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Use Recovery Funds For Smart Growth

Please, No 'Urban Renewal' Federal cash should fight sprawl

Hartford Courant Editorial

December 14, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to spur economic recovery with a massive investment in infrastructure, one that dwarfs President Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway project. Some commentators have compared the proposal to President Franklin Roosevelt's infrastructure investments in the Great Depression.

But if the project is to succeed, Mr. Obama and his advisers ought to pause and consider another big infrastructure program, one whose failures turned its name into an oxymoron: urban renewal.

Under Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, the federal government agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of urban renewal projects. Flush with capital for the first time in decades, city officials across the country bulldozed neighborhoods to build apartment towers and modern civic buildings. The goal was to provide decent housing by demolishing slums.

Until President Richard Nixon brought this program to an end in 1972, some 2,500 projects in almost 1,000 cities went forward at a cost of $12.7 billion. Most did not have the desired effect; many were simply failures.

Between the large-scale demolition and the tragic decision to run new interstate highways through downtowns, cities that took hundreds of years to build were brutally damaged. Many are only now beginning to recover. Historic neighborhoods such as Hartford's East Side and Boston's West End are but memories.

This was an infrastructure investment, but it was poorly thought out. Likewise, the recent "bridge to nowhere" was an infrastructure proposal that showed little evidence of planning.

The point is that if such major outlays of taxpayer funds are to do more than create temporary construction jobs, they ought to be part of a sensible plan. New York Times columnist David Brooks made this point Tuesday, saying investment should be part of a "larger social vision."

The Bush administration has not provided such a vision. Mr. Obama's haste to get money out the door for "shovel-ready" projects could preclude proper planning on the federal level, thus punting the problem to the states.

"Shovel-ready" should not be the sole criterion for funding. The money should be used to strengthen town centers and connect them with modern transit.

Connecticut is not known for its visionary planning, but we do have a state plan that could be a framework for new infrastructure investment. The state Conservation and Development Policies Plan is organized around "growth management" sometimes called smart growth principles of revitalizing already built areas, expanding housing opportunities, improving transportation options, and saving open space and other environmental, cultural and historical resources.

Projects that promote these goals are the ones that should be funded.

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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