For more than a decade, big-ticket redevelopment efforts in Hartford have focused largely on downtown — the idea being the success of a strong city center would ripple out into Hartford’s neighborhoods.
But this week, another neighborhood — along Albany Avenue — grabbed some of the spotlight, as urban planners and land use experts brainstormed ideas for revitalizing the mile-plus long corridor.
Hartford is one of four cities chosen for the Urban Land Institute’s Rose Fellowship annual year-long program which aims to create successful, long-term development plans. The city decided to focus those efforts on Albany Avenue.
On Friday, the group presented its initial impressions and recommendations, including two, mixed-use developments, one near the Hartt School of Music and another at the intersection of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street.
Teaon Tinker, of the family-run Tinker Real Estate & Insurance, said she was encouraged by what she heard, hoping it would help change the negative perception of the community where she has lived for 27 years.
“It’s the area everyone wants to drive through as fast as they can,” said Tinker, who moved to the North End from Jamaica when she was 10. “It hurts to always be downgraded. We have wonderful people here. You can’t pry me out of there.”
Albany Avenue, known as “The Avenue,” long has struggled with crime, but it has had its successes. In the late 1990s the Artists Collective opened at the corner of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street and more recently, the new YMCA, the new Upper Albany Branch of the Hartford Public Library and the expanded Community Health Services Center.
Tinker agreed with the experts Friday that planning needs to be more comprehensive, tying together now isolated development efforts.
Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra and other city officials hope the new city public safety complex will be a catalyst for more development farther up Albany Avenue.
And an estimated, $17 million in state and local funding are earmarked for streetscape improvements, expected to begin next spring. The improvements — sidewalks, lighting and landscaping — could provide an additional boost, sprucing up the street’s rundown appearance.
One key issue not yet addressed by the experts is how all the development they envision would be paid for, but it is likely federal and state aid would be needed to attract private investment.
One early recommendation Friday from the visiting experts envisions a mixed-use development of residential and higher-end retail on the site now occupied by the rundown Westbrook Village and Bowles Park housing complex.
Ricardo Noguera, director of community and economic development in Tacoma, Wash., said he believes the affluent community in the nearby West End and the closeness of the University of Hartford makes higher-end retail a natural for the site.
“I’m looking at the demographics in the West End, that’s within a half mile,” Noguera told me. “Folks who now shun this area, there would now be a draw.”
The city expects to seek proposals for the site this spring. Noguera said he believes it might take three or four years to fully develop the site, beginning first with retail — he mentioned Whole Foods as a possibility — followed by a public plaza and housing in later phases.
Closer to downtown, a parcel of land at the corner of Woodland and Albany is also is targeted for development. But the vision must be for something more than, say, a single restaurant, said Richard Ward, principal of Ward Development Counsel LLC in St. Louis, a development consultant.
“It has to be bigger than that, not just one thing,” Ward said.
He envisions retail on the ground floor, the building close to the street, not set back with parking in front. A second floor would be ideal, with housing, Ward said.
The visiting experts also mentioned that the University of Connecticut’s relocation of its West Hartford campus downtown also could foster more vibrancy, paired with the University of Hartford at the northern end.
Tinker, a board member of the neighborhood revitalization zone, said other parts of Hartford — downtown, the West End — have had their share of attention.
“Now, it’s our turn,” Tinker said.