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Listen to Hartford Residents Shape their Visions For the City

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Listen to the butterfly.

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Capital City residents registered their voices against automobile based development on Farmington Avenue at Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Tuesday night, December 9, 2014.

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West End Civic Association member John Gale. Resident Jill Barrett. Neighborhood maven Steve Colangelo. Asylum Hill denizen John Wyatt. Asylum Hill NRZ president Bernie Michel. Writer Rand Cooper. Farmington Avenue Alliance president Francisco Gomes.

Person after person stood up and spoke in favor of a zoning change to eliminate drive thru uses on six properties on Farmington Avenue. The zoning change went through. Land owners impacted will no doubt challenge this any number of times and any number of ways.

This is a tough column to write, because I know so many of the people involved. But something important happened in Hartford at this P&Z hearing.

First, the spark? a proposal for a McDonald’s fast food shop on the corner of Farmington and Girard.

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The spark of that spark? Publicity from a lawsuit I filed over the City’s failure of notice from the October 28, 2014 hearing. The West End Civic Association was asleep when the first hearing on this went off October 28, 2014.

So let’s be clear: if the City did not foolishly miss the notice requirements, the re-do of this public hearing never would have happened.

The dozens of people who turned out to support a walkable city would have been lost, as they did not turn out to the first hearing.

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We should celebrate civic activism. So win, lose or draw on the lawsuit, I call a collateral victory on the organizing and community building that resulted from this litigation. Process is important. It was fun to listen to Attorney Gale and others describe life in Hartford 40 years ago, reminiscing about it, in an effort to shape the City’s future.

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And, it demonstrates that maybe the City should hold two hearings on certain issues, since sometimes people miss the airing of important issues the first time around. Maybe we should not rush things, like a $300 million development that P&Z is slated to approve in two nights of hearings.

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It was supposed to be one night of hearings, but at 12:30 a.m., exhausted commissioners voted to continue the discussion and vote on the stadium until the next day.

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This hearing demonstrates the City needs to listen more. Urban planner extraordinaire Toni Gold said it best when she described the utter frustration with the residents of this West End neighborhood have with City government in trying to get anything done to protect the quality of life in the neighborhood.

And isn’t that what it is all about?

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For example, until Tuesday night, Commissioner David Blatt did not realize just how deeply the neighborhood feels about this. And if the Development Department did not mess up the notice, all of these people would not have had the chance to speak their minds.

Who says a do-over isn’t a good thing? Attorney David Sherwood, who represents the Pamela Corporation, a Farmington Avenue land owner affected by the change, presented a protest petition which meant P&Z would need a supermajority of votes.

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With commissioner Kristen Marcroft recusing herself, and Commissioner John Thomas absent, the neighborhood proponents needed at least five commissioners. The drama built.

The City needs to encourage the type of development that will talk to the neighborhood and listen to the neighborhood, Mr. Blatt continued.

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That’s what we want. The City’s vision for Farmington Avenue is a neighborhood-oriented street and not an auto-oriented street, Blatt said. Actually, that should be the City’s vision for the City. Walkable, bike-able, local economics.

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But Blatt recently said at a P&Z meeting that he knows everyone in the City who bicycles, so, we do not need a lot of bicycle amenities. If you bicycle and don’t know Blatt, perhaps you should introduce yourself to him.

Commissioner Sandra Bobowski said she voted for the Farmington Avenue change, then against it. But the testimony Tuesday convinced her to support it. She reiterated automotive uses already existing in the B-3 zone will still be grandfathered, like the Dunkin Donuts site Farmington and Laurel Street, even if sold to another store, could still have a drive thru.

Anthony Koos, another commissioner, previously voted against the change, and explained that the outpouring of neighborhood support changed his view.

Commissioner Michael Chambers, an attorney recently placed on the Commission, noted that 90-95 percent of people walking on Farmington Avenue are not at this meeting and are not represented at this meeting and do not look like the people here.

Chambers might do well to consider that 90-95 percent of the people who walk on Farmington Avenue aren’t at the P&Z meeting because it was 10:30 on a school night, and if you are a single mom working a job, with two kids and no car in an apartment on Evergreen Street, 10:30 on a Tuesday night on Constitution Plaza is an issue.

So how exactly does Planning and Zoning bring its discussions about what the future of the City looks like to people who can’t get to the meetings? That is a real challenge

Rather than focus on the threat of the McDonald’s, he suggested that he wanted to protect the land for future business uses. He suggested a bank with a drive thru might want to go there, or something else.

This issue gets to the heart of what zoning is all about, P&Z Commission Chair Sara Bronin said: balancing the neighborhood’s concern against the uses that private landowners want for their property.

Under the logic of protecting uses for future business, Bronin argued P&Z should just rezone the properties in question under I-2 and any businesses could come in there. That’s Houston, Texas, she said, where she is from.

Bronin, with her understated wit, destroyed Chambers. His haughty, libertarian attitude of why regulate the usage at all begs the question of why he is on Planning and Zoning in the first place?

Oh yeah. Because Mayor Pedro Segarra unloaded critical thinkers from P&Z and stacked it with apparatchiks certain to approve the stadium.

For Bronin, the most compelling argument came from Mr. Tony Perfiddio of the Stereo Shop on Farmington Avenue. At first, he wanted something there, across the street in the empty lot. After further reflection, he realized the car traffic prevents people from getting in and out of his parking lot.

A reason a lot of neighboring owners not here because they are at their shops, saying the same things as Mr. Perfiddio, Bronin postulated.

And as Toni Gold said, the City needs to listen to its people. Residents, pounding the pavement daily for a loaf of bread, have hopes and dreams for what Rand Cooper called the board game of the City we all live in. It is the City’s job to realize that in concrete and bike lanes.

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