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A Passion For Urban Planning, And For Food

Extraordinary Life

By ANNE M. HAMILTON

May 18, 2012

Terry Tondro's life embraced opposites.

He was a law school professor, but no ivory tower academic; he enjoyed the finest in wines and foods, but preferred to cook dinner himself. He loved cities he was truly an urbanist, but he relished the air and the ocean of rural Maine. He knew opera well, but enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald. He worked to preserve historic buildings, and also helped create housing available for low income families and people of color.

Tondro was a man of thought and action, but whatever he did was accompanied by style and gusto. Although he had attained the status of widely consulted expert in urban planning and land use, he was humble.

"He was egalitarian to the core," said his son, Trevor. "He hated snobbery and pretention and looking down on others. He was more a roll up your sleeves type than a French cuff guy."

Tondro, a Hartford resident, died of a stroke on April 26, two weeks shy of his 74th birthday.

Tondro, who was born on May 7, 1938, grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., an oceanside community near Los Angeles. He was the oldest of five children born to Lloyd and Italia Tondro. (The family originally came from France, and spelled it Tondreau.) His father was a house painter, and the family was a strong supporter of FDR and his idea of equal opportunity for all.

Tondro worked first in a coffee shop, then in a fancy Wilshire Boulevard restaurant in Los Angeles during high school.

His guidance counselor, ("not very imaginative," according to Tondro's wife) urged him to attend the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and become a chef. Tondro had also won a scholarship to Stanford University.

Eager for a chance to travel, Tondro chose Cornell, but after two years of learning "hospitality" and fine dining techniques, he wanted to switch to liberal arts. Membership in ROTC made the change financially possible.

After graduating in 1961, Tondro enlisted in the Army and, given the choice of tank commander (assignment to Germany) or parachutes (stateside assignment), he opted for tanks. He used his vacations to travel around Europe.

Tondro originally planned to go to graduate school in American history, but he felt that the Army had helped him learn the value of practical experience and "getting jobs done," so he decided to go to law school.

To fill the time before enrolling in the fall of 1964, Tondro returned to California and taught driving. One of his students was Helle Stueland, a young Norwegian woman who had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. They saw each other regularly behind the wheel of a VW. When Helle flew east the following winter, they got engaged, and married in June of 1965.

Tondro excelled at New York University School of Law, and following graduation, worked for a year in the Office of Economic Opportunity on PresidentLyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, an experience he said was formative. He worked for a brief time at Paul Weiss, a large white-shoe firm in New York, but concluded he hated corporate law.

He enrolled at Yale University, where he studied urban planning and obtained a master's degree in American Studies. In 1973, he was recruited to teach at the University of Connecticut School of Law just as Hartford was set to embark on an experiment in urban planning called Hartford Process. The project foundered, but Tondro had found his niche.

He co-authored a brief to the Connecticut Supreme Court in a case challenging the legality of an East Hampton zoning regulation that required houses to be at least 1,200 square feet, which he argued discriminated against poor people. (The court ruled that the regulation was an irrational and unjustifiable use of the zoning commission's powers and struck it down.)

He searched hard to find rulings in zoning and land-use cases and wrote a book that has been the bible of developers, planning and zoning officials and judges for decades.

"It was the virtual guide book of decision-making in that area," said Dwight Merriam, a Hartford land-use lawyer whose own copy is held together with Scotch tape.

In addition to citing cases, Tondro interjected his own comments on policy issues and the implications of court rulings on inland wetlands, subdivision regulations and community development.

At some zoning hearings, all parties had Tondro's book, "Connecticut Land Use Regulation: A Legal Guide for Lawyers, Commissioners, Consultants and Other Users of the Land." in front of them.

"We tried to 'out cite' each other in quoting passages that Terry had written that we felt most helped our arguments," said Attorney Mark Dubois in a tribute to Tondro.

"It was land-use law in an accessible context," said Tim Hollister, who argued the winning side in the East Hampton case. "He had strong opinions and never shied away from putting in his own policy position. He also gave you a disinterested view of what policy should be."

Gov. William O'Neill named Tondro co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing, and Tondro wrote much of the law that has enabled low-cost housing to be included in more expensive developments and has made it harder for towns to reject lower priced units. Tondro also pointed out that support for affordable housing came not only from advocates for poor people, but from Fairfield County executives who wanted to find housing for their middle managers.

Unlike many law professors whose sphere is defined by the library and the classroom, Tondro enjoyed being an activist and seeing his ideas become reality.

"He was one of an increasingly rare number of academics who are ready willing and able to get involved in advocacy in any side in land-use planning. He kept a foot in both camps academic and land use," Merriam said.

At the law school, Tondro taught classes in land-use regulation and urban planning.

"He focused on the economic aspects of development, how finances impact the ability of developers, and whether zoning was developing a class system," said Michael Ziska, a former student who said Tondro was a mentor. "Terry always had in interest in finding ways to merge zoning regulations with the ability to provide housing for all levels of income. His abilities helped move that forward."

As a child, Tondro had helped his father maintain several rental properties, and he understood the basics of construction. He loved older buildings, especially Hartford's 19th century Victorian buildings. In 1973, when people protested the destruction of a historic house on Prospect Avenue in Hartford, Tondro joined the fledgling Hartford Architecture Conservancy and fought to preserve other historic properties. He became involved with the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and later was president of conservancy, and served on the board of advisers of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A law granting tax credits to developers who preserved historic elements made preservation more attractive. "Terry saw that Connecticut had the opportunity to play a role and create tax incentive for historic preservation," said Jared Edwards, an architect who was one of the founders of HAC.

Tondro lobbied his former students who were now legislators to pass the bill, which helped preserve many structures around the state, from old mills to houses.

"Terry, in his quiet way was teaching student lawyers that the state has a responsibility to make funds available and encourage private investment," Edwards said. "He laid the foundations for legislation that has had huge results over the decades."

Tondro also played a major role in having the Wilton farm of J. Alden Weir, a 19th century Connecticut Impressionist painter, designated as a national park.

"He applied his talents to achieve undreamed of results," Edwards said.

Tondro's passion for life included eating. After spending a month traveling in Italy with his family in 1978, Tondro returned with recipes that took Italian cuisine to new heights far beyond marinara sauce, spaghetti and meatballs. His dinner parties were legendary in the West End of Hartford.

"You were invited at seven, ate at 9, and finished at 1," Edwards said. "You thought you were finished, and out would pop an even more elaborate course. ... That was a way of life. We are all probably 20 pounds heavier."

During the year the Tondros spent in New York, they went to the opera twice a week, buying standing-room tickets for $1 or $3. They continued to frequent the opera after moving to Connecticut. Starting in 2000, after Tondro retired, he and his wife spent six months each year in Rome, learning the language, eating, going to concerts and museums and, above all, walking around the city.

Tondro loved bow ties and wore them with panache.

In recent years, he was slowed down by several small strokes, but was able to spend three months in Rome this winter.

In addition to his wife and son, Tondro is survived by another son, Max, and three grandchildren.

He is buried in the Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, an appropriate choice, his wife said. All veterans have the same modest headstone regardless of rank or background. The hum of cars reminds visitors that, despite all the greenery, a city is nearby.

"He had an egalitarian sense about him that is hard to overstate," said Bill Breetz, a neighbor and former law school colleague. "That theme ran through a lot of his work: fair housing, inclusive zoning, the inclusiveness of Weir Farm, and making cities better places to work."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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