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10 Fixes for Farmington Avenue, Hartford, CT

Mother Nature has built a bridge across the North Branch of the Park River in Hartford, why can’t we improve upon this concept?

Editor’s Note: The column appeared in the Hartford News February 6, 2013.

This past Sunday afternoon, the cold couldn’t keep me from wanting to enjoy the sun and fresh air. I wandered around Farmington Avenue on my way to a simple errand in the West End.

My slow walk reminded me of the possibilities for the revitalization of Farmington Avenue. So here are 10 low hanging fruit for the Avenue.

1. Build a walking path along the North Branch of the Park River behind UConn Law and the Connecticut Historical Society, and build a bridge across the river to the parking lot behind 60 Woodland, the old Capital Community Tech.

I have discussed this before. Mary Rickel Pelletier and others love this concept. A path already exists, forged by neighbors walking their dogs.

Why not institutionalize the path? Pave it, light it, install blue security lights and capitalize on water-front access in the neighborhood. Let’s get St. Francis and the state on board.

The North branch of the Park River inspired Mark Twain to write Huckleberry Finn. Why is it hidden, overgrown and inaccessible? This is a lay-up, Rep. Matt Ritter.

2. Put a restaurant with al fresco dining on the Connecticut Historical Society’s river bank. The other bank floods.

Test the idea with a barbecue fundraiser or pop-up restaurant in the back parking lot of the CHS. This could be an income stream for CHS. Let’s see how people receive riverside dining.

3. The City needs to call Joseph Palenza, the member of Colonial Arms, LLC (who lives out of town), and demand he paint over the “Kapura General Contractors” stenciling on the plywood covering the front doors of 479 Farmington Avenue.

Perhaps Mr. Palenza should speak with the managers of Clemons Place, and see if they will invest or buy it from him. This corner building anchors the area, yet it remains an eyesore. Again, Rep. Ritter can step it up here.

4. Put a bakery or juice bar where Roo Bar was at 482 Farmington Avenue. It has plenty of off street parking, and a pleasant al fresco front porch.

I forgot how densely populated this area is until I walked down Denison and Owen Streets, and saw the well-managed Clemons Place apartments, stacked down the street, with their historical plaques. They house a market for hot rolls and fresh squeezed juice.

5. Farmington-Girard, LLC (aka Phil Schoenberger and lawyer Eliot Gersten) own the parking lot next to Burger King. They bought it in 2005 for $525,000, although it is currently assessed for $156,240. It is .569 acres.

Schoenberger and Gersten (he who knocked just helped erect the CVS on the corner of Park and Washington) are sitting on a goldmine. I am not sure what they wait for, although they must be making some cash from the parking.

These guys do not seem wanting for capital to start a project. As I understand, this dynamic duo fought the zoning change to eliminate drive-thrus on Farmington Avenue. This was part of the City’s on-going attempt to update its zoning code.

How about we do something interesting there architecturally? Keep the ground floor parking, and build a superstructure of shipping containers for student housing.

In England, the Netherlands, Denmark and even Boulder, Colorado, builders have re-purposed steel shipping containers into housing. Containers are cheap, strong and plentiful, and can be easily converted into dorm-room style housing.

Don’t believe me? See the argument National Geographic has made for containers. Building codes may be an issue, but if Europe and Colorado got by that, we can find exceptions or expand the code to include shipping containers for housing.

6. The four empty buildings between Laurel and Marshal Streets, on both sides of the street, must be addressed to improve this stretch of the Avenue.

Sky Hari LLC of Valley Stream, New York owns both 270 and 278 Farmington Avenue, both apparently bought for $510,000.00 in 2007. At one point, Chrysalis was in 270, and later, there was a charter school there as well. Now, 270 is empty.

I am not sure that I have ever seen any activity at 278, except Hartford Public students getting stoned on the front porch before school. There was a for sale sign there, but it is gone.

The properties are poorly kept. The litter in front of 278 drives me nuts, and it makes inhabitants of this neighborhood feel worse about where they live. The out of state LLC is not made to care.

The edifice and land on 278 was last assessed at $156,450. It sits on .158 acres. The .141 acres of 270 Farmington Ave. is assessed at $154,770. So between the two, Sky Hari has $310,000 in assessed value.

Hartford assessed my condo at 364 Laurel at $7,650. Assessments should be 70 percent of market value, but no way my condo is worth $11,000 or so. Realtors estimate it would sell for $35,000 or so.

That scale says we should multiply assessments by a factor of four or five. Sky Hari, then, has a million dollars worth of real estate.

Again, the City needs to convince these absentee landlords to use the land or lose it.

7. The City could help this block by offering 279 Farmington Avenue as a homestead for a small business. This is the empty house/office next to Dunkin Donuts. The City acquired the .331 acres from an estate, and it is currently assessed at $126,420.

Parking is abundant at 279, so the City could find a law firm or a dentist or a professional, and give them a cut-rate mortgage on it. Give a start-up business a break, and fill in the space. The City can generate commercial activity as a landowner here.

An active property generating income is better than a vacant property, and shows the location as viable for business owners.

8. The stainless steel diner at the corner of Laurel and Farmington is a treasure that Helcon, Inc. from Holmdel, NJ is wasting. The little building sits on .206 acres of land, and parking is an issue.

Are we noticing a pattern that most of the problem properties on Farmington Avenue are all owned by out-of-town investors?

The stainless steel diner is assessed for $127,260, less than either of Sky Hari’s buildings, but its funky retro architecture makes it so much more valuable to rebuilding the neighborhood.

The sign says Helcon will only lease. From what I gather, this New Jersey corporation sets difficult lease terms, which is why the restaurants there fail, and why it has been empty for so long.

Again, the City must communicate with Helcon. As much as I loathe eminent domain, the Connecticut and United States’ Supreme Courts have said municipalities can use eminent domain for economic development.

This is State Rep. Doug McCrory’s turf. Can he help set a vision and recruit businesses that will thrive with busway – three blocks from this location.

9. Stripe Farmington Avenue for bicycle lanes.

10. Begin planning a street car that will go all the way to Unionville, but at first, goes between West Hartford Center and Downtown Hartford.

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