Singing Praises

Left to right: HPA Intern Jake Fusco, Valerio Giadone, HPA Board President Jack Kemper

Left to right: HPA Intern Jake Fusco, Valerio Giadone, HPA Board President Jack Kemper

On occasions the stars seem to align to bring great chance to a good idea. We at the Preservation Alliance have been fortunate to have engaged a master of design, common sense and skill to provide technical assistance to those historic property owners in Hartford.  He is Valerio Giadone an architect and guide for our strategy to work on behalf of community economic development here.

In our strategic plan which was ratified late in 2014 the Preservation Alliance determined to be an historic preservation force: Focusing Priority

To be Hartford’s historic preservation resource and technical assistance hub and develop the organizational structure, partnerships and resources to support it for historic property owners and the City of Hartford so that HPA is relevant, is recognized and acheives mission impact and sustainability.

These are all very goals lofty for a small organization with little capacity to deliver on the promise.  With the very generous support of a Capacity Building grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving the Preservation Alliance set out to build a team to achieve its desire.  We wanted to be the go-to resource for the 5,300 historic properties in Hartford.  In hiring Valerio nearly all our dreams come true.  He is a skilled architect with a deep background in working with historic buildings.  He has a passion to learn about design and materials which can repair, restore or replicate the features which we associate with appropriate preservation.  Yet all the while he is working to keep the budget within workable boundaries.

We in Connecticut are very fortunate to have State Historic Preservation Tax Credits which are financial incentives for property owners and developers to go the extra distance in preserving their properties.  Valerio has become expert in navigating the process to apply for and be granted an allocation of credits.  This is particularly true with homeowners who can be fearful of working with a state agency.  He has become a trusted intermediary for the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission often interpreting how best to achieve a preservation goal.  There are many examples of Valerio’s success however the City is most appreciative of his consultation to bring historic tax credit resources to Hartford’s desire to rejuvenate the former Northwest School on Albany Avenue to create the John E. Rogers African American Cultural Center.  By engaging the Preservation Alliance and Valerio the City has realized $ 630,000 in additional financial resources otherwise unknown to the project.  The testimony from homeowners of the benefit that his guidance has brought to their restoration projects grows daily.  Often his steady advice has made the process of petitioning the City for permission to do work on properties far easier and less complicated.  He has also saved them money!

So much praise and thanks for making our team demonstrate that “Preservation Matters”.  He is the force which makes our work so meaningful in Hartford.  Next time you get a chance please thanks him for his work and dedication.

 

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To What Do We Aspire?

Image courtesy of Jack McConnell/www.jackmcconnellphotography.com

Image courtesy of Jack McConnell/www.jackmcconnellphotography.com

In our determination to save the Comet Diner I have tried to find the words to encourage the public, the City of Hartford and surely the community of Asylum Hill that the preservation of an icon is greater than just bringing the diner back to life. The challenge centers around the fact that the diner was trucked to the site in 1948 so why not send it back down the road to somewhere else?  This is a logical and a reasonable solution for historic preservation of the building. Let’s ignore the cost and issue of finding a new home which these suggestions fail to explore. (Ever moved a building in a city, it’s very expensive.)  For me the question is what is lost by creating yet another vacant lot? More to the point what does this mean to Asylum Hill and the Farmington Avenue corridor as it loses an icon that so many people identify with as a destination they loved.  Have you ever asked yourself “where is the Comet”?  I would suggest that the diner is among a very few landmarks to be found along Farmington Avenue which are instantly identifiable.  Think about it.

Historic preservation is all about community economic development in The Preservation Alliance’s strategic plan.  The Courant called it sentimental to preserve the Comet but throughout the US many cities are basing their redevelopment strategies on the foundation of historic buildings.  As Hartford struggles to recreate a vitality, hats off to the Downtown, what of the neighborhoods? Luke Bronin has repeatedly spoken about the priority to reestablish the commercial corridors of the city.  What was the outcome of demolishing so many historic buildings along Main Street, Downtown Dry Gulch. Time and again in Hartford the immediate decision to get rid of the past is sacrificed to a long term strategy for a comprehensive community plan.  Farmington Avenue and the Asylum Hill Neighborhood created such a comprehensive plan which is based on the preservation of historic neighborhood structures. Principle among these is the Comet

