It’s A Good Thing

In a previous blog I wrote about the concept and benefit of adopting a Form Based Code in Hartford as a preservation tool. One reader posed a terrific question: As I consider what neighborhood in which to buy a house what level of comfort do I gain by this code?  I want my investment to be sound.  In fact the new code would support the investment decision predictably with regulations which would inform and preserve the neighborhood feel and look.  It considers the context of the neighborhood by informing owners, developers and builders that new buildings or the reuse of existing structures needs to adhere to the preservation of form.

289 Farmington Avenue - Comet Diner

289 Farmington Avenue – Comet Diner

Living on Asylum Hill I worry daily about the vacant and abandoned diner, the Comet. Widely known and at one time or another patronized by many in the City its future is uncertain.  To be sure it exists in the Asylum Hill National Historic District and enjoys a certain protection.  Yet, what if the building were to be destroyed what might the future development look like on the site?  As it is now interest has been shown to develop a “big box” pharmacy, we all know them.  Current code would allow for the replacement of an iconic building, set back from the street with some green space surrounding to build a blacktop sea of parking with a stucco box of no architectural merit.  In my humble opinion it condemns an intersection of Farmington Avenue to contain soulless commerce where once it contained residential and retail energy.  (For you who know the City think of the creation of the CVS and Walgreens at the intersection of Washington and Park Streets.)  Rather with the establishment of a new code redevelopment of the corner would require consideration to scale, building placement and type of structure which would be compatible preserving a feel of the neighborhood.  By the way there exist three pharmacies along a two mile stretch going west.  As we who live along Farmington Avenue strive to improve the community Form Base Code become an ally.

I will get off the soapbox (not so very likely) with drawing attention to one more example. Across from South Green where Wethersfield Avenue begins arWethersfield Avenue (blog 2)e two imposing mansions built in the 1890’s – the Borden-Munsill Mansion (yes, the house that Daisy the Cow built) that has been endangered for many years and the house Mrs. Munsill built for her son, Gail Borden Munsill.  Next door to these imposing homes is a used car lot! Existing code could not prevent the insertion of an eyesore.  With the new code such consideration to context would guide a reuse of either the former building or vacant lot to preserve the façade of what was once a truly grand avenue.

The Preservation Alliance is behind the proposed code change not simply to preserve the gems.  Our objective is to promote community development, economic development of a really historic city.  This is not accomplished by ignoring scale, context and community need.  Historic preservation matters and Form Base Code engages Hartford in that philosophy.

I would welcome any comment or questions.  Hearing from you is a terrific way to discuss how we can contribute to Hartford’s future.

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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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Zoning for Hartford: a new tool to promote the preservation of neighborhoods

278 274 Farmington Avenue south facadesFor the past one-and-a-half years the City of Hartford has worked to bring zoning codes into the 21st Century.  The concept known as form-based code recognizes that decades old zoning codes do little to reflect and promote urban development now required to sustain cities such as ours in attracting new residents.  Although a little stuffy, the Wikipedia definition works well to introduce what can be accomplished in adopting a new code in Hartford:

A Form-Based Code (FBC) is a means of regulating land development to achieve a specific urban form. Form-Based Codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle, with a lesser focus on land use, through municipal regulations. A FBC is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town or county law and offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.  (1)


Form-Based Codes are a new response to the modern challenges of urban sprawl, deterioration of historic neighborhoods, and neglect of pedestrian safety in new development. Tradition has declined as a guide to development patterns, and the widespread adoption by cities of single-use zoning regulations has discouraged compact, walkable urbanism. Form-Based codes are a tool to address these deficiencies, and to provide local governments the regulatory means to achieve development objectives with greater certainty.

In other words, the new code becomes a tool of supporting and sustaining the look and feel of a neighborhood or community.  Current the code is based on use without giving form to the impact, typically negative, which may be felt in new construction.  The form-based code is a powerful tool for historic preservation.  Hartford with an inventory of greater than 5,300 historic register listed buildings – and many, many more that are historic but not listed – can benefit tremendously through a code which considers a building’s form rather than its use.  The final draft of the proposed new code can be found on our website:  Yes it is 260 some pages long but if you take a moment to review the document you will find it quite readable and easy to reference.

The Preservation Alliance welcomes the new code as a profound public tool in preservation of the fabric of Hartford.  We talk often of the importance of the history found here and Hartford’s story lies in the bones of its buildings.  A new code brings direct help in preserving what is important to the City.

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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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Not For The Faint of Heart

The Preservation Alliance is most fortunate to have a true friend and partner in the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.  Over the past number of years we have benefited from grants for board development, strategic planning, and improve technology improvements.  Yours truly was recruited through a grant which hired Third Sector New England  to execute a leadership transition.

Yesterday I attended a seminar which reported on the state of the nonprofit sector in New England.  Earlier this year nonprofits throughout New England were asked to participate in a survey, – we were one such organization – and the results and findings were presented in this forum. There were some surprises, some “we knew that to be the case” and a really great set of conclusive challenges.  In a word  –  sustainability.

Meeting a challenge to work toward an organization’s ongoing future seems to be obvious, we want to carry on the mission. To be ongoing is the basis upon which the organization was founded.  However yesterday we explored definitions of activities in which we need to be engaged to meet that challenge of the organization’s future.  An example:  59% of leaders (executive directors) are over 55.  In the Hartford area that is 6% higher than New England overall.  Leadership of nonprofits in Hartford is aging.  How to create a succession plan one which addresses an effective transition becomes a topic, one of many which needs a robust discussion. 64% of leaders plan to leave in the next five years.  Marry this with the fact that 56% of nonprofits have budgets under $1 million, 51% have five or fewer staff.  There is little financial room to recruit, encourage and retain the next leader. We all share the anxiety of administrative cash flow. Operating capital is mostly what occupies our daily activities.  Unfortunately this then puts pressure on the staff to do more with less.

All thought-provoking points and fortunately the forum yesterday gave us the opportunity to reflect on challenges which nonprofits face.  Simply talking among those at my table allowed an opportunity to vent. All of us found that our worries are not singular.  Table discussions allowed us to share our common concerns and frustrations.  Yet we talked of building “leaderful” organizations through an evolutionary philosophy of sustainability.  In its many forms sustaining an organization is a far more strategic engagement than just a single dimension in planning for succession.  I have come away with a goal (one of many….) to explore how to invest in a sustainability plan for the Preservation Alliance.  Most fortunately our strategic plan has already created a map of milestones which should broaden our operating base and help to pave the way toward a more stable future.

So, as Buzz Lightyear of “Toy Story” exhorts:  “To infinity and beyond”.


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