Friday, January 30, 2009

Little piece of good news

A quick note on the stimulus package. All things considered, mass transit got a better deal; the assigned funds went from 10 billion to 13 billion. Still less than roads and less that what the US needs, but it is some good progress; people like Transport for America did a great job furiously lobbying for this increase.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making towns work together

One of the main points of the Smart Growth Working Group's agenda is working to create incentives to promote cooperation between towns. Call it voluntary regionalization; to avoid the self-destructive race for new development that municipalities have to engage in due to the broken property tax system, we help towns work together to get these projects they were fighting for and to share the benefits.

It is a good way to bypass a lousy tax system; not a perfect fix, but a fairly good one considering how reluctant towns can be when the word region gets tossed around. The package unveiled Monday is a good first step. It is important to stress, however, that it won't be useful if no efforts are made to include all towns and cities in these agreements; if the inner cities are left out (again) by their suburbs when vying for development, the cooperation will still be pretty much useless in terms of smart growth.

Elmwood brownfield gets a new life
West Hartford

Shopping Plaza Proposed For Newington Road In West Hartford

The Hartford Courant
January 28, 2009

Winstanley Enterprises is proposing to build a shopping plaza, anchored by one of the smaller, neighborhood-style Stop & Shop supermarkets and featuring an expanded Crazy Bruce's liquor store, on what is now a brownfield site at 176 Newington Road in Elmwood.

The development, which would include a two-story office building and possibly a bank along with other businesses, would cost between $10 million and $12 million and might be one of the largest projects in town this year, given the economy, said Rob Rowlson, West Hartford's acting director of community services. It would bring a third supermarket to Elmwood, where seven months ago there were none. Winstanley Enterprises of Concord, Mass., owns 4.5 million square feet of commercial space in Connecticut, including large real estate holdings in New Haven.

The Stop & Shop would be 40,000 square feet, half the size of a super store, and be on a scale that would mesh with the neighborhood, Rowlson said. The developer plans to install bike racks and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.The parking lot would hold up to 500 cars.

The project does not require a zoning change or a public hearing; it will, however, be reviewed by the State Traffic Commission, town planning officials whose approval of the site plan is needed, the inland-wetlands panel, and West Hartford's design review advisory committee.

"We'll be looking closely at pedestrian access and traffic in and out," Rowlson said.

Construction would begin in late summer.

The 14-acre property, near Jacobs Road and Elmfield Street, was occupied most recently by the Industrial Safety and Supply Co. Winstanley has removed the asbestos from the building and is preparing to apply for a demolition permit, said the firm's lawyer, James Joseph of Levy & Droney in Farmington.

The site is contaminated by residue from an earlier operation, Jacobs Vehicle Systems, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Winstanley, overseen by the DEP, will handle the cleanup, Joseph said.

DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said Winstanley's cleanup plan, once complete, needs his agency's approval.

"This is a new investment in what was environmentally damaged land. It's good for the town, and will infuse the area with a retail center," Rowlson said. "The site across Newington Road is approved for a 28-unit condo development, and the shopping center would be an amenity for the housing and the office building as well as the neighborhood."

Crazy Bruce's Liquors would move from its 9,400- square-foot shop at 178 Newington Road to a 12,000-square-foot space in the new development, said Drew Truncali, partner of liquor store owner H. Mark Wilson. The two-story office building would replace what is now a warehouse for the liquor store, Truncali said.

Rowlson said the smaller market — a new Stop & Shop prototype — "is about the size of Whole Foods. It's user-friendly, and the concentration is on groceries, rather than being a grocery store and a small department store as well," he said.

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The property tax (I): the basics

Connecticut towns and cities get most of their financing thanks to the property tax. As taxes go, the property tax is a fairly good way to raise money; it gives a reasonably stable stream of revenue, it is quite predictable and it is mostly "fair" within a town, with the wealthiest residents paying more than the less well of.