A recent post on Facebook basically asked the question regarding the aspirational goals of Hartford?  Where is the road map, what is the desired future for this city with such an amazing past? Perhaps I am taking the post too far but I immediately thought about the Comet, the effort to preserve it and the future of Asylum Hill?  Sure the preservation of the amazing diner has a cost.  In consideration are several options to reuse the diner offering food and access to food which brings the diner full circle acting once again as a beacon to hungry people in Hartford.  For those of us who frequented the place, for more reasons than having breakfast, it housed one of the best bars in town; we are reminded of the theme song from “Cheers” which said “where everybody knows your name”.  Can there be any better definition of placemaking than having an urban identity?

So yes, to what do we aspire?  Surely waving goodbye to the diner on a flatbed can be accomplished as a form of historic preservation but what replaces the destination?  Do we gather at the CVS, a Walgreen’s, a Delta Dental?  My belief is that the urban neighborhood of Asylum aspires to something better than another drive-through box.  In all humility the City of Hartford hungers for the aspiration to a greater strategy brought about through comprehensive community planning.  I hope that you might have an opinion about this so please share with us.

What Will It Take?

farmington-avenue-corridor-banner-picture-collage

Early in 2015 the Hartford Preservation Alliance and the Hartford Business Improvement District joined together to address the question posed by a desire to improve the Farmington Avenue corridor between Sigourney and Woodland Streets.  What is necessary to bring about a change along the corridor and contribute to community economic development for Asylum Hill?  Our determination to gather many collaborators allowed us to seek wide-ranging opinions and to encourage a diverse mix of ideas.  With the help of a consultant our collaboration produced “The Farmington Avenue Comprehensive Community Plan, A Framework for Action.”  Our challenge was to create a vibrant, pedestrian friendly and safe Farmington Avenue corridor between Sigourney and Woodland Streets with a high quality and diverse mix of commercial, cultural and residential offerings. We wished to create a cohesive identity where commercial and residential buildings complement the rich and architectural heritage. Along the corridor sit six vacant and abandoned historic properties which, among other sites, posed tremendous opportunity for revitalization.

Among the signature properties is the Comet Diner.  Built, or rather delivered, in 1948 the classic stainless steel diner has been a destination and a beacon on Farmington Avenue providing food, drink and hospitality since it opened as the Aetna Diner. Times and urban demographics changed ultimately causing the diner to close its doors ten years ago.  The owners have been frustrated with a reuse of the property and therefore recently determined that the building needs to be demolished.  Unfortunately their strategy is to invite a reuse involving big box retail.  Perhaps the destruction of the Comet Diner would drive a spike into any hope for a revitalization of the Farmington Avenue corridor.  For decades the diner has been a destination even when sitting vacant and abandoned.  There exists an architectural cohesion while it sits empty.  Yet to destroy this bit of history takes away one more icon from Hartford and therefore eliminates more of the historic fabric of Hartford.

The Comprehensive Community Plan pivots on the preservation and adaptive reuse of the Comet Diner.

A recent application to demolish the Comet was withdrawn by the owners to be considered at a Hartford Historic Preservation Commission hearing.  Within days the Hartford Preservation Alliance worked diligently to alert the public that such an action was being taken.  Within two days we had marshaled the public to protest the demolition request.  We won the skirmish but the battle is far from done.  It is now incumbent for Hartford and the preservation community to find an adaptive reuse this needs to be a practical solution for community economic development.

Please keep in touch with our effort to “Save the Icon”.  We would welcome any suggestions of a reuse or ideas of what might be done with the Comet.

“People need to believe it’s a great place . . . We need a positive campaign. Then perceptions and perspective will change. Begin by taking the randomness out of the neighborhood and then gradually adding resources; whether a bike or walking trail, new vendors or creating the same look and feel . . .

When we do this folks will believe in the potential, have a sense of pride and invest in the area’s future.”

Floyd Green, Vice President, Aetna, Inc.

