Stepping out of a van onto Congress Avenue, an out-of-town consultant said he didn’t see how the Hill corridor could be converted into a vibrant “Main Street.” Two hours later, the street had transformed before his very eyes, into a neighborhood on the brink of revitalization.
That transformation in perspective took place Tuesday afternoon on Congress Avenue in the Hill. It was the second neighborhood visited that day by John Simone (at left in photo), who runs a not-for-profit called the Connecticut Main Street Center.
Simone is in town this week at the invitation of Mayor Toni Harp, who has hired him to produce a plan to advise the city on how to revive several commercial corridors in town: Dixwell Avenue, Whalley Avenue, Congress Avenue, and Grand Avenue.
Simone, along with colleague Kent Burnes (at right in photo), has been exploring those streets on foot and by van, as well as holding community meetings to gather information. He’ll present a preliminary report of his findings at the end of the week, and a full written report a month after that. (The Economic Development Corporation agreed to foot the $10,000 bill for the visits and the study.) The week’s effort is aimed toward figuring out how to maximize the commercial potential of each of the four selected corridors, so that economic development stretches throughout the city, not just downtown.
The goal on Congress Avenue, however, may end up being slightly different. Simone and Burnes noted that the street doesn’t have a strong commercial presence. It doesn’t have a defined identity yet: it’s part hospital-oriented, but it has a large K-8 school, a number of shops, and a lot of housing.
Congress Avenue’s task, therefore, isn’t the same as that of Whalley or Grand avenues, which already have well-established commercial bases. Congress Avenue needs to decide what it wants to become, the consultants said.
The consultants’ visit ended up missing or glossing over some of the key ingredients that could have in fact helped them understand Congress Avenue commercial and civic life today as well as imagine its future, including the seeds of a business base..
• They have said part of their goal is to see what already works in the neighborhood corridors and has the potential to broaden the customer base. Yet they didn’t spend time at Sandra’s Next Generation soul-food restaurant, a neighborhood landmark and business success story with a deeply loyal following. (The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.)
• They just brushed by the Daggett Street studios, home to artists with sometimes regional followings as well as popular underground concerts, just up the block from the Courtland Wilson Branch library, which has become a true community center.
• A day earlier, consultant Burnes had said that urban neighborhood districts should explore tapping into a large African-American market for natural food and health products. Yet the tour didn’t stop by Congress Market—the success story so far of an otherwise struggling citywide effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhood groceries.
Yet the visitors concluded the tour saying they saw and heard enough to imagine a revival.
“A Neighborhood Deciding”
Simone and Burnes spent the morning on Whalley Avenue, where they attended two community meetings, had lunch at Whalley Pizza, toured Minore’s Market, and stopped into Edge of the Woods. After a short van ride, they found themselves on Congress Avenue at about 2 p.m.
“This is a whole different bag here,” Burnes said, looking up the street.
Simone said he could tell immediately that traditional Main Street development won’t work here. The city would not be able to simply find a way to better manage an existing commercial district.
“What’s missing here,” he said, “is a district.”
The first step instead, should be to bring “stakeholders” together and begin “the process of ‘what is this going to be?’” Burnes said.
Compared to Whalley Avenue, Congress has “very little fabric as a business community,” he ventured. While the character and trajectory of Whalley Avenue is largely established, he said, Congress Avenue could go in many directions.
Simone and Burnes, who had arrived with city deputy economic development chief Steve Fontana, were joined by Economic Development Corporation consultant Serena Neal-Sanjurjo and former Hill alder and current deputy city community services chief Jackie James (at left in photo).
As James led the group west on Congress Avenue, she spoke about the dramatic reduction in crime in the neighborhood in the last 15 years. In response to a question from Simone she said the area doesn’t have any neighborhood organizations apart from the Hill North and Hill South community management teams. Under the direction of Lt. Holly Wasilewski, the Hill North district (which includes Congress) has come to report among the lowest number of major crimes each week at police department data-sharing sessions.
“This is not an area that would ever be a Main Street area because it’s just too residential,” Simone said as the group strolled past house after house.
“When You Grow Up”
At the West Street Housing Co-op homes at, property manager Ann Boyd (at left in photo) came out to chat.
“This community is dying for revitalization,” she said. “We need an agency and a board, to map out this area and—”
“Figure out what you want to be when you grow up,” Burnes said.
“Are there stakeholders” who would participate in a planning process? Burnes asked.
People would need to be educated about that, Boyd said.
“There’s a lot of hopelessness and apathy here,” said James.
After a stop at Gregory “Krikko” Obbott’s museum to marvel at his monstrous pencil drawings (pictured; read about that marvel here), the group headed back up Congress Avenue. “This is not about a redevelopment,” Simone said. “It’s a neighborhood deciding how it wants to develop its neighborhood from a residential perspective.” That could mean “pocket” parks, or a “place-making” makeover, or an entirely different idea, he said.
“Way More Doable”
At 3:30 p.m., Simone and Burnes sat down for a meeting with representatives of Yale-New Haven Hospital, Yale University, a local church, and a local treatment center, among others. They gathered in a first-floor room at the housing authority’s new Rowe Apartments tower on Sylvan Avenue, just two blocks from Congress.
Congress Avenue, Simone said, “doesn’t really fit the Main Street model for revitalization.”
He asked people to introduce themselves and share what they think Congress Avenue might need. People mentioned streetscaping, distinctive streetlights, walkability, and improved safety.
“This is not going to be a major shopping center district,” said Burnes. Whatever it does become, “it’s going to have to start with the residents.”
He advised coming up with a small goal, to “eat the elephant in small bites.” On Congress Avenue, “the worst thing would be to take a big bite and fail.”
Conversation turned toward collaboration, the opportunities and the obstacles. James said there is a lack of trust between the neighborhood and the hospital. Neighbors tend to think that the hospital, or the university, is going to just keep expanding and taking more and more property.
The neighborhood also has a lack of vibrant community groups, she said. Community management teams are not well attended, people agreed. Lots of people don’t know what the teams are for, James said. That’s partly because of the name, which sounds obscure and bureaucratic, said police Lt. Makiem Miller, who lives on Congress Avenue (and directs the Whalley/Edgewood/Beaver Hills district).
Simone said a management team “could be the entity to drive development.”
“This is a great little neighborhood,” he said. It might just be the easiest neighborhood to fix, he said. “You’re already doing it.”
“I think this is way more doable” than improving Whalley Avenue, Simone said after the meeting.
Congress Avenue already has good material to work with, he said. The residents just need to be “galvanized.”
“They need a catalyst to bring together the participants,” he said. It could begin with small things: painting fire hydrants, putting in gardens, building a basketball court.
Simone acknowledged that his sense of the street’s possibility had changed since he stepped out of the van three hours earlier. Walking around, he said, “I felt like I was in a neighborhood. I couldn’t sense that driving by.”
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