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Business Opinion The Center

Op-Ed: My Fervent Wish for 2023

Barriers and wrong way signs at the intersection of Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

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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6 Comments

  • I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think we can stop change. We can only shape the change. If we don’t build housing, our community will become ossified and far too expensive — see what has happened to California because well-intentioned residents made building nearly impossible. California hasn’t remained in a bucolic halcyon past. They’ve aggressively protected single family zoning and fought development at all costs, largely for the stated goal of preserving character. As a result, it’s become totally unaffordable with homeless lining the streets. As far as the transition from retail to restaurants in the Center, I just don’t see how this is necessarily bad. Of course we don’t want a complete mono-economy of restaurants, but the Center remains very well diversified and there are plenty of districts in West Hartford to relieve the rent pressure for less profitable businesses like retail — i.e. Park Road and Elmwood. I also don’t really see how the Center being popular is bad. Is it so scary that young people want to hang out and live here? And is it so scary that architecture has changed? I’m 34 and when we moved here last year, my wife and I only looked at homes near the Center because it’s simply the best place to live in the Hartford region (in our humble opinions).

    • Like with other commentors I can’t disagree with you more. But, I’ll ad this; have you ever research the millennial consumer, the ones moving in and having families in West Hartford now (we are NOT children, and the oldest of us are approaching middle age)? Millennials (and Gen Z) are far less materialistic than previous generations (Boomers and Gen X), would rather spend their money on experiences, like going out to eat, then on stuff. Yes, West Hartford center is mostly restaurants now, plenty of which I may add are own by locals in the community, then shops. But there is reason for that and it is not the rent or zoning.

      A stationery store? Do you truthfully think, that that’s a survivable business in 2023? How many people still uses pen and paper? With many jobs going remote now, it’s becoming less, and, less. You can’t exactly uses that stationary to send a note on the office Slack. Now I, still write notes on paper. I find it easier to jot things down, but I uses cheap note books and Bic pens. Why would I spend money on expensive stationary paper and ink? Not to say people don’t by it, but as gifts, it’s a speciality market. People by on line or in tourist towns. And, FYI tourist towns are more economicly hurt right now then towns like West Hartford.

      As for Philip David, that is a sad one. But the article stated it’s the supply chain, COVID, and inflation combined. Not West Hartford’s fault.

      Toy Chest closing, again with the changing times, kids toys are now all digital screens. The physical “toys” they play with is sports. West Hartford, has a Sports Store.

      It also has a Kitchen Store, because many millennials are cooking now and cooking healthy. They also offer cooking classes there, something you can’t get online, and the residents of West Hartford with disposable income would pay for that. If you study today’s consumer, they need a reason to go out and buy something in a brick and motor shop. Cook Supply Plus gives them that reason.

      Funny how you first stated about online, shopping, but you don’t want to go there… while it is all there.

      Finally, I am much like it that La Salle is one way now. If you look up the date, it shows that one lane roads that welcome more walkability and bikes make for less car accidents.

      This is all data which is pretty much accessible and any undergrad in business and urban planning can find.

  • Wait? Author is using Norwalk – a municipality that less than 5 years ago permitted a monstrosity of a mall (yes – a new MALL) that currently has street level flagship store vacancies no less, just steps away from their downtown – as an example of what they want West Hartford to be?!?!?!?!

    I can only imagine what Author would think if a developer proposed to put something like SoNo Collection at the corner of Farmington Ave and Trout Brook….LOL.

  • Here’s a better idea of how to fix the traffic and parking issues in the center: bring back the Farmington Avenue streetcar line. The rails are still in the road hidden beneath the asphalt.

    Another suggestion would be to actually have signs pointing towards the parking garages and give service workers in the center free parking. It’s usually the hourly workers parking on the neighborhood streets…

  • I am relieved there is an ability to comment on this op-ed, because my thoughts have been ruminating on this piece ever since I read it earlier in the morning.

    With all respect to the author, I think the arguments presented here are, at best, severely flawed and, at worst, dangerously reflect the inability of certain people to accept change. If the author is indeed one who rebukes the changing nature of the center, I do not know what else to say except that the author’s task in fighting the inevitable would be akin to Sisyphus and his boulder.

    There seems to be a lack of understanding by the author in relation to societal changes that come with urban/suburban growth as well as cultural shifts that come with different age demographics. Another commenter, Joshua Gordon, wrote perfectly in describing what millennials and younger generations spend money on instead of individuals in older populations: younger generations typically tend to use disposable income on experiences rather than needless goods. For this reason, nightlife and restaurants are going to be much more viable options for the town center moving forward than retail stores which either offer niche services that can be found for cheaper elsewhere or goods that a majority of the town’s population cannot reasonably afford.

    As far as hinting that the center is becoming a “Pottersville” or a “traffic-congested city”, I think the author again shows a lack of what is actually causing these issues. Indeed, there seems to be an overall sense of the author saying the way to solve national or even societal problems which, inevitably, also impact West Hartford is to put a moratorium on allowing new restaurants or housing developments. How these moratoriums will prevent the continued urbanization of the human race that has been going on for the past few centuries, I have not the faintest idea. As far as “traffic congestion” is concerned, this issue, again, will not be solved by moratoriums on development. The fact of the matter is that one cannot have it both ways: either the town will attract more people (meaning more cars) and become more financially lucrative (meaning that the town can offer municipal services that benefit everyone, such as pedestrian safety measures), or the town will fail to adapt to changing population trends and become yet another empty rest stop in Connecticut that caters to a small “nimby” population while the vast majority moves on to pastures that are, at least proverbially, greener.

    Solving traffic concerns will come only when cities become more “people friendly” rather than “car friendly”, which, in actuality, means expanding housing and retail space while simultaneously promoting public transportation. As another commenter pointed out, one way to reduce traffic congestion is to bring back the rail lines. Investing in rail lines and other modes of public transportation will inevitably help ease the amount of traffic in the center, allowing for more outdoor dining and safe pedestrian zones. In addition to investing in public transportation, a more radical step, but perhaps an ultimately more beneficial one, to promote pedestrian safety is to make the center a “super block”, similar to those in major European cities. I do not doubt that this change would also be fought against by those who “miss the good old days when you could drive anywhere”, but this measure would be the only viable way to make the center completely pedestrian friendly while simultaneously allowing for continued retail and housing growth.

    At the risk of being too sarcastic, one last topic I want to touch upon is how the issue of mice and rats being attracted to food in the center is somehow a problem that has not plagued humanity since the agricultural revolution nearly twelve thousand years ago. There is a reason why humans found value in domesticating cats in the early stages of city states: as humans populations grew in concentrated areas, so too did rat and mice populations. In fact, as one NPR article pointed out in 2011, there were nearly an estimated seven billion rats (not including mice) in the world. So, at the end of the day, where there are humans there will be rodents. Stopping growth in the center will not stop rodents from existing, it will only prevent the center from becoming profitable for multiple species, humans included.

    Overall, West Hartford is a vibrant, growing community that has attracted people from all around the world to move to and live their best lives possible. What makes West Hartford great is not its “quintessential New England Town” look or feel, but its diversity and multicultural heritage that will only continue with expanded growth.

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