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Mayor Shari Cantor: ‘West Hartford is in an Amazing Place’

West Hartford Mayor Shari delivers her annual State of the Town address on March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor Shari Cantor, in her annual address hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce at the Mandell JCC, shared her reflections about the current state of the town, and what it will take to continue the legacy of success into the future.  

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor with with Chamber of Commerce leadership and town officials. Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor traditionally structures her annual State of the Town address with a review of the past year and an outline of what to expect in the future, and while that was part of the discussion, she also provided a head-on look at some of the most significant challenges the town is facing – housing, road safety, and sustainability – and how they will be met in the spirit of excellence.

“Excellence and success … it’s clear when you see excellence, and I feel West Hartford puts in as much as we can to be excellent,” Cantor said as she began her address in the auditorium of the Mandell JCC. A long time member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Connecticut, which both she and her husband Michael attended, Cantor led off her presentation with some photos of her with some UConn basketball greats – a towering Donovan Clingan and Ray Allen and his family.

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Excellence and success do not just happen. It takes perseverance, tremendously hard work, and commitment,” she said.

“It takes leadership and teamwork to be the best,” she said, which the town strives for, and with the residents consistently pushing the town to do better.

“We’re in March Madness here … but we’re also in March Madness in our town,” in the midst of budget season, with difficult decisions ahead on how to best invest in the pillars of the community like education, public safety, and the people.

West Hartford consistently achieves excellence, and continues to earn accolades on a statewide, regional, and national level as the best place to live, best place to raise a family, great place to retire, and for having the best public high schools. “But how can we do it better?”

Cantor, an avid runner, has said many times in the past that “If you stand still, you lose the race,” and that’s the approach she has always taken to leading the town. It’s hard to change if things are going well, but it takes planning, leadership, and vision, along with a culture of being strategic, competitive, and diligent. “You can’t just hope for a positive outcome; you have to do the work.”

As the town continues to strive to be a top-rated community, there are challenges, she said, and the first one might appear surprising.

No. 1 challenge: Housing availability and affordability.

Crime, poverty, jobs, home values, graduation rates, budgeting are all challenges, but municipalities face availability and affordability of housing as their biggest challenge. “No state currently has enough affordable housing,” she said, and too many people struggle to find a place to live that they an afford.

The fact that empty nesters own 30% of large homes in the U.S., and have little incentive to sell and nowhere to go is a major contributor, and the rate of home ownership among the Baby Boomers is double what it is for Millennials. Housing is undersupplied and the median sale price continues to climb, but one positive, she said, is that home ownership by people of color has grown over the past decade.

Cantor outlined how West Hartford has identified its needs, and how the housing challenge is being approached in town, with 72 new affordable housing units added in 2023, and 181 affordable units either under construction or approved. The Town Council’s commitment of $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to create an Affordable Housing Development Program has had a major role in supporting the development of additional units, with $3 million of the existing tranche awarded to The Camelot project at 900 Farmington Avenue, and the remaining $3 million to the Elle at 1244 North Main Street.

“Overall our housing market is really hot,” said Cantor with West Hartford the fifth-most searched town on Zillow, the 2023 median sale price at $451,000 – up 28% since 2022. Dynamics include the increasingly hybrid workforce, the rising stock market, and retirements rising 80% since six months ago. Regarding the latter, she joked to the staff in the room, “Please don’t think about this!”

West Hartford currently has high occupancy rates across all sectors – with 7-8% vacancy considered “very good” – including 1.4% in the industrial sector, 5.5% for offices, 7.5% for multifamily (reflects the new units at One Park on Park Road), and 7.7% for retail.

Multifamily housing, and rental housing, requires low maintenance and provides the amenities sought by empty nesters, seniors, young professionals, and young families, and there has been an explosion of multifamily housing in town, with more under construction or already approved.

Between the approved and in-progress developments, Cantor said West Hartford will add 1,003 new units, of which 262 will be affordable.

