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Building On Value: Development Should Leverage State's Resources

By TONI GOLD

December 26, 2010

Note to Gov.-elect Dannel Malloy: Connecticut's approach to economic development is not working.

Virtually no net jobs have been created for decades, population has not risen, and our vaunted income statistics barely maintain their place as they conceal a shameful gap between the rich and the poor.

Perhaps the reason it isn't working is that we take too narrow a view of the problem. Like most economic development prescriptions, ours is fixated on formulaic numbers jobs created, businesses attracted or retained, household income, the cost of energy, the cost doing business. The thrust is to push these numbers up. Anything lost in the process the quality, variety and depth of our places and cultural assets, and people's attachment to them and place, say is a necessary if unfortunate cost of growth.

Could the things that are being lost the farms and fields threatened by new exurban subdivisions and big-box stores; the compact, walkable, diverse cities continually hollowed out for the automobile; the architectural heritage that is threatened in towns of every size be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? Shouldn't the place that is Connecticut the historic buildings, streets, squares, museums, parks and public spaces that make every one of the 169 towns unique and interesting - be leveraged as an economic asset?

What would a quality of life economic development program look like?

For starters, instead of widening more highways and creating more parking lots, try a transportation policy that is sensitive to places. For Connecticut's cities, this would mean robust support for rail service, with policies that facilitate connections to walking, biking and buses; minimize associated parking; and reuse historic rail stations and nearby old buildings. A state-recommended model station area zoning overlay put out to the cities, with accompanying grants and planning assistance, could achieve true transit-oriented development.

For beleaguered old industrial town centers the Willamantics, Torringtons, Norwichs and Naugatucks of the state context-sensitive transportation policy would mean state support for good bus or train service and the addition of well-designed stops and station areas that support it, with parking subordinated and sidewalks and trails featured.

For small towns, context-sensitive transportation policy would mean state support for sidewalks and bikeways everywhere in town, and state highway design that allowed narrower lanes and wider shoulders, roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, and diagonal parking in retail areas when Main Street is a state highway.

Other economic development policies could include improving the present historic rehabilitation tax credit, strengthening the Community Investment Program, and promulgating model zoning codes for municipalities that encourage greater density, reduce parking requirements and encourage walking. Policies and grants that serve brownfield redevelopment will in almost every case help town centers. We must overcome barriers to reinvestment in existing downtowns.

Concurrently, development that uses state money whether it is housing, a new plant or lab attracted from out of state, a new Walmart or Target or the expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center must be channeled into existing population centers where infrastructure already exists, no matter how much that business may prefer a greenfield site.

If growth means the loss of another farm or the rejection of a brownfield site, or the creation of acres of asphalt on the edge of a town center, then the cost is too high. We don't have to hock the family jewels.

Connecticut has begun to take a number of these positive steps, but they are not thought of as part of a comprehensive economic policy, and are often the first programs on the chopping block in hard times. And yet they should be seen as central to economic development, because they create places where people want to live and work places that attract workers, keep our young people, appeal to arts and knowledge workers and reduce the need for and dominance of the automobile. Cool places are hard to quantify, but they are real nonetheless.

Toni Gold is a transportation consultant, a member of the boards of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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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