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A recent application to demolish the Comet was withdrawn by the owners to be considered at a Hartford Historic Preservation Commission hearing.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.”
By 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.
On Monday, September 21, 2015, thirty-one civic, community and institutional leaders gathered to discuss the creation of a comprehensive community action plan for the Farmington Avenue Corridor with bookends of Sigourney and Woodland Streets. In pausing to think of the profound cultural and historic assets of these six blocks one wonders why it is not the embodiment of the current and highly prized movement toward “Placemaking”. The ingredients seem so practical and exist before those of us who call Asylum Hill home.
Months ago in conversation with Mike Zaleski, now Executive Director of Riverfront Recapture and then the Director of the Hartford Business Improvement District , we talked of the extraordinary potential of a dedicated focus on redevelopment of perhaps Hartford’s busiest corridor linking Downtown with town to the west. Home to Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses and museums is one aspect to a question of why not have this neighborhood thrive. For the Hartford Preservation Alliance the challenge is what is to be done with six vacant, abandoned and historic properties in what was one of earliest established historic districts. Our mission to “Revitalize, Connect, Collaborate” sees the link between historic preservation and community economic development as essential in Hartford.
In opening the forum I called the gathering a commencement. Much hard work has been enabled through a “Preservation Of Place” grant from CT Main Street. These funds help organize a community in how to bring people together to look ahead. With the strategic help of Francine Christiansen a series of interviews was initiated to question what is the situation of the Farmington Avenue corridor and what might be its potential AND how do we take action to change. We happen to be at a moment in time where incredible resources can be brought to bear on creating a fundamental renaissance. In its truest sense, just as with any commencement, this represents a beginning filled with promise.
Over the next months we will establish a method to present ideas, concepts, and invitations to participate in community conversations as we establish steps to move forward. Please feel free to comment, question and offer suggestions, perhaps to toss brickbats. All during the initial process we have encouraged input and now we challenge you to add your voice.
This July I was asked to lead a walking tour on behalf of Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA) . As an unrepentant resident of Asylum Hill I determined that I would guide folks from the Aetna, the Hartford and others along Farmington Avenue – the street where I live. We expected a handful of people to show up but to our surprise and delight the tour was added to another Aetna program and the handful turned into a crowd!
Nothing pleases me more than giving tidbits of information, gossip and fact as we walked by historic properties which abound on Asylum Hill. But for me the most interesting part is to witness what a melting pot Asylum Hill is becoming. The Hill now counts 18 countries represented by residents who have relocated to the United States. Different languages abound so to label anyone narrowly seen on the streets is a gross misrepresentation of the many and varied cultures now calling my neighborhood home. In fact it is hoped that a multi-cultural center will be established to recognize all who make up this urban fabric.
The Alliance plans to engage a broad collaborative effort to address the potential of the Farmington Avenue Corridor. As we strolled along I was able to point out various vacant and abandoned buildings and to talk about the potential reuse of various iconic buildings such as the former Comet Diner at Laurel and Farmington. Our collective desire is to bring buildings back to life which might attract employees of the companies represented on the tour. Imagine a 10 minute walk as a commute? A vision and a dream at present but there is the will, leadership and new urbanism which can be modeled on the street where I live.
We would love to hear from you and chat about your vision, dreams and hopes for a really great neighborhood in Hartford.
Keystone Property on Asylum Hill: 293 Farmington Avenue
For several years the signature building on the corner of Farmington Avenue and Marshall Street has been abandoned. According to the assessor’s records, it was purchased by Farmington Hari LLC in August 2009. Since then any remaining tenants were evicted and according to rumors the building was to have been demolished. Unfortunately for the buyers, 293 is a contributing building in the Asylum Hill (Laurel & Marshall) Historic District. Since that time, although maintained, no activity has been evident.
The Farmington Avenue Alliance, concerned about the future of Farmington Avenue, has worked for a decade to prevent the evident decline of a major artery linking Hartford to points west. Plans call for a holistic improvement of the corridor from Asylum Hill to the West End with a comprehensive set of activities aimed at stimulating the historic quality of the Avenue. What cannot be lost in the great work is the preservation of key properties which make up the community fabric. For Asylum Hill the historic building at 293 is critical to maintaining the streetscape of residences. It was developed to mimic the townhouses of Columbia Street. For Asylum Hill to restore such residences would be a distinct and important redevelopment activity.
What to do:
Ask the Hartford Preservation Alliance to seek contact with the current owners to determine what they have planned for the use of the property
Focus a joint task force of Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association (suggest Transportation & Economic Development Committee) and the Farmington Avenue Alliance to discuss potential reuse of the property
Seek an arsenal of potential financial resources which the owner might utilize in a redevelopment/reuse strategy.
Engage the City to become an ally in the preservation of this signature property.
Raise the profile of preserving keystone properties along Farmington Avenue