Hartford agrees to settle old dispute over fast food drive-thru

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Hartford is set to settle a costly decade-long legal battle that pitted a private developer’s plan for a fast-food restaurant against the city and West End’s ambition to create a pedestrianized streetscape on Farmington Ave.

After years of litigation in half a dozen state and federal lawsuits, Hartford tentatively agreed to pay developer Eliot B. Gersten $1.8 million for the one-third acre vacant lot at Farmington and Girard Avenues. where Gersten and his partner Phil Philip Schonberger wanted to build a McDonald’s restaurant with drive-thru. Schonberg died in 2015 before the midpoint of the fight against fast food.

Gersten will drop his McDonald’s project, withdraw his lawsuits, return the land to the city, and take the money as compensation for lost revenue and legal fees. The city is expected to put in place a package of government financial incentives in an effort to find a developer willing to build a retail and mixed-use apartment building on the site.

(Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant)

“This settlement resolves a dispute that has been going on for nearly a decade and ensures that this parcel on Farmington Avenue can be developed in a way that the community supports rather than a use that the community was overwhelmingly opposed to,” said said Mayor Luke Bronin. .

The Hartford Common Council Court must approve the settlement and purchase, and Bronin is expected to present it to the council at a meeting before the end of the month.

At the equivalent of $5.4 million for an undeveloped acre, the city is paying a high price for the property, people familiar with the market said. But Gersten has had the better record in court — a year ago, the state Supreme Court ruled the city was using its zoning authority improperly to block McDonald’s — and if he won the future, the city could be on the hook for $2 million or more.

Gersten declined to discuss the settlement.

Politically influential occupants of well-maintained homes north of Farmington Avenue have been adamant in their opposition to a fast-food drive-thru, which they say will scatter litter, increase vehicle traffic, hurt efforts to create the important east-west trade corridor. more pedestrian friendly and lower land values. For decades, the West End has united behind a succession of development plans to transform the avenue into a leafy place of apartments, small businesses, restaurants and cradled traffic.

“Like all of our major commercial corridors that run through our neighborhoods, we want Farmington Avenue to be a walkable, connected and vibrant corridor with a good mix of residential and retail,” Bronin said.

On the future of the once-proposed McDonald’s site, Bronin said, “We will be looking to partner with private developers, and we’ll have to see what the market can bear. But I think it’s a natural site for a mixed-use development that’s both residential and commercial.

Even without McDonald’s, there are obstacles to transforming Farmington Avenue. Next to where Gersten wanted to put a McDonald’s is a Burger King – with a drive-thru window. Across the street is a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant with no people there. There are also smaller businesses more in line with the city’s vision: specialty Mexican and Korean restaurants, a combined cafe and bar, and an Irish pub on or near the busy stretch of the avenue near its intersection with Girard .

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A food truck park with a pergola, stage and seating for dozens is being built on a lot at 510 Farmington Ave. by Quan and Rebeca Quach, who live in the neighborhood. Quan Quach said up to four trucks at a time would be scheduled in a rotation similar to the setup at GastroPark, West Hartford’s food truck park that opened in 2020.

Gersten and Schonberger secured a commitment from McDonald’s and wanted to build their restaurant on the empty site of what had for years been a Shell gas station. McDonald’s commitment depended on a profit-generating drive-thru window. Gersten claimed in four separate lawsuits in state court that the city was illegally blocking his plans by rewriting zoning laws to kill his successive proposals.

The state Supreme Court ruled for Gersten a year ago, asking the parties to restart the process using 2012 zoning regulations that allowed fast-food drive-thru. The Supreme Court ruling bolstered a federal lawsuit in which Gersten argued the city was effectively taking his property by refusing to allow him to develop it.

In a measure of its objection to drive-thru windows, when Gersten refiled after the Supreme Court’s decision, the city again rejected the proposal.

Amid years of litigation and delays, McDonald’s abandoned Farmington Avenue and pulled out of the project — a move that cost developers up to $3 million, according to court records.

During Bronin’s administration, Hartford moved away from traditional zoning and adopted what is called a “shape-based code”, a means of regulating land use to achieve a specific urban design. Form-based development codes encourage designs that organize development around the type of community the city wants to create rather than around land use regulations.

There is no timetable for the development of the former service station site, which has been vacant for more than a decade.

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