As in everything in taxation, however, the devil is in the details; how the tax is implemented has a big influence in its real effects. As it is implemented in Connecticut, the property tax is regressive, grossly unfair and creates all the wrong incentives for development, to the point that it is probably one of the main culprits of the state´s woes.

When a first selectman or mayor thinks about increasing revenue and has property taxes as his one and only tool, he has basically three possible options. One is raising the the mill rate, that is, raising taxes; as tools go, this is hardly popular, and tends to be frowned upon. Politicians tend to avoid it at all costs, but as the burden in municipalities grow bigger and bigger (specially education costs, that are mostly financed by local governments) they need more money.

This brings option two, increasing the tax base. If the town has the room for it, a first selectman can always try to attract more development: buy more houses, bring in more businesses, and try to make sure that they are the high revenue, low cost kind. This means a focus on having big, expensive houses in big lots, to make sure they are more expensive, or big box stores and spread out office parks, the kind that needs a lot of land and uses a lot of taxable space. From the towns´point of view, this kind of development makes sense, as it gets them a lot of revenue; from a smart growth point of view, it is painfully inefficient, as it is essentially an incentive to sprawl.

This is when a town has actually room for it, and can expand the tax base by building more. When towns run out of space, however, as many inner cities and first ring suburbs do, the problem becomes much harder for the politician. They can´t build more in empty land, so they can only increase their revenue by either increasing the value of the buildings they have, or by raising the mill rate. Rationally the first option makes more sense, but it is much easier said than done, specially in old industrial towns riddled with brownfields and old buildings, and money is urgently needed.

The result: mill rates are raised, living and making business in cities and first ring suburbs becomes more expensive, the school system falls behind in funding, and middle class and upper middle class residents move out. Once this starts happening, it becomes a vicious cycle, producing the crazy spread in mill rates we see in Connecticut. Places like Waterbury a mill rate close to 40, despite all the state funding they receive, while wealthy suburbs can keep its rate bellow 20, or in some cases (New Canaan) bellow 10.

Living in the inner cities, the poorest places in the state, is much more expensive due to the very high taxes. Business development gets harder and harder. We will go into more detail on the side effects of this system in later posts.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The feared transit cuts

For some reason states and cities always look at the same places when they need to make budget cuts, with transit being always first in the line in the chopping blog. We have talked extensively on how this is disruptive for economy in many ways, and goes against sustainable growth. Transit for America is pushing back hard in this issue, trying to make sure that states and cities don´t make cuts now that will put in jeopardy clean, efficient transportation later. 

For that they have launched a transit cuts map, to put on the table the places that are cutting and shouldn't be doing this kind of changes. Remember, most transit services that are eliminated are used by low income people in many metro areas; the cuts are not just bad in the long run, but they also hurt those who are at the bottom. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Land Value Tax proposal featured in the Day

Give Cities New Tax Tool

By The Day

Published on 1/25/2009 in Home »Editorial »Editorial

Cities in Connecticut should have the option of using land-value taxation (LVT) to encourage redevelopment in urban centers.

LVT removes the disincentive that causes many property owners in city districts to leave lots vacant and buildings abandoned. Under the current property tax system, the more improvements an owner makes the higher taxes he or she pays. This leads many owners to land bank, fearful they will not be able to attract the necessary tenants to pay for higher taxes and development costs.

Often properties continue to sit idle until signs of redevelopment around them provide owners with the confidence to move forward. But with everyone waiting for the next guy to begin renovations, nothing happens.

LVT allows municipalities to assess taxes either entirely or predominately on the land, rather than the building improvements on the land. Using such a system, the owner who makes improvements to his buildings or builds on his vacant lot pays no more taxes than the guy who leaves the property rundown.

The system provides an incentive to redevelop and improve properties or, at the very least, sell the land to someone who will. Typically LVT ordinances phase in the new taxing system over a number of years, gradually shifting the assessment from buildings and the land to the land only. Owners with vacant lots and empty storefronts see their taxes increasing as the assessment shifts, driving them to improve the property and generate revenue.