New developments under construction include:

  • The Byline at 920-924 Farmington Avenue, a roughly $15 million investment which will add 48 total units of which two are affordable, as well as 10,000 square feet of commercial space;
  • 950 Trout Brook on the former Children’s Museum property, which will add 172 units (seven affordable) and will generate an estimated $800,000 in tax revenue for West Hartford;
  • The Camelot at 900 Farmington Avenue, which will have 44 units that all qualify as affordable, and is a roughly $26 million investment that received a nearly $1 million Brownfield Remediation grant; and
  • West Hartford Fellowship Housing, which is 100% affordable housing for seniors and individuals with disabilities, and will be increasing the number of units from 213 to 308.

Developments that have received approval include:

  • The Residences at Steele Road at 243 Steele Road will be adding 30 more units, of which six will be larger two-bedroom/two bath units with dens;
  • The Elle at 1244 North Main (former Agudas Achim Synagogue) will include 49 units (a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom), will be 80% affordable at various levels of AMI, and will be managed by the West Hartford Housing Authority; and
  • Center Park Place and 75 LaSalle, an estimated $50 million investment that will include 83 total units – 58 condominiums and 25 apartments, of which four will be affordable – as well as 3,500 square feet of commercial space.

Cantor did not mention it because the project has been submitted to the Town Council for consideration as the ultimate zoning authority, but also proposed is The Residences at Heritage Park, which is the name for the 1700 Asylum Avenue portion of the former UConn campus. The project has been recommended by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission and Design Review and Advisory Committee. A public hearing with the Town Council followed by a vote is scheduled for April 15. The proposed development includes 322 units, of which 26 are affordable.

Cantor also noted that the “Transit-oriented Development Zone is important to the town’s growth,” and allows for higher-density, transit-supported uses. Currently there are two zones, in proximity to the Flatbush and Elmwood CTfastrak station, but additional transit could be accessible in that area in the future. Cantor noted, “We are on the state plan for a rail station in this area.”

West Hartford Mayor Shari delivered her annual State of the Town address on March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Transit-oriented development can be approved at the administrative level by the Town Planner, and the two projects in various stages include:

  • The Jayden, at 579 New Park Avenue, with 70 units of which 14 will be affordable. There is a site plan application pending approval; and
  • Elmwood Lofts, a five-story mixed-use building at 1051-1061 New Britain Avenue in the former Puritan Furniture complex. The most recent site plan application calls for 117 units, of which 15% (18) will be affordable. This project also received a roughly $1 million Brownfield Remediation grant from the state. The plan is expected to be approved this month.

While the overall grand list impacting this year’s budget had a very slight increase, West Hartford’s economy is thriving. Motor vehicle values dropped due to a post-pandemic correction in the value of used cars, and while there was a high level of investment in home improvements, the majority of the major developments in the pipeline have not yet been included. “In the meantime we’ve got a lot of building going on,” said Cantor, but due to the incomplete state, only a fraction of the full value counted when the grand list was calculated as of Oct. 1, 2023.

The Building Department has been very busy, and has performed more than 1,500 inspections for the One Park project alone. In 2023, they processed 7,511 building permits, and staff has been added which has dropped the average processing time dramatically.

Exciting news is happening across all business districts, Cantor noted, quoting an article by Kim Knox Beckius in the March/April issue of Yankee Magazine that starts with the line, “I’ve never been to Paris in the springtime, but I’ve been to West Hartford. … Connecticut’s own little slice of Europe is one of those ‘if you know, you know’ places that many travelers overlook.” The article continues to tout the variety of cuisine available throughout town.

Cantor briefly highlighted the success of Westfarms at a time when many malls are struggling, West Hartford as the chosen location for the expansion of bank headquarters and branches, and new or expanded businesses across all sectors, across all parts of town.

West Hartford Center, which created what Cantor refers to as “gardens of eating” amid the pandemic, will have outdoor dining again this season, she said. Reconstruction of LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue, which had been initially planned to commence this summer, is still in the design stage and Cantor said the details on applying for outdoor dining for this year will be available soon.

