What’s HPA All About? A Reflection from the Intern

chelsey-crabbeOne of our favorite “jobs” here at HPA is working with interns and student volunteers. Chelsey Crabbe (Trinity College ’17) joined us this semester and leaves us this week with this article. 

Historic preservation is a cause that I feel passionately about and I never thought that I would find an internship while at school that would fulfill these interests of mine. As a History major at Trinity College, I felt like the opportunity to work at the Hartford Preservation Alliance (HPA) would allow me to both satisfy my interests as a “historio-phile” as well as integrate the city of Hartford, a city that has been my home for four years. I, humbly, accepted the internship position at HPA and, thus, began my semester-long experience at the organization.

How fitting that HPA’s office is in the re-purposed (and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) Underwood Computing Machine Factory Building. During my first weeks at the office, I started to become hyperaware of all the quirks of this historic building, an environment that acted as the perfect backdrop for a budding historic preservationist. For instance, one of the most vivid memories I will have of my time at HPA involves continually rolling backward in my chair due to the office’s original flooring that had become slanted over the decades. While a majority of the time, I found this to be quite annoying, a small part of me understood that this tiny intricacy gave the old factory at 56 Arbor Street a certain element of character. Characteristics like this are often lost because of demolition or abandonment and replaced with homogeneous architecture reminiscent of a time that occurred only seconds in the past rather than centuries. And to get back to my point, my awareness of these small details can now be attributed to my time working at HPA.

187-189 Sigourney an endangered property that Chelsey title searched.

187-189 Sigourney an endangered property that Chelsey title searched.

Although I never met the many supporters of the alliance or many of the board members, I had the pleasure of working alongside HPA Assistant Director, Mary Falvey, and Executive Director, Frank Hagaman. If anything, my experience in the preservation field was only enhanced by the support, expertise, humor, and knowledge of these two not-so-silent soldiers. Gaining recognition of and finding funding for historic preservation is trying work and requires a certain amount of engagement and commitment that is difficult to recruit. Both Mary and Frank, through their tenacious work ethic, taught me to speak up within a professional environment and go about obstacles and realities with a sense of humor. My experience at HPA was not only rewarding because of the work that I was doing, but because these individuals were so accommodating and personable.

Borch-Stevens Bakery part of the Windsor Street Factory Building Survey that Chelsey created.

Borch-Stevens Bakery part of the Windsor Street Factory Building Survey that Chelsey created.

Speaking of the work…I found myself switching between projects as circumstances changed allowing me to practice the skill of adapting within a working environment, a skill that will probably be of use to me in the coming years. Each project was different in its content and context, but required a similar set of skills which I found the most enriching. From conducting archival research to brainstorming for a social media campaign, I utilized several important skills sets that are relevant in any workplace. Specifically, I spent a majority of my time working with blighted properties in the Hartford area ranging from old homes to abandoned mill factories. Disturbing fact: the fate of these properties will most likely involve barrels of concrete and, eventually, a new parking lot. However, with organizations like HPA, some of these buildings can be revitalized in a way that would enrich the historic character of Hartford and provide a service to the city’s inhabitants. There is a solution to revamping the city, an answer that involves economic development, and a key to that is keeping the aesthetic of the city unapologetically rooted in Hartford’s heritage. The answer is historic preservation. My time working at HPA highlighted this important fact to me. So, to conclude, did I enjoy my time at the Hartford Preservation Alliance? Of course. Now, there is more work to be done and I truly believe that this organization can make a real difference especially because of Hartford’s rich history. I am sad to leave, but I will continue to support the organization and encourage any student in the area, especially those interested in history, urban studies, and architecture, to apply for a position at HPA.

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We Shouldn’t Ignore Small

This week we welcome guest blogger Jonathan Cabral. Mr. Cabral is a Multifamily Operations Officer at the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and is a Director on Hartford Preservation Alliance’s Board .

We Shouldn't Ignore Small

For many of us who have lived in Connecticut most of our lives, we often take for granted some of the most charming aspects of New England. In a time where development, particularly economic development, is about going big (did someone say Go Goats!) we overlook the importance of smaller developments. Many of our downtowns are made up of small mixed-use buildings with warm brick façades and unique architectural design left behind by our New England forefathers. In some of our oldest commercial corridors, you will find small multifamily buildings that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These buildings generally have less than 20 housing units but are larger than a three or four family home, and were designed to be practical, aesthetically pleasing, and long lasting. Small multifamily and mixed-use buildings can provide the type of housing density and affordability that is oftentimes lacking in many of our communities. It is also the type of development that can be conducive to creating more walkable neighborhoods.

