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Unlocking Potential Of Unused Spaces

January 29, 2006
By Tom Condon

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 other towns?

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 property.

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