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Connecticut's tale of two cities

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Chris Powell: Connecticut's tale of two cities

MANCHESTER, Conn. | Monday, October 18, 2004

CONNECTICUT might find a lesson in its two most prominent development projects: Adriaen's Landing, in Hartford, and Blue Back Square, in West Hartford.

For Adriaen's Landing, the state government's second attempt in 40 years to move downtown Hartford, a convention center is being built, to make obsolete the nearby Hartford Civic Center. But there's no developer for the commercial and residential components of Adriaen's Landing.

With a blizzard of hyperbole, the state agency in charge of the project picked a nationally known developer. But he dropped out a few weeks ago, figuring he would be inadequately subsidized, and the applications since then have been judged pathetic and rejected. The implication is that the new convention center is not likely to be much of a draw for day-to-day commerce and residency.

Meanwhile, the West Hartford development, Blue Back Square (named for native Noah Webster's Blue-Backed Speller), is causing a huge and expensive referendum campaign.

The Town Council has picked a developer for a complex of commercial and residential buildings that would almost double the area of West Hartford Center. Financing the opposing campaign is the Westfarms shopping mall, on the other side of town. There's a lot of money in commerce in and around West Hartford -- a lot to fight over.

Many reasons are given for the opposition to Blue Back Square, some of them contrivances, but it seems that West Hartford residents are simply happy with West Hartford Center as it is, and don't want it to get bigger.

Apart from the merits of Blue Back Square, the furious politics over it is a good sign -- a sign that, in West Hartford, someone is home.

By contrast, Hartford's Adriaen's Landing was devised by the state government, on the premise that the city government was incompetent and could not be trusted with the development money, and the city residents have little interest in how the downtown is rearranged. In other words, in Hartford hardly anyone is home.

For most Hartford residents, downtown might as well be another country. Developers' declining interest in the commercial and residential parts of Adriaen's Landing suggests that they are figuring this out.

The state government has not realized that several years ago downtown Hartford -- in the sense of the commercial and social center of the Hartford area -- relocated itself to West Hartford Center. There were a couple of reasons for this: West Hartford Center's more human scale, with smaller buildings and more parking, and its neighboring middle-class residents, who could support commerce and would even walk to it. These elements contrasted with downtown Hartford's sterile skyscrapers and limited parking, and its replacement of most residential buildings with housing for the poor.

Hartford's demographics are now more or less permanent. Since its school system is overwhelmed with disadvantaged children, few middle-class families with children will live in the city, and when city people reach the middle class, many of them leave Hartford as fast as they can.

In desperate search for encouraging demographic trends, the city's boosters cite plans to build downtown housing for young singles and older couples whose children have moved away from home, as well as the purchase and renovation of spacious older houses throughout the city by couples without children -- all people for whom Hartford is attractive largely because they don't have to rely on its schools.

Adriaen's Landing may still, somehow, work out where the earlier downtown redevelopments (the Civic Center, Constitution Plaza) failed. But, government's being government, it will pour good money after bad for a long, long time before questioning its premises.

Yet even if the new convention center, its hotel, and the hoped-for nearby shops make money, they won't turn Hartford into a middle-class city, which should have been the objective all along.

Connecticut's tale of two cities is that you can't build a city from the top down. A city is not structures but, rather, the people who live there. A city with a strong middle class will develop the buildings, institutions, and commerce to take care of itself and even thrive, but there is no saving a city with mere construction.

The lesson for government, then, seems to be to find what makes people middle-class and what discourages poverty -- and then to do it. The new Hartford convention center will be just the place for a conference about that.

Chris Powell, a frequent contributor, is managing editor of The (Manchester, Conn.) Journal Inquirer.

From The Providence Journal

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willimantic is also another city (smaller city) in need that can somewhat (on a differant level) relate to hartford in the downtown restoration projects and such, but providence has some nice parts, and they are very similar.

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