Small properties make up a sizable portion of our current housing stock. Nearly 10% of Connecticut’s total housing units are found in structures with 5–19 units. When you calculate small properties as a proportion to just multifamily structures (2 or more units), over 26% of Connecticut’s multifamily housing units are found in structures with 5–19 units. [1] Most of this housing is located in our urban centers, like Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford. In addition, small multifamily buildings contribute significantly to the economy. According to the Joint Center of Housing Studies of Harvard University, a quarter of the nation’s affordable housing stock is in multifamily properties with 5–19 units. Typically owned by individuals who often perform their own administrative and maintenance functions, these properties are not only an asset to their owners but are their livelihood.

The unfortunate reality is that these properties do not have easily accessible capital that many larger properties have. Older small properties have become neglected over time and many require significant funds to rehabilitate, while small infill developments can often require as much time and effort as larger deals to put together. Small property development requires entrepreneurial thinking by both owners/developers and lending institutions for them to work.

Over the years CHFA has worked to try and come up with the right funding and formula to make small multifamily projects financeable through its relationships with the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). For example, in 2014 CHFA launched its Small Multifamily CDFI Loan Pool which provides participating CDFIs a funding source to offer short- and long-term financing to properties with 3 to 20 units. Since its inception, the loan pool has helped finance 27 once blighted or vacant properties, resulting in 100 units of housing. It is this small development “incremental” approach that can result in the development of more affordable rental housing in smaller communities, and help revitalize weak real-estate markets that have limited growth but significant need.

[1] – 2010 – 2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

This article first appeared in the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority’s newsletter. 

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Frog Hollow: Neighborhood Planning at Its Finest

(map courtesy Frog Hollow NRZ)

(map courtesy Frog Hollow NRZ)

Frog Hollow Neighborhood where I lived for 15 years is alive and thrives when viewed through the lens of the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. Many good things are happening all of which involve preservation and restoration of historic buildings. Yet the buildings are a physical reminder of the vigilant community effort to make the community one in which to live and work. 390 Capitol Avenue is under construction and will bring in excess of 100 new apartments to Frog Hollow. Billings Forge is undergoing an $8 million renovation to update and improve the residence long associated with stability in the neighborhood. Although still a struggle after many years, the library is dedicated to creating a new Frog Hollow Branch along Park Street (adaptive reuse of the historic Lyric Theater remains the pivotal argument) which will bring vitality to the boisterous neighborhood. Plans are in motion for an improvement to the Zion Hill Cemetery.

3. Frog HollowPositive community activity does not simply happen in a vacuum witnessed by the vigorous agenda of the Frog Hollow Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. For many years the NRZ has initiated and fought for positive change. It has remained the organization whose voice matters when the City determines action steps, investment and direction. Under the leadership of New chair Aaron Gill, the organization is alive and well. Consideration has been given to five key priorities, strategies to continue the focus on curing neighborhood challenges. Witness to a monthly meeting assures this writer that dedication and the willingness to volunteer is alive and will ultimately cause positive change. Neighborhood problem properties (including the future of the Lyric), youth engagement, community outreach around the City plans for the future, employment and public transportation (particularly circulation around the several neighborhood schools) are the strategic activities adopted last evening. Far more encouraging were several new residents who came to add their voices and their willingness to participate in the work to be accomplished. There were no lack of volunteers to execute committee work on behalf of the identified priorities.

Hartford is well-represented by active and robust organizations such as Frog Hollow. This neighborhood organization embodies all the best qualities envisioned when the Connecticut Legislature created these urban Neighborhood Revitalization Zones (NRZ) in Hartford. Some have been effective; others have struggled to gain their identity. It is all too apparent that Frog Hollow has gotten it right for many years. Again, as the baton has been passed along, it remains as a shining example of a community taking care of itself. Bringing together people to address problems and opportunities is exactly what our new Mayor, Luke Bronin, has committed his administration to – to sustain and support as the work horse through which we all will witness a better city.

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A New Preservation Partner

In 2015 The Parkville Neighborhood was approved and then ratified itself as a national historic district.  This represented several years of effort to protect and preserve a community built around one of Hartford’s industrial centers.  Concerns for having someone make decisions on behalf of property owners was eased through community meetings and individual discussions.  By the time the neighborhoods voted to become a district, they had realized that preserving the community in which they lived by protecting their historic fabric far outweighed their caution.

During the process the building at 84 Sisson Avenue, once home to The Phoenix Club, literally disappeared overnight to become a parking lot.  Further the community had rallied for several years to prevent the installation of a new gas station.  With the protections provided by the preservation requirements of an historic district the neighborhood now has a new, strong ally to oppose any changes to the face of the streets they call home.  Available financial resources brought to renovation and preservation projects is a most potent argument as well.

