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April 7, 2022

East Hartford mayor calls Silver Lane Plaza a ‘cancer’ on corridor development

Joseph Villanova | Journal Inquirer Residents and town officials listen to advising firm Goman & York's presentation on the Silver Lane redevelopment plan.

East Hartford community members and town officials gave suggestions for redevelopment, including the possibility of taking the decrepit Silver Lane Plaza by eminent domain, as they discussed the state of the Silver Lane corridor Wednesday night.

About 20 people attended the public information session held by the Redevelopment Agency, including Mayor Mike Walsh, members of the Town Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission, and residents concerned about Silver Lane.

Walsh said Silver Lane Plaza is the “single largest problem” the town faces and a “cancer” on the corridor. Without acquiring it, developments such as the apartments at the Showcase Cinema site will suffer or become impossible, he said.

“The wind’s on our back, and we need to strike while the iron’s hot,” Walsh said.

Walsh added that while eminent domain is a process that Connecticut has shied away from, Silver Lane Plaza remains a unique problem.

The mostly vacant plaza, which many consider blight, has a record of deferred maintenance, town officials say.

“I’d certainly like a negotiation to culminate by Sept. 30,” Walsh said.

Walsh said if the town is interested in moving forward with the process of eminent domain, a number of public meetings would be held and the Town Council would weigh in before any decision is made.

Council Chairman Richard Kehoe said the behavior of the current owner of Silver Lane Plaza and their refusal to either sell the land to the town or improve the property is “astounding,” and the Town Council has been vocal about the need to acquire the derelict parcel.

“It is just so frustrating for me to see what all the thousands of people that come down Silver Lane every day see as the face of East Hartford,” Kehoe said.

Residents, meanwhile, expressed their desires for outlet malls and restaurants for the area as it undergoes redevelopment.

Councilman Harry Amadsun Jr. said amenities and activities, not shopping, is what will draw people out of their homes.

Development director Eileen Buckheit said calls for restaurants and entertainment tie into the work being done with the nearby apartments planned for the former Showcase Cinema site.

The Town Council in February approved development and tax agreements for the New Britain-based Jasko Development, which intends to build at least 360 apartment units with a number of amenities. Officials expect the agreements to be finalized next year.

Donald Poland, managing director with Goman & York which conducted the presentation on the area, said the town needs to free up many of the buildings there that are too old to compete in the current market and to support development.

He said he doesn’t consider Silver Lane overbuilt, but “under-demolished.”

“Overbuilt implies that we can’t build anything there moving forward, and I don’t think that is the case,” Poland said.

Poland said the retail landscape has changed far beyond what was predicted when the Silver Lane corridor was first developed.

“Ultimately, these community-scale structures struggle to find themselves moving forward,” Poland said.

Amadsun said he recalled a documentary he recently watched on American malls.

“When a mall closes, what do you do with that massive amount of parking, not even looking at the building yet?” Amadsun asked.

He said as malls and shopping plazas close, it will become a federal government issue.

Buckheit said the Aldi’s grocery store that recently opened in the area has proved popular, even through the pandemic.

“Our understanding is that scale of retail is what’s working for the town,” Buckheit said.

The presentation used an analysis method known as Esri Tapestry LifeMode Groups to describe the purchasing habits of residents who live near the Silver Lane corridor.

Within a three-minute drive of the area, 51.3% of residents fall under the category of “Senior Styles,” which describes older empty-nesters or singles living alone saving for retirement.

The dominant group within five minutes of the area is “Midtown Singles,” which are described as single, urban millennials seeking affordable rents.

In the 10-minute drive time area, the population is split between a number of groups, composed mostly of millennial and Gen X households below the federal median income.

“These demographics and these tapestry segments start explaining that, the households living in proximity to this area don’t spend in the way to support the amount of retail development in this area,” Poland said.

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