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Some Blue Back Square Musings from 2008

Posted by whforums on August 5, 2008

I wasn’t around when Blue Back Square was going up – I was living in upstate New York, receiving off and on updates from my parents, first about this “new development,” then about “Blue Blood Square” … I didn’t really understand the design or scope of the project until I moved back to West Hartford. In fact, all I really knew was that my parents had voted against it as often as they could.

Since I’ve moved back, I’ve seen a ribbon cutting ceremony, I’ve seen Blue Back mostly filling in – I mean, we’ve even got our library back. And you know what? I like Blue Back Square, and had I been living here at the time (not knowing what propaganda was swirling) I think I would have supported it – mixed use development that takes the hub of town and expands it as living space, library space and shopping district? Get me a performance space and life is beautiful.

And this sentiment seems to be generally shared across town – at least, whenever I walk through BBS, there are people all around – either shopping or window shopping. There’s no question the area is alive, and, as yet, it doesn’t seem to be killing West Hartford Center proper. In part, that’s because BBS is still a destination – something people in the region have heard of (and it’s gotten a lot of press) and want to see. And yet even as I write all of this in celebration, I can’t ignore that I perceive BBS with some fringes of concern. Chief among them – how long will BBS remain a destination, and how long will it remain unique? And once it’s no longer a destination – can we, the residents of West Hartford, support it?

I ask because of this article in the Norwalk Advocate that discusses the development of “Blue Back” like space in Norwalk. Ken Narva of Street-Works (the managing development partner of BBS) says of his development: “This is Norwalk, this is not West Hartford, people get tired of hearing about Blue Back Square,” Narva said. “But it is relevant because Waypointe is a mixed-use development with three uses – retail, residential and office.”

The essential question for me is this. If people are “tired of hearing about BBS,” at what point will people become tired of visiting BBS? What happens to BBS – and the Center, when BBS is no longer the “it” place, or, at the very least, as it ages? I think about the debacle of Constitution Plaza (which didn’t start out as a debacle), in part because, in 20 years, some of the wonderful, large spaces in Blue Back will likely be divided (and we’ll certainly see our share of empty storefronts). And I also worry that, with several new restaurants on the way, West Hartford can only support so many. When the visitors dry up – then what?

Just some Blue Back Square musings from 2008 …

3 Responses to “Some Blue Back Square Musings from 2008”

  1. Robert said

    I guess the big questions for me are still 1) are the apartments and condos filling up, and 2), is the town reaping the tax benefits BBS proponents claimed? I like the renovated library, and I certainly appreciate having an REI in the neighborhood. It won’t have been worth it, however, if the town’s taxpayers lose more than they gain.

  2. Our city of Bristol is currently looking for a mixed-use project for a 17 acre site formerly occupied by the Bristol Centre Mall on North Main Street.

    West Hartford was fortunate to have the backing of private developers for Blue Back Square. In most communities a development of that type would not be possible without substantial financial support from the local municipality. Blue Back Square’s new urbanism layout will become very popular in the future as high energy costs and conservation of resources necessitate people living closer to where they work. Additionally, as more baby boomers retire they will be looking to continue an active lifestyle that addresses their personal, professional and recreational interests. A mixed use environment such as Blue Back Square will be very attractive for these adults.

    Sadly, our city has been unable to garner the interest of private investors leaving our Bristol Downtown Development Corporation, an agency created for the development of this site, with only one bid for a downtown plan. That bidder failed to meet the financial criteria to back the project and was looking for the city to back the project.

    Many cities would love to have a Blue Back Square, but at this point it appears that only communities with strong personal incomes will attract the interest of private developers.

  3. Matt said

    Back in 2002, we were told that we needed to approve Blue Back to prevent a big box chain store on Raymond Road, and to promote more privately owned businesses like those in the Center. They also promised a mix of high-end and affordable housing, a remodeling of the old Town Hall / Board of Ed building, an “art house” movie theater, and that Blue Back would help prevent tax increases.

    What did we get? A big box chain store ON MAIN STREET, a glaringly white modernist monstrosity in the middle of what had been a unique stretch of neo-Georgian / Federal style buildings, a standard faux-front shopping mall filled with national chain stores that are driving out the local, privately-owed businesses (Simmer just joined the list), the destruction of the old Town Hall, a typical movie theater charging the highest ticket prices anywhere, condos and loft apartments that only the wealthy can afford, and to top it off, the imposition of $50 million in public debt to pay for all this, and property taxes still increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation.

    There is a lesson to be learned here. When the politicians of both parties, the media and private businesses team up to support something and to criticize/demonize opponents, chances are that when the truth comes out, the people will realize they have been screwed. This applies whether you are talking about a real estate development, legislation, or even a foreign war. Blue Back did not just appear in 2002 after the car dealerships closed. It was in the works for years. Think about it. It is ludicrous to believe that an international consortium of real estate developers suddenly in 2001 came up with a proposal to build something on the scale of Blue Back, which required $50 million in public debt and the donation of 15 acres of town-owned land.

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