Hartford’s Constitution Plaza has often been reviled as a mistake that erased an entire, ethnically diverse neighborhood, creating a raised plaza isolated from the rest of downtown.
But an historian Wednesday urged moderation in assessing the legacy of the 1960s Urban Renewal redevelopment, even as a large chunk of the area has now fallen into foreclosure.
“I’m not saying Constitution Plaza is awesome,” said Jason Scappaticci, who wrote his master’s thesis on the evolution of Hartford’s East Side and the plaza. “I’m not saying it’s terrible. Constitution Plaza is one of those gray areas. All I’m saying is go a little softer on the criticism.”
Scappaticci, coordinator of transitional programs at Manchester Community College with degrees in history and American studies, headlined the discussion, “Constitution Plaza: Did it rip the heart out of Hartford or Save the City?” at Hartford’s Old State House.
Scappaticci said there is a tendency to overly romanticize the Front Street neighborhood which was razed in the late 1950s to make way for Constitution Plaza. While the area had a diverse immigrant population and merchants, it also long had a seedy side, thriving in illegal gambling and prostitution.
Some tenements were in tough shape. One collapsed in 1957, spurring on redevelopment efforts.
My colleague Jesse Rifkin, who also attended the lecture, made note of the fact that Front Street and the East Side had 10 of Hartford’s 12 known brothels in the 1890s. The development also didn’t move swiftly, taking nearly a decade to begin construction.
Initially, Constitution Plaza was praised architecturally, but it ultimately came under intense criticism because it was isolated from downtown. Scappaticci said part of the problem was a pedestrian thoroughfare connecting it to Main Street was never built, making it tough for retailers to survive. Housing also was scrapped, turning the plaza into an office park, with the exception of a hotel.
Constitution Plaza has fared better under the recent stewardship of GE Capital and developer Richard Cohen, which own most of the plaza. The partners have invested millions in renovations in the last decade. Office occupancy is at 82 percent within the plaza, healthy for a downtown that has been at or nearly 30-percent overall vacancy for two years.
The recent foreclosure filing against the part of plaza owned by GE Capital and Cohen was prompted by the partners being unable to reach a refinancing agreement on a $60 million mortgage.
The raised plaza design was characteristic of Urban Renewal, which sought to remove pedestrians from street level, creating gleaming surroundings. Creating a massive new development also was meant to signal to world the city was modern and going places.
Soon, however, it was discovered that the raised plaza made it feel less accessible and more difficult to reach. In retrospect, the older buildings that were torn down are now prized by cities, bringing character to streetscapes. Neighborhoods and people living in and around a city’s center also are now considered essential to a city’s ability to thrive.
Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, acknowledged that Front Street certainly had its troubles.
But “we learned that tearing down everything and starting from scratch doesn’t work,” said Wigren, during a panel discussion that followed Scappaticci’s talk.
Did you live in Hartford’s Front Street neighborhood? What are your memories? Where did you move when the area was demolished?