School, which was razed more than 30 years ago.
"It was a derelict piece of property," Gary said.
"As a response to many complaints by the neighborhood, [city officials] decided to stabilize the land by planting grass. That stabilized it and over time they put a little bit of play equipment here."
"It took on the character of a park but it never was a park property," Gary said.
City development officials said that the school board's intention when it razed the property in 1971 was to build homes on it. Brackett Park is in an area zoned for residential development.
What rankles opponents, though, is the developers' former positions as city officials, a perch they claim is being used to give their business an unfairly intimate advantage.
"Only Abe Ford would have known that this land was available for development," Allen-Doucot said of the former licenses and inspections director. "Only he would have known that it's not officially deeded as a park."
Ford said he knew nothing more than a public record search would yield.
"It's a simple thing of doing a little research and finding out what zoning will allow for in a neighborhood," he said.
In a concession to neighborhood concerns, Toraal has agreed to dedicate 2 acres of the development site to public recreation, to be attached to the existing Kelvin Anderson community center.
That only makes a good plan better, said Yvon Alexandre, a North End businessman and chairman of the economic development committee of the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, which supports the development plan.
"We looked at what's good for the neighborhood," he said of the group's support. "It will provide housing for middle-income to low-income folks.
"We basically don't have enough housing stock to fit that niche."
"By bringing more residents to the area, that would help out our local businesses," he said.
"A lot of the local businesses in the Northeast are hurting."
In addition to seeking to buy Brackett Park from the city, the developers are relying on the city's housing office for so-called gap financing, the amount it would take to close the gap between what the units would cost to build ($230,000 to $250,000) and the inevitably lower market value.
Gary said the city has committed $20,000 in gap financing per unit of housing.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at