Mayor Shari Cantor, in her annual address at a West Hartford Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday at the Pond House, reflected on current trends, the economy, sustainability, major projects and initiatives, and new ordinances that will impact the town’s future.
By Ronni Newton
As she reviewed the past year and provided a glimpse into West Hartford’s future, Mayor Shari Cantor urged everyone attending the annual State of the Town luncheon Thursday to “find joy in each day,” something that’s more important than ever after the turmoil of the past few years.
Cantor spoke to a packed room Thursday at the Pond House for the annual event – postponed a few days due to Tuesday’s snowstorm – that was hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce.
West Hartford, she said, is “doing great,” and she explained why during her nearly hour-long presentation.
“I’m a little bit of an obnoxious grandma,” Cantor said as she shared photos of Louisa Elizabeth, now 6 months old.
She shared the photos not just because she is bursting with pride, however, but also because grandparents are an important trend, now representing 20% of the global population – and expected to be a quarter of the world’s population by 2050. Demographic trends indicate that people are living longer and families are shrinking, a dynamic that impacts real estate and other facets of life.
“Anecdotally – from several realtors ‐‐ there are many instances where grandparents have
moved to town or are looking to be in town to be closer to their children and grandchildren
and adult children have returned or are looking to return to West Hartford to be closer to
family for support.”
Changes in the workforce are a national trend felt locally as well, as hybrid work become a permanent arrangement negotiated as a “new normal” for many even as the pandemic has receded.
West Hartford economy
“We are great,” the mayor exclaimed as she shared that the governor texted her to congratulate her on the latest accolade – topping the “Best Place to Live in Connecticut” list on StudyFind, a tool used by many realtors – just released the previous day.
“That is not by chance,” she said.
StudyFind wrote, “West Hartford attracts a diverse group who want to put down roots here ‐‐ from young professionals and families to retirees.”
Mansion Magazine and Niche.com are among the recent sites to list West Hartford among the top places to live. U.S. News & World report continues to rank both Conard and Hall on their list of top traditional high schools, and to rank the school district among the best as well.
“Our economy is thriving,” Cantor said.
“We are seeing millions of dollars in commercial investments in every business district in West Hartford, from Corbin’s Corner to Bishops Corner, and every place in between. Businesses are updating their properties, expanding their space, improving their facades, and opening their doors for the first time,” she said.
The grand list continues to rise and now tops $7.2 billion, more than any neighboring town.
Residents are investing in their own homes with kitchen and bath updates, and last year there were 32 new swimming pools installed.
“In 2022, West Hartford processed 6,868 permits and conducted 11,629 inspections – that’s 18.5% more than 2021. Total value of projects is also up by 51%,” she said. The town is aware of the backlog in inspections, she added, and is addressing it through hiring another building inspector and has introduced CityView to streamline the permitting process.
One of the reasons West Hartford is thriving is because its public schools are a draw to families – one of 18 districts in the state with an A+ grade, but with a diverse population that includes 25% non-English speakers of 77 different languages.
Sports teams from both high schools have earned state titles over the past year, and the music program is “another shining star,” she said, with the town receiving the “Best Communities for Music Education” designation.
There are initiatives underway to capture the town’s tourism assets, she said, through the West Hartford Arts Commission. Murals continue to proliferate showing how the community is visibly artistic, and the WHy West Hartford website, a collaboration between the Chamber and the town, is a great resource, she said.
“We wouldn’t be the community we are without the dedication of our residents who step forward and graciously offer their time and expertise in service to others,” Cantor said. “I mention this because volunteerism speaks to the vitality of our community.”
There’s an expansion and investment in new housing opportunities.
“The pandemic really did ignite a homebuying frenzy,” Cantor said. “West Hartford’s housing market is hot – it’s one of the hottest in the country.”
Demand continues to outpace supply, and the median sale price in 2022 was $400,000, up 9.6% from the previous year when it was $370,000.
All other occupancies – office, multifamily residential, industrial, and retail continue to have low vacancy rates.
Investment in apartments and condominiums, is happening throughout town, and projects are in various stages of planning and/or development with rentals appealing to empty nesters, seniors, young professionals, and young families alike.
A tour of the projects under development included:
- The Byline at 920-924 Farmington Avenue (48 units plus commercial space, a roughly $15 million investment)
- Arapahoe Group development in the Center (83 total units including 25 apartments with ground floor commercial space and 58 condominiums, an estimated $50 million investment)
- Residences at Berkshire (26 units, approximately $15 million investment)
- One Park Road (295 total units, including preservation of the historic chapel, an approximately $66 million investment). One Park is pre-leasing and the first phase is expected to open soon.
