Last week, West Hartford gave tentative approval to a redevelopment proposal that raises this question: Why would West Hartford — of all municipalities — approve a highway-strip type project at the principal urban gateway to the town?
Its approval of a request by ReadCo, developer for Walgreens, for a site plan for the high-visibility location at the northwest corner of Farmington and Prospect avenues, is puzzling given the town's impressive record of outstanding streetscape improvements and excellence in urban design.
The main problem with the new Walgreens is the enlarged parking lot, to be relocated smack onto the corner of the two major avenues. Together with the Sunoco gas station on the opposite corner, it says, "Welcome to Anywhere, USA." These two plastic corners interrupt a National Register Historic District, most of it in Hartford, which goes across the border to Highland Street, recognizing the common historic fabric in both towns. Ironically, the other two corners of the intersection, across Prospect Avenue and inside the city of Hartford, have well-maintained early 20th-century buildings that reflect the neighborhood's distinct character.
A second problem with the Walgreens proposal is its traffic pattern. Although the number of driveways is to be reduced from four to three, the current site has only one exit, onto Farmington Avenue far from the corner. The new plan shows combined entrances and exits onto both streets — with one of these very near the corner. The developer's traffic consultant says this is not a problem, but it would be more persuasive to have a full independent traffic study, or one done by Hartford, which owns and controls the Prospect Avenue border and the traffic light at the intersection.
A third problem is the loss of multiple tenants in the existing property. Walgreens' deal with the owner is to demolish the current building and build new for its exclusive use. The present building is nothing to brag about, but it does have the virtues of being located close to the corner, of having multiple tenants, including the popular Tangiers International Food Market, and of having entrance-only driveways from Prospect Avenue.
Fewer uses, more asphalt, more cars: the hallmarks of creeping commercialism everywhere. The proposed landscaping and prettier "skin" of the building don't compensate.
It is mainly Hartford and a number of its residents, through letters and testimony, who have cast stones at the project. Consultation by the town with the city appears to have been minimal and belated, a puzzle given their shared boundary and Hartford's considerable stake in the outcome. A request for a delay to make time for a meeting of the two towns was turned down.
The city is not without sin,of course; over its history it has approved more than its share of highway strip developments. The most egregious example is the Walgreens that it approved for the corner of Washington and Park streets, a sad example that ReadCo displayed voluminously to the town council to demonstrate how much better its proposal is.
But that Hartford Walgreens was approved 15 years and two mayors ago. The city has become much more conscious since then of the damage such developments do; for more than 10 years Hartford's two Farmington Avenue neighborhoods have demanded the redesign of the avenue's retail environments. West Hartford was always the example of how to do it right.
The city government recently up-zoned to B-4 the avenue's several B-3 parcels that were spot-zoned years ago for auto-related uses. The zone change will prohibit all drive-through windows — whether for banking, fast food or prescriptions. In addition, a comprehensive rezoning of all of the city's commercial streets is in the works to accomplish, over time, the denser, mixed-use and walkable environment that marks a great city.
It would be the ultimate irony, at the very moment that Hartford has finally gotten religion, for West Hartford to sin so shamelessly on the their border.
The battle is not over. ReadCo's complicated request for a special development district requires one more pass before the Plan and Zoning Commission next week. The commission should rethink its approval.
Toni Gold, of Hartford, is a transportation consultant and a member of the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center.