In 2002, urban expert Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution visited Hartford. He made note of the city's postwar decline and nascent comeback behind a new city charter, a home ownership initiative and downtown development. To keep the momentum going, Mr. Katz advised the city to:
Take care of basics, including crime, education and service delivery.
Be innovative and build on its assets.
Engage in metropolitan collaboration.
Entering 2007, Mr. Katz's advice is more timely than ever. Adriaen's Landing and the other major downtown development projects either are completed or will be finished over the next two years. Downtown feels busier and more connected, more like the center of a big city. Soon it will be time to mount a major public relations campaign to sell the rejuvenated Hartford.
But it's going to be hard to sell the city when shootings are a regular feature on the front page. Little will be accomplished if the city is unsafe, or thought to be.
Mayor Eddie Perez has wisely made public safety his top priority. He's put more cops on the street. The numbers in many categories of crime are down. The new public safety complex planned for High Street on the fringe of downtown should increase police presence and remedy the error of putting the police station in the North Meadows, almost out of town.
Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts, a Hartford native who replaced Patrick Harnett in July, understands that the police have to engage the city's young people. He has assigned two detectives to find children who are chronically absent from school. He hopes to discover why nearly 20 percent of Hartford high school students are absent each day and get help for them and their families. This is a first-rate initiative. Truant youngsters have been a fixture on Hartford street corners for years.
We urge Chief Roberts to take this idea a step further and create a full partnership between the police department and the schools. Thus, when a youngster starts skipping school, police can be called in. At present there are children with more than 100 absences. That's ridiculous.
Chief Roberts should also renew focus on quality-of-life crimes such as noise, litter, panhandling, graffiti, loitering and speeding. City residents want quality-of-life crimes prosecuted. They're right. Not only would that make city living more pleasant, it offers a proven way to reduce crime. When the New York police department started chasing squeegee men and subway turnstile jumpers, they found many people wanted for felonies, and serious crime went down.
New Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski arrives with an aggressive agenda. He intends to close, redesign or perhaps restaff schools that fail to show good results, while rewarding schools that are making progress. He's expected to overhaul new teacher recruitment and compensation, and offer rewards for successful teachers.
This sounds like a breath of desperately needed fresh air, and we urge the unions to be part of the solution. The district must give the children what they need. If that means more time in the classroom and more parental involvement, bring it on.
Much of the rest of city government can be improved as well. That is not to say Mr. Perez hasn't improved the city's ability to deliver services; he has. The mayor has brought in some excellent department heads. But when $1.6 million from a land sale ends up in the wrong account, when the effort to replace the city's raggedy bus shelters drags on for years, when the housing authority is in turmoil, then city government is not hitting on all cylinders.
The Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century issued a report this past fall urging that cities be the focus of the state's economic development effort. For cities to be successful, their governments must be "transparent, cost-efficient and responsive."
Hartford must set high standards and institute mechanisms for measuring and improving performance.
The completion of downtown building projects should signal the start of a higher level of marketing, promotion and entertainment. The newly formed Business Improvement District should play a key role, in addition to making downtown cleaner and safer.
The Business Improvement District, with the Arts Council and MetroHartford Alliance, could roll out the ball in March with major promotions of the Big East Women's Basketball Tournament and the first round of the women's NCAA tourney at the Civic Center. In this vein, downtown needs more festivals along the lines of the popular Mark Twain Days (wrongheadedly canceled in 2003). Perhaps we could create a heritage festival that celebrates Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sam Colt and other notables of Hartford history.
Hartford is also missing a bet by not marketing the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden more aggressively. This is a destination with international appeal.
The city also should start an effort to fill in the empty lots in the Union Place nightclub district. The area near the train station is a great draw from Thursday through Saturday, and can be the entertainment center of the region.
One sine qua non of Hartford's revival is the continued good health of the arts and cultural organizations, unmatched in any other region in the country of similar size. They are an integral part of the capital area, a pillar of its quality of life, a major selling point in corporate recruiting. In an era of increasing uniformity, when every city has a convention center, an arena and the same chain stores and restaurants, the arts distinguish Hartford from every other city with a convention center, an arena and the same chain stores and restaurants.
The return of Paul Brown's Monday Night Jazz Series to Bushnell Park in 2006 was a triumph. The Connecticut Historical Society's custodianship of the Old State House has put the venerable 1796 shrine back in business, with an outstanding exhibit about Hartford.
Last year's United Arts Campaign of the Greater Hartford Arts Council raised a record $4 million. Let's try to break that record this year, with a campaign in every major workplace in the region.