Lawmakers have filed three bills in the state legislature to permit cities to use LVT, either for entire municipalities or in designated districts within cities. Rep. Ted Moukawsher of Groton introduced a bill in the House and Sens. Andrew Maynard and Andrea Stillman, of Stonington and Waterford, respectfully, filed in the Senate.

The legislature must be careful to limit LVT to urban centers. If ever used in rural and suburban towns, it would penalize farms and those holding large tracts of open space, encouraging development and sprawl.

But utilized where it makes sense, it could prove an important tool in encouraging development of empty lots and unused buildings in urban commercial districts, such as downtown New London and Norwich. In Pennsylvania such a tax system has helped drive redevelopment in formerly struggling cities, including Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

An important point is the use of LVT would be optional, giving cities the option to use it where it makes sense.

See related commentary “Putting higher levy” on Page F3.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Editorial says to Obama, "Build Railroads".,0,7081823.story

Memo To Prez: Build Railroads

Need For Transit • Stimulus package should have rail focus

January 24, 2009

One disappointment in President Barack Obama's inaugural address last week was his failure to mention the need to invest in transit.

Mr. Obama spoke of building roads and bridges, but not rails. This may have been an oversight, but it seems to mirror what is happening in the stimulus package in Congress. The New York Times reported that the bill introduced in the House calls for spending $30 billion on roads and only $10 billion on public transit. Proponents led by House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar wanted $12 billion, plus $5 billion for intercity rail, including high-speed trains. The latter figure was reduced to $1.1 billion.

This won't do. 

As the Natural Resource Defense Council has pointed out, transportation drives our dependence on foreign oil and our global warming contribution. Transportation is responsible for 70 percent of our oil consumption and is second only to electrical generation in its greenhouse gas impact. Americans seem to get the picture — transit use was up 6.5 percent last year, the largest jump in 25 years.

Now government has to catch up with the people who want to catch trains. The highway funds should be used only for repair of existing bridges and roads, not new ones. The strategic vision behind the infrastructure portion of the recovery bill should be to lessen energy use and pollution. The way to do that is more trains, not new highways. 

There is still time to change the bill, and some lawmakers are talking about adding transit money. Connecticut's delegation should be pushing for funds to build the New Haven-Hartford- Springfield commuter rail line and the Hartford-New Britain busway. Both of these projects will get cars off the road, clean the air and add vitality to the communities they serve. 

What's your opinion? Make it count with a Letter to the Editor: 

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant

Do streetcars make sense for New Haven?

The city of New Haven has been making noise and plans for the past couple of years about the possibility of building a streetcar line downtown. Mayor DeStefano went so far this past week to visit Washington DC, looking for a cool $20 million for the project. Do trams make sense for a city the size of New Haven?

In fact, it might make sense, although it is not all that clear. The Greater New Haven area has a population just over half a million; slightly smaller, but not by much, to metro areas like Burdeaux, and bigger than places like Montepellier or Alicante. Mid-sized cities can host successful light rail / trolley systems, specially if they are well planned and designed. Far from being a fancy project, a good network can be a great addition to the strenght and attractiveness of a metro area.

For starters, the city becomes much more walkable, as residents are less likely to need a car. This allows building with less focus on having massive amounts of parking space, as well as allowing denser zoning and more pedestrian-friendly streets. In addition, easier transportation tends to raise property values where it is installed, specially when the infrastructure is fixed and stable. Buses and bus stops are easy to move, making routes more confusing and planning around them less likely; a fixed tram line, in contrast, offers a solid path that will remain there.

Of course, all these benefits need a certain kind of city. First, it has to be somewhat dense; trams have a lot of capacity compared to buses, after all. Second, the distribution of the city needs to have at least a few "dense" destinations that generate traffic; areas with lots of activity that will benefit from being connected. Third, it is an investment that requires a strong commitment; as happens with rail, if the network is not extensive enough or the frequencies are too low, the system will be pretty useless.

