First Rule: You do not talk about it.
Given the lack of notice about LSNI quarterly meetings, this is hardly an issue.
Lack of Accountability
The Livable & Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative was intended to increase accountability for One City, One Plan. For this, Hartford was divided into four districts — each with a representative from constituent services and a well-compensated district captain. The North District consists of Upper Albany, Clay Arsenal, and the North East neighborhoods; West District is Blue Hills, West End, Asylum Hill, and Parkville; Central District is Frog Hollow, Sheldon-Charter Oak, South Green, and Downtown; and the South District is Barry Square, Behind the Rocks, South West, and the South End.
This seems straightforward enough, but the “demonstration areas” do not all remain within single districts and there has been some apparent redistricting so that the NRZ is distributed between two districts. In effect, it requires representatives from the Frog Hollow NRZ to attend not one but two different district meetings if they would like updates. Although the LSNI quarterly district meetings are open to the general public, only those directly involved in NRZs seem routinely informed about these meetings at all. The quarterly meeting for the Central District was held in the Autorino Great Hall at the Bushnell earlier this month. It could have been held in a study room at the library, without the expensive-looking cheese platter. Outside of those directly employed by the City, there were five or six residents in attendance — three of whom were from Frog Hollow, the remainder from Downtown (SoDo NRZ). There were no residents from the Sheldon/Charter Oak neighborhood attending this meeting.
Though constituent services have regularly attended Frog Hollow NRZ meetings, the district captain continues to evade the meetings, despite having been invited and requested. This point of exasperation emerged at the quarterly meeting, to which an excuse was scrambled for as to why he did not attend the previous month. Nothing was said about his failure to stop by any of of monthly meetings that have occurred since his employment with the City began late last year. If a well-paid employee (district captains make roughly four times what City Councilpersons do and residents have demanded far less of them) can not make one good faith gesture by introducing himself to taxpaying residents, one wonders to what capacity he is willing to fulfill more demanding aspects of his job.
Being consistent, the Central District captain did not attend the late June meeting of the Frog Hollow NRZ after having been put on the spot at the LSNI quarterly meeting to do so; we do know, however, that his schedule is not so busy after all. On June 27, according to the minutes, he spoke at the SoDo NRZ meeting held at the Bushnell.
Quarterly Blight Report
What happens at these LSNI meetings where “in depth discussions of blighted properties” occur? Not much. Not for the Central District, anyway.
As the district captain read from the Powerpoint, Jonas Maciunas, Senior Assistant to the Chief Operating Officer, filled in the many blanks.
One big blank was filled in by the district captain himself, who — by describing the process of identifying blight as “quick, drive-by surveys” and saying he “can’t see every single one of them” — admitted that the City does not give the attention necessary to blight. Inexcusable in such a walkable city where, without overexerting oneself, such a survey can be taken on foot by someone willing to spend one day in each neighborhood of his district; this would be completed in four days.
Although some in City Hall are quick to excuse the delayed effectiveness of the LSNI and its associated staff, anti-blight measures are not new. They are simply renamed and slightly reconfigured every few years.
When a property is identified as being (potentially) blighted, a preliminary notice letter is “sent to property owners when potential violations of the City’s Anti-Blight Ordinance are believe[d] to exist.” This gives owners thirty days to contact the City to schedule a meeting about the issues. Unsurprisingly, there has been low response to those letters.
The City has spelled out exactly what is required for a property to be considered blighted:
Following the preliminary letters, properties are inspected and the owners are given letters of violation. This gives property owners another thirty days to take action.
Since January, eleven properties in the Central District received violation citations, according to data provided on June 4, 2012. The fine is $100 per day per violation.
If property owners do not take action, the City can acquire the property and then decide whether to rehab or demolish it. With demolition being treated as the only desirable option by some in too many cases, hearing that a property’s status has been changed to “abated” would seem like welcome news. But, what is required for this “abated” status is minor. While the ambiguous definition provided by the City says that “the property has been put back into useful condition and is no longer subject any enforcement actions through the Anti Blight Ordinance or other City Ordinances or Codes,” a property may be considered abated if it is boarded up– hardly what most would consider to be useful condition. Is it useful if the property can be rented or sold? Is it useful if there is a roof and people can squat inside? Given the appearance of some supposedly abated properties, we are led to believe it is the latter.
Tale of Two Fences
Rather than spend time discussing specific blighted properties, the LSNI meeting was a combination of explaining terminology that everyone in the room was likely aware of at this point, and boasting of other neighborhood projects. Again, until pressed for details, there was no rush to describe what was meant by “improvements” at the Pope Park Recreation Center or at Pulaski Mall. The prior improvements are nothing park users have not been aware of by passing through — painting and roofing. The latter involves adding trees, a new playscape, and a new walkway. The fence at Buckingham and Main that some downtowners have been griping about has been fixed.
Not mentioned: Frog Hollow residents are still waiting for action to be taken on a fence between Park Street and Putnam Heights. For years it has been vandalized by merchants in the street economy, who have taken it upon themselves to cut through from Park Street into a quieter, residential area. A property owner was informed that an 8′ fence would not be approved for this spot, so he has to settle for a 6′ one. This is all while those involved in the trespassing have informed him and others that the “highway” (passage between Park Street and Putnam Heights) would remain. Even though the police department vouched for the need for a higher fence in this particular location, another City department dismissed it. The result of this pedestrian freeway? Open drug deals have been seen happening in residents’ backyards — residents who do not want their children exposed to this.
The issue of the fence behind 854 Park Street has been ongoing for years and should be on LSNI’s radar, but by all appearances, is not.
Ignoring Residents’ Concerns, Catering to Tourists
But, the iQuilt’s wayfinding signs are popping up in downtown, an obvious priority when dealing with quality of life issues.
While Big Belly solar-powered trash compactors will be installed on Park, Main, and Trumbull (no timeline or further details given), residents on side streets are still waiting for regular bins, damaged and removed years ago, to be replaced.
No followup was given on community development projects included in a previous report, such as the Coltsville Streetscape Project, Broad Street façade, or any number of the small businesses listed, at least one of which has since failed. Charli’s Cupcake Factory, previously listed as “active,” must be an invisible storefront, as nobody we have spoken with knows about it beyond its online presence. The cupcake business has not returned Real Hartford‘s messages.
A hot topic of discussion was graffiti. It was incorrectly announced that Hartford lacks code about graffiti, with one individual declaring this to be “antiquated.” In actuality, Sec. 25-17 of the Municipal Code states:
No person shall write, paint or draw any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any other real or personal property owned, operated or maintained by a public benefit corporation, city or any agency or instrumentality thereof or by any person, firm or corporation unless the expressed permission of the owner or operator of the property has been obtained.
Additionally, part of the Anti Blight Ordinance names graffiti as one of the conditions.
The context for the anti-graffiti ranting was mentioning that this week is designated as graffiti removal week for Knox Parks and the community court. That concrete along the highway has been painted on is a sore point for some, while others are more concerned with houses being tagged and stop signs being rendered unreadable due to the amount of graffiti. Coincidentally, June 29th is the Greater Hartford Graffiti Tour, an event unaffiliated with the City of Hartford, which will involve biking to spy artwork primarily left on underpasses and jersey barriers.
The next meeting for the Central District is tentatively scheduled for September 11, 2012 at City Hall.