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Key Points To Build On Hartford

June 10, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

The two things I like about Ken Greenberg's plans are these: I can understand them, and they make sense.

When the Toronto-based planner came to Hartford in 1998, he could have produced a weighty tome containing hundreds of important and complicated recommendations. And that plan would have gone straight to the shelf, where it would remain.

Instead he had the deceptively simple idea of drawing a circle - a shuttle bus circuit - around downtown and making the area inside the loop more lively and livable. He called for more apartments, mostly around Bushnell Park, along with streetscape and sidewalk improvements, some two-way streets, new parking garages and other amenities.

Many of his recommendations have been adopted, including shuttle bus service, more than $1 billion has been invested and downtown is again registering a pulse.

City and business leaders brought Greenberg back last year to continue the momentum, to connect the downtown development to the neighborhoods and contiguous suburbs. His new plan, Hartford 2010, was unveiled last week.

He again chose a seemingly simple approach. He looked at the "tridents" or "pinch points," the circles or intersections - often shaped like Neptune's three-pronged spear - where older arterial streets meet as they feed into a downtown. These are the routes people took to reach downtown in the era before the highways were built. They are traditional strong points, places where the stores are, in vibrant cities.

In Hartford over the past half-century, they've become, as the planners say, "underperforming."

Greenberg and his team of planners focused on a half-dozen tridents: the South Green area, where Maple, Wethersfield and Franklin avenues and Park Street converge; the "tunnel" area of Albany Avenue and Main Street; Albany Avenue and Woodland street in Upper Albany; Asylum and Farmington avenues in Asylum Hill; Terry Square, where Main and Windsor streets meet; and the convergence of streets on Main Street downtown.

They found these areas underperforming, but still performing. A lot of traffic passes through each trident, there are major employers near most of them, and each has the capacity for more commercial and residential development.

So that's the plan - revitalize these areas. The city and the MetroHartford Alliance will run a marketing campaign, and will pay special attention to a 28-acre parcel north of I-84 that the city's been trying to develop for decades. Officials may bring in the Urban Land Institute in the fall to do a charette, or planning session, with major developers for the site. Mayor Eddie Perez said he's been in touch with mayors of West Hartford, Bloomfield and Wethersfield about cooperative ventures on some of these routes. That would be a step forward.

So the plan is solid; the challenge is the implementation. On that, three thoughts.

When the first Greenberg plan was implemented, it was with the help of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which was created in 1998 for the specific purpose of managing the state's investment in the Six Pillars of Progress, a series of major development projects.

The pillars are almost finished. When they are, CCEDA won't have much to do. The agency will continue as the owner, for the state, of the convention center, a small utility plant and about 3,000 parking spaces, which are managed by private contractors.

CCEDA - or something like CCEDA - should continue as a public-private development agent. There needs to be a direct state involvement in the rebuilding of Hartford. While there's not likely to be another $750 million investment in the near future, there'll be some state money available for smaller projects, and somebody ought to be going after it.

The city needs to engage the state Department of Transportation over the future of I-84. In perhaps the worst planning decision of the postwar era, I-84 was run through the heart of the city, causing untold damage. The highway affects at least two of the "trident" areas. The elevated portion, called the Aetna Viaduct, cuts off Asylum-Farmington from the Capitol grounds and downtown. The highway also separates Main-Albany from downtown.

The 40-year-old highway needs to be redesigned. This is the time to start.

If Perez wants building activity at the trident areas, he might consider bringing back his split-rate property tax proposal. The idea is to turn the property tax system around so that the land in an urban center can be taxed at a higher rate than buildings. Hartford now does it the other way around: Buildings are taxed about three times more than the land on which they sit.

The thought is that the land tax, pioneered by 19th-century economist Henry George, will encourage owners to get the most out of the land by building on it, or selling it to someone who will build on it. A bill to allow large cities to use the land tax died in the legislature last year.

I don't know if this would work everywhere, but downtown Hartford seems like a very good candidate. Speculators are still buying buildings and holding on to them - witness the awful Capitol West eyesore just off the highway. If owners had to pay higher taxes on land, this kind of bottom-feeding would be discouraged. Conversely, building in the trident areas would be encouraged.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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