New Haven has the density and the layout (potentially) to host an effective tram system. I am not sure if it has the money to make it work from day one; it will definetely need a lot of Federal or State (one can dream) help.

A different question would be if a tram should be the first in the list of city priorities, of course; if a transportation project that will only bring substantial development in the medium term should go before improving schools (one of the factors keeping many people out in the suburbs). To solve this we need to talk about property taxes and smart growth; and about that we will talk tomorrow.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Safe Routes Webinar Invitation

We are pleased to announce that CRCOG will be hosting two Safe Routes Webinar’s on January 27th and February 24th from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. The webinars will be held in CRCOG's large conference room in our office at 241 Main Street, Hartford.  Click here for directions:   Feel free to share this announcement with others who may be interested.

These webinars are part of the Safe Routes Coaching Action Network Webinar Series, developed by America Walks and the National Center for Safe Routes to School.  We are sure that these presentations will provide some fresh ideas for your Safe Routes planning efforts. 

Tuesday January 27, 2009 2:00pm – 3:00pm - This will be a one hour presentation on Chicago’s Mayor Daley’s Safe Routes Ambassador’s Program. This very successful safety program includes various educational and encouragement programs. The presentation will start with an introduction followed by a detailed explanation of the two main components of the programming:  pedestrian and bicycle safety.  This will include information on the curriculum, the age groups and communities served and how safety workshops are administered. Other aspects of the program will be outlined in the presentation, which include workshops for driver’s education students and outreach to parents and motorists.

Please note, We understand that this is very short notice for the announcement of this webinar, however, we hope that you would be able to attend or send someone from your community or organization to participate. If you are unable to participate, we will be sure to send a post webinar update to everyone.

Tuesday February 24, 2009 2:00pm – 3:00pm - In this one hour presentation, Sonja Atkins of Safe Kids Greater Sacramento will go over nine steps to boost the success of your existing or future SRTS program, turning it from a one day event, to a year round pedestrian program. Getting Schools to buy-in to your Safe Routes to School program can be a difficult and frustrating process; however, with the right tools you can succeed. The following steps/tips will be outlined in this presentation.

1.  Involving School Personnel 
2.  Finding Other Community Partners 
3.  Involving Students 
4.  Involving Parents 
5.  A kick off program with Walk to School Day 
6.  Rewarding School Personnel, Students and Parents 
7.  Evaluating Initial Steps 
8.  Presenting Results 
9.  Using the Initial Evaluation to Present Results 

Please RSVP as soon as possible if you plan on attending either session. Light refreshments will be served. If you have any questions about these presentations, please feel free to contact me at anytime.

Brenda M. Watson 
Transportation Planner 
Capitol Region Council of Governments 
241 Main Street 
Hartford, Connecticut 
860.522.2217 ext.227

Thursday, January 22, 2009

More than $170 million in smart growth projects on the agenda.

Smart Growth is on the Agenda

Governor M. Jodi Rell announced a host of smart growth projects are on the agenda for the January 30th State Bond Commission. As part of her Connecticut Stimulus Package, she announced $175,300,000 for the following urban revitalization, Fix it First, transit, and transit oriented development projects is due for commission approval:

- $2 million to clean up a "brownfield" at the former Conco Medical site in Bridgeport;

- $2.5 million for design, right of way for new West Haven rail station;

- $2.8 million to fund construction costs associated with New Haven's River Street development;

- $13 million for signal upgrades and design for the New Haven rail line;

- $20 million for foundation construction on the Moses Wheeler Bridge on Interstate 95 between Stratford and Milford;

- $135 million in construction and upgrades for municipal wastewater and sewage treatment plants under the Clean Water Fund facilities slated for funds include those in Norwalk, New Haven, Bridgeport, West Haven, Torrington, and the Metropolitan District Commission.

