Stu­dents fight plan to build gro­cery store

Crit­ics say plan would com­pro­mise safety of those at nearby Cap­i­tal Prep

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ken­neth R. Gos­selin and Jenna Car­lesso kgos­[email protected]

HART­FORD – A well-in­ten­tioned plan to open a gro­cery store be­tween down­town Hart­ford and the city’s north­ern neigh­bor­hoods has ig­nited con­tro­versy at a nearby school that stands to lose a field it uses for re­cess and sports prac­tices.

Stu­dents and teach­ers at Cap­i­tal Prepara­tory Mag­net School on Main Street have lined up against build­ing a full-ser­vice su­per­mar­ket on the grassy field that runs be­hind the school, a move they say would com­pro­mise the safety of stu­dents.

“We un­der­stand there is a food desert, yes we do, but a su­per­mar­ket in our back­yard?” Reanna O’Bryan, 16, of East Hart­ford, a ju­nior at the school, said. “What about the safety of our chil­dren, and the im­pact that it is go­ing to have on the school and our kids?”

Me­gan But­ler, who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math, said teach­ers are con­founded by the plan that would take away out­door re­cess op­tions for younger grades and a prac­tice field for high school foot­ball.

“To add a pub­lic space in our back­yard, it ter­ri­fies me that any­one could walk in and out of space where chil­dren are, just know­ing the world to­day,” But­ler said. “Ter­rify is a strong word, but for me, it’s a scary thought.”

The dis­pute shows how a wellmean­ing plan to solve an ar­du­ous prob­lem in Hart­ford — bring­ing fresh food to res­i­dents and en­cour­ag­ing a healthy life­style — can cause a rip­pling of un­in­tended con­se­quences.

The lat­est pro­posal for a gro­cery store in the area fol­lows a string of un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts,

and is still in the early stages. No de­tailed de­signs have been drawn up. But dis­cus­sions are on­go­ing with po­ten­tial op­er­a­tors and $8.5 mil­lion in state fi­nanc­ing has been ear­marked for the $23 mil­lion su­per­mar­ket.

The city-owned site runs be­hind Cap­i­tal Prep, which serves preschool through high school, and the park that sur­rounds the Keney Me­mo­rial Clock Tower. It is one of two lo­ca­tions in the neigh­bor­hood un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. The other is just south in the Down­town North de­vel­op­ment, across from Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

The school — and the com­mu­nity — were caught off guard when a ren­der­ing of a pos­si­ble gro­cery store com­plex near Cap­i­tal Prep sur­faced in Septem­ber. A task force of city res­i­dents had be­gun dis­cussing the project, but no lo­ca­tion was set­tled on.

The ren­der­ing — needed to se­cure bond fund­ing in the wan­ing days of Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy’s ad­min­is­tra­tion — sparked a strong re­ac­tion at the school and among some city lead­ers.

rJo Winch, a city coun­cil­woman, said she in­tends to in­tro­duce a mea­sure that would elim­i­nate the clock tower site as an op­tion, af­ter a flurry of calls from upset school of­fi­cials and res­i­dents.

“It needs to be ruled out all to­gether, be­cause why would you put any es­tab­lish­ment of any kind be­hind a school?” Winch said. “How are you go­ing to pro­tect the chil­dren’s safety?”

The city’s school district has not taken a po­si­tion on the is­sue. But school of­fi­cials are re­view­ing stu­dent con­cerns and an­a­lyz­ing how the project would af­fect Cap­i­tal Prep.

“I know that even the stu­dent voice has lifted the fact that, yes, we ac­knowl­edge the food desert,” Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Les­lie Tor­res-Ro­driguez said. “But we also ac­knowl­edge that there could be a po­ten­tial im­pact on the school — their ex­pe­ri­ence, the op­er­a­tion, and so there is an op­por­tu­nity for a col­lec­tive to come to the ta­ble and try to un­der­stand what the im­pact is.”

The Hart­ford Com­mu­nity Loan Fund, which is lead­ing the push for the su­per­mar­ket, is now hop­ing for a fresh start with Cap­i­tal Prep. The pri­vate, not-for­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that fo­cuses on neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion apol­o­gized for not bring­ing the school into dis­cus­sions ear­lier.

The op­po­si­tion now presents a thorny prob­lem for the loan fund. The group en­vi­sions the su­per­mar­ket an­chor­ing what it calls the “Healthy Hart­ford Hub.”

“So, it would be kind of disin­gen­u­ous of us to elim­i­nate re­cre­ation space at the school with this project,” Rex Fowler, the loan fund’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, said. “That is some­thing we are try­ing to fig­ure out — how to make sure there would still be re­cre­ation space for the stu­dents.”