- 950 Trout Brook (172 units on property that was formerly tax exempt, estimated to bring in $800,000 annual tax revenue to the town)
“There are a few affordable units here, a few affordable units there” she said, with all of the projects including at least a small percentage of units set aside for those with incomes at 80% of the area mean income (AMI) or less. A deeper commitment to affordable housing takes “more attention and commitment,” and the town has made a commitment by creating an Affordable Housing Development Program, setting aside $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds available to eligible projects.
The Camelot, which will be constructed on the West Hartford Inn property at 900 Farmington Avenue, is one such eligible project.
“When I became mayor this was one of my goals, to transform that property into housing,” Cantor said. It will include 44 units, at least 80% of which will be affordable to residents at various levels of AMI. The project also received a nearly $1 million brownfield remediation grant.
Fellowship Housing in Bishops Corner will be one-third larger once completed, with work expected to begin on the first phase this spring in what has been a “very, very thoughtful process.”
“Everyone wants to know the future of the former UConn site,” Cantor said, but there is nothing to report now because plans are preliminary and she can’t talk about a project that the Town Council will have to vote on.
Transit-oriented development is important to the town’s growth, Cantor said. The town has two CT Fastrak stations and a long-desired railway station is in the planning stage.
The soon-to-open 540 New Park mixed-use building adds 52 units of housing, 80% affordable, and is also transit-oriented development.
Plans will soon be submitted for Elmwood LOFTS, on the site of the former Puritan Furniture store on New Britain Avenue, also in a transit-oriented development zone. The town received nearly $1 million for brownfield remediation for the project will which will maintain ground-floor commercial and retail space (24,000 square feet) with four upper stories accommodating 150 residential units, of which 15% will be affordable.
The New Park Avenue Complete Street reconstruction project is anticipated to start in 2024, and signals significant investment in the area.
Sustainability doesn’t just mean saving energy, Cantor said. She noted the town’s Silver level certification from Sustainable CT, as well as West Hartford being named a “Climate Leader.”
Waste disposal is a growing crisis as capacity is shrinking in the Northeast, and the cost of disposal is expected to increase by a third in the next five years. It’s an ever-increasing part of the town budget, and “we need to bend that curve,” she said.
Two solutions being piloted together are food scrap collection and pay-as-you-throw, which will be rolled out for 690 residences in the Morley neighborhood in May, funded by a grant the town won through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Blue Earth will handle the food scrap collection portion of the pilot, while Paine’s will coordinate the pay-as-you-throw.
Students are already making an impact on sustainability with eight elementary schools participating in cafeteria food scrap collection – collecting 10.4 tons by last fall.
The collection of pumpkins by Public Works last fall resulted in 7.4 tons of material removed from potentially becoming waste, and instead being turned into compost and bio-fuel by Quantum Biopwer in Southington.
“We are actually going through a bit of change in our Public Works Department,” Cantor said, and the just-completed purchase of 705 Oakwood Avenue and 12 Brixton Street will allow for the future relocation of Animal Control and the fire department’s training facility, a fueling station, and clear space for a future transfer station.
Major Projects & Initiatives
Capital projects will fund improvements to roads, school buildings, and security, as well as construction of a new animal shelter. The West Hartford Infrastructure Master Plan is identifying improvements to the Center which will be under consideration, including better bicycle facilities on Farmington Avenue, wider sidewalks that can accommodate outdoor dining, and changes to LaSalle Road traffic direction and parking.
The town has won awards for its outdoor dining – “gardens of eating” that were an important element of pandemic recovery – and while the same capacity is not needed, suggested changes to the Center will widen sidewalks and create space for permanent outdoor dining as well as great accessibility.
Other future investments will include the future Elmwood Community and Cultural Center.
The Trout Brook Trail project, which has received multiple grants from the state, has three remaining sections, and is expected to be complete by 2024. “I’m hoping that will be the backbone” for a growing network of trails, Cantor said.
“We know that people drive too fast,” Cantor said.
Police Chief Vernon Riddick reported to the Public Safety Committee this week that over the past few weeks officers had clocked a vehicle going 85mph in a 40mph zone eastbound near 2021 Albany Avenue, and another going 93mph in a posted 40mph zone near Reservoir No. 6 on Albany Avenue.
