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Better To Put Health Center In Hartford

Tom Condon

May 22, 2011

I love Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposal to expand the UConn Health Center and make it an incubator for the bioscience economy. "Bioscience Connecticut," as he calls it, is the kind of bold, entrepreneurial investment the state must make to compete in the 21st-century economy. It's an investment that protects and strengthens the medical and dental schools. So I'm all for it.

I just wish there were a way to build it in Hartford.

Wish is the word, as in wishful thinking. I tilt at a windmill. The decision to expand the Farmington campus is locked in, says Malloy. He said he thought about expanding the facility in Hartford when he took office, but now believes the project can be done faster and less expensively in Farmington. He may well be right, but I'd at least like someone to run the numbers. To build in Farmington is to amplify a 50-year-old mistake, and to promote more traffic and more sprawl.

The medical and dental schools should have been built in Hartford. I've never been clear if the reason was that the (then) three major hospitals couldn't agree on where in the city it should be, or if it was a straight political deal, a feast for the politically connected, as so many building projects of the era were. Or, I suspect, some combination thereof.

In any event, the facility was built along Route 4, on the (lovely) site of a former farm. What it did was promote countless thousands of car trips, traffic jams on Route 4, increase suburbanization and more pressure on Farmington's municipal services (though the town has gotten solid economic development and many upstanding town residents in return).

But what if the school had been built, say, where the Learning Corridor is today, between Washington and Broad streets near Hartford Hospital, the Connecticut Children's Hospital, the Institute of Living and Trinity College? Students could walk to some of their hospital rounds, or take a shuttle over to St. Francis. Think of the synergy. Put a lot of smart people in the same place, and some of them will make discoveries, and create businesses. This is how Hartford prospered, brilliantly, in the 19th century.

The Malloy plan seeks to create this kind of dynamic by bringing research scientists to Farmington. Wouldn't there be more synergy if the health center were physically among the Hartford's medical institutions, where most of the hospital beds are?

There are, to be sure, many connections, dual-assignments, etc., between the health center and the hospitals in Hartford (and the Malloy plan includes $25 million for projects at area hospitals). Malloy said in a meeting with The Courant's editorial board that only in Connecticut could a facility 11 miles from the city be considered isolated.

But face-to-face contact still depends overwhelmingly on car trips, on roads and highways that are increasingly congested. I-84 is never a picnic and Route 4 is notoriously congested at rush hour. Widening parts of it has made it less scenic, and widened roads invariably fill up again. There is decent, albeit slow, bus service. The busway will help a little. But public policy ought to be encouraging developments in town centers, places that can be served by multi-modal transit.

Indeed, the state's 2009 smart growth law encourages "transportation choices that provide alternatives to automobiles" and "concentrated, mixed-use, mixed income development proximate to transit nodes and civic, employment or cultural centers." In other words, the state agrees that the state should be discouraging sprawl.

Also, if the medical and dental schools were in Hartford, would there still be a need for Dempsey Hospital? Health care seems to be going away from long hospital stays. The health center people say yes, because of the teaching model they use. But I wonder if the schools had been built in Hartford in the first place, would there be a Dempsey Hospital?

In any event, I'd love to see state officials take a possible site say the current State Office Building on Capitol Avenue and its 6-acre parking lot and compare numbers with Farmington.

I have nothing against the health center; my children received marvelous care at the dental clinic. I wouldn't advocate not keeping a major clinic for area residents. I just think this region ought to be rebuilt from the center. So, Gov. Malloy, at least create a better connection from Hartford. A century ago, a trolley ran down Farmington Avenue/Route 4, from Hartford past the present site of the health center. Put it back.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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