Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
"CITY TAKING ACTION ON 'BUTT UGLY' BUILDING." That was the header on a July e-mail blast to the press from Sarah Barr, director of communications to Hartford, Conn.'s mayor. "Butt ugly" isn't a term that government officials have cause to utter often, except in Hartford. There, efforts to tear down the structure with the unfortunate nickname have stalled for years. From short-sighted planning to political corruption to urban stagnation, the Butt Ugly Building has come to symbolize everything that has gone wrong in Hartford over the past five decades. With demolition finally scheduled to begin this month, Hartford hopes to prove it's on the road to recovery.
Architecturally, there's nothing wrong with the former H.B. Davis department and mail-order store. "The irony here is that it's not ugly," says Tom Condon, an editor with the Hartford Courant. "It's a handsome commercial building that was allowed to deteriorate and lose its context." The fateful decision, Condon says, was the construction of Interstate 84 straight through Hartford in the 1960s. That move severed the north end of downtown from the rest of the city, causing it to wither. Today, parking lots surround the long-abandoned Butt Ugly Building, with its faded, pock-marked walls and broken windows. "It was a classic case of sacrificing the place for the means to get through it," Condon says.
For years, officials have made one false start after another as they tried to demolish the building. In the meantime, it only became more notorious. Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez resigned in June after he was convicted of five felonies, one of which related to the Butt Ugly Building. Prosecutors persuaded jurors that Perez had tried to extort $100,000 for a political ally from a developer interested in the site.
One of the first orders of business for new mayor Pedro Segarra was to get rid of the Butt Ugly Building -- or "Bubby," as he affectionately calls it. The city has purchased the property and plans to finish demolishing it by the end of fall.
Segarra hopes to follow up that mostly symbolic act with much-needed substantive progress. Though Hartford has had some success redeveloping its waterfront, it remains a distressed city by many measures. Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the country, but about one-third of the residents of its capital live below the poverty line.
The city's strategy is to make public investments in the area north of I-84, most notably a new $77 million public safety complex. No one expects a decades-long decline to reverse itself in a matter of months. But Segarra hopes that private development will take off in 2012, after the public safety complex's completion. "It's going to be a very, very interesting year," Segarra says.
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