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Bring Back Streetcars

Main Street Track In Hartford Could Be Development Springboard


August 30, 2009

"It is difficult to count the number of cities that have been extensively damaged by kowtowing to the demands of the automobile. So many come to mind — Detroit, Hartford, Des Moines, Kansas City, Syracuse, Tampa — that it has to be considered the standard American urban condition." Andres Duany et al., "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream."

In 1920, Hartford's streets were unified by more than 150 miles of street railways. Those were systematically dismantled in the1940s. Not coincidently, the city's population has dropped from nearly 180,000 in 1950 to 120,000 today. Including Hartford Hospital and Asylum Hill, downtown Hartford is home to nearly 65,000 jobs. Nearly 90 percent of those workers arrive by car.

Almost exclusive dependence on the automobile is devastating for cities. Any downtown development requires more street-deadening, tax-eroding surface parking or the construction of garages, which can be prohibitively expensive (an average of $30,000 a space). Hartford land dedicated to parking has nearly tripled since 1960.

When driving is the easiest choice, city neighborhoods lose competitive advantage over suburbs. Those with the means move to the suburbs and leave the most disadvantaged behind. These factors combine to erode the city's tax base and increase demand on services, putting tax pressure on small business, corporate anchors and residents.

However, market demand has evolved since the 1960s. According to developer and land use expert Christopher Leinberger, 30 to 40 percent of Americans prefer "walkable urbanism." The same percent prefers "drivable suburbanism," and the rest will accept either. But downtown Hartford housing is a hard sell because, in fact, downtown Hartford is not an urban place any more. It is a manifestation of suburban sprawl, a collection of skyscrapers, arterial streets and parking lots. Nationwide and in Hartford, there is a pent-up demand for "walkable urbanism," but it is not being delivered.

How can Hartford become a real city again? The Urban Land Institute made several recommendations: Look beyond silver bullets like arenas. Eliminate much of the surface parking. Create more alternatives to the automobile.

That is my proposal: Hartford should revive some of its long-lost street railway system.

Today in an increasing number of cities, steel-wheeled streetcars run along a fixed track in the street for one to five miles. Local railways feed regional systems (like the New Haven to Springfield commuter line) and attract many more riders than conventional buses.

Most important, attracting new riders and the permanence of the line mitigates risk for developers. Modern street railways inspire tremendous returns of development investment. A two-mile line in Kenosha, Wis., costing $6.2 million, generated $150 million in development. The four-plus-mile streetcar in Portland, Ore., costing $55 million, has generated over $1 billion in development and more than 7,000 residential units within three blocks of the line since 2001. In Jersey City, in the four years after project commitment, development activity of the previous 27 years was doubled.

Many Hartford avenues once had railways, which have potential to be revived with modern streetcars. Shelly Poticha, former head of Reconnecting America, suggests starting small, with an inexpensive line about a mile long that balances immediate ridership with development potential. Upon initial success, it becomes more possible, politically and economically, to leverage extensions.

While many look at the longer-term goal of linking downtown Hartford with West Hartford Center with a 4.3-mile streetcar route on Farmington Avenue, I think the best start is a 1.3-mile line on Main Street, from South Green to the Keney Clock Tower.

Long-term extensions could include Franklin and Albany avenues into Wethersfield and West Hartford. Unlike Farmington Avenue, the streetcar could have a separated right of way without needing to spend money to widen the street.

This stretch is a moment's walk from countless jobs, an increasing number of residential choices, and plenty of land that could be developed into wonderful, charming neighborhoods — think of South Green or Keney Square developing at the scale of Georgetown or Boston's North End.

But the development equation needs to change. Perhaps Leinberger says it best: "Transportation drives development. You put the transportation in and then you get the development patterns that the system allows. Freeways allow only sprawl ... what I call 'drivable suburban.' You put in rail transit and you get high-density walkable urban."

•Jonas Maciunas, a Wethersfield native, is a graduate student in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

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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