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The View From L.A.: Hartford Can Change, Too

Nat Gale

December 05, 2010

Because it is so heavily dependent on cars and highways, Hartford has sometimes been thought of as a smaller version of Los Angeles. It would be hard to spin that as a compliment; Los Angeles conjurs an image of sprawl, riots and smog as well as traffic congestion.

But as with many stereotypes, this one is dated. Los Angeles has begun to drastically change how citizens interact with its built environment. Hartford has traffic, to be sure, but it also has positive traits in common with Los Angeles besides traffic. While vastly different in size, both are culturally and ethnically rich. Both have a wide and varied building stock. Hartford could learn and benefit from a series of successful policies recently implemented in the City of Angels.

Public transportation has been the way of the past and is certainly a necessity of the future. Generations to come will look to the 20th century as an anomalous era of strict car-dependency. Don't misunderstand the automobile is one of the greatest modern inventions and allows for unprecedented mobility. However, both Hartford and Los Angeles should never have relied upon the automobile as the sole mode of transportation. Both had impressive rail systems that were torn up and abandoned in favor of publicly subsidized roads.

With the freeways choked to a standstill during rush hours, Angelenos have come to realize the need for a balanced transportation system. In 2008, at the beginning of a steep economic decline, voters in Los Angeles County willingly approved a half-cent sales tax increase solely to fund transit projects. The city is now using this guaranteed revenue stream as leverage in applying for large sums of federal transportation dollars. The communities built around transit stations are increasingly sustainable and pedestrian-friendly.

Connecticut voters and legislators, this could be your solution to funding the Hartford-New Britain busway, commuter and high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield, and (dare I suggest?) the Griffin Line, which would finally unite Hartford area residents with Bradley Airport via public transportation.

Act swiftly and you too will become a model of public financing, similar to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to build 30 years worth of transit over a single decade. Over the past five years, Los Angeles has opened two bus-rapid-transit lines and one light rail line, in addition to the four existing rail lines. With added funding from the sales tax increase, the future for transit is bright in L.A.

An even greater lesson can be learned from downtown Los Angeles' ambitious and widely successful adaptive reuse policy. In 1999, the city created an overlay zone that exempted a series of historic and vacant commercial buildings from a variety of needless requirements.

Foremost were the city's inane parking requirements. Before the policy was passed, residential developers were required by law to provide between 1.5 and two parking spaces per residential unit developed. In a neighborhood that is immensely walkable with a tight-knit urban fabric, this obligation prevented even the most adventurous developers from investing in downtown Los Angeles.

Downtown Hartford and its surrounding areas have a similar array of older, vacant buildings that are ripe for redevelopment. Local developers such as David Nyberg and Common Ground understand the attractiveness of housing close to downtown. Why are they the exceptions? Hartford has demolished too many buildings when there is immense potential in reusing them. After all, tearing down a building to build a new LEED-certified structure is often more wasteful than retrofitting an existing building in a sustainable manner.

A few sites demand immediate attention. The Capewell Horse Nail building is a prime example. This magnificent structure at the intersection of Charter Oak Ave and Popieluszko Court will suffer the same unfortunate (but avoidable) fate as the "Butt-Ugly Building" if nothing is done soon. The same can be said for the Hartford Office Supply Co. building on Capitol Avenue, which is also headed for an untimely death. With the appropriate legislative and popular support, these urban treasures can be brought back to life.

Cities are living organisms. The mechanisms by which they live and die are the policies implemented by local leaders. Like Los Angeles, Hartford should recognize its failed policies of the past and change them. Hartford's future need not be as grim as its recent past if the city has anything, it is opportunity.

Nat Gale of Hartford is a graduate student in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He and fellow students Emily Hsiung, Dmitry Galkin, Brett MacNaughton and Charlene Young are working on a semester project analyzing Hartford's economic development policies, and all contributed to this piece.

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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