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Stately Buildings, Trees Falling At MassMutual


March 29, 2009

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got till it's gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees

Put 'em in a tree museum ...

"Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell

Those are memorable lyrics from 1970. They also capture the 1970s thinking of the Hartford Financial Services Group toward the former Connecticut Mutual Headquarters property, which it is acquiring from the most recent owner, MassMutual. It's 2009 and The Hartford is deliberately and methodically and they had hoped, quietly proceeding with the largest demolition to take place in Hartford since the urban renewal era of the mid-20th century.

The Hartford is now in the midst of destroying some 450,000 square feet of structurally sound, substantially built, readily adaptive office space, which formerly served Connecticut Mutual and then MassMutual quite well. To add insult to injury, The Hartford has already or will soon cut down more than 30 mature trees on this site, most of them decades older than those who conceived this plan.

And what plan might that be? Well, the original plan called for demolishing the building complex and covering the site with surface parking. Lo and behold, The Hartford has now concluded it doesn't need all that parking, at least not right now, so the current plan calls for "land banking" the property for future use, whatever that use might be. The core of the plan remains the same: to clear the site, cut down most of the trees and fence the property.

To its credit and I am most thankful for it The Hartford is saving and restoring the original Classical Revival headquarters building of Connecticut Mutual built in 1926, which fronts on Garden Street. And they are saving three specimen trees adjacent to that building. But that gesture is eclipsed by the shortsightedness of the overall plan.

Here we are, on the brink of retooling how we as a nation think about planning and development. Long-discussed concepts such as mass transit, transit-oriented development, mixed-use development, adapting older buildings for reuse and "going green" will form the basis of future development.

Connecticut initially plans to spend nearly $400 million on commuter rail service between New Haven and Enfield. Hartford's Union Station will become a transit hub, and there will be incentives to concentrate multi-use development around that hub. The former MassMutual campus is but a four-minute walk from the railroad station. A forward-thinking plan would have keyed on the adaptive reuse of this building complex, not its demolition.

Planning for the reuse of this complex would bring cultural, architectural and economic benefits to Asylum Hill and Hartford. It would also be the green thing to do. The amount of "embodied energy" that is, the sum of all the energy required to originally construct a building that will be lost as a result of this demolition is enormous. Add to this the energy currently being spent to demolish this building, even excluding a credit for the extensive salvage operation, the number of BTUs expended is, by my calculation, the equivalent of nearly 6 million gallons of gas. How green is that?

In many ways, the cutting down of more than 30 mature trees on this property is as troubling as the demolition itself, in large part because it is so unnecessary. Marked for removal is a large oak tree at the corner of Myrtle Street and Frazer Place. There is also an elm tree that survived the Dutch Elm epidemic of the last century, but is slated to be cut down. So are all the other trees along Frazer Place.

The rationale for this action can only be explained in the context of another mid-20th century phenomenon, the Theater of the Absurd. But here lawyers play the starring roles. These trees have to come down because they could represent a "liability." Evidently the soils in which some of these trees have flourished for well over 50 years have traces of contamination. How this translates through the process of photosynthesis to being a public health hazard is not so clear, but sparring lawyers contest that it might present a liability to either the "buyer" or "seller" of the property. Therefore, the trees must go.

In the end, The Hartford is playing for a short-term dollar savings at the expense of a financial, architectural and environmental long-term gain. (The decision to "land bank" this property is made advantageous by the state's backward property tax policy of undertaxing land and overtaxing buildings.) What a sad legacy.

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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