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Holes In The Fabric Of Hartford

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 Hartford.

"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 Northeast.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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