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Waah, Waah, Waah, I Want an Ugly Big Box Pharmacy!

Hartford lawyer and developer Eliot Gersten just made a profit off of our architectural heritage. Mr. Gersten apparently inherited the large, brown building on the corner of Park and Washington Streets from his late father, who passed in 2006.

Gersten has entered into some sort of an agreement with CVS to build a new drug store there. Hartford land records and news reporting on it don’t say whether or not Gersten sold the property, or is just leasing it to CVS.

But it is clear that the building at 150 Washington Street, a 1930s vintage auto dealership, which has been a candy warehouse, an office building and vacant for about 20 years, is going to become a 13,000 square foot mega pharmacy.

We mourn the late Mr. Gersten’s passing and thank the family for remaining current in its taxes. Yet we condemn the concept of knocking down a perfectly good building and replacing it with a quite horrid big box pharmacy better suited for Dante’s seventh level than a majestic and historic monument to humankind like the city of Hartford.

Some may say this building is not important – it was a car dealership, Krayeske, and you hate cars. True, true, but I also fear climate change, and while I understand a city is a changing entity, this change presents a net loss for us, while out-of-town entities profit off of our city.

Prior to this destruction of our architectural heritage, Attorney Gersten’s chief historical legacy in Connecticut was representing the Republican Party to prevent Susan Bysiewicz from running for Attorney General.

If you’ll recall, Bysiewicz sued the Democratic Party and her own Secretary of the State’s office to waive the rule demanding an Attorney General candidate have 10 years’ experience in practice. Gersten, practicing at the Hartford firm of Pullman and Comley, represented the intervenors, the GOP.

Who could forget Attorney Gersten’s great trial advocacy in April 2010, when, in front of the esteemed Judge Michael Sheldon in Hartford Superior Court, Gersten mocked Bysiewicz: “Waah, Waah, Waah, I want to be attorney general, and I’m going to get my way in court.”

Today, the tables must be turned on Attorney Gersten: “Waah, Waah, Waah, I want a CVS, and I’m going to get my way in front of Planning and Zoning.”

Apparently, Attorney Gersten already did get his way in front of Planning and Zoning. I missed it. While I consider myself somewhat well informed on matters in Hartford, I was preoccupied with a wedding and other things.

It appears that the Hartford Courant missed Gersten’s application in front of P&Z, too. Perhaps, 20 years ago, had we not allowed local ownership to sell a 200 year-old newspaper to a corporate news machine, and then allowed that out-of-town ownership to assume millions in leveraged debt and cut a 400-person newsroom by more than 75 percent in less than two decades, the Courant might have had reporters to cover P&Z meetings.

And don’t say the internet killed the newspaper. The family-run Waterbury Republican never took on leveraged debt and it still covers local Planning and Zoning meetings. I should note 20 years ago I wrote for the Republican, and have no soft spot for it, but it remains an example of local newsgathering.

So, we did not read about Gersten’s plans for a drug store in the vaunted pages of America’s oldest (and most feeble) newspaper until the bulldozers and heavy machinery already had taken bricks out of the walls of 150 Washington.

Perhaps had the Courant covered it earlier, we could have mobilized forces and demanded that if CVS wanted access to our market, CVS would have to conform to the existing footprint on the 1.339 acre property. That would have been the greenest and most intelligent thing to do here.

CVS conformed to the structure at 750 Main Street, why not here? No doubt CVS would respond that it has destroyed buildings of greater architectural value in this city, like the 1899 Italianate on the corner of Wethersfield and Brown to make way for its fifth big box drug store in Hartford.

But, we didn’t have a chance to make those arguments, because Eliot Gersten wanted CVS to have a sixth store in Hartford. And we learned of it too late.

Gersten came into possession of the edifice in question when the state of Connecticut sold it to 150 Washington Street, LLC in 1997 for $200,000. Presumably, Gersten’s father controlled 150 Washington Street, LLC at this time, and now Gersten is the manager.

Freedom Capitol, LLC is also a member of 150 Washington Street, LLC. They share the same address, 1160 Silas Deane Highway, #401, Wethersfield, CT. And wouldn’t you know it, Gersten is also the manager of Freedom Capitol, LLC? It’s called incorporate to win, and Eliot is doing it.

In 2009, Hartford assessed the building’s fair market value at $695,400. Courant Writer Kenneth Gosselin did not tell us how much Gersten sold the property for, it at all, although that information is easily obtainable in City Hall (not by me, right now, as I am in Italy).

But, I’ll bet even with 15 years worth of tax payments, if Gersten sold it, he is making a handsome profit. We challenge him now to contribute a significant percentage of those profits to the Hartford Preservation Alliance so that it might prevent others from doing this in the future.

I am not sure what role HPA played here, but I will assume that it did not prioritize saving this 1930 car dealership over other fights, given its limited resources. This is not HPA’s fault, just an observation.

Gosselin seemed surprised at the 33 comments his story about the demolition of another old building in Hartford for yet another drugstore generated. He shouldn’t have been. All around the country and the world, architectural preservation and livable cities are the rage, and here, Hartford goes against the grain to build a car-friendly structure for corporate profit.

The economics that allegedly justify the new CVS, that it will create 40 jobs and that CVS will spend $6 million on it, do not hold up.

A different accounting system subtracting for the loss of the value of the existing building, its materials, its sunk energy costs and the costs of the fossil fuels and pollution would reject the project as a loser.

The 40 jobs will likely be all low-wage jobs with few benefits that may end up being a drag on the economy, and this project looks like more of a loser.

Furthermore, CVS is betting that by opening up directly across the street from an existing, 24-hours a day pharmacy, it will kill Walgreen’s, and Walgreen’s jobs, making a net of zero on job creation.

If the Walgreen’s closes, that corner of Park and Washington will have a string of abandoned buildings, like the diner and the Walgreens. Should the City protect Walgreen’s over CVS? Theoretically, I detest all big box corporate stores, and the city should be looking at ways to create economic diversity by inducing pharmacists to create their own drug stores, like Arthur’s.

But, that is a thing of the past. This column, then, stands as an indictment all the forces that continue to allow the destruction of our city – its architectural heritage, its economic diversity, its landscape – so that soulless out-of-town corporate profit machines can make their money.

Is calling Gersten a soulless corporate profit machine unfair? Perhaps not. His LLCs exist to make profit. And Gersten is not Colonel Albert Pope, who constructed the row houses on Columbia Street and gave us Pope Park and good roads. If I am missing something on Mr. Gersten’s legacy, I am sure readers will let me know.

The ultimate question those in Economic Development and Planning and Zoning and real estate circles of influence in Hartford must ask themselves when they demolish historic buildings to make way for a new big box pharmacy is: What legacy are we leaving?

The Hartford of the second half of 19th century had an image created by industrial barons with a sense of civic pride. The Hartford of the second half of 20th century has an image of this wealth being plundered, this building stock being sacrificed to the highest profit margin. No sense of collectivity or common good dictates our decisions on our building stock here in Hartford, only corporatism.

In 100 years from now, what will the inhabitants of Hartford look upon and say the leaders at the turn of the 21st century bequeathed to them?


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