West Hartford resident Sherry Haller advocates for slowing down change in the Center and maintaining what remains of ‘Village Charm.’
By Sherry Haller
Every year I, along with millions of others, look forward to watching “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Each time I watch the movie, I am filled with hope as the townspeople of Bedford Falls rally together to protect George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and his family from the robber baron Henry Potter.
George was given the gift of seeing what would have happened had he never been born. He saw his family and friends become cynical, mean-spirited people and witnessed Bedford Falls become “Pottersville” – a shadow of its former self – filled with an abundance of bars and crime. Thankfully, the good folk of Bedford Falls rallied around George and kept the spirit of Christmas alive.
Not very many years ago, it wasn’t a stretch to think about West Hartford Center as our real-life Bedford Falls. As a proud and lifelong resident of West Hartford, I remember West Hartford Center full of little shops – book and stationary stores, small clothing and shoe stores, family-owned restaurants, and a much larger Toy Chest filled with wondrous toys, books, and children’s furniture. And, more recently there is the lovely addition of the traveling Farmers Market on LaSalle Road.
Sadly, the Center is now changing so dramatically, it is barely recognizable. As new developers were encouraged to come in, rents were raised and many of the small shops struggled and then closed their doors. Several days ago, the most recent example is the announcement of the closing of Philip David Jewelers, which has been a mainstay on Farmington Avenue. It would not surprise me if yet another restaurant is allowed to move into that space. There will be some who may argue that retail itself has changed, with many more people purchasing goods online. While that is certainly true for the stores at the mall, I am not so sure it is true for the small shops that pedestrians can easily access. Just walk through the downtown of Norwalk as an example of a community of quaint shops that are thriving.
With the recent tragedies of pedestrian deaths, there are now urgent calls for studies or reviews of other towns to change traffic patterns in order to ensure greater safety. No amount of rotaries or additional structural changes will alter the fact that the number of restaurants and bars have significantly increased traffic congestion throughout the Center. In the spring and summer months all one needs to do is sit outside at the restaurants on LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue to be disturbed by loud motorcycles and car radios blasting.
The other day, a well-respected, longtime business owner recently likened the growth in restaurants and bars to the Center becoming a “strip” in the evenings frequented by over-imbibing college students visiting from far and wide. All one needs to do is visit the Center early Sunday mornings when college students are back in session or during summer weekends to see the beer cans, liquor bottles, and trash strewn about before West Hartford maintenance workers come by to clean it up in the wee hours of Sunday mornings. If you look closely near the back or side doors of many restaurants, you will see the little black boxes designed to catch the rats and mice that are now enjoying the spoils of our eating establishments.
My office is located on LaSalle Road. The one-way traffic pattern forces cars to drive through and park on the beautiful residential streets surrounding the Center – roads such as Ellsworth, Woodrow, Pelham, and Four Mile. As development continues and housing gets jammed into the parking lot on LaSalle, how likely is that more families will move away not only due to the congestion but for fear that their children are at greater risk of walking or riding their bicycles in their neighborhood? The Center is simply not designed for this.
The lifeblood of many thriving small-town communities is the “mom and pop” entrepreneur residents that own eclectic independent retail businesses where they live. I recall with great fondness the late Pat Sinatro, a real estate owner who owned buildings on LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue. My office is in the building he originally owned on LaSalle Road (a deal sealed by a handshake back in the day) and I had the privilege of talking with him often. He shared his growing concern about the potential drop in retail and the impact it would have on the beauty and character of the Center he so loved. He would say, everyone needs to “win” – landlords and tenants alike – helping to ensure retailers were an asset to the town.
Some have already said that the Center is already finished – rapidly becoming a traffic-congested city. But, that’s not what attracts the wonderful mix of young families, middle-aged, and older residents to live here. That’s not why families move to West Harford, it is the quality of life we offer.
Our town’s website used to say Where City Style Meets Village Charm. We were the quintessential New England small town streetscape with breathtaking charm, churches, library, town buildings. Just drive to the corner of South Main Street and Park Road to see the new Hartford HealthCare building. No thought was given to blending the building into its surroundings. The shiny glass and steel facade looks like it belongs on the cover of a Boca Raton business journal.
The town launched a master plan study and awarded the consulting group Stantec $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to complete it. On LaSalle, with construction staring this year, 83 units of housing and 3,500 square feet of retail space proposed at the corner of LaSalle and Arapahoe Roads. This is to be followed by Farmington Avenue development by 2024.
When is enough, enough? How much of our quality of life will be sacrificed for additional tax revenues? There are already 10 restaurants on LaSalle and nearby on the corners of LaSalle and Farmington Avenue. It might be too late to turn back the clock, but certainly not too late to put policies in place that will protect what is left. Postpone the development of the six-story structure on LaSalle, put some restrictions on the type of businesses that can come into the Center, place a moratorium on liquor licenses, encourage small businesses to return, work with out-of-town developers to come up with reasonable rental rates, and bring back the two-way street that La Salle Road was to help protect the neighborhood and families surrounding it.
The latest pedestrian deaths are a warning I pray our leaders will heed. Please let’s put our residents first. It may be a bit of a stretch to think of West Hartford Center becoming the Pottersville of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but our “village” is being wiped off the map.
Sherry Haller is a lifelong resident of West Hartford, the longtime president of the Buena Vista Property Owners Association, and executive director of the Justice Education Center, a statewide nonprofit organization that has been dedicated to community safety and justice reform for more than 40 years.
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