94 New Park Avenue

94 New Park Avenue

In October the first request for a renovation project in Parkville went before the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission.  The property owner at 94 New Park Avenue was referred to the Preservation Alliance for technical assistance on exterior design and materials to rejuvenate a terrific three-family property.  Staff made suggestions and offered advice to the owner of how to improve the façade of the home while keeping an eye on the budget.  New windows, porches, siding and steps were considered.  A very workable project was crafted with the owner and once in front of the Historic Commission was approved unanimously.

In talking with the owner we find that he was totally comfortable with the process through which he gained a building permit.  He feels that the property is a fine investment within a neighborhood he feels is stable and solid. With the attractive renovation features he will be able to attract renters, solidify his investment and improve the value of his property.

With the addition of the Parkville Historic District, Hartford now has 5,322 properties listed on the Hartford, State and National Registers of Historic Places. The Preservation Alliance is the resource that property owners can turn to, to gain advice to preserve and protect their investment without breaking the bank.  Our job is not to be the organization of “no” but one of “here’s how we will make it work”.  Happy to learn your thoughts.

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Putting Preservation on the Map

Guest blogger Jake Fusco is graduate student in Geography at Central Connecticut State University. He recently completed an internship with the Hartford Preservation Alliance working on the Farmington Avenue Cultural Corridor initiative. 

I could start this piece with a quote from a famous historic preservationist or author and what that quote means to me. However, that’s not how I got here. I found my way as an intern for an historical preservation non-profit through my education in Geography. I have found that during my time studying the science of Geography that just defining the term Geography has been half the battle. “So what do you do? You memorize capitals?” or “So you’re really good with directions?” are both popular questions and responses I typically hear when I let someone know this is the discipline I study. Of course I’d like to think that the answer to both questions is yes but there is much more to the world of Geography (pun intended).

Which brings me to Hartford, Asylum Hill and Farmington Avenue.  While the Stowe and Twain houses remain well preserved symbols of the history of Farmington Avenue we need not forget many others.

On my first day of class in Urban Geography as a first-year graduate student at CCSU I was told that Urban Geography is so great because whatever city you’re in or closest to is your laboratory of study. With that, I chose Hartford to be my laboratory which eventually placed me as an intern with the Hartford Preservation Alliance. I first met with HPA over the summer of 2015 after stumbling across their Facebook page.  Although my knowledge about architecture or historic preservation was nearly absent I was eager to be a part of the protection and revitalization of Connecticut’s capital, although I’ve never lived in, I’ve always had a soft spot for despite its perceived problems.

Aetna Diner Comet reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Aetna Diner “The Comet” reprint vintage postcard date unknown

Prior to our first meeting I received information about HPA’s ongoing grant-assisted project to revitalize six-blocks on Farmington Avenue between Woodland and Sigourney Streets. The afternoon before my first meeting I circled the area several times to acquaint myself with my new laboratory. What I found was actually a sense of relief, relief that there are genuine efforts in this city to protect the authentic character and culture of Hartford especially in the areas that need it most. The front page so to speak of this area and this ongoing project has been The Comet, a 1950’s era diner that reads “Dishes” across the front banner that has been vacant since 2000. This one building has served as a visible symbol of the fabric of Farmington Avenue yet as well a symbol of my learning experience of the process of urban revitalization.

This block on the Southside of Farmington Avenue contains no only The Comet but five additional vacant, abandoned historic properties. These blighted properties became my focus and as a member of the team I have assisted in the research to effect appropriate changes which should happen to this block. Six months ago my own logic would tell me that any vacant building should just be demolished. Tear it down and start over. New is always better for a city. The advantage that working at a historic preservation organization has given me is to look at aged buildings as assets to a community and to the authenticity of a neighborhood. In my research we have followed through with the concept of building on the body of knowledge. To put it a different way, to think about what can be done on Farmington Avenue we have learned by example by looking at similar projects everywhere from other cities in Connecticut to New York, New Jersey, Indiana and even Australia as well.

Even though The Comet to this day remains vacant you still look at it and get the impression that this is a place that is different. A CVS can be found anywhere but its not everywhere that you find a uniquely designed building which has served a s symbol of a city since before the moon landing. With that I now proudly claim myself as a preservationist.  So then, my newly-found response to “So what do you do? You memorize capitals? Or “You’re really good with directions?” is Yes, but what I’m really passionate about is protecting and revitalizing the character of Hartford’s historic places, that kind of Geography.”

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