Also on tap for this summer is a ribbon-cutting for the installation of the 10,000-pound tail of Conny the whale on the banks of  Trout Brook, planned for June 2 which is the anniversary of the date of the whale’s original installation at the Children’s Museum.

Triumph is located at 1 Charter Oak Boulevard, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The positive business news is not just restaurants and retail. Cantor also highlighted the efforts of many that led to the announcement that Triumph will be opening its state-of-the art Thermal Solutions Development Center at the company’s existing campus at One Charter Oak Boulevard. “Keeping Triumph is important to our economy and Connecticut’s,” Cantor said, noting that 50 additional employees to the 400-employee workforce.

Cantor also noted that One Park, the adaptive re-use of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery property, represents a roughly $66 million investment and is 65% leased. The development includes 30 affordable units.

No 2 Challenge: Vision Zero Action Plan, Safe Streets for All Users

Keeping the community safe is the second major challenge. “It’s going to take all of us to make our roads safer for all users,” Cantor said.

“On Feb. 27, 2024, the Town Council adopted a 10-year Vision Zero Action Plan that will guide the town in reaching its goal of eliminating fatalities and severe injuries by 2033,” Cantor said, and is the first municipality in the state to adopt an action plan.

More than 70 action items have been identified to be addressed in 2024, and the first – a flashing pedestrian crosswalk warning light – has been installed at the intersection of Boulevard and Whiting Lane where an 89-year-old woman was struck and killed in a hit and run incident in December 2022. As part of the grant funding the town received, a civil engineer has been hired to monitor the implementation of the action plan.

Reckless driving has become a major problem everywhere, and that needs to change, she said.

Other road safety improvements that are in progress include the rehabilitation of Park Road from South Quaker Lane to Prospect Avenue, in accordance with the recommendations that were developed from a road safety audit in October 2023. The design, which will include roadway resurfacing, sidewalk and curb extensions, crosswalks and other safety enhancements, bicycle lanes, decorative streetlights, and other enhancements, is in the design phase. Construction is expected to begin in 2025, and is funded by $1.5 million awarded by the State Bond Commission.

Bishops Corner will be improved for overall traffic flow and pedestrian mobility, with the plan 80% federally-funded and 20% state-funded.

Connected to the Vision Zero initiative is the updating of West Hartford’s Bicycle Facilities Plan, and is in the works. The project is being paid for by ARPA funds, and is expected to be completed by the summer.

“Public Works has done am amazing job,” Cantor said of Trout Brook Trail, which has just one section left to complete. The Jackson Street to Park Road segment is the most complicated due to the location of I-84, but the town has received $1.08 million from the State Bond Commission, the design is nearly complete, and the work is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

The New Park Avenue Complete Streets Project has been in discussion for years, and construction is expected in 2025, Cantor said. The work will include adding decorative streetlights, a two-way cycle track on a portion of the roadway, and other improvements.

No. 3 Challenge: Sustainability

The final challenge Cantor addressed was sustainability.

Last year, the town merged the Clean Energy Commission with the Conservation and Environment Commission, forming the broader 11-member Sustainable West Hartford Commission which has create four different working groups to address various issues.

West Hartford was one of the first towns in the state to receive Bronze certification through Sustainable CT, and is currently Silver-certified. “This August we will be applying for Gold Certification,” she said, which is the highest level of certification achievable.

Other sustainability-related initiatives taking place throughout town include earning accreditation for Westmoor Park as a Level II Arboretum, the West Hartford Tree Project which is providing trees to residents to help maintain and rebuild the tree canopy, and the creation of pollinator gardens throughout town.

The Sustainable West Hartford Commission is also working with the Department of Public Works to address the solid waste disposal crisis. Cantor said that 860,000 tons of trash are now annually being shipped out of Connecticut to other states, generating 34,400 trips by 25-ton garbage trucks. “It’s not just an environmental problem, it’s an economic problem as well,” she said.

