Treasures Quietly Slipping Away
December 18 2005
Westland Street in the North End of Hartford and Route 44 on the east side of Avon Mountain are separated by a few miles of land and the divide of wealth. What they have in common is the shortsighted loss of open space.
In both instances, the loss might have been prevented if the public was aware of the status of the land.
Westland Street is the home, for the moment, of Brackett Park. The 7.39-acre parcel - a lovely piece of land, if not always perfectly maintained - was the site of a school that was demolished in 1971. After that, as far as anyone could tell, it became a park.
Over the years, the city built basketball courts, sprinkler pools, a baseball diamond, a swing set, an open picnic shelter and, just a couple of years ago, a new playscape. The park is listed in the city's 1992 parks master plan. And when another nearby former school playground was slated for development, neighbors were told they could send their kids to Brackett Park.
All might have been well but for a technicality. Brackett was never officially designated as a park. It's zoning was never changed to assure it would remain a park.
This was an oversight. But instead of correcting it, the city council voted late last month to sell the land to a company that wants to build 20 low- to moderate-income houses in the park. The deal has the distinct aura of political appeasement; principals in the company include former city licenses and inspections director Abraham Ford Jr. and former housing director Ralph Knighton, both prominent African Americans. Neither has a background in housing construction. They want city money for the project.
Forget for the moment that neighborhood kids need a place to play. In cities around the world, parks enhance property values. Not for nothing is Manhattan's toniest address Central Park West. To build in the park is to destroy the park effect. The city should be encouraging the rehabilitation of existing housing or construction on existing housing sites. Giving up a park is hopelessly short of vision.
The neighbors know this and are angry. They would have come out and fought it earlier, but they quite understandably didn't know they had a problem.
Somewhat the same thing is going on along Route 44 on Avon Mountain. Several people have called me this fall to complain about the development projects on the mountain. All thought the land was owned by the Metropolitan District Commission and wasn't in danger of development.
It's natural to think so, because the land should be preserved in its natural state. The ridgelines, of which Avon Mountain is a part, are a unique part of the Connecticut landscape. They form scenic natural barriers between towns and are home to rare plants and animals. Water flows from the summits into reservoirs, so there is public interest in keeping the water clean.
The ridges are wonderful areas for hiking. One day last week, I walked through the woods with activist Kelly Kennedy, a member of the West Hartford Land Trust. "I come up here and I feel restored, exuberant," she said as we climbed a still and lovely hill.
Alas, the MDC only owns some of the land in the area. Much of it is in private hands, and is being developed. For example, the former Brainard farm, on a lovely knoll since the early 19th century, was sold a few years ago and is now being developed into 16 huge and expensive homes in a development called Old Stone Crossing. The homes are not unattractive, and are clustered to preserve some of the open space. Nonetheless, this piece of land should somehow have found its way to the public domain. Preservationists tried to save the farmhouse in the early 1990s, but after it was demolished, the preservation effort seemed to fizzle.
Kennedy said she was embarrassed that the land trust didn't take up the cause, but the land trust is fairly new and was just being formed when the land was sold. Much public attention was focused on Blue Back Square, home of a few square yards of open space, while the ridgeline, West Hartford's greatest natural asset, was being bulldozed in broad daylight.
It's not that land deals are secret - there are legal notices and public filings. But not many people read them, and the import and significance of most conveyances often don't get to the public until it's too late. The same thing happens with the demolition of historic buildings. West Hartford, like every other town, is hocking the family jewels for more property tax revenue.
Not saving urban parks or ridgelines is shameful. We - the media, conservationists, park advocates, etc. - have to find better ways to get the word, and get the word out. The state desperately needs better planning. Land trusts and neighborhood groups need to be more vigilant. I'd appreciate your suggestions.
To see who owns the land along Route 44 on Avon Mountain in West Hartford, see map at www.courant.com/place.
Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant