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At Forum In Hartford, Planners Talk About Reshaping State's Future

DON STACOM

June 01, 2009

Clustering new housing around Connecticut's job centers, transit lines and existing commercial hubs would significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the cost of infrastructure in the decades ahead, regional planners said at a forum in Hartford.

Starting from that basic premise, the group Friday exploring possible approaches to the state's future that ranged from the innocuous, such as tax incentives for building apartment towers near Union Station, to the semi-revolutionary creating a streetcar route from downtown to the University of Connecticut Medical Center via Farmington Avenue.

"It's about giving people freedom to choose, and preserving long-term value for our communities," said David Kooris, Connecticut director of the Regional Plan Association.

Planners throughout the country have debated urban development for decades, but the conversations have taken on a new urgency in the midst of the ferocious financial downturn, erratic fuel prices, deepening concern about global warming and widening dissatisfaction with relentless suburban sprawl.

Changes in streetscapes, building design and municipal zoning are necessary, but they don't need to be as jarring as some traditional New England suburbanites might think, according to speakers at the conference.

Too often, towns impose development rules that discourage efficient growth and create miles of isolated cul-de-sacs and inaccessible neighborhoods, creating ever-worsening traffic congestion as people relocate farther and farther from job centers, downtown commercial zones, medical offices and mass transit routes, said Patrick Condon, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia.

He recommended encouraging interconnected streets with good bike and pedestrian lanes, allowing apartments and multifamily homes and one-family houses on the same streets, and conserving land by rewarding higher-density development.

Connecticut has relied too long and too hard on sprawling subdivisions of big-acreage tracts in remote suburbs and semi-rural towns, creating isolated pockets of low-density development that mass transit can't reach efficiently, according to several speakers.

Kooris said that with Connecticut's population shifting from predominantly young and middle-aged families to more elderly, young couples, single people and one-parent families, the housing market is undergoing a long-term shift.

"We bet the bank on one-family, detached houses with big yards. The demographics tell us we need to make our portfolio more robust the Connecticut of five or 10 years from now will be demanding a different product," Kooris said. "But we're not talking about doing away with established one-family-home neighborhoods, not at all. We're talking about what we build, where we build, we're talking about tweaking underperforming strip malls and dead or dying malls, brownfields, dying corridors."

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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