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Filling In The Blanks To Aid Comeback

September 3, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Though it is about half our size, Harrisburg, Pa., has much in common with Hartford. Both are state capitals, both have attractive riverfronts, historic buildings, strong mayors, active club districts. Both are also urban centers, majority-minority cities that struggle with issues of poverty and crime.

I visited Harrisburg two weeks ago, and was struck by its similarities with Hartford, and a few differences. The city owns its own minor league baseball team, the Harrisburg Senators. Harrisburg's downtown bus shelters are in better shape than Hartford's, though that is damning with the faintest of praise.

But the striking difference between the two cities has to do with empty land. Downtown Hartford has large swaths of asphalt, mostly dedicated to (or wasted on) surface parking. Harrisburg, on the other hand, does not.

Most of Harrisburg's downtown building space has, strange as it may seem, buildings on it.

This wasn't always the case. A quarter-century ago, Harrisburg was a seriously distressed city, in a class with Camden, N.J., and East St. Louis, Ill. But in the early 1980s, the city adopted a split-rate or two-tier property tax system, under which it taxes land at six times the rate it taxes buildings.

Most cities, including Hartford, apply the same tax rate to land and buildings. But Hartford assesses buildings at a rate about three times higher than it assesses land. Thus, most of an owner's property tax is based on the building.

This creates incentives to demolish buildings that are underused, or build smaller, cheaper structures in the first place.

But if most of the tax is on the land, the incentive is reversed. An owner is more inclined to build on the land, or sell it to someone who will. That's what's happened in Harrisburg.

Thanks to the split tax and other incentives, along with strong leadership from Mayor Stephen R. Reed, who has been in office since 1982, nearly $4 billion has been invested in residential and commercial projects since the early 1980s. The number of businesses has tripled, to more than 6,000, while the number of vacant lots and structures downtown has shrunk by 90 percent.

I saw only one sizable empty lot being used for surface parking downtown. David Black, president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, told me an 18-story office tower will soon be built on it. He said a half-dozen garages handle most of the downtown area's parking needs.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez is on to the possibilities the split tax might offer. He's been trying for a couple of years to get the General Assembly to allow Hartford and other large cities to use such a system. A bill failed earlier this year, for reasons that elude me.

Is there concern that Hartford couldn't live without all its surface parking?

Hartford unfortunately embraced the postwar parking paradigm, which demanded a parking place, usually off-street, for every car coming downtown. Demolition for parking lots was encouraged, because parking lots were a good land use and would encourage commerce.

Hah. In recent years, researchers have questioned the wisdom of this model. Leaving large gaps of surface parking spreads out development and makes it harder for pedestrians to negotiate downtown areas. So they drive more and need more parking. And it makes downtowns ugly.

A study last year of small and medium-size cities by two UConn engineering professors, Wesley E. Marshall and Norman W. Garrick, found that dense, walkable mixed-use town centers such as West Hartford Center needed less parking than more auto-oriented, single-use places such as the center of Avon. They also found that zoning regulations required more parking than anyone actually used.

I infer from this that if downtown Hartford were denser and more easily walkable, it too wouldn't need as much parking.

The city's made some progress, with two new garages in the past few years. We could use at least two more. But the real lesson from Harrisburg is that incentives work. So let's try some.

Let's try the split tax, to encourage owners to build on empty lots. Then let's charge for parking and further subsidize transit, to see if a few people will take the bus and leave their cars home. A study by UCLA transportation expert Donald Shoup, author of "The High Cost of Free Parking," found that 98 percent of Hartford drivers park for free.

If the incentives work as they have in Harrisburg, we'll see a different downtown Hartford.

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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