When the city announced it was seeking public input for its plan of conservation and development, the document that guides the city's thinking on growth and development for a 10-year period, there was a certain skepticism.
One resident sent an e-mail questioning whether city council members would know good development policy if they saw it, having just voted to sell part of a North End park to some politically connected, possibly underfunded developers for arguably unnecessary new housing. (I agree that this was an utterly boneheaded move; the much better step would have been to save the park and attempt to rehabilitate the scores of abandoned units in the area.)
But city officials persevered with the plan, and did a couple of smart things. At Mayor Eddie Perez's behest, chief administrative officer David Panagore and his staff merged all of the plans done in recent years — the two Greenberg plans, the Urban Land Institute study, the new iQuilt plan, etc. — into one document, called One City, One Plan.
Then they created a tightly scheduled series of community forums, six in four weeks, in the hope of generating some momentum. Oddly enough, it worked. From a few dozen people, crowds grew to well over 100. Now, 125 people in a city of nearly 125,000 normally wouldn't turn any heads, but in Hartford, where public involvement has waned with the postwar loss of much of the middle class, seeing 125 people at the Lincoln Culinary Institute two weeks ago for the session on downtown was encouraging.
People said they wanted better transit. They wanted better park maintenance (I'm guessing that meant upkeep as well as maintaining ownership). They want to be able to get around the city on bicycles.
So far, so good. There will be a second round of "listening sessions" with the planning and zoning commission in February, then another public hearing in May and a final product in June.
The draft plan, which can be found on the city's website, www.hartford.gov, is written the way many plans are. It is divided into topic sections such as housing, downtown, neighborhoods and parks. Each section has background, issues, goals and objectives.
The background sections are more than worth your time; some are enlightening, some sobering. In the "demographics" section, for example, we learn that when compared with New Haven, Bridgeport, Springfield, Worcester and Providence, Hartford has the highest poverty rate for individuals ("in some cases 60 or 70 percent higher"), lowest median household income, smallest percentage of married couple households, highest percentage of female-headed families with no husband present, and the highest percent of adults 25 and older who have not completed high school. There's some work to do, eh?
Panagore said there's not yet been a decision on the final form of the plan, or what actions the plan will recommend. He believes they should be practical, achievable and able to be paid for, and subject to time lines and evaluation. No problem here.
Where some plans run into trouble is with too many recommendations. If there's a laundry list of 150 items, the plan almost assuredly will end up on a shelf. What if there were, say, five big items, such as "attract another major employer to downtown," "complete north-south and east-west bike/ped trails through the city,'" "build housing on 10 vacant lots or surface parking lots in downtown," etc.
Each proposal would serve as an organizing principle. For example, to attract another major employer, there would have to be adequate transportation, housing, downtown amenities, etc.
However it's done, this thus-far-promising planning process should result in positive change for the city. Now if we could only gin up this kind of enthusiasm for a regional plan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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