I am not a journalist. I am a writer who loves my city, my neighborhood and the people who inhabit them. Every time I walk past Dunkin’ Donuts Park and glance through the shuttered doors at the manicured, empty field, I feel sadness and anger. The people I love and the neighborhoods we all live in are now on the hook for a project which may never live up to the promises which were made two years ago. Instead of an economic engine, we have an unfinished monument to arrogance and poor planning. So no, I don’t intend to write about the development in Downtown North with objectivity or a dispassionate view. You won’t find any quotes from former Mayor Segarra, Thomas Deller, the Solomons or the Centerplan developers. They’ve controlled the narrative since the “done deal” was announced.
Instead, I want to introduce you to Rex Fowler, the Executive Director of the Hartford Community Loan Fund. I’ve known Rex for just over two years. In fact, the first time I met Rex, I was visiting him in his home on Vineland Street to discuss the details of the very development plan I’m going to be writing about. The plan didn’t center around a baseball stadium. Its main focus was a grocery store which would be the anchor for a major development project in Downtown North. We’ve heard stories about a mythical grocery store coming to this area, but I don’t think many residents of the city know how close we were to finally having a critical part of any healthy, thriving community before it was torpedoed by the very people in City Hall who’d asked for it. A great deal of thought and effort, from multiple organizations and individuals, was marshaled to lay the groundwork for a successful development that responded to the needs of everyone near Downtown North. And it was all swept away by that press conference on June 4th, 2014.
After you read this, I hope that you experience the same feelings of sadness and anger which I do when I pass the stadium. Let’s take that anger and do something positive with it. Let’s imagine development and opportunity in our city which reflects the needs and desires of all of its residents. Let’s be active politically and economically to ensure that our voices are heard. We study the past to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes in the future. Dunkin’ Donuts Park may be here to stay (even if the Yard Goats aren’t), but we can make sure that the next big idea in Hartford has the residents at its center.
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Before we begin, we need to establish some context regarding how serious the lack of affordable, quality food is for residents in Hartford, especially low-income residents and residents of color. In 2014, The Reinvestment Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) with ties to the U.S. Treasury Department, issued a report titled “2014 Analysis of Limited Supermarket Access.” In the report, Connecticut ranked first (meaning worst) among the 48 lower states in terms of limited supermarket access for low-income residents.
The report states,
Connecticut exhibits the highest income disparity ratio at 2.0, followed by Pennsylvania (1.9), Ohio (1.8), Kansas (1.7), and the District of Columbia (1.7) in the top five. In other words, Connecticut’s low-income residents constitute 58% of the state’s [Limited Supermarket Access] area residents compared to only 29% of the general population; hence the state’s food access problem disproportionately affects low-income residents more so than any other state.
The chart also demonstrates that, as a percentage, 1.5 times more people of color live in limited supermarket access areas than their percentage of the population. While this report doesn’t rank the city of Hartford itself, an earlier report from The Reinvestment Fund did score Hartford against other similarly sized cities. In its 2011 report “A Summary of Searching for Markets,” Hartford ranked 8th in the nation among cities with populations between 100,000-250,000 in terms of the “scale of the problem and burden on low-income people.” By the way, Connecticut as a state ranked 4th on the worst states list. The problem of low supermarket access in Connecticut actually became worse between 2011 to 2014. Keep that timeframe in mind.
You may be asking yourself, “What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss over a supermarket? There are plenty of smaller grocery stores in Hartford.” Yes, there are Bravos and Save-a-Lots and dozens of bodegas that dot the cityscape. The Reinvestment Fund addresses the problem when it states in its 2014 report, “[The Reinvestment Fund] uses supermarkets (grocery stores with at least $2 million in annual sales) as a proxy for access to healthy food because a review of the relevant research shows that supermarkets consistently offer the greatest variety of products at the lowest prices, particularly compared to smaller grocers and convenience stores.” Studies have shown that low-income residents and residents of color spend more of their money on lower quality food. There is only one ‘full service’ supermarket of scale (over 35,000 square feet) in the entire city – the Super Stop and Shop near the West Hartford border on New Park Avenue – while West Hartford, with half the population of Hartford, has seven. There is a real benefit to the larger supermarkets that our communities are not receiving.
