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Hartford's Next Big Thing?

May 7, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Hartford has historically been vulnerable to Big Bang development ideas. Trot out a mega-project that's going to save the city - Constitution Plaza, the Civic Center, Adriaen's Landing - and Hartford signs right up.

These projects have produced inconsistent results at great cost. We should have learned to take the Next Big Thing with an industrial-sized grain of salt, and to look at development more as a process than a project.

In that spirit, let's examine a major proposal for Hartford's South Meadows.

The Metropolitan District Commission, the region's water and sewer agency, has floated an idea for a 6.25 million-square-foot residential, commercial and retail development along the Connecticut River in southeast Hartford that's now home to a wastewater treatment plant, a trash-to-energy facility and Brainard Airport.

Along with the Rv Vw, as the real estate ads might say, the site would be energy-independent, with the tenants' power needs met by a new trash-to-energy plant to be built nearby. It would have a marina.

Whether it's this or another plan, there will be opportunity for development in the area. Work begins next year to upgrade the sewage plant so that it will no longer offend olfactory sensibilities. The trash-to-energy plant, owned by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, is an older technology that will be upgraded or replaced at some point. The MDC should be credited with thinking entrepreneurially, about how energy production could create synergy with new development.

Chuck Sheehan, the MDC's chief operating officer, said the district is not locked into the mixed-use development plan, and acknowledged there are other ways to develop the area. One that seems obvious would be expanding Brainard Field.

Brainard, the state-owned, in-town airport, is the largest entity in the Meadows. People have been talking, off and on, for years about closing it and building on the land. If the airport were simply a playground for suburban hobby fliers, as some have asserted, the case to close it might be stronger. But it's not.

The airport has more than 100,000 take-offs and landings a year, more than half of which involve corporate aircraft. Executives from all the major insurance companies use the field, as do bigwigs from other large and mid-sized companies. Professional golfers coming in for the Buick (soon to be St. Paul Travelers) Championship fly into Brainard.

Brainard is growing. It's attracted business: Two aviation repair shops, two avionics and instrument shops, two flight schools and an aviation insurance company. An aircraft maintenance school is moving there next year from Danielson, and a new hangar for the school is already being designed. The airport is used by Homeland Security, the state police and Life Star.

The airport is very close to the convention center, a selling point for meetings. Indeed, it was a factor in landing next year's convention of the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association. At least 8,000 small-plane enthusiasts are expected to visit the city and generate $10 million in revenue.

The problem with Brainard is that its 4,400-foot runway is too small for larger corporate jets. A clear development option is to expand the airport, adding 600 feet to the runway to reach the magic number of 5,000 feet, which allows larger planes to land.

Hartford is in the business of recruiting and retaining business. An in-town airport is an amenity that attracts businesses and convention-goers. Also, airports attract business (look at Bradley!).

Brainard has drawn business despite being hard to get to by land and somewhat undersized. What if it were larger? With Rentschler Field gone and other small airports closing around the state, Hartford may have a seriously underappreciated asset here.

Also, any planning in this part of the city must take into account the remarkable vitality of the South Meadows neighborhood. It is a commercial-industrial area, not the most comely neighborhood in the city but possibly the most prosperous.

The area east of Wethersfield Avenue is a Noah's Ark of commerce, home to hundreds of businesses of all kinds, from metal shops and the Regional Market to Connecticut Lighting Center and Golfers' Warehouse. Many of the businesses have expanded in the past few years, and done so on their own dime. The owners work together; the neighborhood has almost no crime.

The MDC's mixed-use idea would leave most of the commercial area alone, though a planned highway ramp would require the closing or relocation of the area's largest restaurant, two hotels and movie theater. City leaders might want to look carefully at the taxes coming in from this area before meddling with it at all.

The point here is to look at the area objectively. What's happened too often is that proponents of major developments have been able to denigrate the existing land use. Proponents of Constitution Plaza called the East Side of Hartford "blighted," when it really wasn't. Advocates for the controversial Fort Trumbull project in New London used the same term for what was a functional working-class neighborhood.

Do the planning that the MDC proposes. Treat the airport and the South Meadows neighborhood fairly. The result could be something inspiring - a big project that works.

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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