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Commentary: My 10-Year Plan for Hartford

Anton Rick Ossen, West End Resident

December 10, 2009

Hartford is currently working on its 10-year plan. This plan is the official roadmap for Hartford. It lays out where the city is, where it’s going, and how it should get there over the next 10 years. This plan focuses on many important issues like housing, transportation, education, downtown and overall quality of life. This plan is important for the city. A good plan can keep the people, institutions and neighborhoods of Hartford aligned as we all work towards a better city. The plan can also be useful as an online resource for those that might wish to invest here. In the spirit of the season, I offer my own 10-year plan for Hartford, and it starts with transportation.

The first step in my 10-year plan is to improve those little things that make our bus system unappealing. For one, the city must ensure our sidewalks and bus stops are shoveled. In my 10-year plan, the people come first, especially the honest folk, trying to make a living in this tough economy. To accommodate working people, the city should put up bus shelters, with maps and timetables, in key locations around the city. Then the city should make sure the sidewalks and bus stops are shoveled when it snows. The city never fails to plow the roads, while the sidewalks are often impassable.

Once our sidewalks are shoveled and bus stops are improved, Hartford should revise its zoning laws. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown is so small, one big reason is that it isn’t allowed to build tall buildings in most of the city. If you go to the Planning Department’s website on Hartford.gov you can find the zoning maps. What you’ll find is that nearly 50% of developable land in the city is limited to buildings no taller than 3 stories. By re-zoning neighborhoods where the bus routes are, and where transit will be, Hartford can focus development in the right locations and create more of a big-city feeling.

The Hartford-New Britain Busway, the New Haven-Springfield commuter rail, and the crosstown bus along Granby, Woodland, Sisson and New Park, are all in planning stages and will one day be operational. When those transit routes are established, they will serve as focal points for economic development, as long as zoning laws allow development around them.

While transit and zoning are important as a means to bring big-city living to our small-city landscape, transit and rezoning are also a means to social justice. Until all city residents can easily run errands, visit friends and get to work without the need of an automobile, Hartford will remain an economically segregated city in which those who can afford a car, go and do as they please, while those without a car, waste precious hours every day waiting for a transfer at the bus stop downtown.

After we improve our bus system, and rezone our neighborhoods for smart growth, the city should modify its property tax code to incentivize development and disincentivize demolition. By phasing in property taxes over a 10-year period, for developers who build on empty land or fix abandoned buildings, the city could encourage investment in empty lots and blighted properties. In this way, the city could grow its tax base, fight blight, and fill in the dead spaces that make our city unwalkable. By phasing out taxes over a 10-year period for property owners that demolish buildings, we could prevent senseless destruction of our historic heritage and maintain our tax base. With a sensible approach to property taxes – one that promotes development and hinders destruction – we can improve Hartford as a physical space and put the city on firm financial footing.

With an improved bus system and new transit focused development in the neighborhoods, Hartford should turn its eye to downtown and start talks with the state. It would be ideal if the state gave back some of the land it uses for downtown parking. That land could be better used as apartments and shops and would generate much needed tax revenue.

The city should also work with the state to bring a 4-year college downtown so that city students can stay at home and continue their studies after high school or community college. Plus, bringing in a couple thousand students from out of town would generate economic activity like any other industry. Estimates suggest that downtown needs 8,000 residents to maintain an attractive vibrancy. With 4,000 college students we’d be half way there. If a grocery store opened up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see downtown attract another 2,000 residents and we’d be on the verge of real city living.

With the neighborhoods glistening and downtown swinging, it becomes Hartford’s duty to open our arms to the suburbs, the nation and the world. As the keepers of the capitol city, it is Hartford’s job to put itself back on the map. Let’s bring back a professional franchise. Let’s bring more embassies and consulates downtown. Let’s host an international music festival with campers and crowds in Bushnell Park. Let’s commission local artists to make Hartford the number one public-art-city in America. Let’s make downtown the most walkable urban environment in New England. Let’s put our pride on display and find out how great we can be.

But before we dream too big, we must face up to the reality on the ground. Our city is not living up to its obligations as educators of the next generation. Too many students drop out of school. Too many residents remain illiterate. As a result, too many citizens are unemployed and uninspired. To break the cycle of crime and poverty, we must continue to improve our schools, but more simply, we need jobs.
One way to create jobs is to make sure our taxes are not so high that they drive small businesses out of town. As well, improved transit can make sure all people have convenient access to employment opportunities. But certainly there is more that the city can do to create jobs.
Some questions to ask: Should the city enact local hiring legislation to ensure we spend more of our tax money employing city residents? Can we get OUR share of the MDC project? Can the city put its own people to work by spending on public works like tree planting, construction of bicycle paths, maintenance of parks or the painting of schools?

Hartford must find a way to create jobs and end the cycle of crime and poverty, because we cannot succeed as a city if our people are left behind.

By focusing on the three elements of transportation, zoning and taxes, this plan guides, legalizes and encourages smart growth throughout downtown and the neighborhoods. With an emphasis on downtown, this plan maintains a bold vision for our city as a star in the global community. Most importantly, this plan admits that Hartford cannot prosper as a city if its people are unemployed. By focusing on Hartford as a physical space and an economic arena, this plan offers the five elements of transportation, zoning, taxes, downtown and jobs as the five-fold path to peace and prosperity for all of Hartford in the next 10 years and beyond.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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