The city of Hartford attempted to address the lack of larger grocery stores by focusing on downtown first. The Market at Hartford 21 is how Rex Fowler and the Hartford Community Loan Fund (HCLF) became involved in bringing a new grocery store to the city. In 2010, the Segarra administration approached the HCLF about providing financing for a grocery store to be opened in the Civic Center block. After reviewing the market’s business plan, for various reasons HCLF opted to pass on the request. Eventually the city returned to the HCLF with a different proposal: instead of the HCLF putting its capital at risk, the City would instead finance the investment itself, but would contract with HCLF to structure the investment as a loan to the start-up business, rather than a grant. The market would be located on Asylum Street, in an 8,500 square foot space at the foot of the upscale Hartford21 apartment tower. Despite their initial reservations, the HCLF agreed to structure the City’s loan to the Market at Hartford 21. The store opened to great fanfare, but the concerns of the HCLF played out quickly. Six months later, The Market at Hartford 21 was no more.
In September of 2011, after the failure of The Market, the city returned to the HCLF. David Panagore, then the city’s Chief Operating Officer, asked the HCLF to help the city develop a new plan. There was still a great amount of demand for a grocery store in Downtown Hartford. Like The Reinvestment Fund, the Hartford Community Loan Fund is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). These institutions are tasked with providing financial services to underserved communities. After extensive discussions within the HCLF Board spearheaded by Board President Jack Ellovich, board members saw an opportunity to combine the demands of downtown residents, the lack of healthy food options for low-income residents and residents of color, and HCLF’s unique access to federal funding as a CDFI into a plan for not just a grocery store, but a true supermarket in what would come to be known as Downtown North.
HCLF was not interested in a repeat of the Market at Hartford 21 debacle. If they were going to try to help finance another grocery store, they wanted to be sure that it could survive. HCLF commissioned The Reinvestment Fund to do a market study of Hartford and the surrounding area to determine if a supermarket was economically viable. The Reinvestment Fund mapped out the grocery stores in and around Hartford, and found that Hartford residents were spending $40 million to bypass the smaller stores in the city and buy healtheir, more affordable food at supermarkets in the suburbs. At the end of its study, The Reinvestment Fund concluded that the city overall could support an additional 63,000 square feet of new food retail, with the optimal location for a full service, 50,000 square foot supermarket being in the Downtown North area. The location would allow the store to draw shoppers from Downtown Hartford, the North End, and Frog Hollow, along with residents from across the Connecticut River in East Hartford.
HCLF worked with the city to find a parcel of land to build the supermarket, and decided on 1212 Main Street, which the city owned at the time (see map below). The supermarket would greatly increase access to healthy, affordable food not just for downtown residents, but, with a location on nearly a dozen bus lines, also lower income residents and residents of color in the North End and in neighborhoods south of downtown. Additionally, The Reinvestment Fund projected that the supermarket would recapture up to 75% of the spending which was “leaking” out of Hartford to suburban supermarkets.
The next step was to find an operator for the grocery store. The HCLF wanted an operator who had several years of experience running grocery stores, and also had experience with serving a diverse clientele. After all, for the grocery store to be successful, it had to cater to primarily white Downtown Hartford residents, African American and West Indian residents from the North End, Hispanic and Latino residents from the South End, and residents from East Hartford, all of whom desired different products at different price points. The Community Development Financial Institution Fund (CDFI Fund) provided the HCLF with a consultant who put them in contact with Paul Tornaquindici, owner of Torna-Shoprite LLC.
To say that Mr. Tornaquindici was the ideal operator for the store envisioned by the HCLF is still somehow an understatement. Paul had deep ties in both grocery operation and Hartford; his father, Frank Tornaquindici, had owned Frank’s Markets throughout the Greater Hartford area. Paul himself operated two Shoprites in the state, in Bristol and in Waterbury. Paul was also dedicated to the communities which his stores served. He offered the free services of a dietician in his stores, as well as an educational playhouse for children. He financially rewards academic excellence among his student employees and supports local schools. He was even made mayor of Waterbury for a day as recognition for his service to the homeless. And best of all, he was interested in bringing his community-focused expertise to the potential grocery store in Downtown North. HCLF’s Board assigned its Vice President Marilyn Rossetti, a former city councilwoman, with the task of leading the Fund’s efforts within City Hall. She coordinated numerous meetings between the HCLF, the Mayor and Development Services staff members, and Tornaquindici. By the fall of 2012, after several meetings between the HCLF, Mr. Tornaquindici and Mayor Segarra, the three sides appeared ready to move forward with development of the grocery store.