We also urge the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to continue to be the major presenter of classical music in the region. The Bushnell has owned this important niche for decades.
State and city officials were caught by surprise in October when a federal panel balked at approving the unique Coltsville complex in Hartford for National Landmark status, usually a precursor to winning recognition as a national park. Fortunately, the National Park Service advisory board did the right thing in December when it sent the decision back for reconsideration.
This will take place at a spring meeting. It's essential that the state's congressional delegation and Gov. M. Jodi Rell fight for Coltsville's rightful place in history. We know the complex is one of the greatest landmarks of the Industrial Revolution; we have one more chance to make that case in Washington. Team Connecticut can do for Sam Colt's legendary gun works what it did for the Groton submarine base in 2005.
As development proceeds, the city cannot get bogged down in labor disputes. There can be no repeat of last summer's fiasco, when two unions attempting to organize workers at the Hartford Marriott Downtown Hotel and the Connecticut Convention Center forced the cancellation of 14 events, which hurt the workers and damaged the city's reputation.
The city's "labor peace" ordinance is in practice pro-union, and is probably illegal. Union organizing under federal labor law is fair to both sides, and is all the city should be promoting. Rescind the labor peace ordinance.
The worst mistake the city could make would be to assume that development work is done once the Six Pillars are completed. This mistake was made with Constitution Plaza and the Civic Center. One big bang does not a city make. It's critical that development be an ongoing process. For example, mixed-use or residential buildings on some of the city's gaping surface parking lots would create a healthy urban density and a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
There are two major developments on the horizon, one proposed around Brainard Airport, which should retain the airport, and the other the remake of the Bowles Park/Westbrook Village housing projects in the northwest part of the city. The latter represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give the University of Hartford the college-town feel it lacks.
Construction of the new public safety complex in a historic school building on High Street should spark a renewal of the once-classy Victorian neighborhood just north of I-84. Part of this area could become a campus for magnet and charter schools, a variation of city Councilman Robert Painter's idea of putting college buildings in the area.
Two steps could keep development rolling. One would be to retain the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which was charged with building the Six Pillars, as an ongoing development authority. This would require a change in legislation, but it would make sense. CCEDA got its work done on time and under budget, with no scandal.
Also, this should be the year to try the "split tax," a property tax system in which land is taxed at a higher rate than buildings. This has encouraged building in downtown areas in several Pennsylvania cities.
Hartford ought to reach beyond its borders. Mr. Katz said metropolitan collaboration could begin to change the "fundamental rules of the game that are facilitating sprawl and concentrating poverty."
The game is tilted against small cities with high education and social service needs such as Hartford. Since 2002-03, Hartford's budget has gone from $422.4 million to $496.9 million, and the tax rate has risen 7 to 8 percent a year. If this continues, more middle-class people will leave the city.
Hartford should be initiating regional or metropolitan cooperation at every level. Residents don't care if most services are local or regional, as long as the work gets done. It is time to think outside the 18-square-mile box. The city should push for more regional service delivery. Dare to dream. Would it make sense for the Metropolitan District towns to merge in some way?
Regional thinking has not been Mayor Perez's top priority. A small place to start would be on West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka's idea that both municipalities support the efforts of private business leaders to enhance the already successful commercial corridor on Park Road, which seamlessly spans both communities.
Hartford 2010, a project headed by Toronto planner Ken Greenberg, has begun to look at "tridents" or "pinch points," the circles or intersections where older arterial streets meet as they feed into downtown. These are traditional strong points of a vibrant city. They've been allowed to decline in Hartford, but Mr. Greenberg is looking for ways to strengthen them.
This could lead to much better connections from the inner suburbs to the reviving businesses and attractions downtown. One other way to make connections would be a regional system of off-road, mixed-use trails, as well as on-road bike paths. Trails are important recreational and transportation assets. A system of trails into Hartford from all four directions would be a huge plus for the region.
The new year will see the end of the first four-year mayoral term under the strong-mayor charter adopted in 2002. It's important that there be a thoughtful, articulate campaign and election that evaluates the new system and attempts to correct any weak spots.
Mr. Perez has clearly assumed the role of strong mayor. The buck stops at his (ever-expanding) office; he has signaled that he owns the city's major problems.
How well he has acted to solve them will be up to the voters, but he is the chief executive officer the charter envisioned. The glaring question at this point is whether the council has been the independent legislative branch of government it should be, or merely a rubber stamp for the mayor. This should be part of the campaign discussion.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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