Experts Recommend Branding, Focusing Farmington Avenue in Hartford

Posted on Friday, October 5 2012 by Heather Brandon

ULI map of retail corridor nodes

The ULI panel recommended concentrating retail development efforts at two nodes along the Farmington Avenue corridor. Photo by Heather Brandon

A panel of nine professional land use and real estate experts, volunteering their time, visited Hartford’s Farmington Avenue yesterday during a day-long Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) arranged through the Urban Land Institute Boston District Council.

During a presentation at the Mark Twain House Visitors Center yesterday evening, the panel recommended a branding effort for the corridor that would help give a clearer identity to its commercial offerings.

The advice came at the end of a day of touring, meeting with about 30 stakeholders, and brainstorming possible designs and marketing strategies. In addition to a branding effort, the panelists said, bike infrastructure should be a part of the corridor’s design, and retail development should be clustered at two significant nodes that serve distinct residential areas adjacent to the corridor.

The TAP was sponsored by the City of Hartford, and included experts (pictured above) in architecture, development, engineering, law, investment, and construction. It was co-chaired by Richard Lampman of G. Green Construction and Larry Spang of Arrowstreet, both in the Boston area. The panel’s members were Kwesi Brown of Milone & MacBroom, Jason Denoncourt of The Gutierrez Company, R. Michael Goman of Goman + York Property Advisors, Anika Lemar of Wiggin & Dana, Rai Mulbauer of BL Companies, James Perrine of The Community Builders, Inc., and Doug Poutasse of Bentall Kennedy. Michelle Landers organized the panel on behalf of ULI-Boston, and Virginia Quinn will provide a written report on the panel’s findings to the public later this fall.

The panel aimed to take a close look at the Farmington Avenue corridor—which is about a mile and a half long, from Hartford’s Union Station to the western city line at Prospect Avenue—and provide insight on commercial areas, identifying needs or possible strategies to reduce commercial vacancy rates and make other improvements. Efforts included an examination of the avenue’s contexts in both the Asylum Hill and West End neighborhoods. The day started with a bus tour of the area, and then featured brief group interviews with employers large and small, residents, city planning staff, and representatives of law enforcement.

The panel had in hand a list of ten specific questions to consider all day, and then try to answer during its presentation last night. Here’s a detailed summary of their report.

The nature of commercial opportunity on Farmington Avenue

The corridor runs through historic areas and is in a good position between West Hartford Center and downtown Hartford. Commercial areas have strong neighborhood support, even while a lot of people do drive through the area and don’t stop at the small businesses. The neighborhoods are diverse, with plenty of young people, renters and owners, and an influx of immigrants and refugees. Asylum Hill in particular is walkable to downtown, which is “astronomically expensive” for renters, the panel said, even while apartments there are filled.

The panel did not do a traffic count, but it reported 5000 employees at The Hartford, of whom just 100 live in the city and 100 use transit. This means a lot of them are probably commuting on Farmington Avenue.

Farmington Avenue itself seems to be the enemy of stability. The panel reported that while residential areas adjacent to the corridor seem stable, the avenue itself is a bad influence. There is a strong contrast between the quality of housing nearby and the commercial areas, which can seem so inconsistent and neglected. Haphazard zoning requirements contribute to the problem. One panelist noted that it was not possible to get a read of the current zoning requirements on the corridor.

While perception seems worse than the reality, especially when it comes to crime on the avenue, the reality is still not all that great.

The Stereo Shop on Farmington Avenue in the West End has been around for decades, but the owner is frustrated by the store’s surroundings. Photo by Heather Brandon

The owner of the Stereo Shop at 505 Farmington Avenue was present in the audience, and had several comments about how the area around his store has deteriorated in recent years with the refurbished KFC next door and the mid-block bus stop in front of it. He noted how there is too much loitering on the sidewalk near his business, and customers have reported that they now come to his store armed, afraid of the riff-raff.

The owner also said that neighborhood business associations have been hostile toward him when he complains of his woes, and have told him, “Just leave, then.” It’s an attitude he said seems to be keeping more than a few business owners from doing their best with their properties—they shrug and agree that the standards are just lower in Hartford these days, so why bother?

The economy hasn’t helped, either. But the panel noted that there are some retailers who would like to find a way to expand or develop their properties, such as FedEx and CVS in the West End.

Appeal to residents and nearby employees, not so much commuters

During stakeholder interviews, the panel heard a desire for commuters passing through on Farmington Avenue to be attracted to businesses, and that they need a reason to make the stop. But there are too many deterrents: halfway houses and unkempt subsidized housing are concentrated in certain areas, and the quality of life seems very negative. It’s too easy for young professionals to live in West Hartford and commute downtown. Property taxes are too high.

The panel’s answer was to focus instead on the draw from area neighborhoods. “Retail should both serve as a destination and also serve local residents,” the panel said. “Given difficult traffic patterns and wide availability of convenient retail in surrounding suburbs, creating commuter-friendly retail is probably not feasible and should not be a priority.”

The panel added that commerce on Farmington Avenue should be accessible by any means of transportation—including by car, bike, or on foot—rather than targeted to one type of consumer.

Segment and brand the corridor

The panel observed that the Farmington Avenue corridor has four main segments: from Union Station to Flower Street, what they called the Wasteland; from Flower Street to Gillet Street; from Gillet Street to Sisson Avenue; and from Sisson Avenue to Prospect Avenue. “These four different segments should share a common streetscape, theme, and branding identity,” the panel reported, “but otherwise their needs are very different.”