A su­per­mar­ket of up to 45,000 square feet and struc­tured park­ing would be the first phase of de­vel­op­ment. Ad­di­tional con­struc­tion could take place across nearby Ely Street if va­cant land there is ac­quired. Those plans call for ser­vices that pro­mote health: a clinic, a phar­macy, a well­ness stu­dio and a com­mu­nity kitchen. Hous­ing could be in­cluded on a se­cond floor.

All told, the project could cost $36 mil­lion.

The acre-and-a-half site is at­trac­tive be­cause the ser­vices could be grouped close to­gether.

Since the ren­der­ing ap­peared, Fowler said he has met with the Hart­ford su­per­in­ten­dent, the prin­ci­pal of Cap­i­tal Prep, stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers. One meet­ing lasted nearly four hours.

Sub­se­quent con­ver­sa­tions also raised fears about noise dur­ing con­struc­tion and the lo­gis­tics of park­ing school buses. One so­lu­tion could in­volve build­ing on just two-thirds of the field, lim­it­ing con­struc­tion to just be­hind the clock tower, Fowler said.

For the site to have a chance, the school’s sup­port is cru­cial, he added.

“I want them to want this project next door,” Fowler said. “I don’t want them to just kind of suck it up and live next door to this thing they hate. I want them to see the value of this to the school. Be­cause Cap­i­tal Prep is a so­cial jus­tice-fo­cused school and they’ve got a strong his­tory of ath­let­ics, they are the per­fect part­ners.”

For a decade, the city had wres­tled with open­ing a se­cond full-ser­vice gro­cery store to go along with a Stop and Shop on New Park Av­enue near the West Hart­ford Line. The loan fund first got in­volved in 2012, when the up­scale Mar­ket at Hart­ford 21 on Asy­lum Street closed af­ter just six months — its prices and over­head too high.

By 2014, the loan fund had se­cured a de­vel­oper and an op­er­a­tor, Sho­pRite, for a mixed-use project that would promi­nently in­clude a su­per­mar­ket, with a sim­i­lar fo­cus to what is now pro­posed. The de­vel­op­ment was to be lo­cated on land just south of Dunkin’ Donuts Park. But the deal col­lapsed when the op­er­a­tor said the store would not be com­pat­i­ble with the ball­park.

The ef­fort was res­ur­rected in 2017 at the urg­ing of Hart­ford Mayor Luke Bronin.

Statis­tics show an­other fullser­vice gro­cery store and the larger hub could fill a crit­i­cal need. In Hart­ford, one in four res­i­dents live in a “food desert,” an ur­ban area where it is dif­fi­cult to buy fresh food. Hart­ford also ranked eighth-worst in the na­tion among same-sized cities for pro­vid­ing low-in­come res­i­dents ac­cess to healthy foods.

There also is a dra­matic con­trast with sub­ur­ban towns. In West Hart­ford, for ex­am­ple, there are eight full-ser­vice gro­cery stores, and in Hart­ford, there is one. Res­i­dents of the city’s north­ern neigh­bor­hoods most of­ten shop in Bloom­field, which can take an hour by bus.

Martha Page, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Hart­ford Food Sys­tem, is lead­ing the res­i­dent task force and said de­ter­min­ing the right lo­ca­tion re­quires fur­ther study.

Page said she likes both the Down­town North and the clock tower sites, but she is open to other lo­ca­tions that serve the North End and Hart­ford’s cen­tral busi­ness district.

A court bat­tle be­tween the city and the for­mer Down­town North de­vel­oper could de­lay any fu­ture projects near the ball­park.

“So what op­tions should be looked at, and does that ar­gue in fa­vor of the clock tower lo­ca­tion?” Page said. “This is hard to fig­ure out. You need to serve the neigh­bor­hoods, but we can­not af­ford an­other failed gro­cery store.”

JENNA CAR­LESSO/HART­FORD COURANT

Cap­i­tal Prepara­tory Mag­net School stu­dents have lined up against build­ing a su­per­mar­ket on the grassy field that runs be­hind the school.

PA­TRICK RAY­CRAFT/HART­FORD COURANT

A play­ing field that is ad­ja­cent to Cap­i­tal Prep could be over­taken by a pro­posed gro­cery store. Stu­dents use the field for re­cess and sports prac­tice. From left in front row are fifth-grader Travis Richard­son, 10, of Mid­dle­town, fifth-grader An­niyah Lyt­tle, 10, of East Granby, se­cond-grader Kylie John­son, 7, of Hart­ford, and fourth-grader Vaneil Da­ley, 9, of Hart­ford. In back row from left is sopho­more Hla Mo­hamed, 15, of Bris­tol, ju­nior Reanna O'Bryan, 16, and Capi­tol Prep mid­dle school math teacher Me­gan But­ler.

AF­FIR­MA­TIVE IN­VEST­MENTS

This image from Google Maps high­lights Par­cel 1, the area where a su­per­mar­ket would be built. Cap­i­tal Prep is im­me­di­ately to the south.

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