The successful waste reduction pilot program has been underway in the Morley neighborhood, and 48% participation among the 685 households is the highest of any of the pilot programs in the nation. Since it began 10 months ago, there have been “114,000 pounds of food scraps” diverted from the waste stream. Those who have been participating have reduced their trash volume by 50%.

Those participating and recycling their food scraps have offered feedback indicating they had no idea how much food they were throwing away, and have also noted that despite some initial uncertainty, “once we got use to it, it was easy to do.”

In the planning phase right now is the development of a Materials Solution Center on the Public Works campus, Cantor said, which is something the town  needs and will serve as a “comprehensive waste and recycling facility for residents, and possibly the region.”

Another sustainability initiative the town is undertaking is the development of an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Plan, targeting parking lots and garages in commercial area of town, and preparing for 2030 when it is projected that 19-34% of vehicles in West Hartford will be EVs.

Public investments – projects and initiatives

“One of the things we do is keep investing in our community,” said Cantor, as she focused the final portion of her address focused on capital projects as well as other major investments in infrastructure. Projects impacting roadways, flood mitigation, recreation, and education are among those that will be underway over the next year.

Several high-profile projects include the new Elmwood Community and Cultural Center, which will also incorporate a senior center, teen center, and library. Cantor announced Monday that GWWO Architects has just been hired to design the building, and was chosen for their specialization in “cultural and educational projects with an emphasis on designs that are inspirational, evocative, and progressive.” They utilize a story-based design approach, “that encourages discovery, facilities collaboration, and invites exploration,” and will ensure that “no space is underutilized.”

Cantor said the town will be pursuing federal and state funding for the Elmwood Community and Cultural Center project, and construction is expected to begin in 2025.

Also in progress is the West Hartford Infrastructure Master Plan, and the next public meeting to review design concepts will be held in two sessions, on Monday, April 8 from 8:30 to 10 a.m. and from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at Town Hall.

The town’s wayfinding project is also underway, to address “inconsistent or outdated” signage and directions to key locations.

A new Animal Control facility, to replace the “tired and inadequate” facility that currently exists on Brixton Street, will be completed by 2025 on property the town has purchase at the corner of Brixton Street and Oakwood Avenue. The state-of-the-art facility will be ADA compliant, and meet all state regulations, including a kitchen for the preparation of animal food, indoor and outdoor kennel spaces for dogs, and a cattery.

Rockledge Golf Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the driving range will be renovated with covered tee boxes, Trackman technology, and a snack bar. The irrigation system has been replaced, and new golf pro, Josh Moses, has been welcomed in time for the new season, Cantor said.

At Eisenhower Park, the pool and bathhouse will be completely updated in time for this summer, and the pool will be replaced beginning in late August. Wolcott Park will also be getting a new restroom building this year, Cantor said.

Celebrating schools and town services

The public schools are “a primary reason why people choose West Hartford for their home,” Cantor said . The schools are ranked among the top districts in the state, and Conard and Hall are No. 10 and No. 11 among the best high schools in the state – while having a student body that where 27% are from non-English-speaking homes (72 languages spoken), and 28% qualify for free or reduced lunch. The district is efficient and ranked 98th in per-pupil spending (among 169 towns), while 17% of students in the district receive special education services.

The schools also have amazing sports teams – and just this season the Conard and Hall indoor track and field teams had success at the state and New England championships, the Conard hockey team won the state championship, and several other teams went far into the playoffs.

“Thank you to WHCi for filming [the games and meets] … and being here today,” Cantor added.

Performing arts are another “shining star” for West Hartford Public Schools, with a first place finish for Hall’s Concert Jazz Band in the Charles Mingus Festival and High School Competition in New York. “When you travel the world, people have heard of the Hall High School Jazz Band,” Cantor said.

Pops ‘N Jazz has one more weekend, and Conard’s outstanding performance of Les Misérables has just concluded.

“The spirit of volunteerism changes everything,” said Cantor, noting the many areas where residents volunteer their time. “Thank you to all who make so much possible in our community,”  she said.

