Archive for the 'Development' Category
The first thing I learned about central Connecticut was that all roads lead to Hartford; literally. I was out at UConn Storrs for a summer program during college. When I looked at the map to try to figure out how to get somewhere, anywhere really, it appeared as though all the major roads radiated from the City of Hartford like the spokes of a wheel. The City itself is set up the same way – all the roads begin Downtown and fan out in each direction. I like to explore, and today we’re travelling the Walnut/Homestead corridor, which connects Downtown with the northwest portion of the City.
It is easy to miss Walnut Street if you’re not looking for it. Standing here, in the middle of Chapel Street North and looking west, it is one of the options for going straight – the right two lanes.
There are no signs suggesting that this is an interesting direction to travel, but in fact it is the shortest route to get from Downtown to the intersection of Route 44 (Albany Ave) and Route 189 (Bloomfield Ave) in the top left corner of the City. So if you’re going to places like northern West Hartford, western Bloomfield, Avon, Simsbury or beyond, then this route should be a consideration. Don’t follow the signs onto the highway … stay right and head over that bridge.
After passing the Isham-Terry House and the City of Hartford’s Public Safety Complex on your right, you will cross a bridge taking you over the rail lines – Union Station is just to the south. Looking east from the center of the bridge, back towards the City, you can see the skyline.
Looking west you can see Club Charisma. I’m not current on the local club scene, so its current status is not clear to me – I wouldn’t expect it to be open at 9:30 in the morning when I was taking these photos. The tire store beyond it is definitely an active business and there continues to be two well-marked lanes in each direction.
Waiting at the intersection of Edwards and Walnut, the Quirk Middle School is on the north side of Walnut.
The south side is a series of commercial buildings that are mostly not in use.
One of the recurring themes on this stretch of Walnut is that space is available. Call your commercial real estate agent, there are opportunities here. It’s just a couple blocks from the highway and Downtown.
Continuing west on Walnut the Beacon Light & Supply Company is on the north side of the street. I love their mural, and had to post a picture of their building again.
Walnut Street ends at Garden Street. This intersection is well done with a welcome sign, sidewalks and decorative lighting. Walnut has been connected to Homestead Avenue to provide continuity to the corridor, which is how a decorative area appeared. It is legitimately inviting.
Looking back to the east, towards Downtown, you can see the barren commercial zone that we just rode through. The segment has a yellow centerline, but not lane or shoulder markings. The whole road is about 3 lanes wide, 1.5 in each direction, though I have seen people attempt to pass since there is some ambiguity.
A couple short blocks to the south is The Hartford’s campus, just over the railroad tracks.
The Hartford even has an enormous parking garage between Walnut and its campus. I don’t know the politics of parking at the company, but if you could score a spot there then you would have a very easy commute from all the neighborhoods and towns to the northwest of the City.
But I digress … back to the Walnut/Homestead corridor. Continuing west on Homestead, we find new kinds of buildings on both sides of the street. The south side between Garden and Sigourney is large industrial/commercial sites. There are two vacant buildings and an empty lot. Electrical Wholesalers had quite a lot of space in multiple buildings on the Walnut/Homestead corridor and appears to have recently moved to Ledyard Street in Hartford (down by the airport).
The north side of the street has residential buildings. These two are in good shape, others are vacant and in worse condition.
That’s pretty much how it goes until the intersection of Sigourney. Here is the view looking back towards Downtown – notice we’re continuing with one-ish lane in each direction and a minimalist approach to striping the road.
The intersection of Sigourney and Homestead is unremarkable. The two corner parcels on the south side of the road are vacant lots. One is owned by the City and has a sign up saying it is for sale. The two corner lots on the north side of the road are homes of a residential multi-family scale. Sigourney takes you directly to the Aetna campus to the south, so again, this route is an opportunity for commuters who work in Asylum Hill.
Continuing west, the environment switches to mostly residential uses on both sides of Homestead. The buildings are larger, with three-unit multi-families and larger apartment buildings. Note that the street continues to be unmarked, without even a center line to guide drivers.
This segment is a bit of a hill, with these brick buildings lining the street along the way. There are some very handsome properties on this stretch of the neighborhood, which makes up part of a historic district.
At the intersection of Homestead and Woodland the character of the street changes again. It goes back to larger buildings, and the road expands to two marked lanes in each direction. The St. Francis Hospital campus is two blocks south on Woodland. This photo looks west through the intersection.
From Woodland Street to the end of Homestead Avenue at Albany, the properties are zoned for commercial uses on both sides of the road. Some are in use, some appear vacant. There are blighted buildings and vacant lots. This is a return to the large industrial uses. One of the operating businesses right at the intersection is the Smith-Worthington Saddlery, which has been open since 1794.
There is a gas station and a car wash across the street from the saddlery that seem to be successful businesses. But as we head west out of the intersection, we begin to see the businesses that didn’t make it. The Stanley P. Rockwell Company had an interesting building when they were still on north side of Homestead.
Philbrick-Booth & Spenser had a sprawling compound on the south side of Homestead where they apparently made steel castings. Their insignia can be seen on a building across the street that appears to be in use, so they must have had a campus of their own at one point.
