Downtown Expanses Of Parking Could Be Put To Better Use
March 12, 2006
Commentary By Tom Condon
A woman named Ingrid Sandberg, who
lives in Hartford, e-mailed me the other day to vent about downtown
"Ever take a walk downtown? It's
depressing. Why? There are vast swaths of land with nothing but
concrete on them. Surface parking as far as the eye can see ...
When I look around and see all the parking lots where there once
were buildings and neighborhoods, I want to scream. Scream!"
I howl with her. The most pressing
structural need in downtown Hartford is to fill in the blanks -
build something on the many asphalt oases where once there were
buildings. This has been talked about, ideas have been floated,
renderings have been produced. The time has come to do something.
In the enduring phrase of Mike Peters, show me a crane.
That unfortunate oxymoron "urban
renewal," along with the insatiable demands of the automobile,
gutted parts of downtown Hartford, more so than many other cities.
In January, David Brussat wrote a piece
in The Providence Journal comparing Hartford and Providence.
"Hartford has done a great job
protecting its best old buildings. But Providence has done a great
job of protecting its historical fabric - block after block of intact
buildings of lesser nobility, which protect the visual impact of
the best old buildings. Hartford destroyed most of its fabric decades
ago, and appears uninterested in rebuilding it."
That is well-put. Parts of downtown
Hartford look like London in the late 1940s - the rubble's been
cleared but nothing's been rebuilt. Hartford sacrificed way too
much of its historic fabric. There is something inherently irrational
about sacrificing a place for the ability to park there.
It looks bad, as Ingrid Sandberg correctly
observes. It also deadens the pedestrian environment in many places,
making distances seem longer than they really are. It gives the
appearance of desolation and danger (though downtown is pretty safe).
If officials and developers are on the ball, the time is right to
reverse this self-inflicted wound and restore these streets that
once made downtown Hartford the envy of the region, and I mean the
First, there isn't as much need for
downtown surface parking. We have built two major marking garages
in recent years, and now have a shuttle that goes to perimeter lots.
Downtown could use two more garages - a small one around Union Place
and a larger one near city hall - and city officials are working
on it. Plus, the new busway and commuter rail proposals should in
a few years further reduce the need for wasting space on cars.
Also, we now know there's a market
for downtown housing. The new apartment and condominium projects
are filling up. But to keep this beneficent trend going, downtown
residents need a better walking environment and a better mix of
stores and services.
There are some amazing building sites
downtown that are now being underused by the parking industry. (By
the way, when did parking become an "industry"?) An architecture
graduate student at the University of Hartford, a bright young woman
from India, stopped by to see me a few months ago to talk about
a hypothetical museum project for downtown Hartford. She had identified
the site of the former Parkview Hilton as a prime building location,
and didn't understand why it was empty.
The 6-acre wasteland behind the State
Office Building is another site where, if the parking were moved
into a garage, some fabulous street footage could be made available
for townhouses and other urban building forms.
The one city official who's pushed
to develop this area is treasurer Kathleen Palm, who at one point
had a commitment from Gov. John Rowland to sell the state-owned
land to the city for development. Rowland didn't stay in office
long enough to follow through, and Palm thus far been unable to
reconstruct the arrangement with Gov. M Jodi Rell.
What also could help develop privately
owned downtown land is a change in the tax system. A bill being
proposed in this session of the General Assembly would allow towns
of more than 80,000 residents to implement a two-tiered property
tax system, in which land could be taxed at a higher rate than buildings.
This system, based on the thinking
of economist Henry George, has been used with success in several
cities in Pennsylvania. In Harrisburg, a city similar in many ways
to Hartford, land is taxed at a rated six times higher than buildings.
The tax system has been one factor in a $3.5 billion building boom
in the city since the early 1980s. I can't think of a good reason
not to try it here.
In the current formula, Hartford buildings
are taxed about three times more than the land on which they sit.
Thus, the owner of the Hilton had an incentive to tear down the
hotel. What if the incentives were reversed? I think there'd be
a building there.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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