Other upgrades that are recent additions or can be expected soon include the addition of “We-Fi,” providing free wireless access in West Hartford outdoor parks and pools, community center, libraries, and other municipal buildings. The town is also working on its core network infrastructure to improve reliability and resiliency.

“We have remarkable public safety. We hire the best and we invest in them,” Cantor said.

The fire department has used two federal training grants of more than $500,000 to enhance training and certification in various areas including rope technician training and vehicle extrication, and also held a Host Community Reception Drill at Conard High School last summer to be prepared to respond by hosting evacuees in the event of a radioactive release at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant. More than 160 people, from most town departments as well as state agencies and more than 40 members of the town’s Community Emergency Response Team participated, and the town has received more than $100,000 in preparedness equipment, and will continue to receive a $25,000 annual grant.

The fire department has also launched what will be an annual fire academy to help “trigger a desire towards public service as teens start thinking about future careers.”

There have also been investments in the police department, and total collisions are down 8% since 2022, Cantor said. The Flock Camera System is triggered when a stolen vehicle is detected. There were 56 “Flock successes” in 2023, which resulted in the recovery of 40 stolen vehicles and 47 arrests.

The new West Hartford Intelligence Center is in the final stages of completion, and the police department’s new VirTra Training Simulator was installed in 2023 and provides experiential de-escalation training in a controlled environment. Cantor tested it out herself, and realized “just how difficult it is to make split second decisions.”

The police department also received a Town Mobile Command Vehicle in 2023, which is used as a command and control platform for large events as well as incidents in town.

“The West Hartford Public Libraries are very busy places,” said Cantor, with 238,000 patron visits each year and more than 700,000 items circulated – second highest in the state behind Greenwich. A strategic plan has just been approved. New at the libraries are “Instant Language Assistant” translation devices at all branches.

“This is actually social services month,” said Cantor, and the West Hartford team is very active. She shared a slide with some of the statistics indicating various ways in which the community is in need.

West Hartford continues to be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in February hosted a successful inaugural Black Business Expo that involved 22 Black-owned town businesses, and held a panel discussion featuring Black leaders in municipal government. During March, Women’s History Month, a “Women Empowering Women in Small Business” panel discussion was held. Additional cultural awareness events will be held throughout the year.

“Early voting has finally arrived in Connecticut,” Cantor said, and the town’s early voting polling place for the upcoming presidential preference primary will be at Town Hall. Early voting days are Tuesday through Thursday, March 26 through 28, and Saturday, March 30, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Town Hall Auditorium. The primary date is Tuesday, April 2, with all regular polling places in use that day.

“When you show honesty, candidness, you show how much you care for a place or institution, you’re constantly looking for ways to improve. You’re pushing to the next level, never complacent where you are, making tough decisions. Those are all things that lead to excellence. … That’s the way we strive, like our UConn athletes.”

West Hartford Mayor Shari shared a quote from Shaquille O’Neal and photos of successful UConn teams at her annual State of the Town address on March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Cantor quoted Shaquille O’Neal to end her address: “Excellence is not a singular act. It’s a habit. You are what you repeatedly do,” she said, and that’s what we continue to do.

“I am so happy that the state of West Hartford is in an amazing place thanks to so many of you that do so much for our community … Although we’ve got challenges ahead, if we keep doing what we said and striving for excellence, we will be perfect.”

Chamber President and CEO Chris Conway. Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Conway introduced Monday’s program, and Mandell JCC President and CEO David Jacobs also welcomed the crowd.

Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Chip Janiszewski also shared some remarks and Steve Moroney, market president of TD Bank, the presenting sponsor, introduced Cantor.

Many who attended the address also stayed for a reception in the JCC’s Chase Family Gallery.

Mandell JCC President and CEO David Jacobs.

Chamber Board President Chip Janiszewksi. Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

TD Bank Market President Steve Moroney. Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Mayor’s State of the Town. March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Mayor Shari delivered her annual State of the Town address on March 18, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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