April 9, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 11:00 AM EST
F irst, the good news: The Hartford has promised it won't knock down 40,000 square feet of 1926 Georgian Revival office building formerly owned by MassMutual in Asylum Hill, nor will it create any more surface parking at the site, according to Josh King, a PR flack for The Hartford.
King swore to these edicts at the monthly meeting of the Asylum Hill Problem Solving Revitalization Association (aka the NRZ) Monday night April 7, 2008 at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church.
To refresh the NRZ's collective memory, King explained that in December, The Hartford negotiated an option to purchase the historically significant property. At the same time, it applied for a 90-day waiting period for a permit to demolish 600,000 square feet worth of office edifice on the 16-acre campus.
For those with long memories, we can recall MassMutual's promise to stay in Hartford forever when it tore down Fraser Place row houses for surface parking, only to leave a year later.
The NRZ, like a vacant lover vacuuming a partner's identity, listened to The Hartford's coy, careful whispering.
"Let's be clear," King said, "The manner in which the news broke was less than optimal."
Translation – The Hartford failed to foresee the angry reaction to its proposal, and now it needs to make peace with upset neighbors. Now it wants a stamp of community approval for its profit-mongering.
So King and his sidekick Marnie Goodman put on shiny, happy for-profit faces to tell the NRZ if the insurance behemoth can't secure a demolition permit to knock down the non-historic sections of the building, it will walk away from the project in June.
If Hartford's Licenses and Inspection department grants the permit by the April 14 deadline, or it grants a 90-day extension and gives the permit then, The Hartford will knock down everything but the historic façade and either hold it for investment, construct new offices to meet its needs or turn over the property to a developer for unknown purposes.
City Councilman Larry Deutsch of the Working Families Party, who has met with The Hartford previously, pressed for a timetable on the details of any of the plans.
"As soon as we have a plan, we will tell you," King said.
The Hartford wants to demolish the complex quickly because of the $200,000 monthly carrying costs, half of which buys security and energy, and the other half pays city property taxes. If The Hartford demolishes, the tax bill drops, and the city stands to lose more than $1 million annually.
Deutsch represented his constituent interests much better than the Mayor, who didn't even have a representative at this meeting. Point blank, Deutsch fired away: will The Hartford withdraw the demolition permit application, affording the city time to develop options?
"Not now," King hit back. The Hartford simply doesn't need that much office space, he said.
"We want the ability to improve the campus, to improve the neighborhood and to improve the city, and we want the flexibility to do that," King said.
The flexibility includes the demolition of neglected row houses at 39 Fraser Place, even if the proposed Pathways to Technology Magnet School is never built there. NINA's Julianne Lugo and Ken Johnson proclaimed they would love to save the housing component.
The Hartford's plan sounds like a veiled threat, said one neighborhood stalwart. King had no response. Perhaps The Hartford didn't goof up by leading in December with the worst case scenario – full destruction of the property. It set us up to settle for a most marketable alternative, the Benjamin Wistar Morris architectural front, and empty property to capitalize.
The building is obviously not economically viable, otherwise it would be used now, said one astute neighbor. The Hartford is offering the neighborhood a compromise to preserve the façade and the NRZ should vote to support that compromise.
"They're a neighbor, they have the best of intentions," he said.
The issue, it was said, boiled down to whether or not we the NRZ trusted The Hartford. If so, we should endorse its compromise position.
Ink-stained journalists say when your mother says she loves you, check it out. The Hartford could change its name and move out of the city in a year. The NRZ discussion left me feeling like a kid handing the bully the milk money. Must Hartford forever be Mayor Mike threatening to clobber Whalers-thief Peter Karmanos?
As if on cue, NRZ chair Bernie Michel announced to our assembled mass, "The NRZ has no power."
This is the second time in two meetings he's expressed such sentiment. If true, then why bother with the meeting? To reassure ourselves that citizenship matters? To shadow box?
In the American dream, the NRZ and the city deal with The Hartford as equals, the community conceding the private flexibility interest of demolition of the outdated 1950s and 1970s office wings of in exchange for a cash payment for the loss of building stock, short-term property tax revenues and environmental impacts of razing and rebuilding.
Someone said that concept sounded like blackmail. I call it hard-nosed negotiation, the opposite of the scorned wag who hands businesses heaps of cash and massive tax breaks to stay.
Imagine local leaders daring to demand that businesses who want access to our community resources must pay a premium, because we are the best at what we do. We are the Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur's Court.
Back in Neighborhood Reality Zone, we couldn't muster a position on The Hartford's plans. Not Michel nor any other board member had a copy of the 14-point resolution submitted to the NRZ by its Housing sub-committee. It's not like this snuck up on us yesterday. It's been kicking around since January.
And even if someone produced a copy, opposition to a motion of uncertain contents sent the resolution back to the Housing sub-committee. So what did we accomplish?
An hour after the agenda item scheduled for 20-minutes meandered to the motion phase, two "No's" killed any timely statement on a demolition permit that matures next week.
Thus Michel's well-organized quorum deadlocked. The Hartford achieved its best result: the NRZ remained silent, a cue often interpreted as approval by governing agencies like L&I.
After I railed on the NRZ last month, Michel sent me an email critical of my characterization of the all-volunteer group as ineffective. This month, I see worse news. The Asylum Hill NRZ and the city are pawns easily used by corporate interests.