However, a sudden change at city hall put the brakes on the project. In September of 2012, David Panagore left the city. Panagore’s departure was a cause for concern for the HCLF, as he’d been a major proponent of the grocery store. The HCLF would work instead with Thomas Deller, the recently hired Director of Development Services. In November of 2012, Deller advised Fowler and Tornaquindici that before going forward with the grocery store, he wanted to develop a master plan which would give shape to all proposed development throughout Downtown North. The city subsequently hired Utile Architecture and Planning to conduct a yearlong planning process which included public meetings, focus groups and consulting with economic development experts. At the end of the process, Utile presented its master plan to the city of Hartford, which adopted the plan and published it on the city’s official webpage, where it remains to this day. The master plan called for a multi-phased development plan for the 15 acres of land immediately north of downtown which would include housing and retail, but the grocery store was explicitly stated as the anchor of the entire development (emphasis added):
Although the grocery store is listed at 30,000 square feet in the master plan documents, Utile acknowledged in discussions with the HCLF that a 50,000 square foot store could work in the location as well.
In December of 2013, the city of Hartford accepted Utile’s master plan as the official blueprint for Downtown North development. Shortly before Christmas of 2013, Mayor Segarra called Mr. Tornaquindici to tell him that he wanted Shoprite to be the supermarket at the heart of the Downtown North development. The final step was to find a developer who would take on the project. Deller told Fowler that HCLF was welcome to identify developers it thought best-suited for the project and bring them to the table.
Finding a developer presented a unique challenge to the project. A major driver of the flight of business from the cities was the lower cost of development: lower taxes, lower insurance costs, cheaper land and other cost concerns. Developing full-service supermarkets in urban locations often presented financial challenges for these reasons. Additionally, as the City’s new plan required an ‘urban’ design with the store being one piece of a much larger mixed use development, HCLF was committed to ensuring that any housing development in Downtown North included an affordable component, to give families of modest means an opportunity to live in the new community as well. Fortunately, an initiative in 2010 from the Obama administration called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative made federal funds available through the CDFI Fund to institutions like the Hartford Community Loan Find which were specifically developing grocery stores, as well as programs such as the New Market Tax Fund. This meant that the HCLF was attempting to find a needle in a haystack- a developer with experience building grocery stores in urban areas, working with complex federal requirements to receive necessary funding, and developing both market rate and affordable housing in economically and racially diverse neighborhoods.
Rex had found this needle in his travels around the country. While in New Orleans attending a community development conference, Rex met with Broad Community Connections, a New Orleans nonprofit dedicated to “revitalizing the Broad Street corridor by promoting the economic, residential, and cultural development of its diverse surrounding neighborhoods.” The organization had teamed up with Whole Foods to open a grocery store along the Broad Street corridor. However, this wouldn’t be a standard Whole Foods. As Katherine Sayre of The Times-Picayune wrote,
Whole Foods is the anchor store in the $20 million ReFresh Project development, a renovation of the 60,000-square-foot former Schweggman’s building at Broad and Bienville streets. The project was developed by Broad Community Connections, a local nonprofit focused on revitalizing the area, and L+M Development Partners, a New York-based firm that specializes in low-income and market-rate housing.
…The other ReFresh Project tenants on Broad Street will include Liberty’s Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides culinary training to youths and meals to public schools, and Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, one of the country’s first teaching kitchens associated with a medical school. Goldring will teach residents, students and doctors how to use healthy cooking to avoid food-related diseases.
The project was designed not just to eliminate a food desert, but to address the health disparities so common in communities like New Orleans and Hartford. One of the keys to the project’s success was L+M Development Partners. This was the developer which could thread the needle of experience in developing, financing and constructing community focused projects. The Reinvestment Fund had worked with L+M on previous projects, and helped to connect Fowler with the New York City-based developers.
On May 16, 2014 representatives from L+M drove in from New York to meet with Mayor Segarra, Tom Deller, Rex Fowler, and HCLF Board Member Marilyn Rossetti, and also to meet with officials from the state of Connecticut’s development office. The meetings went well, with informal pledges from the state to help with financing the project. L+M was impressed with the Downtown North Master Plan which the city had presumably adopted, and was excited to take the next step to join the project. Deller told them to prepare a proposal. L+M said it would take about a month to have a proposal ready.
