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The Hartford's Plan: So Last Century


December 30, 2007

I don't write today about Dumb Feature No.1 of The Hartford's plan to acquire the 16-acre MassMutual site at the very top of Hartford's historic Lord's (Asylum) Hill — which is the demolition of the 1926 Colonial Revival headquarters of the former Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris.

I don't write even about Dumb Feature No.2 — the addition of yet more surface parking to the enormous existing supply, which has already devastated the Asylum Hill neighborhood.

Many others will talk about the city's disappearing heritage, the stupidity of tearing it down to save it, the thuggery of The Hartford's threat to leave the city if its needs are not met, and the crassness of bribing city officials by offering a hard-to-find site for the poor beleaguered Pathways magnet school project.

No, I'm going to write here about Dumb Feature No.3: the stunning irresponsibility of a plan that aids and abets carbon emissions and thus global warming, and therefore works against our national security by increasing our dependence on foreign oil. The plan is unpatriotic.

If this seems far-fetched, consider the most recent findings on carbon emissions: that not only cleaner fuels and more fuel-efficient cars will be needed to combat global warming, but also less driving. In "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change," published this year by the Urban Land Institute, Smart Growth America, the Center for Clean Air Policy and the National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education, a rock-solid case is made that the amount of driving must be reduced.

The transportation sector consumes more than 65 percent of our petroleum used, and highway vehicles account for 84 percent of that consumption. The Energy Information Administration (of the U.S. Department of Energy) forecasts that driving will increase 59 percent between 2005 and 2030, outpacing the projected 23 percent increase in population.

The EIA also forecasts a fleetwide fuel-economy improvement of 12 percent within this time frame, primarily as a result of new federal standards. Despite the improvement, carbon dioxide emissions will grow by 41 percent, driven entirely by the increase in vehicle miles traveled.

It is exactly here that urban development meets global warming. Should the state's third-largest employer, with 6,000 employees, be part of the problem or part of the solution?

An interview with David Goldberg, one of the authors of "Growing Cooler" appears (ironically) on the website www.climateandinsurance.org. Goldberg says, "For the last 15 or so years, researchers across the country have been exploring the links between the way we develop our cities, the amount of driving we do and the effect that the extra miles of driving has on everything from air quality to exercise levels ...

"Most of the discussion about reducing carbon from automobiles has focused on fuel efficiency and a potential for lower-carbon fuels, two legs of the stool. However, the potential gains from those technological improvements would be overwhelmed by the rapid growth in the sheer number of miles we all drive— the third leg of the stool."

The Hartford's plan is so 20th century, out of step even with its own industry.

Goldberg again: "If we are ... to start building in ways that allow us to do more while emitting less disaster-generating carbon, it will be because key players like the insurance industry insist upon it."

The Hartford will undoubtedly argue that it is just these results that their plan will accomplish, but that just doesn't wash. More enlightened Hartford insurance companies have made a deliberate decision to grow in a different way, principally by charging for parking, but also by more heavily subsidizing transit for employees, as well as providing incentives for telecommuting. Travelers has been doing this for years.

Aetna has embarked on a multiyear plan to reduce the number of its parking spaces even as it brings 3,000 more employees back to its headquarters, also in Asylum Hill. It is consolidating its parking in garages and selling off its surface parking lots to reduce annual expenses associated with Hartford parking facilities. Aetna has discovered what author Donald Shoup demonstrated in his 2005 book "The High Cost of Free Parking": Free parking is not free.

Where is The Hartford's business head on this? We — and they — cannot afford their plan.

Instead of looking at Asylum Hill as "a congested urban neighborhood," as a press release put it, The Hartford should look at it as an opportunity for "walkable urbanism," in Christopher Leinberger's phrase. Leinberger, a real estate developer and a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, distinguishes "drivable sub-urban" development — which is essentially what The Hartford proposes — from "region-serving walkable urbanism," as demonstrated by many New Urbanism downtown-revitalization and transit-oriented development projects (of which West Hartford's Blue Back Square is the best local example).

Surely, if it can happen near West Hartford Center on vacant automobile dealership property, it can happen on a 16-acre site on the edge of downtown Hartford where there are already 10,000 jobs, and where rail facilities and fine historic architecture already exist.

Sure, The Hartford should buy the MassMutual site. But save much of the building, perhaps by putting the school in it, and institute — right now — the kind of 21st-century disincentives to driving that start with charging for parking and more heavily subsidizing transit for employees, and end with developing the site more densely as mixed-use walkable urbanism.

Such an approach would give employees exercise, provide some of them with housing, save the company money, revitalize Asylum Hill and Hartford, and above all reduce driving. And please, save the numerous ancient trees that cover the site.

Unless the company does these things, its invocation of the city's Hartford 2010 plan for the Farmington-Asylum "trident" will be seen as the cynical fig leaf that it is. Because instead of doing their city a favor, they are putting Hartford "out of position," as Leinberger calls it. And the company's claims of corporate social responsibility will be a joke.

Toni Gold of Hartford is a private consultant and a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit whose mission is to create and sustain public places that build communities. She is a member of the boards of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut and of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and writes regularly for The Courant's Place section.

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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