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A Dose Of Skepticism, Please

April 29, 2007
Commentary By TONI GOLD

Ah, another epidemic of that recurring, self-inflicted Hartford disease, Infectious Arena-itis. This time it's in the form of enthusiasm for a new arena to entice a pro sports team to town. The last epidemic struck in 1998 in the form of the convention center/Patriots stadium hysteria, which gripped many legislators, every city business leader and politician and most sports fans in the state. The disease totally disabled Gov. John Rowland.

A comment made at that time by a friend who has since moved to Boston comes to mind. She said, "Oh, not again! Does Hartford have a collective learning disability?"

She was speaking of all the big, dumb mistakes we have made in the name of "saving the city." Just reflect: Constitution Plaza, the Civic Center and most recently the convention/stadium projects. If not a collective learning disability, then Hartford has, at the very least, a weakened immune system - and sports facilities trigger the most virulent form of the disease.

Mind you, I'm not opposed to Hartford recruiting and hosting a pro sports team; I'm completely indifferent. But I am for revitalization of the city.

The mayor has commissioned a study of a new arena, and refers to it as "thinking big." Humpf. Thinking big would be burying I-84 or connecting the western suburbs to downtown and the eastern suburbs by a light rail system.

It will be good if there's an honest cost/benefit study of a new arena, because the economic assumptions used to justify such projects are often built on shaky ground. However, as we saw during Patriots mania, these things take on a life of their own, and officials will almost surely make a case for building the project.

Let's say that happens. What we don't want is the taxpayers funding something that will make the city less functional or desirable. So before the final recommendation is cooked, will someone in authority please ask the "city fit" questions:

Where, exactly, should the arena be located?

How should it be integrated into the downtown so that both city and arena benefit?

Are the parts of the project that depend on private profit for success really going to work in this location?

What will be its impact on the rest of the urban fabric, especially of its parking facilities?

How can we use the opportunity it offers to reduce our dependence on the automobile and move forward a mass transit agenda?

These questions are as important - perhaps more important - than the jobs and tax revenue the project will produce. Unfortunately, they are questions that all too often do not get asked.

But if the "city fit" questions aren't answered honestly up front, we will end up with the same disappointing results we got from the previous big, dumb projects: low-income jobs created at exorbitant cost, unending operating subsidies, hostile city streets, intimidating edifices and acres of parking lots that remain empty most of the time.

And in the process, all the oxygen and economic development money has been sucked out of every other project in town; all the civic energy for more sensible projects has been dissipated.

Hartford has loads of bad examples. Take Constitution Plaza, which in the 1960s wiped out a historic neighborhood for a raised, isolated "mixed-use" project whose housing component was never built and where retail was a failure almost from the beginning. The lingering question is whether the cure was worse than the disease.

Or take the Civic Center, which in the 1970s wiped out an entire block of 19th-century commercial buildings in the heart of downtown for an enclosed mall - now demolished after only 30 years - and an arena, which did draw people downtown but is now up for grabs as "obsolete."

The Civic Center was one of the better city fits for a big project; nonetheless it was declared a white elephant a few years ago and has recently been retrofitted, with the retail put back onto Asylum Street and a residential tower - much-needed improvements, although the Ann Street and Church Street facades remain as forbidding as ever.

And then, of course, there is our previous epidemic - the Adriaen's Landing/Patriots fiasco, where we almost ended up with a pro football stadium downtown in addition to the hotel and convention center, until it became clear even to the governor what an absurd idea that was. But when the Patriots withdrew, the stadium went to East Hartford for college football, at taxpayer expense, where it caused expensive highway modifications and is (fully) used about nine times a year.

In Hartford we see the answers to all the unasked questions around Adriaen's Landing playing out right now - a repeat of Constitution Plaza, perhaps? - where the retail and housing components have not yet (and may never) materialize, which would leave the convention center and its hotel isolated from the rest of downtown and surrounded by parking garages.

Will a new arena be our next white elephant? Why can't we learn from the dumb, big projects? Is it too embarrassing to look squarely at them and acknowledge the mistakes? Is it too impolite to point to an emperor with no clothes, when the emperors who so proudly led these efforts still reside in our midst?

City fit is just as essential to the success of a big project as the taxpayer subsidy and the corporate support. Unfortunately, Infectious Arena-itis most often overwhelms honest and detached analysis. Let's hope it's different this time.

Toni Gold of Hartford is a consultant and a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit whose mission is to create and sustain public places that build communities. She is a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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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