In addition, Rell announced today that The Georgetown Redevelopment Project in Redding will receive $3.5 million in tax increment financing through the Connecticut Development Authority to revitalize the former Gilbert and Bennett Wire Mills industrial site.

This National EPA Smart Growth Award-winning project will provide a mix of uses, including market rate residential housing; affordable senior housing; artist style lofts; the return of the Georgetown Train Station; a community theater, commercial, retail and office space; and other public and community facilities.

Take time to thank the Governor for working to stimulate the state economy with projects that encourage smart, sustainable growth. or call 800/406-1527.

Bringing Sustainability and Urbanism Together

In Architecture Week, Daniel Sloan disusses Sustainability and Urbanism 

He says, "There are numerous benefits to fusing sustainable development and urban development concepts. Moreover, pedestrian-oriented, urbanist-project approaches have been vigorously embraced by many environmental groups. It is not, however, intuitively obvious to everyone why high-density, extensively hardscaped projects would be good for the environment." 

Read on at

The economics of connected streets

I was going to write something about the economics of connected streets and how it makes sense to have integrated, well design street grids well beyond the "comfort" and "make the city pretty" level of argumentation. Mark Abraham, however, wrote it first, and he states the case better than I could, so I will just link his post here.

It's Not Just Hot Water We're in

Meet the Oceanographers

It’s not just hot water we’re in:
Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is the phenomenon by which increased CO2 absorption in oceans results in decreased pH levels, which has the potential to cause catastrophic change to biodiversity and foodwebs, especially through its impacts on organisms with calcareous shells or exoskeletons, including corals, sea urchins, and oysters.
Hosted by
The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk
10 North Water Street
Norwalk, CT 06854
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
6:00 pm -8:30pm
The Presenters
Dr. Penny Vlahos, Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences and Chemistry at UConn-Avery Point
Ocean Chemistry and the Carbon Cycle

Dr. Scott Doney, Senior Scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Biological Ramifications of an Acidic Ocean

Reserve your seat: Please register by January 25, 2009. Space is limited and seats will be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration is $10. You can register and pay on line at:
Clean Air Cool Planet is the leading organization looking for solutions to global warming.

Directions: To the program and an agenda will be e-mailed to registrants. For more information please contact: Amanda Muise at: or 203-966-5427 or Karin Jakubowski at: or 203-966-5693

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rail on, One Rail!



OneRail Coalition Encourages Transportation Policies that Increase Mobility,

Reduce Emissions, Promote Economic Growth

WASHINGTON - January 15, 2009 – Two days before President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden arrive here by train for their inauguration, environmental, freight and passenger rail groups have come together with reform-minded transportation experts to form a coalition that will advance rail programs. The coalition will encourage public policies recognizing rail as a critical element of the national transportation system and an essential part of the future economic growth and environmental well-being of the nation.

The group, called the OneRail Coalition, brings passenger and freight rail stakeholders together for the first time. Members include American Public Transportation Association, Amtrak, American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, Association of American Railroads, Building America’s Future, National Association of Railroad Passengers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Railway Supply Institute, States for Passenger Rail Coalition, and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. According to the group, public policies that support both freight and passenger rail objectives are needed to maximize transportation options that enhance mobility, achieve energy efficiency, address climate change, boost economic growth and improve quality of life for all Americans.

“Rail must be an essential component of any national infrastructure investment initiative,” said Anne Canby, President, Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. “Rail provides a solution for many of our most urgent transportation, energy and environmental problems.”

“As we look to increase recovery and sustain economic growth, we ask that Congress and the administration focus investment on our U.S. rail system. That focus can help de-congest choke points, put more freight and passengers on fuel-efficient trains, and lower our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions,” said Frank Busalacchi, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Chairman, States for Passenger Rail Coalition and a member of the 2008 National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

Why the Smart Growth Legislative Package is important

Heidi and CT Smart Growth have written all the important details regarding the content of the Smart Growth Working Group legislative package; let me add a couple of things to that list.

