March 30, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • Hartford • 8:30 AM EST
Nothing like a solid P&Z meeting to get your blood flowing. Or at least a healthy dose of city Planning Director Roger O'Brien.
Normally, local Planning and Zoning meeting are snoozers, where volunteer citizen commissioners plow through the minutia of land use policy and application. But like all flawed human institutions, occasionally, a controversy arises.
The bi-weekly Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission's get-together Tuesday, March 27 at the conference center at 260 Constitution Plaza was one of those thrilling democratic dust-ups, worth as much play-by-play as I'm about to do.
First off, there weren't enough agendas to go around. I showed up for the zoning change at 1400 Main Street (from Firestone to McDonald's? - more on that in the future), but that was postponed. I quickly realized the main event on the evening's scorecard was the approval of city's 10-year Capital Improvement Plan.
The CIP is a proposed bonding budget for large outlays like firehouses and school construction and streetscape improvements. The city planning department begins working on a new one almost as soon as it finishes the last one.
Every year, the plan is "reviewed by the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission and approved by the Mayor and the Court of Common Council," according to words on the plan itself.
This year, P&Z had scheduled a late March rubber stamping of the plan to City Council. But until March 3, Hartford 2000 and its 14 members, the Neighborhood Revitalization Zones, had no idea that the long-term capital investment strategy was almost completed.
In fact, H2K ally, P&Z commissioner Fran Reale had to ask P&Z to postpone voting on the measure so H2K and the NRZs could at least examine it, and be able to talk to P&Z about it.
Somehow, the city didn't tell H2K or the NRZs about the Capital Improvement process. The aforementioned O'Brien serves as the liaison to H2K, and also goes to every Planning and Zoning meeting. So when Linda Bayer, the full-time staff for H2K, learned of the omission in a meeting with O'Brien, she organized the NRZ reps to self-govern with P&Z.
At least a dozen neighborhoodistas showed up to the meeting, stalwarts like Joe Barber of Frog Hollow, Keith Darby of Blue Hills, David Barrett of the West End, and Hyacinth Yennie of Maple Avenue. Barrett kicked off the conversation with a plea for P&Z to remember the local organizations
"We think it would be helpful going forward if the 14 NRZs were involved earlier," Barrett said. "If we come in at the last minute and can make three or so corrections, can we make four or five. If we had the conversation back last fall," then the roundly held views of neighborhood priorities would be more fully represented.
Certainly, the CIP has some important stuff in it, but Barrett said, many things the neighborhoods have brought up to the city are not in the plan.
For example, the Asylum Hill community has serious reservations about moving the library branch from a street-level facade on Farmington Avenue to a fourth-floor situation in the CPTV building on Asylum Street. Or that an annual budget of $250,000 for citywide traffic calming is inappropriate, considering the priority the NRZs and the city plan places on slowing traffic down.
"A number of our priorities are not in the Capital Improvement Plan," Barrett said. Lucky for P&Z, Bayer and her crew prepared a four page letter outlining what it wants in the plan. P&Z eventually voted to amend this letter to its recommendation to City Council, but not before the blood boiled.
That started when O'Brien's cell phone rang. Right as Blue Hills NRZ president Darby inquired why a community center that she told O'Brien about as early as February of 2006 was not included. Without an excuse me or a sorry, O'Brien flipped on his phone, stood up and exited the room.
O'Brien returned a moment later like nothing and told Darby that a Blue Hills recreation center made the plan, and she can't expect a request only made few weeks old to earn space in the CIP. Darby insisted that the two were different, and she first brought up the multi-use community center with the city in February 2006, and had another meeting in October 2006, and another one in December 2006.
Chair Sandra Bobowski interrupted the Darby/O'Brien spar, piping in that a rec center for the South End merited inclusion, but those folks were on it two years ago. To which Darby noted P&Z told her a year ago to write a letter to City Director of Development Services John Palmieri. Darby had a copy in hand.
The gears turned, and Barrett blurted out the inference: "It takes a year to get from [Roger O'Brien's] office to the Commission?"
Linda Osten, president of the CSS/Con NRZ, spent her comments on the streetscape improvement budgeting and the need for a collaborative process between neighborhood residents and the city to maintain new sidewalks and accoutrements.
That's when Commissioner Fran Reale first suggested the concept of including the H2K letter in P&Z report to City Council. Commissioner John Lupo liked the idea.
"We've been blessed by these people telling us what they need," Lupo said. "They've been working more than 10 years on these projects."
More than that, the ubiquitous Mohammed Ahmed said. People chimed in not to let him get going.
Staff O'Brien seized the pause, launching into a diatribe about the difficulties of balancing a $29 million bonding budget. Reale wasn't standing for it.
"I take issue with staff's characterization of the document," Reale said. "On the one hand, staff is saying he needs the information in a timely fashion, on the other hand, he is saying people don't know the process, and people are trying to break into the process. I'm sure staff is correct as for the amount of money in the budget, but these are suggestions from people in the neighborhoods, the people pay taxes, these people pay that money."
Of course they're taxpayers, echoed Chair Bobrowski, a West End Republican who has been on P&Z for a decade. She commanded the floor with a short speech about priorities.
"A fire station at Adriean's Landing is a must have," she said. "People's lives are more important than a senior center."
O'Brien added that he had no objections to putting Hartford 2000's ideas into P&Z's package going to City Council.
Bobrowski suggested it would have been easier if the neighborhood activists attended last week's emergency P&Z meeting.
"None of you were here," she said.
That's when Carol Coburn, the executive director of CSS/Con, stood up and nearly walked out of the room, incredulous at the tone from Bobrowski.
Lupo saved the moment by making a motion, and conversation followed that. Bobrowski backtracked on her statement, and saved face. P&Z voted to send City Council Hartford 2000's suggestions to City Council.
I hadn't seen fireworks like that since union honcho Clarke King nearly came to blows with City Councilor Mike McGarry back in the late 90s.
I can't wait for the next one, when commissioners maybe will bandy about a zone change from B2 to C1 for the property at 1400 Main Street, so the Firestone can become a McDonald's, with a drive thru. The developers withdrew the application Tuesday night, but they promised they'll be back with a new traffic study.