There is also a lack of cohesive identity on the corridor. One panelist compared it to West Hartford Center, which instantly conjures an image of a place and a kind of brand identity. There is nothing like this for Farmington Avenue, or for any segment of it. Perception of crime and quality of life challenges only add to its negative image. Some improvements, like infrastructural changes, can calm traffic, attract pedestrians and bicyclists, and improve public safety (as well as perceptions of it). But a branding initiative is sorely needed so people have an idea of what the Farmington Avenue corridor is. And it should not necessarily be connected to downtown—there are some significant physical obstacles preventing that from working successfully.

What’s needed, the panel advised, is curb appeal and a branding effort that hints at the area as a “historic, happening neighborhood.” The appearance of a real locale, with commercial activity happening, will draw retail tenants who want to know what the street-level feel will be, and whether they’ll have co-tenants. The name matters: “Farmington Avenue” is too nonspecific, as well as the names of the two neighborhoods “West End” or “Asylum Hill.” The panel offers the name “Midtown.”

A definable entrance to the area on both ends, such as an archway over the avenue, with a name on it, could help to create an identity. The archway could be consistent with architectural themes along Farmington Avenue, the panel suggested, and there could be additional items like color-schemed street signs and banners, and lamp posts or other architectural elements. Some of these are what the panel called “quick victory” ideas that could be done within a year and might not cost more than a few thousand dollars. Establishing corporate partners could help and speed these ideas along.

Long term, the panel recommends bigger thinking. The area could use a new business improvement district to help foster the identity and its boundaries—perhaps a Special Services District with an additional mill rate added to the taxes to generate revenue so it can have an operating budget. Infrastructural changes will help. Retail centers should be focused—one around Sisson Avenue retail, and one around Laurel Street—addressing needs separately. Signage, lighting and sidewalk landscaping are all needed.

As for the retail nodes, the panel observed that the area between Marshal and Sigourney would benefit from enhanced community policing efforts, to help retailers and customers feel more comfortable, while the stretch from Sisson to Whitney could use traffic and parking improvements. If commercial development is focused on these two areas, catering to their assets and needs separately, they will be better at serving the residential communities nearby. Between the nodes, improvements to the boulevard should be the first order of business, to help stabilize what’s already there.

One panelist added that the are some great opportunities to partner with the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association on Forest Street, as well as the Culinary Institute on Sigourney, to try to develop interest in young people becoming retailers or restaurateurs, or perhaps developing fledgling businesses on Farmington Avenue.

Vacant lots can see some new life, the panel said, with some temporary use, like food trucks, a farmer’s market relocated from somewhere else nearby, and an occasional flea market. It means getting a leasing agent involved and thinking creatively, so that people start to realize new and interesting things are happening on Farmington Avenue, instead of the same-old comments about how sad it is that the vacant lot is just sitting there unused (a familiar refrain from stakeholders, apparently).

To improve curb appeal overall, panelists suggested leveraging social capital pressure to get owners to care for yards and space in front of their storefronts. When owners recognize that some are keeping up their property well, it has a way of influencing others nearby to improve their façades as well, to make their signage more uniform, or to plant shrubbery. Vandalism is reduced and people start to say, “Hey, this place is kind of nice,” and there can be a growing impression that things are getting better. Police and landlords have an important role.

Improve infrastructure along the corridor

Several infrastructural problems were identified by the panel. Naturally, reconstruction is one of them, which has diverted a lot of traffic from the major artery. The panel seemed to view this in a positive light, because it has slowed traffic. Anything more to improve the street post-MDC work should continue to slow traffic and make the neighborhoods along the corridor friendlier for retail.

Stakeholders spoke during interviews about the need for new paving, intersections, lighting, street furniture, and bus shelters, all with a consistent look that builds on local plans. The building setback line—which dates back to 1870s zoning patterns—is badly outdated. Shared parking isn’t encouraged. Trolley tracks uncovered by the recent MDC construction highlights both a bitter reality and an exciting opportunity for change.

Transit improvements are needed, though the audience did not hear many specifics. Parking is a problem, especially at certain businesses. The biggest losers on Farmington Avenue are the bicyclists and pedestrians, for whom getting around is frankly unsafe.

The panel suggested bike lanes and noted that pedestrians must cross the avenue at their own risk in key areas. Bike lanes are not a part of current plans for the corridor’s streetscape redesign, however. Whether the city will find a way to integrate them remains to be seen.

Possible bike lane route along Farmington Avenue

Possible bike routes along Farmington Avenue could be a lane on the road or a separate bike path next to the sidewalk.

Sketched designs provided by the panel show some possible ways bikes could be accommodated on Farmington Avenue. One advantage is the setback from the sidewalk that is used for parking at some buildings, or seating or green space at others. Some of that space could be reclaimed to create a separate bike path along the sidewalk, if not a bike lane in the street.

Below, the panel shared a sketch of an envisioned bike path meandering through the property of Aetna and The Hartford, where there is a lush lawn and beautiful trees that could possibly accommodate a narrow, paved route of travel.

Possible bike lane route along Farmington Avenue

Near Aetna and The Hartford, green space could offer some room for a separate bike path.

The ULI TAP will provide a written report sharing its findings within about six weeks.

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