Attending the January 26th event at 10 at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford is important. We need to have as many voices as possible supporting this agenda to get it moving, specially with the present economic situation.

Why smart growth reform is important now? For starters, one of the main reasons that the state and local budgets are in such a terrible shape is because we have not been growing smart. Connecticut is an expensive state, made more expensive by bad planning that restrict the available housing stock. We either have big, expensive houses paying high property taxes in suburbs or cheap, generally low quality housing in the city cores paying even higher property taxes.

That does not help to attract jobs. Neither do the very high transportation costs, outdated infrastructure, high energy prices, the congestion, the very inefficient tax system, or the tendency to sprawl instead of making good use of what we already have in place.

The smart growth agenda is a comprehensive plan to address many of this issues directly or indirectly. It is a plan that includes not only short term savings but long term reforms. Connecticut needs to make big changes if we are too avoid this endless cycle of budget panics that seems to gripe the state every time that the economy goes South.

We will keep track of where each piece of legislation is once the package starts making its way through the legislature. Suscribe to our blog for updates!

Smart Growth Press Event -- Jan 26th, 10AM, LOB

The Smart Growth Working Group will publically unveil its 2009 legislative package at a press event at the Legislative Office Building, Capitol Avenue, Hartford. The event will be hosted by Representative Brendan Sharkey, chair of the working group. 
The legislative agenda includes 15 items:

1.       An Act Concerning Smart Growth

Statement of Purpose – Amend the Connecticut General Statutes to include a definition of Smart Growth that can be referenced throughout the remainder of the statutes.

See proposed definition at Appendix A

2.       An Act Concerning Smart Growth and the State’s Plan of Conservation and Development

Statement of Purpose – Amend Chapter 297 of the Connecticut General Statutes to incorporate Smart Growth principles into the Connecticut Plan of Conservation and Development, with a specific statement that the State of Connecticut endorses Smart Growth planning.

3.       An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Municipal Plans of Conservation and Development

Statement of Purpose – Amend C.G.S. §§ 8-23 and 8-35a to require that municipal and regional plans of conservation and development must be consistent with the State Plan of Conservation and Development with regard to the adoption of Smart Growth principles

 4.       An Act Concerning Smart Growth and State Planning

Statement of Purpose – To utilize previously appropriated funds to establish an ongoing tax incidence study through UConn’s Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, and to establish an ongoing statewide build-out analysis and GIS mapping through UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR).

 5.       An Act Concerning Training for Local Land Use Commissioners

Statement of Purpose – To task UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) with the function of establishing a basic curriculum and coordinating various organizations, including the Connecticut Bar Association, and state agencies, including DEP and UConn Law School, to offer training to local land use commissioners

6.       An Act Concerning Land Use Appeals

Statement of Purpose – To require the Connecticut Judicial Department to establish administrative appeals dockets in each of its judicial districts, and to identify judges in each judicial district with experience in land use and administrative law to hear all administrative appeals.

 7.       An Act Concerning Projects of Regional Significance

Statement of Purpose – To establish regional Councils of Governments as a convening authority of state, regional and local officials for voluntary pre-application reviews of projects of regional significance as defined by PA 07-239.  

 8.       An Act Concerning Coordinated Preservation and Redevelopment

Statement of Purpose – To ensure a coordinated investment approach throughout state government by establishing the Face of Connecticut Steering Committee, as defined by PA 08-174,  as the central clearinghouse for all state grant and bonding decisions regarding brownfield redevelopment, open space, farmland and historic preservation.


 9.       An Act Concerning Brownfield Redevelopment

Statement of Purpose – To require the State Department of Economic and Community Development to update its statewide database of existing brownfield properties, and to dedicate existing funds toward environmental assessments of each property with liens to ensure repayment of state funds upon redevelopment by a subsequent purchaser.

