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Visionary '70s Plan Reimagined Region

Tom Condon

March 13, 2011

To the extent that The Greater Hartford Process is remembered today, and the memory is fading, it is for the failed effort to build a new community of 20,000 people, mostly in the town of Coventry.

That doesn't do it justice it was more than that. Hartford Process was a remarkable burst of energy and leadership, the likes of which has not been seen since, aimed at rebuilding and recreating all of Greater Hartford. This was not nibbling around the edges, with facade improvements and new signs, this entailed vast changes in education, social services, policing, child care, economic development, transportation and housing. It was revolutionary, and had the resources or so it seemed to make it work.

It didn't, but it got a lot of things right and remains a fascinating exercise, a study in, among other things, how difficult it is to effect change on a broad scale, especially in the Land of Steady Habits.

It was 40 years ago that plans were made public by the force behind the project, Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce President Arthur J. Lumsden.

A brilliant, complex, restless man, Lumsden had watched Hartford decline during the 1960s as factories closed, middle-class residents moved to the suburbs and blight overtook older city neighborhoods. Lumsden knew these trends boded ill for Hartford, but he believed that trends were not destiny.

Lumsden understood, to a degree few have since, what needed to be done. He could see that urban blight and suburban sprawl were two sides of the same coin, a regional problem that could only be addressed on a regional basis. Yet he knew the region's fragmented governmental structure wasn't up to the task. There needed to be strong regional leadership. He set out to create it.

He got the business community to form an entity called the Greater Hartford Corporation, to develop a vision of the region. It hired a subsidiary of The Rouse Co., then best known for having built the new city of Columbia, Md., and created a nonprofit called The Greater Hartford Process Inc., along with a separate development company, to design and implement a plan.

Corporations put up millions of dollars. Process had a staff of more than 40 people, twice the current size of the Capital Region Council of Governments' staff, the largest council of governments in the state.

Hartford Process released a 150-page planning document the following year, in 1972. It is prescient in many areas, calling for changes that were either decades away or are still on the drawing board, everything from community-oriented policing to health care for all to individualized learning in schools. It made an impassioned plea to preserve open space and sensitive ecological areas such as ridge lines, understanding that poorly planned, low-density sprawl was damaging the environment.

The plan viewed the region as an interconnected set of communities connected by a rapid transit system, noting that traffic was becoming "intolerable." Much of this document could have been written last week.

A major thrust of the plan was as suggested by hiring Rouse the construction of new communities. A key corporate leader of Process was Henry Roberts, the president of Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. (now CIGNA), a main funder of Rouse's Columbia project. New communities whole towns, not planned residential developments were sort of a trend at the time, with new cities such as Columbia and Reston, Va., and new communities within towns in many states. There was federal funding available, via the New Communities Act of 1970.

Hartford Process embraced this idea, and there was a certain, albeit utopian, logic to it. Development was going on helter-skelter in the suburbs, without much thought to regional integrity. If this development could be organized into coherent, compact, diverse, full-service communities, the thinking went, sprawl could be thwarted. Similar new communities within Hartford and the inner suburbs could solidy the effort.

When the planning began, Hartford was becoming an increasingly poor and minority city surrounded by largely white suburbs. Something that broke up this pattern seemed to make sense.

Process began with two main thrusts. One was a massive restructuring of the city of Hartford, starting with the northern half of the city. This would involve everything from education and social services to housing, job training and economic development.

The other track was a new community of 20,000 people to be built for $200 million over 20 years on about 1,600 acres in Coventry and a small part of Vernon. The hope was that the community would attract businesses connected with the nearby University of Connecticut, build the tax base in Coventry, solve some of its fiscal and environmental problems, and be an example for the rest of the region.

Some folks in Coventry didn't see it that way. The town then had about 8,500 people; the development would have more tripled the population, and some residents couldn't make the leap. Process nonetheless pushed ahead.

Meanwhile, some of the Hartford initiatives got moving. Process and SAND, the South Arsenal Neighborhood Development Corp., worked together to build 264 units of housing in the Clay-Arsenal neighborhood, with all minority contractors. Process helped rehabilitate housing and some commercial space along Albany Avenue.

Still, there was an atmosphere of mistrust. This was just a few years after riots had rocked the North End, and there was a residual distrust of the business community's motives. There was also considerable mistrust between the corporate leaders and city officials. Since Process had moved quietly to acquire the land, as any private entity would do, rumors swelled about a secret plan to move all of Hartford's blacks and Puerto Ricans from the North End to Coventry (the plan actually called for a racially diverse, mixed-income community with 65 percent of residents "upper income.").

As Process was preparing, amid the controversy, to bring the Coventry plan to the local planning and zoning commission in late 1974, the plug was pulled, the deal was called off. Some thought it was halted by local opposition (The Courant opposed it as being too far from Hartford to do much good). Peter Libassi, the president of Process, said in an interview last week that wasn't the case. He said the project was gaining substantial support and "probably would have won" zoning approval. What happened was the Arab oil embargo and concurrent recession made the economic model unworkable. New community projects all over the country were shut down, as was this one.

The end of the Coventry project took much of the wind out of the sails of the Greater Hartford Process. And then, things got more difficult in Hartford. Though Process was firmly committed to bringing everyone to the table, working with a sometimes volatile mix of racial and ethnic populations is a nuanced skill, one that, despite great effort, "I don't think we reached fast enough," Libassi said. In particular, Process underestimated the rapid emergence of political leadership in the Puerto Rican community, causing acrimony that might have been avoided had more Latinos been at the table.

Also, some of the businesses that supported the effort backed out, as local ownership began to give way to globalization. Process limped along for a few more years and folded its tent.

Looking back, Libassi said it might have made sense to dedicate more resources to Hartford earlier, and to develop more of a sequence of effort, instead of trying to do everything at once. In retrospect, it might have made sense to get more jobs in the city before building new housing.

It's also fair to ask if building a new community in Coventry would have amounted to anything more than a new community in Coventry. To work as Process envisioned, 28 other towns would have had to embrace the concept, change their zoning, protect farms and open space, build more new communities and connect with other towns. Process had no political authority; and the home rule mindset is hard to overcome. It may have taken the state to make these kinds of changes, and the state wasn't so inclined.

So, as Lumsden feared, Hartford got poorer, traffic got worse, suburban sprawl continued unabated and the region muddled along.

Libassi, now 81 and still an activist, is proud of the effort to remake the region, proud of the enthusiastic young people who gave so much to it. Many staff and board members Libassi, Bob Patricelli, Peter Kelly, Art Spada, Sanford Cloud, Jim Harris and others went on to do great things, here and in Washington. The effort did help break down distrust between the corporate and government types, and at least get people thinking about Greater Hartford as an interconnected place.

"We were Kennedy kids, we were inspired by JFK to do for our country, to have big dreams and imaginations," Libassi said. The Greater Hartford Process "was worth reaching for."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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