In a month or so, structural steel
will begin to rise for the first building - a medical center - in
West Hartford's Blue Back Square development. Though they won't
be ready until 2008, the condos in the multiuse project are selling
so well - no surprise here - that the developers proposed increasing
the number of units from 74 to 124.
Blue Back is being watched around the
state, with good reason. The once-rural Connecticut landscape is
being relentlessly bulldozed for low-density, auto-dependent subdivisions.
If we are to bring this chaotic sprawl under control, without stopping
growth, the answer is to carefully increase density in the areas
that are already built, such as town centers, transit corridors
and job sites.
Blue Back does this in West Hartford
Center. By combining some town-owned land with private land that
once held a car dealership, the developers assembled 20 acres for
the mixed-use project.
But can this be done elsewhere? Put
another way, was West Hartford just dumb lucky to have a patch of
unused land available, or are there similar parcels available in
The answer is that there is a surprising
amount of land available in the urbanized areas of Connecticut,
more than you might think. Here are three sources of developable
Housing authorities: The state's 160
housing authorities are holding hundreds of acres of land, much
of it empty, some of it underused. Some of these parcels are in
prime locations. The Middletown Housing Authority has a 24-acre
swath near the Connecticut River. Milford has acreage on Long Island
Sound. Bridgeport has the former Father Panik Village housing project
site near downtown and the train station. Enfield, Stratford, New
Haven, Darien and many other communities are holding open land.
In the underused category, Hartford
has the aging Bowles Park and Westbrook Village housing projects,
some 750 units on nearly 140 acres. The housing authority has sent
out a request for qualifications, a first step in redeveloping the
property. Some think that a more modern, mixed-use, village-style
development could support 2,000 units of housing and other amenities.
Excess state and federal land: This
can be anything from rights of way owned by the state Department
of Transportation to former government or military facilities. Perhaps
the best known recent example is the state's conditional conveyance
of the former Norwich State Hospital site in Preston to the town.
The town has three years to develop the 400- acre site. Officials
are still talking with the proposers of a movie studio and theme
park to be called Utopia, though Doubting Thomas will believe that
when he sees it.
Brownfield sites such as former factories
and historic mills: The old mills and factories are the glories
of Connecticut, and can often be converted into top-tier housing,
office or light manufacturing space. Coltsville in Hartford, ArtSpace
in the former American Thread Factory in Willimantic, Pfizer in
New London and the Brass Mill Center in Waterbury are all prominent
examples of the reuse of industrial sites.
The problem with much of this land
is that circumstances stymie its reuse.
Housing authorities, for example, are
essentially property managers and, increasingly, social service
agencies (Question for another day: Should there be 160 housing
authorities?). But many, especially the smaller ones, aren't particularly
experienced at development. Also, some of the properties have legal
encumbrances that make redevelopment difficult.
There's a problem with the mills. Connecticut
has a wonderful supply of these historic buildings, but few financial
incentives to resuscitate them. The state's current historic tax
credit program only aids in the renovation of owner-occupied dwellings
with one to four units. There's a federal historic tax credit program,
but it was created for rental housing.
Thus, efforts to renovate a factory
such as the majestic Capewell Horse Nail Factory in Hartford into
condominiums falls through the cracks. For some reason, the General
Assembly seems unable to correct this obvious flaw.
The long and short is that we have
the land to create more sensible development patterns, but we don't
have the policy or the leadership.
Here's where, as Mark Pelligrini suggests
on these pages, we could use a bigger state planning office. What
state planners could do is, first, inventory these properties. Let's
see what we've got and how they can be reused.
Then take the most promising sites
and designate them for state financial and technical assistance.
Blue Back Square doesn't have to be the only game in town.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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