10.   An Act Concerning Smart Growth Zoning Regulations

Statement of Purpose – To require the Office of Policy and Management to develop model zoning regulations for Connecticut municipalities that encourage Smart Growth principles as defined by statute, including higher density housing options.

 11.   An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Transportation Planning

Statement of Purpose – To empower the Transportation Strategy Board to establish and adopt of capital plan for transportation investment, and require that such a plan incorporate Smart Growth principles as defined by statute.

 12.   An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Alternative Transportation Investment

Statement of Purpose – For the next ten years, to directly tie that portion of the Gross Receipts Tax dedicated to the Special Transportation Fund to mass transit projects, including high speed commuter rail, light rail, busways and bikeways.

 13 An Act Concerning Smart Growth and Preservation Tax Policy

Statement of Purpose – To expand the existing “PA 490” program to include the preservation of historic properties and natural resources of regional importance, such as aquifers and tidal marshes.

14 An Act Concerning Regional Planning Organizations

Statement of Purpose – To amend C.G.S. § 8-31a to require that all regional planning agencies in the state must include a representative from its constituent towns who is the chief elected officer of the town.

An Act Concerning Regionalism

Statment of Purpose – To establish regional cooperation among Connecticut towns through a voluntary incentive-based program.   

Step One – 

·         Towns would sign on to participate in regional coordination efforts

·         The specific regionalization efforts would be in two categories

o   Mandatory items

§  Establishment as an “economic district” under the federal EDS standards

§  Adoption of a regional property tax revenue sharing plan

§  An agreement among member towns for regional collective bargaining (town & BOE)

§  An agreement among member towns to participate in state health care pooling

o   A menu of discretionary items, in addition to the required items, reflecting regional cost sharing

·         As an incentive for towns that sign on, the state would grant relief from certain state mandates TBD

Step Two – 

·         Towns, through their regions, would implement their regionalization plans

·         As an incentive for towns to implement their regionalization plans, the state would re-direct a portion of the state sales tax generated within the region back to member towns


Appendix A

 Definition of Smart Growth – Smart Growth is economic, social, and environmental development that uses land and resources in ways that enhance the long-term quality of life for Connecticut’s current and future generations. Smart Growth demands a collaborative approach to planning, decision-making and evaluation between and among all levels of government to promote Connecticut’s economic competitiveness while preserving her natural resources, both of which our state’s quality of life depends. 

To accomplish its goals, Smart Growth promotes

1.       integrated planning that coordinates tax, transportation, housing, environmental and economic development policies at the state and local level.

2.       the reduction in Connecticut’s reliance on the property tax by creating efficiencies and coordination of services on the regional level while reducing interlocal competition for grand list growth.

3.       the redevelopment of existing infrastructure and resources, including brownfields and historic places, instead of new construction in undeveloped places. 

4.       transportation choice that provides alternatives to automobiles, including rail, bikeways, walking, while reducing energy consumption.

5.       affordable and available housing for mixed income households in close proximity to transportation and employment center .

6.       concentrated, mixed-use development around transportation nodes and civic and cultural centers.

7.       the conservation and protection of natural resources by preserving open space, farmland and historic properties and furthering energy efficiency.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making mass transit work

There has been quite a bit of talk on expanding and extending the commuter rail network in Connecticut in the last few years. As it happens too often in the state, this talk takes years, sometimes leading to nowhere. This time, however, it looks like there is a reasonable chance that we will see at least a new Commuter rail link upgraded (the New Haven - Hartford - Springfield line) and there is even talk on creating a service linking Waterbury and the state capital.

It is important to establish these and other services; it is necessary, however, to implement them in a way that makes sense. A mass transit network can be both extensive and completely useless, if it is not designed carefully.