The Vision Zero Task Force began meeting in January, Cantor said, and is working toward incremental improvement as well as “the goal of eliminating fatalities and severe injuries on West Hartford streets by 2033.”
A “wayfinding” project now underway will improve signage in a way that is “connected, thoughtful, and intentional,” Cantor said.
The town is also investing in technology, including free public wireless access In parks and at pools, government kiosks so residents can conduct needed business even when Town Hall is not open, and there is research into installing charge bars in garages for quick charging of mobile devices.
Public safety – the police and fire departments – are “the pillars of West Hartford,” Cantor said.
Investments in the fire department will include more inspectors and initiatives to increase community engagement. The town’s Local Emergency Operations Plan is being updated to a mobile user-friendly electronic format.
West Hartford was one of the first towns to implement its Civilian Police Review Board following new statewide legislation, and there were 90 applications for seven spots, Cantor said, allowing for the selection of a highly diverse group of residents who reviewed five complaints last year and sustained all of the initial findings.
Other police-related initiatives include the involvement of a town social worker who last year handled a total of 253 cases.
Street view cameras have increased crime detection, and license plate readers have helped locate missing and wanted people and vehicles of interest.
“There is a project underway to identify and equip high‐activity areas with surveillance monitoring equipment. The project would ultimately culminate with the development of a West Hartford Intelligence Center where all of these feeds will be accessed,” Cantor said.
Initiatives at the library include a puzzle exchange, plans to launch a video game collection, and increased programming at Studio20 South.
Leisure Services programs continue to expand in popularity – and pickleball is “exploding” as a sport, Cantor said. The town has added 12 new dedicated pickleball courts.
Other park improvements are in the works, which will incorporate sustainability. Volunteers have helped plant more than 2,000 seedlings, and created pollinator gardens in town parks, she said.
“We’re not really like any other community in Connecticut,” Cantor said. Social service programs continue to see increased demand, and in 2022 the Food Pantry provided nearly 10,000 bags of food to 783 households.
Cantor also gave a shout-out to Essie Labrot, who is retiring in April. “Essie is an incredible Town Clerk,” she said, and no one can fill her shoes – especially the high-heeled brightly colored ones. But Leon Davidoff will do a great job taking her place, Cantor said, with one of the first major initiatives being the implementation of early voting once the legislature sets the parameters.
“In this past year, the town created the Office of Equity Advancement under the direction of Dr. RoszenaHaskins and Adrienne Billings‐Smith. The OEA leads and supports initiatives that advance the town’s commitment to foster a welcoming, respectful, and inclusive environment for all staff, residents, clients, and patrons of the Town of West Hartford,” Cantor said.
New ordinances, and looking toward the future
Three new or recently-modified ordinances Cantor highlighted include the cannabis ordinance approved last May. Budr is building out the space at 1037 Boulevard and will begin selling a wide range of cannabis products and merchandise this spring. The town will collect a 3% tax on all sales revenue – something new for Connecticut – with funds earmarked for education, job training, mental health and addiction services, or community engagement efforts, and other specific uses.
The Town Council amended the “experiential retail” indoor amusement ordinance, which will allow businesses in Blue Back Square that exceed 15,000 square feet to remain open until 1 a.m. on weekends and implement an age restriction. “Maybe it will open the door for some really fun activities for our residents,” Cantor said.
The state eased zoning regulations for outdoor dining during the pandemic, but those measures are expiring. Changes to the town’s outdoor dining ordinance must be codified, however, to conform with new state requirements that simplify the application process. A public hearing will be held on April 11.
“We all can agree after all we’ve been through, finding joy is vitally important to ourselves and to each other,” Cantor said to end her presentation. “Being a grandparent to Louisa is one of my greatest joys,” she said, as another adorable photo appeared on the screen.
A fun element is traditionally added to the annual presentation, and this year there was a scavenger hunt, with attendees asked to locate the listed items – which included umbrellas, a graduation cap, and a “guy named Matt” – in the slides. Points could also be earned for identifying the titles of “classified” documents scattered on the tables – regarding plans for (these are all jokes) underground pickleball, a town-wide subway, and a requirement that mayors must be 5 feet or under.
Several members of the audience found all 15 items and were winners, and received “West Hartford” pins.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Conway introduced Thursday’s program, noting that it sold out faster than a Taylor Swift concert.
Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Chip Janiszewski also spoke to the crowd and Steve Litchfield, regional vice president for TD Bank, the presenting sponsor, introduced Cantor.
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