There is an abandoned gas station on the north side, along with some other vacant lots that are used for parking.
And then there is this interesting looking building on the south side that is fenced off with a sign that says an environmental cleanup is in progress.
This stretch of Homestead is not entirely abandoned. The Salvation Army has a big building in good condition. And Interstate Battery also has space in another building. There is a welding shop and a Webster Bank that are both positives bringing up the area.
We have just about reached the end of Homestead, where it intersects with Albany Avenue and extends as Westbourne Parkway. Here is the view of the last block of Homestead looking northwest towards Albany. The Hartford Technical Institute was the most recent use of the vacant white building on the right, while the University of Hartford’s new performing arts center is the brick building in the background behind all the cars.
The whole Walnut/Homestead corridor follows the rail line, which is still active. This particular train appeared to be pulling empty cars and travelling incredibly slowly as it made its way towards Union Station.
And that concludes our ride down Walnut Street and Homestead Avenue. I see a formerly vibrant commercial corridor that could be active again. I see an underutilized commuter route from the neighborhoods and towns to the northwest of Hartford. I see attractive buildings that are currently not in use. But overall, I see an opportunity for the City of Hartford. More on this to follow.
Constitution Plaza is one of the centers of redevelopment in Downtown Hartford. A number of projects have been on the drawing board for years, and recently there seems to be signs that they will begin moving forward.
The former hotel in the back right of the photo is slated to become apartments. Ken Gosselin, author of the Courant’s CT Property Line blog recently wrote about his encounter with the developer at the site after noticing new fencing.
The former restaurant just behind the fountain in the photo is in the process of becoming a TV studio for a new sports network specializing in golf. The Hartford Business Journal published a piece about the status of Back9Network in April 2013 as they continued to build their brand.
The CT River Plaza office building in the back left of the photo, along with its companion hidden behind the hotel, have been bought by the State for office space (Note: CT River Plaza is not technically part of Constitution Plaza, but the two are connected by a pedestrian bridge). Ken Gosselin reported on the State’s plan to renovate the buildings and have workers on site by 2016.
Out of the frame to the right is the former site of the Broadcast House, for which a new apartment tower is proposed. Greg Bordonaro of The Hartford Business Journal covered the announcement about a year ago.
The building at the far left of the photo is another candidate for redevelopment, as you can see from the green banner at the top. It was evaluated early on in the UConn discussion, but they eventually selected the Times building on Prospect Street.
There is a lot of chatter around Hartford’s Constitution Plaza right now. If these projects are completed, then the space is going to be transformed into a very different environment. The photo at the top was taken in the mid-afternoon on a weekday. It’s safe to say that there will be dramatically more life on the Plaza with hundreds of new apartments and thousands of State workers. Fingers crossed that the different plans work out…
Since May, work on the Flatbush Avenue bridge has been progressing steadily. It is now clear how the streets are going to connect and it looks like the bulk of the roadway construction is done.
Looking from the gas station just north of the site, the view hasn’t changed all that much – it’s a bridge.
Walking back to the intersection of Flatbush and New Park Avenue, it looks like the road onto the bridge is just missing the connection to the street. When traveling east on Flatbush, drivers will go up over the bridge instead of taking the current road to the left of the new bridge.
Construction has also begun on the Fastrak station that will be adjacent to the new bridge. Here is the view looking north from the parking lot of the plaza containing the Apple Tree.
Finally, I have been irrationally concerned about the building at the corner of Flatbush and Newfield on the WalMart side of the train tracks. Will it stay? Will it go? It was still there in May, and it looked like the road would avoid the site. Well, now the building is gone.
We found Portsmouth to be a very interesting place. And as residents of an area trying to build the type of vibrancy that they seemed to already have, it was difficult not to compare and contrast Portsmouth with the Hartford area.
For background, the City of Portsmouth proper is only 15.6 square miles and has a population of about 21,000. This is about the same geographic size as our municipalities, as the City of Hartford is 17.3 square mile with 125,000 people and West Hartford is 21.9 square miles with 63,000 people.
Downtown Portsmouth as a Neighborhood and Destination
We spent most of our time in Downtown Portsmouth. That’s where our hotel was, and that seemed to be the center of activity – shops, restaurants and attractions. Downtown has a critical mass of stuff, and we’re guessing it’s attracting people from the neighboring towns since there didn’t appear to be enough housing Downtown for all the people we saw out and about.
There were a lot of tourists/visitors there, but it wasn’t clear why they were in town. Many (like us) were there for the local beaches. Others staying in our hotel were there on business. But unlike visiting Downtown Hartford during a big event, it was not obvious why they were there.
Defining the Built Environment
In terms of geographic size, Downtown Portsmouth is about the same size as Downtown Hartford. Both have many street blocks while remaining very walkable. My unscientific way of measuring is that I can get the most interesting parts of each Downtown into a single screen at the same zoom level of Google Maps (Portsmouth, Hartford). If anything, Downtown Hartford is a bit bigger.
