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New (and old) Urbanism

June 8, 2015



New Haven and Hartford are but 41 miles apart. They are almost the same size, (17 and 20 square miles, respectively) and each city harbors about 130,000 souls. Hartford has 2 legacy industries, government and insurance, New Haven lost one (guns) but Yale remains.

After these factoids, the similarities begin to fade.

Hartford’s residents have a median income of around $30K, but New Haven’s residents have almost twice that amount (not surprising that the Ivy League pays better than a small New England state government.)

New Haven was a leading lab rat in the mid-20th century “Urban Renewal” experimentation that wiped clean entire neighborhoods, Hartford had less wholesale clear-cutting.

But today Hartford and New Haven join all of urban America as it undergoes a sea change in public perception. The Greatest Generation used the largesse of federal highway construction in the 1950’s that in Connecticut saw fallow failed farmland sprout hundreds of thousands of quickly built homes to invent suburbia. We Boomers kept on ex-urbing, carpet bombing our developments with McMansions.

The Boomer spawn, Millennials, see the excesses of energy, time, and money poured into commuting, lawns and mandatory automobiles and say “Nope”. This generational rethink takes on a religious fervor: “sustainability”: saving the planet from the Great Satan of Carbon. Kill the car, shrink the house, forget a mortgage: move back in-town, rent, walk to everything and feel the vibe. When combined with empty nested Boomers seeking to downsize and be as hip as their kids, it becomes a marketable force for investment in new housing.

But cities like New Haven and Hartford have not focused much on an influx of residents for over 70 years. This new housing herding creates product where human desire demands it.

As we found out in the crash of ’08’ housing is at the core of our economy, so big risks are often made, and rewarded if they reflect the market or are crushed if manipulated beyond the reality of people’s desires.

Hartford and New Haven are both in the middle of this changing tide but are corresponding with radically different approaches to accommodate the new influx.

Hartford is reusing abandoned buildings, using over $160 million Capitol Region Development Authority funding allocated via non-profits and a posse of private developers to potentially create over 1,000 new units in over 10 existing buildings in the next few years – all involving some affordability requirements, often intended to keep city workers (teachers, police and firefighters) in the city.

The Historic Preservation ethic is part of this approach and a core principle of “sustainability” is the canon “The Greenest Building is the one you do not tear down.”

The new housing being considered and built in New Haven could not be more different than the Hartford approach. There are about a dozen projects either in construction, approved or going for approval – all slated to be online in the next few years. Almost all are new construction, using “five-story wood-frame structure over podium slab” approach that makes the cost of building affordable enough that market-rate, unsubsidized rental housing makes economic sense on paper for another set of privately funded developers.

Of course private developers will build market rate new housing in Hartford, and of course there are subsidized affordable housing projects being created in New Haven. But the two cities are generally addressing the same opportunities and problems with radically different means to an end.

That end? Re-inhabit a small New England city downtown. Sometimes comparisons are odious, sometimes they reveal deeper distinctions. Did the scorched earth of New Haven’s “Urban Renewal” era soften resistance to building new? Does being the center of state government make subsidized housing a preferred option for Hartford?

Is the new value of knowledge that leverages start-up technologies make Yale and it’s like an facilitator of reasonable risk for private developers? Does the State of Connecticut’s never ending budget angst make private investment a greater risk when budget balancing potentially means layoffs by the city’s Big Dog employer? Or does it just it just come down to the fact that more folk have more money to spend in New Haven than in Hartford?

Both cities face the probability that overbuilding in the next couple of years will suppress the return on investment of their developers- unless the tide of New Urbanists overflows each city’s recent history. If one approach works while the other fails a national trend will have a local reality check.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joseph Dzeda permalink
    June 8, 2015 4:26 pm

    where’s the rest of the article?


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