Community Relations and Urban Marketing

Hardly Saccharine or Sentimental

. . the city shouldn’t let saccharine sentimentality dictate the future. If the city around the building has changed, it might be best for the building to evolve as well.” – Hartford Courant editorial, August 24, 2016

Anyone who has spent five minutes with me in a discussion regarding historic preservation knows that I refer to myself as a “practical” preservationist.  HPA is not the organization which just says “no,” rather we operate with a mission of “here’s how.”  Preserving a property only to have it continue to sit vacant, abandoned, without contributing to community economic development is useless in Hartford.  We try to prevent demolition in haste. One only needs to walk along Main Street in Downtown to see how well that strategy went.  Our Throwback Thursday posts on social media are among the most popular in our attempt to draw public attention to historic preservation.  Invariably the comments tend to wonder why such and such a building had to be torn down.

289 Farmington Avenue - Comet Diner

289 Farmington Avenue – Comet Diner

One has tremendous sympathy for an elderly property owner who bears the financial burden of maintaining a vacant building. Several cases have come before state courts seeking to have buildings demolished due to their poor condition.  The courts found that “demolition by neglect” is not a defense.  Our attempt to work with representatives of the Comet has yet to engage in a conversation to forge a workable solution. In fact the representative seems determined to ignore any of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood wishes to rejuvenate one of the City’s major commercial corridor.  The desire seems to be to get rid of an historic building and replace it with soulless big box retail.  Please give attention to the intersection of Park Street and Washington to envision an eyesore which pretty much destroyed the urban fabric of that neighborhood.

Washington St. corner of Park St. (photo: Hartford City Assessor)

Washington St. corner of Park St. (photo: Hartford City Assessor)

HPA is working diligently to find an economically viable solution.  Never confuse our desire to preserve with saccharine sentimentality.  We seek some time and the opportunity to bring funds to redevelop and reuse the Comet as well as five other vacant and abandoned properties along Farmington Avenue.

Read full editorial here: http://www.courant.com/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-comet-diner-0824-20160823-story.html

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An Unacceptable Preservation Procedure

Aug 17 2016 agendaBy surprise the Preservation Alliance was notified that an application had been filed to demolish the Comet Diner.  An email was casually sent by Development Services with the agenda of Hartford’s Historic Preservation Commission’s August 17 hearing.  We received the email at 4:30 on August 12.  To our astonishment a request to demolish the Comet is on the agenda.  Thus any form of public notice is given less than four business days in which to respond.

During the past two years the Preservation Alliance and the Hartford Business Improvement District (BID) have worked to create, along with a host of neighbors, stakeholders and the City of Hartford to forge a Comprehensive Community Action Plan to revitalize one of Hartford’s major commercial corridors Farmington Avenue.  A signature strategy of the plan is to preserve an iconic diner, known for decades as a gathering spot, the Comet.  Now vacant and abandoned this property is a keystone to renewed economic activity and is to be incorporated in a multi-use project involving residential, retail and commercial buildings.  The centerpiece of the project will address six vacant and abandoned properties located along Farmington Avenue between Woodland and Sigourney Streets.  This strategy has engaged the public and been well-publicized for the past year and a half.  All efforts to renew and preserve hangs in the balance of a hearing which has yet to be made public, the notice of which was sent out discretely four business days ago by the City of Hartford.

I come from a city with a robust commitment to historic preservation.  Nearly all communities in the city are defined by their historic names.  In fact, property is marketed according to the historic designation and not by an address thus a house is known to be located in “Meridian-Kessler” for example.  Therefore to establish a consistent procedure in a city with many historic districts any action to come before the historic commission automatically triggers a 60-day application period.  The property owner is required to place yard sign advertising to alert the public that an application is pending on an historic building. The public is then invited to make an inquiry and request a copy of the application.  Automatic public notice is served.

Hartford always talks about the great historic fabric which exists in all neighborhoods.  We boast that there are roughly 5,300 historic structures in districts or individually listed.  However there exist no procedures to make the public aware of any modification or removal of those structures of which we are proud.  The application seems to be random; often the staff is pressured to get applications on the agenda as quickly as possible.  In the case of the Comet an application is quietly made to demolish one of the signature historic structures in the city which much effort has been made to preserve and reuse.  But for the vigilant efforts of the Hartford Preservation Alliance this item would have gone before the Historic Preservation Commission without public notice.  For a city which embraces its historic past such a haphazard policy is unacceptable and needs to be addressed.

For more information on the proposed request to demolish The Comet, please visit our homepage.

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