Elmwood - A Great Revival
Elmwood is a ray of hope. In many ways, it is ahead of the curve in its scale, desirability and economics. Our turnaround has many lessons to teach the country. Elmwood is a model of smart growth and Elmwood is a model community.
In 1997, West Hartford Vision (a community group that has now passed on) sponsored the first clean-up day for New Britain Avenue. Some of the more disgusting objects found were syringes, condoms and liquor bottles.
In 1997, there had been a shooting inside of Friendly's Restaurant. One thug shot over the heads of patrons at another thug on the opposite end of the store. This followed a 'near-shooting' in the parking lot of the restaurant the year before.
In 1997, the Talcott Middle School lay vacant and was in the middle of a long decline. It had been vandalized, occupied by vagrants, fires had been set inside it and its parking lots had fallen into disrepair.
In 1997, the centerpiece of Elmwood was one of these parking lots - a crumbled asphalt circle surrounding a garden of thorns and weeds. To complete the picture, the lot was surrounded by a bent and rusting Anchor fence.
And yet, in 1997, there was a beginning. The Town of West Hartford had sponsored a series of charettes (the first in the region) to develop ideas about what the community wanted and what changes the community wanted to see. Born of the contentious zoning battles over Home Depot and Shaw's Supermarket, the charette sessions attracted several hundred residents and business owners to the Faxon Library Community Room. Education, imagination and hope were the basis of these sessions led by Catherine Johnson, an architect and planner from Middletown.
The results of the charettes were a number of ideas and directions for Elmwood: increase the area's walkabilty; open up Beachland Park; maintain a diverse housing stock; improve existing properties by removing asphalt and placing green areas, and most important of all, control the traffic on New Britain Avenue. It was hoped that many of these goals would come to pass with the creation of a town ordinance that would regulate the design and placement of new streets and structures (in the heart of Elmwood). That was the plan at least. It's funny: things don't always work out like you've planned, but many times they work out anyway.
Fast forward to 10.17.2008. We are re-dedicating the Elmwood (Epstein) Plaza and I am asked to give an impromptu speech. I can't stop talking about those depressing images from ten years ago: the shooting in Friendly's; the liquor bottles and condoms in front of the vacant bank; the deteriorating school parking lot. There was no need to provide a contrast for the audience; a changed streetscape was all around us. Elmwood was clean and the sky was blue. It was ten years later and the change was dramatic.
I walked into the new Elements Bistro and it sparkled. There was a delightful smell of fresh paint and new carpet. I heard this comment more than once, 'It looks just like West Hartford Center, but there's free parking!' Elements opened four days later and had 125 people walk in on the first night - yet the restaurant had not advertised its opening. Two weeks later, there was a one hour wait on a Friday night. This occurred in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since 1929. Wow.
It’s 2011 - we have gotten through most of the recession and are on the verge of New Britain Avenue’s extreme make-over and re-construction. The Trout Brook Trail is a reality and the Children’s Museum wants to re-locate here. Although Elements has closed, a new restaurant will take over that space. Housing prices have are stable and the commercial vacancy rate is not measured in percentage, but in a number – three.
I’ve tried predicting the future before and like many before me, some of my predictions are laughable today. But Elmwood’s revival is continuing – the best is yet to be.
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