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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BTW The Pickles are Delicious!

slide4The week is being spent in Indianapolis.  I have previously written about the Preservation Alliance’s initiative to re-purpose and reuse the Comet Diner as a center for food entrepreneurs.  So I am spending time shadowing a business, Indy’s Kitchen, founded and run by an old friend and colleague Linda Gilkerson.  Linda has spent decades teaching, promoting and sponsoring entrepreneurs and small businesses. Out of boredom she determined to start her own business and it has been a success.  Her vision was to create a commercial kitchen that can be hired by the hour to support food entrepreneurs.  Her “customers” are food truck owners, caterers, chefs, and entrepreneurs with a dream of producing food which requires its creation in a licensed and regulated kitchen. In Indianapolis there are roughly 100 food trucks, each of which is required to be tethered to a regulated kitchen.  Indy’s Kitchen is home to 26.  Photo 4There are caterers who need space to prepare food for clients but again must be done in a regulated environment.  One such caterer set up a business to provide unique wedding feasts.  Her first year she was engaged to do six weddings, this year, her third in business, she has booked 58!  She is now taking orders into 2017.  Indy’s Kitchen provides the framework and the platform to allow food entrepreneurs a place to follow a dream to cook and sell food.  It has provided encouragement and support to foodies of many stripes.  The economic impact of this incubator was studied in 2014 and the statistics are encouraging.  For Hartford the potential of establishing such a site can be profound.  In future blogs and on our website we will begin to post a series of documents which show the import of food incubators nationally.

Finally, and not the least savory part of this blog, is my desire to introduce you to Rob PicklesCarmack who founded Indiana Pickle Company.  Take a moment to cruise the website.  I met Rob who was nice enough to offer an array of his pickles.  Personally I am a major pickle fan.  Indiana Pickles are the BEST!  Rob determined to replicate the pickles he loved which were made by his mother from a unique brining method. Apparently this involves barrels which once held beer.  At his family’s encouragement he explored making greater quantities and exploring various brining methods using different raw vegetables/fruits.  He now has developed an array of pickles that utilize former whiskey barrels and locally brewed beers and ales.  Read the story on his website.  His business has grown to the point where he will soon leave Indy’s Kitchen for a dedicated production site.  He can’t produce enough pickles to keep up with the demand.  By the way his cucumbers and other produce are locally sourced.  He has recently contracted with a local farmer to grow all the vegetables necessary for his production needs.  The pickles are truly tasty!

Food, business savvy, a regulated space and entrepreneurs all combine to make a recipe for community economic development. Please continue to follow us as we pursue a strategy to reuse one of Hartford’s more iconic historic properties.

289 Farmington Avenue - Comet Diner

289 Farmington Avenue – Comet Diner

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The (reborn) Perfect Six

14. Capitol AveFor anyone who has taken on a complete rehabilitation of a vacant and abandoned historic building (I write from experience) requires vision, patience, hard work, perseverance and …. money.  It can be fun to uncover architectural elements which have been hidden but designing and creating new features with which to bring the building into the 21st Century is exciting.  Maja and Aaron Gill have accomplished just such an astounding project on Capitol Avenue. Long dormant and neglected 389 Capitol was a building you passed while remarking how dilapidated its condition brought down the street.  All too often thinking “someone should do something with it”. The Gills who were long on enthusiasm and saw nothing but opportunity to recreate a building which once housed six residential units and two retail spaces and have done just that.  Assembling a construction team is no easy task for a renovation project which, among other financial resources, has utilized State Historic Tax Credits.  Rehabilitation projects require constant management, endless decisions, creativity to figure out alternative construction approaches, and a robust sense of humor.  If, as happened to the Gills, you live in the project add the headache of a constant battle with dust!

14. Capitol Ave view of Capitol dome paintYet what has emerged is a fine example of one of Hartford’s most iconic residential buildings the Perfect Six.  Most recently the metal “garage doors” have been taken off the retail spaces and what is joining the streetscape is a lovely, elegant building painted green with red trim.  Porches now grace the upper floors and soon the retail construction will present inviting space where commerce once again brings vitality to the street.

Now complete the building enters a period of leasing, the units are enticing with heated bathroom floors, exposed brick, modern kitchens and a component of energy efficiency which is remarkable.  An urban residence to be sure and within a fifteen minute walk to downtown!  As the building has emerged a whole new district is taking shape with new apartments, restaurants, a cocktail lounge and small food boutiques.  Indeed a neighborhood renaissance in Hartford worthy of the dedication of a young couple’s investment in the urban fabric here.  For more information:  860-337-4849 or wolverineproperty@gmail.com.

HUZZAH!

13 NINA HuntingtonThis past Saturday welcomed a community event on Asylum Hill.  Very much a celebration to cut the ribbon on a new house built by NINA!  Well-attended and most certainly a cause to celebrate new neighbors as homeowners on Huntington Street.

As the belle of the ball this splendid reproduction of a Victorian single-family house joins a neighborhood once filled with such houses befitting a prosperous community.  Many examples of lovely houses dot Asylum Hill, many of which continue to be well-maintained, proudly owned by longstanding neighbors as well as new arrivals hoping to live and work in Hartford. NINA has worked for many years to recreate lovely homes which attract buyers who want to invest in the sense of history which is in this city and lives on in its architecture.  Its mission to renovate and recreate historic homes is one to be cherished by those of us who call Hartford home.

