Don't look now, but right under our noses a stealth smart growth policy is taking shape - in the private sector. Who knew? Aetna Inc. will begin charging its employees for parking in 2007.
The company joins others that already charge employees for parking, including The St. Paul Travelers Cos. and ING Group. Beginning Jan. 1, parking fees will apply to all users of Aetna's garages and executive parking areas. Fees for these two facilities will range from $75 to $200 a month, based on two criteria, parking location and salary level, and will be automatically deducted from paychecks.
Essentially, Aetna has established a market for a scarce commodity - parking - based on convenience and leavened by ability to pay. Beginning in 2008, fees will also be charged to the users of surface parking lots, although those fees have not yet been established. Ultimately every parker will pay, except for drivers and riders of van pools, who will continue to get the best spaces for free.
This is a smart growth policy because it will encourage the use of other, less wasteful commuting options and allow the company to use less land for parked cars. The company will sweeten the deal with larger subsidies for public transportation or van pools ($30 from the current $21 a month) and more biking facilities, which will continue to be free and conveniently located. Indeed, a number of employees plan to start biking, and have asked for more bike racks near the doors to the building. The company plans to provide them; shower and change facilities are already available as part of its fitness center membership.
Other transportation options will include an "emergency ride home" service for transit riders and van poolers, and a free "occasional lot" of shared spaces for transit riders and telecommuters.
The new commuting policy is part of the company's comprehensive strategy to consolidate its Connecticut facilities in Hartford. That strategy includes moving 3,600 employees from its Middletown campus by 2010 to join the 2,800 now in Hartford, and extensive renovations to the headquarters buildings on Farmington Avenue.
By then, a new Flower Street garage will be complete, and then the reconstruction of the old garage on Sigourney Street will begin, a project that will incorporate a station stop for the Hartford-New Britain busway. One of Aetna's goals is to reduce the total number of parking spaces from its projected high of 5,200 in 2007 by shedding some of its many owned and leased lots.
Mike Marshall, head of the asset management division of the real estate services department, says the company's goal is 3 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space by 2014. The suburban standard is 6. The new parking policy has several purposes, including "community concerns with traffic congestion" and "the need for a more standardized approach to allocating garage parking," according to Aetna's employee informational materials.
But the driving reason is a business reason: "the need to reduce annual expenses associated with Hartford parking facilities" - although even with the new fees and reduced demand, the company will still be subsidizing 50 percent of the cost of parking. Aetna has discovered what author Donald Shoup demonstrated in his 2005 book "The High Cost of Free Parking": Free parking is not free.
Yet for all the costs to the company itself, the highest cost has been to the Asylum Hill community, which for years has absorbed the creeping, incremental demolition of its historic building fabric and its housing stock, and the deteriorating image, disinvestment and insecurity that accompanies it. An aerial photograph shows the neighborhood as acres of bleak wasteland dotted by lush oases - the insurance companies' surface parking lots surrounding the well-tended grounds around their buildings.
As Marshall concedes, it wasn't clear the company had a long-term parking strategy before now. The 1980s witnessed the incremental but relentless expansion of surface lots - a policy pursued by all the Asylum Hill companies at that time, and by MassMutual right up to the time it moved out last year. Following the 1980s expansion, Aetna reversed course in the 1990s and began to divest itself of large amounts of real estate, everything from parking lots and apartment buildings to Arthur's Drugs Store.
Finally now the "Connecticut consolidation" represents a real policy - one that is on the right track. It is a policy that other major corporations, notably The Hartford Financial Services Group, would do well to emulate. Now the challenge for the neighborhood and the city is ensure that the vacant lots left behind are developed as sensitive urban infill, not possible under the present 1960s-era suburban-style zoning.
Ironically, one of the problems with the zoning is the excessive parking requirements. But the real 800-pound gorilla is the state of Connecticut, which currently presides over the largest asphalt wasteland of all, directly to the east of the State Office Building, not to mention many mini-wastelands near all its facilities in the city, and for that matter in the state. The state, with its ever more voracious appetite, has gobbled up every leased parking space being vacated by Aetna under I-84.
The state should have built structured parking years ago, and instituted a pay-for-parking policy as well. Here is an easy first test of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's new "responsible growth" policy - a pay-for-parking policy for state employees - that can be started immediately, or as soon as it can be negotiated out of union contracts.
Toni Gold of Hartford is president of Urban Edge Associates 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.
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