In terms of building scale, Downtown Portsmouth is about halfway between Downtown Hartford and West Hartford Center. Most buildings are mid-rise structures (generally 4 levels or fewer). There are no skyscrapers (as there are in Downtown Hartford), but there are also very few single level buildings (as are common in West Hartford Center).
There are very few super-blocks in the active part of Downtown Portsmouth. Most of the blocks were small, with multiple buildings on them. Downtown Hartford, and to a lesser extent West Hartford Center, have numerous examples of a single structure occupying entire blocks (or more).
Highway access to Downtown Portsmouth is very good. I only recall seeing one public garage in addition to the on-street parking. I do not recall any surface parking lots in the Downtown core itself, though I see online that there are four. There is bus service in town, and it looks like they have their own Downtown loop route – like the Hartford Star Shuttle.
Portsmouth is charming. The historic buildings are interesting to look at, and because there are so many of them they define the look of the town. It is an attractive place to visit.
Every space was utilized. There are some hills in Downtown Portsmouth, so you see buildings where there are walkout basement levels around back on a little side street/alley. They were almost always finished spaces that were shops, restaurants, or apartments.
Their main museum (Strawberry Banke) is Downtown, making it very accessible for visitors.
They were the only game in town. There did not seem to be any other downtown areas competing for the attention of locals or visitors. There were big malls, and there is outlet shopping. But if you want an urban feel in that part of the country, then Downtown Portsmouth appears to the be only option.
There were few national chain stores or restaurants. This was very surprising to us, and we’re not sure if it’s because chains don’t see opportunity in Portsmouth or if the locals discourage chains from entering the market. Either way, the dominance of local shops makes Downtown Portsmouth even more attractive since it’s a different experience than going to the mall.
Our main takeaway is that Portsmouth has done well for itself given its location, size and history. It has its challenges (economy dependent on cyclical military spending), but it has been consistent in prioritizing history as a core asset to build around. It’s a fun place, and we will likely go back to visit again.
Downtown Hartford is much larger than Portsmouth and the two aren’t really comparable. However, we have many of the same types of complementary attractions, and may be able to learn from them. They have a summer tourist season due to their coastal location. We have visitors coming to town year-round for events at the convention center. They have a modest park on the water, we have a park along the water and a much larger park integrated into Downtown. They have one main museum, we have multiple signature attractions.
The main difference we see is that Portsmouth is a complete and integrated economic system that can easily handle the ebb and flow of visitors. Downtown Hartford sees much larger surges of visitors. When we’re prepared and geared up for it, everything goes smoothly and our guests enjoy the City. But at times it seems like the visitors overwhelm the system.
Hartford projects that are under discussion should improve our baseline economic activity. More apartments and the proposed UConn campus will boost demand for goods and services in Downtown Hartford – many of the same things that visitors need. The iQuilt project is already helping guide visitors through the City to the various attractions.
Hartford seems to be taking positive steps. We have the potential to evolve into a unique Downtown environment that is not only a mixed use neighborhood, but also regularly draws in (more) visitors from surrounding towns. Once we get the baseline activity up to a critical level, we will hopefully see a snowball effect and see development projects that don’t rely on subsidies to be viable.
Enjoying Portsmouth, New Hampshire
There is a vacant lot at 510 Farmington Avenue in Hartford’s West End that I go by all the time. It used to be a gas station once upon a time, and back in the mid 2000s there was talk of putting up a building with residential over retail. I unfortunately can’t find any links related to the proposal that are still active.
Here is the site as of yesterday. This picture is taken from the intersection of Girard Avenue and Farmington Avenue facing to the northwest.
If you look closely in the picture, you can see a big white sign on the left side of the picture next to a street light. It says that the property is for lease and lists a phone number. I gave them a call to ask if there are any redevelopment proposals in the works. No response yet, though to be fair I just called for the first time this morning. I’ll do an update if they get back to me with any noteworthy information.
I actually like the idea of putting up a building with residential over retail. The neighborhood seems like a prime area for apartments with the existing commercial activity along the Farmington Avenue corridor. There is very good public transportation with the bus running every 10 minutes or so Monday through Saturday, making it easy to get to either Downtown Hartford or West Hartford Center. If the real estate market ever got hot again, the building could be converted to condominiums.
It’s less clear what would go into the retail space on the ground level. The neighborhood already has retail vacancy, so adding more supply isn’t an obvious win. Perhaps higher quality space would attract professional office uses. Or maybe the new space could be used to move existing business (like Burger King and Ichiban) out of their current buildings to free up another large development lot.
What would this look like on the site? After thinking about various options, I decided to see what would happen if I cut and pasted part of the Hollander building at 410 Asylum Street on the site. I really like the look of the Hollander building, but don’t think the full 6 stories would be appropriate for the West End, so I hacked off the top two levels. That leaves us with three floors of apartments over the ground level retail.
Here is what that looks like superimposed over the picture of the empty lot from above.
Again, this is not a real picture, not that my crude photo editing skills would fool anyone. This is not even a real proposal. This is for discussion purposes only.
Any other thoughts about what should happen on the site?