Not only does the new home on Huntington Street represent a beautiful addition to the neighborhood but also a contribution to the rate of homeownership here.  Hartford has a homeownership rate of 25% on a good day and is concentrated in a handful of communities.  Sadly, Asylum Hill hovers at 10%.  These rates suggest that individuals do not make an investment to live in the city.  I speak as a former affordable housing developer who believes that holding a long-term lease represents an asset for many residents.  Yet a balance of owners and renters has to be struck if there is to be a robust city with access to safe, decent, affordable housing for everyone.  As in many things communities out of balance is not healthy.  As Hartford struggles we need to work toward attracting more homeowners to increase stability and to help support the vitality of a truly historic city.

So, join me in welcoming the delightful new home and its new owners to the Asylum Hill Neighborhood.  Long may you prosper!

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100 Students (Or It Takes a Kitchen)

Recently I was asked to respond to a series of questions by a student from the Classical Magnet School in Hartford.  Students had chosen professions to explore and lean about and this one had chosen to study historic preservation.  As a resident of Hartford he was in awe of the historic fabric of this city and wanted to learn about how it was being taken care of.  The most striking question he put to me was: “What would you say to a room of 100 students about the importance of historic preservation”?  This is a question that we at the Preservation Alliance ask ourselves every day.  It shaped the strategic (business) plan adopted 2014.

Hartford is a most diverse city, nominally walled off from the surrounding suburbs and left to fend for itself.  Poverty is a major factor with 39 % of the population living below the poverty level as defined by Average Median Income.  This year our newly-elected city administration now struggles with the wretched financial reality of meeting a budget.  There is even discussion of a possible bankruptcy.  So who cares whether historic preservation matters?  It seems to be the purview of people who are well off and have nice properties.  This is not how we at HPA approach our mission to “Revitalize, Connect, Collaborate”.  Preservation must be a partner in community economic development.  Our work needs to bring neighborhood vitality and become an economic engine creating jobs.  Vacant and abandoned properties need to rejoin the tax rolls and contribute to operating the City, bring visitors and commerce to enliven communities.

To illustrate how we think I offer the example of resurrecting a long-abandoned iconic landmark, the Comet Diner.  Here is our vision:

The Comet Kitchen

Ex 1

 The Challenge:  Farmington Avenue on Asylum Hill once thrived with commercial activity.  Along the blocks bounded by the Aetna Insurance company, The Cathedral of St. Joseph and both Mark Twain’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s houses boasted elegant apartments, restaurants, a pharmacy, super markets as well as home to the Hartford Architecture Conservancy, Hartford Ballet, Opera and the Symphony.  The street was and still remains a major corridor linking downtown Hartford with suburbs to the West. Multiple historic buildings lined Farmington Avenue as well having been built during the decades as the corridor grew and prospered.  Now much of the commercial activity has dwindled, restaurants are gone, so too the pharmacy and arts organizations.  Still a major transportation route which is basically used to get away to somewhere else.  Many historic buildings are now vacant and abandoned.

Perhaps the most iconic historic building is the Comet Diner.  This classic stainless steel diner built in the 1940’s stands as testament to the lost days of economic vitality of Farmington Avenue.  Abandoned for ten years the Comet, one of the best-known destinations until closing, struggles with no feasible reuse in a neighborhood which has no restaurant or coffee shop.  Given the depressed condition of the community a likely reuse as a diner is remote.  In fact, the block on which it sits is occupied by nothing but vacant and abandoned buildings two others which are historic as well.  In terms of historic preservation, the buildings are protected by an historic district which prevents their demise however patience is running out by their owners.  A viable economic alternative needs to be found and one such idea has begun to surface.

The Opportunity:  Food!  Access to good quality food has become the guiding principle to a sustainable community.  Locally-sourced food either through the distribution from regular farmer’s markets but gaining an education on how to procure and prepare things which are less expensive and are far better nutritionally have gained adherents around the country.  The USDA has created new grants to encourage the production and distribution of food to low and moderate income individuals and families.  Food trucks are taking the US by storm by creating exciting and delicious access to locally-sourced products.  Often ethnic and presenting a wide variety of lunchtime (and evening) menus, things not found in established restaurants.  Food entrepreneurs have become a primary economic engine in many cities. Taking organic produce, meats and fish to prepare them and sell through stores, markets and by mail.  So too caterers need a place from which to market and prepare events.  There is a common denominator to the preparation of food through access to a certified commercial kitchen.  A kitchen is the lifeline for food trucks which are required to pass inspections, a place where washing up can take place as well as the daily preparation of menu items.  For the entrepreneurs a license and inspected commercial kitchen is required for sales to take place. Access to a facility 24/7, affordable with all the right equipment and proper food storage (cool, cold, frozen and dried) does not exist in Hartford.

And so to the concept of reusing the Comet.  The property offers limitless opportunity to be reused as a food destination.  Creating a commercial kitchen becomes the backbone of the Asylum Hill Community.  A dining space to be used for events comes with the project.  Sufficient parking can offer both the access necessary for food trucks

Make no mistake that preservation matters it is about how we effect the movement.

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