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Ambitious proposal would convert Hartford building into veteran housing, museum spotlighting Connecticut’s Black Civil War regiment
Hartford Courant - 1/15/2022
A veterans advocate is leading an ambitious proposal to convert a building in Hartford’s North End into veterans’ housing and a museum spotlighting Connecticut’s African American Civil War regiment.
U.S. Army veteran Bridgitte Prince and her partners in the multifaceted project have spoken to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and local officials, but the city’s development director said the property must be cleared of toxins first and any proposed project is “premature.”
At this point, Prince said, the team is readying grant applications to fund the $35 million proposal. The idea is to convert the vacant city-owned building at 2 Holcomb St. into subsidized housing and onsite services for homeless and low-income veterans, Prince said. The Holcomb Street building is known as the McCook Hospital building and has housed city offices, but has been vacant for over a decade.
The facility also would include a museum to tell the story of the 29th Regiment Connecticut Infantry (Colored), the first Union soldiers to enter the defeated Confederate capital of Richmond. The development team seeks a national historic district designation for the building site and surrounding area. Prince noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a long association with Hartford and several landmarks in the North End should be considered historical sites.
Hartford development services Director I. Charles Matthews said the city is commissioning a thorough environmental assessment of the entire campus at 80 Coventry St., which includes the building at 2 Holcomb St. and the North End Senior Center.
“We have very serious concerns about seeking a historic designation of the property until that environmental assessment is complete,” Matthews said, “because while a historic designation can be helpful for redevelopment, it can also limit the options for redevelopment and increase costs dramatically,”
City leaders share the community’s desire to see the building and the broader campus redeveloped, Matthews said. The area is one of Hartford’s “ten potentially transformative projects” in the city plan. A map included in the plan labels the area the North End Wellness District, with the caption, “Let’s develop a cohesive identity and a new facility encompassing agriculture, naturopathy and ecology to build upon existing assets, including a senior center, health care facilities, and Keney Park.”
“It’s premature,” Matthews said, “to endorse any specific proposal at this point, but we look forward to working with community partners and potential developers to identify a plan that’s right for the property, right for the community and can get the financing required to get it done.”
Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Tammy Marzik said she reached out to project organizers to get more details on the proposal.
“While our agency and our community partners continue to provide temporary and permanent housing and services for veterans,” Marzik said, “there is always a need for additional options for those in need and/or homeless, especially with the various geographic locations of our veterans.”
Rich Kehoe, state director for U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said the senator has offered to help the planners navigate potential federal funding.
An outline of planned grant applications that Prince said Blumenthal requested included a $10 million federal grant that would be used for a museum and gift shop on the first floor of the Holcomb Street building, which had housed city offices. The museum would pay tribute not only to Connecticut’s Black soldiers in the Civil War, but also to the wider contributions African Americans have made to the U.S. military.
Project leaders, who Prince said also include former city council member Cynthia Jennings and developer Krishna Naraine, also seek to work with city officials to redesign the section of Keney Park across the street to include a monument honoring the 29th.
The 29th and 30th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiments were authorized by Gov. William A. Buckingham after the General Assembly in November 1863 allowed the state to recruit Black men to fight.
The 30th regiment was merged in June 1864 with units from other states to form the 31st Regimentof U.S. Colored Infantry, while the 29th fought through the end of the war under Connecticut’s banner. Totaling about 1,700 men, the Black soldiers served heroically, sustaining more than 600 casualties.
The Holcomb Street property is appraised at about $1.77 million. The six-story building was constructed in 1920, according to the city assessor.
In urging the building’s conversion and associated projects highlighting Hartford’s African American history, project planners also note the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s long association with Hartford.
“Our goal is to work with EVERYONE to accomplish these very special and meaningful goals,” Prince wrote in a recent message to the team. “The Connecticut 29th Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment Veterans Health & Human Services Complex, and Museum supplies a need. It’s a need that will positively transform the landscape, and the spirit, in Hartford’s Promise Zone.”
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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