The first step is making sure that the transit system is as invisible as possible. A commuter train or bus is more useful the less its users have to plan their day around it; ideally, a potential traveler should not even need to check schedules or complex network maps to get around with ease. A bus line with consistent, frequent service for most of the day (buses every 10 minutes or less) is vastly more useful than a line that gives no second chances in you miss the bus. Even if understandably service is more frequent during rush hour, having a decent service in off-peak times is always important.

What does this mean? Unless you can expect a level of traffic that will justify frequent service, commuters will usually not be served well enough by mass transit. With a few exceptions (branch lines feeding a main line that serves a congested route or long distance travel), mass transit has to handled and planned with care. If the line has the traffic but the service is not good enough it will not be useful for conmuters, so it will remain underused. If the traffic is not there (be it because there is nothing close to the stations, be it because it doesn't serve enough population) it will be an expensive toy.

The New Haven-Hartford line could serve a good amount of population, and the stations are (mostly) placed in build up areas, ripe for transit oriented development and completely car-free commuting. It is important to establish a level of service that makes it useful (hint: something more splendid than the picture above), even thinking on upgrading the line with overhead wires to allow the use of more efficient electric trains.

The obvious problem, as usual, is the dire situation of the budget in the state. If only the DOT decided to fast track the -relatively cheap- construction and try to get first in line for the Federal stimulus bill. If only.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The decline of Connecticut cities

Connecticut's wealth follows a pretty remarkable geographic pattern; despite being the richest state of the union, the success seems to avoid its biggest cities.

Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, New Britain, Meriden or Stamford all share an illustrious manufacturing past; wealthy seats of factories and fortunes that produced brass, rifles, mills and tools that were sold all over the world. Hartford was 100 years ago the wealthiest city in the country, thanks to its industry and financial sector. In the years following the Second World War, however, growth vanished, industries left and the once vibrant cities gradually declined to their sorry present state.

How that happened? What brough Connecticut cities from their golden years of urbanism in the 30s to what they are today? Above all, how can Connecticut cities regain their footing and contribute to the prosperity of the state as a whole?

The answer to these questions is not easy; several factors have contributed to these changes. The present outcome was not a foregone conclusion; as cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Portland or Chicago show, the decline of urban areas is not inevitable. In the coming days / weeks, I will try to explain what happened and why we need to reverse these trends. Let's hope it all makes sense.

Useless buildings

The economic downturn is doing a lot of damage in the always vulnerable retail sector, and to be more specific, on the big-box retail chains. With the exception of some deeply discounted stores, retailers are struggling, with several going under. The latest on this trend is the once mighty Circuit City electronics chain.

The effects of a big retail chain are significant, and go beyond the job loss. The traditional big box store is an unwieldy creature that requires a very particular development pattern and a very inefficient use of resources: big parking lots, massive building, and a street grid that favors cars above all else. This arrangement is functional (albeit massively inefficient) when the store is open; when it closes its doors, however, it leaves a difficult legacy.

Big box stores are hyperspecialized, single use buildings. A Circuit City is designed to perform one task, and one task only; it is build cheaply, it takes a lot of space, and it can not be used for anything else baring a very expensive refit. To make things worse, the infrastructure around is basically useless outside its now-obsolete function; without a significant investment, and empty big box store can not be reused at all. It is a car-centric, inefficient white elephant.

The comparison with a building in a denser urban core is significant. A big office, retail or residential building within a city is much more versatile. Its placing in a dense area means that it is sharing infrastructure and street grid with several other buildings, reducing costs. The density makes using public transportation more efficient, making it less car-dependant. The increased mixed use makes it less dependant of a single use; a big building can have several uses, making it more flexible. In addition, all these adventages make the building a better candidate for refitting, as the costs are much lower.

As a result, we have building like the Capital Community College in Hartford in Main Street, formerly the G. Fox & Co. Department Store; the Taft Apartments in New Haven, formerly a hotel, or the former factories by the train tracks in the Elm City refurbished into lofts. Urban cores can be -if well supported and rationally taxed- more efficient and flexible that sprawling big box developments; it is a matter of letting cities do what they do best.