Missing the Bus

I could hear the bus braking from down the street, with its distinctive whoosh. It was approaching the stop sign, just across the intersection from the bus stop, and I was still over half a block away. Adrenaline surged in preparation for a mad dash to the corner – or at least close enough to the corner to be able to catch the driver’s eye. It was an instinctive reaction, but no longer necessary. I was not on my way to the bus stop.


Bus

For five years I rode the CT Transit bus system downtown to work. I saw it as a way to avoid the hassles and expense of driving to work every day, and doing my little part to reduce the number of cars on the road. Even though it took longer than driving myself, it was nice to just be a passenger and enjoy the ride.

People generally rode the same bus every day and sat in the same areas on the bus. Mornings were more crowded, but consistently quieter as the riders kept to themselves and presumably reflected on the upcoming day. Small conversations broke out here and there but were generally at low volumes and confined to a seat or two. Standing-room-only buses and basically empty buses were always the quietest, with the most interaction on buses that were about half full.

One of the best benefits of riding the bus was having the opportunity to meet fellow commuters. I had ten opportunities per week to interact with folks and developed a whole network of “bus friends” that I would otherwise have never met. At first we would just say hello and cover the polite conversation staples like current events, sports or the previous night’s TV shows. But over time you get to know people and begin to learn more about them. Like their name, their job and in some cases their family.

I still ride the bus downtown periodically to meetings and events. It’s great to catch up with friends I haven’t seen in a while and share stories about what’s going on in my life. But it’s just not the same without riding regularly – I’m out of the loop. Even in today’s world of digital connectedness, I can’t help but feel that I am missing the bus.

Hollander Foundation Center Progressing

The next downtown residential project to begin renting is going to be the Hollander Foundation Center at 410 Asylum Street. The drywall is up inside and work crews are making steady progress towards their August 2009 completion goal. Common Ground, the project developer, is currently looking for retail tenants for six ground floor retail suites. Rental applications for the apartments will be available later in the spring.

Hollander Foundation Center

Plans for 410 Asylum have changed dramatically over the years. Vacant since 1995, previous owners considered a number of possibilities before beginning proposing demolition. In response, the Connecticut Historical Commission obtained an injunction against the demolition. They successfully defended the resulting lawsuit, brought by the owners, as the federal court upheld the property’s inclusion in the High Street Historic District on the National Registry of Historic Places. Eventually the structure was donated to Common Ground for redevelopment.

Even after Common Ground took over, there was still some debate within the City about its appropriate use. All parties agreed that ground floor retail with residential above was ideal, however the City and other local developers expressed concern about bringing “supportive housing” to such a prime location. The building is located on the north end of Bushnell Park with unobstructed views of the Connecticut State Capital Building, which could theoretically make it quite valuable.

But all that is in the past. Construction has been going on for over a year – check out the field report photos – and is nearing completion. Jennifer Hawkins, a very helpful representative of Common Ground, notes that “The building will be a mix of historic restoration with modern “green” features.” It will be LEEDs certified (the first in Hartford) and will be a smoke free building.

Hollander Foundation Center

When complete, there will be 70 apartment units. Of the total, 56 will be income restricted units in a mix of studios (~494 sqft), one bedrooms (~564 sqft) and two bedrooms (~926 sqft). They will only be available to applicants with income at 60% of area median income. Depending on the number of family members, this translates to tenants earning between $34,000 and $43,000. The rent for those units will be set at approximately 30% of income, and include all utilities, access to basement laundry facilities and outside parking.

The other 14 units will rent at market rate and are all two bedroom units (~969 sqft) with in-unit laundry and indoor parking (utilities not included). Rent has not yet been finalized, but initial indications are that it will be about $1,600 per month. The basic floor plan for the apartments can be seen on the 8th page of this marketing document. You can also see the plans for the six retail spaces on the ground floor. Note that some of the information in the PDF may have changed – the figures I have quoted in the text have all come from a recent series of exchanges with Ms. Hawkins.

Common Ground is planning to have a model apartment available for viewing in May, and to begin accepting rental applications in the June/July timeframe. For now, they are collecting names of interested perspective tenants. For more information, or to be added to the list, call 888-399-8848.

The completion of the Hollander Foundation Center will be an exciting event for Hartford. Not only will it formally announce the arrival of Common Ground, but it will also allow our downtown population to continue to grow. Perhaps most importantly, the project has rehabilitated a vacant historic building and integrated it back into the community. It represents one more step in our slow march to revitalize Hartford’s downtown.

Update: Rents for the affordable units are fixed monthly rates, rather than based on individual tenant income as originally stated.

Update 2: The phone number for the property manager, WinnResidential is 860-548-1167

Students in Downtown Hartford

Once upon a time, Trinity College was located just across Bushnell Park from Downtown Hartford. The college had a 10 acre (relatively small) campus that the City of Hartford offered to buy in 1872. The Trustees accepted, and moved the school to its present location in 1878.

As a general rule, I try not to second guess decisions that were made more than one hundred years ago.  Eighty-six is my limit.  Once you get to one hundred, it just doesn’t seem productive.  However, after spending a little time in and around the Yale campus this weekend, it seemed obvious that the hustle and bustle of students would be a tremendous addition to downtown Hartford.

Trinity in Hartford
Suppose Trinity College were still downtown and occupied a campus represented by the blue figure, which is the original 10 acres and numerous adjacent lots. The Bushnell would be part of the campus. The vast parking lots would be replaced by academic buildings, dorms or athletic fields. Sure there would need to be some parking, but perhaps it would be tasteful garages rather than asphalt wastelands. Most importantly, there would be 2,240 full-time students to help support a vibrant residential community.

Trinity isn’t moving back, of course. Fortunately, others have recognized the benefits of bringing students downtown and have been taking steps in the right direction. The UConn Business School opened the Financial Accelerator on Constitution Plaza. Capital Community College is in the G. Fox Building. There was even some student housing built in conjunction with the redevelopment of the Sage Allen building. Someone recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Courant that UConn should move some of their schools downtown (sorry, couldn’t find the link).

Hartford today is a very different place than it would have been with Trinity right across the park.  Hopefully the momentum to bring excitement downtown will continue in the coming years and will include student-residents.  It’s just unfortunate that the burden now seems to be on private developers that are far more sensitive to the economic environment.  If 2,000 students lived downtown they would help stabilize the downtown economy, and there would definitely be a grocery store by now…