A public meeting where options will be presented is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 8:30 a.m. in the West Hartford Town Hall auditorium.
By Ronni Newton
The Town of West Hartford, in collaboration with its hired consultant Stantec, has been working on a plan to update the infrastructure in the Center since mid-2022, and on Feb. 7 will hold a project update meeting intended for business owners and managers located in or abutting the Center to view design options for long- and short-term improvements. The meeting is open to the public.
“This meeting is an opportunity for the town to provide an update to stakeholders and information to the public regarding infrastructure changes as well as concept ideas on LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center,” Director of Community Development Duane Martin said in an announcement of the meeting.
Martin acknowledged that aspects of the plans presented at the most recent meeting with West Hartford Center businesses, held on Nov. 6, 2023, were not well-received, and he told We-Ha.com earlier this month that there is still a lot of work left do on the reconstruction designs.
“We heard their concerns,” Martin said, and he is hopeful that options to be presented at the Feb. 7 meeting will address those concerns – which focused on sidewalk design, impact on parking, and the project schedule.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, Stantec will present a revised range of options, and stakeholders present will be polled for their opinion about each one.
“Is this a solution to a problem we don’t have?” James Hines, owner of CookShop Plus on LaSalle Road, said Friday.
“I think we can agree we need to fix the lights, fix the footpaths,” he said, but he raised serious concerns about the extensive disruption a large scale project could cause to the currently-walkable West Hartford Center, where businesses are highly-dependent on foot traffic. “We want to make sure we’re still busy,” but many of the “fixes” are likely to have an adverse effect on businesses, he added.
Kimberly Moster, owner of Kimberly Boutique and Kimberly Gift on Farmington Avenue, is president of the West Hartford Center Business Association. Following the Nov. 6 meeting, she expressed serious concerns with the plans that were presented – including the narrowing of Farmington Avenue and reduction in on-street parking to accommodate protected bike lanes.
When businesses really saw what the plans looked like, and how dramatic the updates might be, “they became scared and vocal,” Moster said.
“I know we need to replaced the sidewalk, and trees, and lighting,” she said. That’s been known for a long time, she said, and while “the Center will look prettier,” losing parking will not be good for business owners, as will the disruption caused by an extensive period of construction beginning in 2024 and lasting for an estimated 12 months to two years.
“Most of us depend on foot traffic,” Moster said, for anywhere from 30% to as much as 70% of their business, and as an example she said customers are not going to park in a garage in Blue Back Square and walk over to the Center to buy a bag of dog food. Moster said she has a lot of elderly clients who will just shop elsewhere if they lose easy access.
The previously presented plans contemplated beginning with full-scale roadway and sidewalk construction project on LaSalle Road, and then progressing to Farmington Avenue.
“A lot of us were thinking, ‘What’s wrong with the Center now?’ We get people from all over,” Moster said. “To go all out on construction right after coming out of COVID will knock us down.” She said she would have to plan for a decrease in business and reduction in staff just like during COVID – but without the PPP loans.
A public workshop was conducted by Stantec at Town Hall in February 2023, and input was also solicited from the community through workshops held in September 2022, a survey that was available through the end of October 2022, and an interactive map on which the public could add their comments and suggestions. A parking study was also conducted last summer.
While there were previous meetings, Moster acknowledged that some landlords and business owners “don’t get engaged until something bad is going to happen.”
On Dec. 12, an open letter, with 61 signatures, was sent by West Hartford Center merchants and building owners to the Town Council. That letter, which was shared with We-Ha.com, expressed opposition to the full scope of the project and requested pause and reassessment of the project. “We understand we need to upgrade the sidewalks, crosswalks, replace trees, and fix electrical wiring to the light posts. But we know that turning one of the state’s most desirable town centers into a construction zone for two years will be devastating for us,” the letter states.
“When an area is under construction people go elsewhere. We know from surviving Covid how difficult it is to remain open when you have no foot traffic. We do not want to go through that again, especially without PPP grants and rent reductions. Every day of construction, our customers will build new relationships in other
places, and we will lose them, not only during construction, but many will not return after construction,” the letter continues, stating that customers will go elsewhere or shop online.
The letter raises concerns with the narrowing of travel lanes from 12 feet to 10 feet, and with parking reduced and the remaining angled parking changed to 8-foot parallel parking spaces on both Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road. A concrete plan for delivery trucks was also absent, the letter noted.
“We love our Center as it is. Let’s make it better with less disruptive improvements. Not rip it up and risk destroying the amazing traffic and reputation that we are so lucky to have,” states the letter.
Town Manager Rick Ledwith said the concerns raised by the business owners and stakeholders are definitely being taken into account. Repaving the streets is something that absolutely is necessary, however, now that utility work has finally been completed.
The cost of implementing the holistic plans that were initially being discussed in 2022 has also risen dramatically – from an estimated $3.5 million plus $400,000 for the consulting fee, to as much as $12 million, Ledwith said. He said the town had planned to allocate $3.8 million from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the project.
An updated draft of West Hartford Center Infrastructure Master Plan options has not yet been released, but the presentation documents from Nov. 6, 2023 can be viewed through this link. When posted, updates will be found on the project webpage on the town website.
The Wednesday, Feb. 7 meeting is scheduled for 8:30 to 10 a.m. in the Town Hall auditorium. In the event of inclement weather, it will be postponed until Monday, Feb. 26, at the same time and location.
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