By this point, Rex and the HCLF had been inspired by the project L+M had built in New Orleans. In 2013 HCLF brought on Hartford Food System as a key partner in the project. Hartford Food Ssystem brought the knowledge of Hartford’s food needs to the table, but also agreed to operate a community teaching kitchen adjacent to the proposed Shoprite The kitchen could also house a summer farmer’s market and connect local farmers to Shoprite for year-round sales. There were ideas for an in-store health clinic, pharmacy, culinary training program, and other services designed specifically to help lower income residents and residents of color in Hartford’s neighborhoods. The following documents represent some of the planning that was going on as late as May of 2014:
And finally, an artist’s rendering of what the project may have looked like when completed:
This is where I join the story. Rex emailed me in late May. He introduced himself to me as the executive director of the Hartford Community Loan Fund, and told me that he was working on a project which could be beneficial for the North End of Hartford. He asked if I would like to meet to discuss it. I agreed, and walked over to his home on Vineland Street on May 29th. Rex told me about the plan to bring the grocery store to Downtown North and his hopes for the other parts of the project. He was looking for community members to serve on an advisory council for the project, working with HCLF’s Board of Directors, so that residents of Hartford’s neighborhoods, including the North End, would have a say in making sure the development served our needs. He told me that he’d read some of my writing, and that I seemed like I would be a good fit for the advisory group.
I know this has been a long post, but I need you to understand what I just wrote. I met Rex Fowler on May 29th, and he asked me to join an advisory group for his development project. The announcement of the stadium was less than a week away. Neither Rex, nor Mr. Tornaquindici, nor L+M Development Partners, nor Utile, nor anyone involved with the grocery store development outside of city hall had any idea that the city was in secret negotiations to bring the Rock Cats to Hartford. Everyone was working hard to bring this project to fruition under the assumption that the Segarra administration was 100% behind this development plan. The one they asked for. The one they paid a consulting firm to work with city residents to develop. The one they published on their website.
And then June 4th, 2014 came.
Years of hard work and planning crumbled almost overnight. Mr. Tornaquindici backed out of the plan; how could he operate a grocery store across from a baseball stadium? L+M backed out; they weren’t interested in developing a stadium-anchored neighborhood. The Reinvestment Fund, the main financier for the project which had offered its assistance in coordination of federal funding, backed out. In the span of about 48 hours, Hartford had gone from a potentially fully financed development project to a self-financed $60 million stadium with no mention of surrounding development. The reaction to the stadium announcement was fierce, and soon promises of other development began to fly out of city hall. It wouldn’t be just a stadium after all- the project ballooned into a $350 million dollar development that would include housing, retail and a grocery store. You know, all the things that were in the original plan.
Do you remember this headline about breaking ground on a grocery store? Well, in a recent interview with Lucy Nalphathanchil on WNPRS’s Where We Live, the Centerplan developers conceded that they can’t find a grocery store operator for the site. Or how about this one, where the developer stated they would seek funding for low-income housing? If you read the entire article, it clearly states, “The first phase could still go forward with all market-rate rentals as was first planned, if funding for ‘affordable’ units was not available, [vice president of development at Centerplan Yves-Georges A. Joseph II] said.” And this says nothing about the boondoggle of the stadium not being finished on time. Development in Downtown North has ground to a standstill.
It is worth pointing out that all of the above only exists as a plan. No legal documents were signed, no “done deals” were declared. Things could have changed and shifted over time. Yet the original development plan for Downtown North was not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. There were years of planning and preparation for real, sustainable development in Downtown North which respected the dignity and worth of residents in Downtown, the North End and other Hartford neighborhoods. The pieces were moving into place, the actors were ready to begin, and there was true potential. The meticulous, detailed planning for a supermarket centered development was blown up by the half-baked allure of a minor league baseball stadium.
Yeah, I get angry when I see the stadium. I channeled that anger into this, so that we can all know what we almost had, and what’s possible to build someday when rational, thoughtful people are in charge and responsive to the needs of the people who put them there. I hope that this story has made you angry too, so that we can channel that energy together into what we’re going to do next for our city.