Urban Fabric

Posted on Thursday, January 12 2012 by Heather Brandon

In a brief 2010 paper titled “Losing Hartford: Transportation Policy and the Decline of an American City,” PhD candidate Christopher McCahill and UConn Associate Professor Norman Garrick assert that the city and state should both begin to charge their employees for the ample parking they use downtown. I agree—if enacted, I think such a policy would transform downtown more effectively and comprehensively than any other visionary project we have in the works. It bears reminding: we have too many parking facilities, and we need to fix this problem yesterday.

A great deal of city land was given over to parking between 1960 and 2000 (click to see larger images below), even while population decreased and its number of workers dropped. Most telling: downtown parking spaces during those decades more than tripled, covering 7.5 percent of the land in 1960, and 22 percent in 2000. This has done severe damage to the city’s “urban fabric,” along with the demolition of many buildings, the construction of major highways, and the companion increase of vacant lots and gloomy, unusable overpasses.

The paper’s authors tell how the city recognized the problem of increased auto dependence over the decades, even as it pushed for “immediate” and “essential” new parking facilities downtown, exacerbating the very auto dependence it deplored. By increasing that dependence, the city likewise killed incentives to walk, bike, or take the bus.

The problem is nicely summarized in these few sentences from McCahill and Garrick:

In the downtown, entire blocks have been turned from human-scale building fronts to expansive surface lots. Not only do these lots occupy land that could otherwise be used for housing or commercial development, but they create an environment that is hostile to pedestrians. Many employees are able to park near their place of work and walk very little, stifling potential economic activity in downtown shops and restaurants. Furthermore, the lack of housing opportunities in close proximity to the downtown has forced employees to live further away where driving is often their only reasonable transportation option, regardless of their preference.

People are simply walking less, and leaving downtown faster if they arrive at all, which means the unexpected interactions of genuine street life are fewer, and the city street is dull as burlap in long stretches. Dying connectedness defines Hartford’s downtown schools, businesses, parks, and arts institutions. Until the excessive number of parking lots is addressed, no attempt to connect and “knit together” the urban fabric is going to work quite right—it’s an adhesive bandage over a patchwork filled with holes. We absolutely must eliminate those holes to increase connection.

The model McCahill and Garrick urge the city and state to follow is that of The Travelers, which has successfully reduced auto dependency among its employees  compared to other employers, “without supportive regulation” of the government, the authors add, by adopting a couple of simple policies. The Travelers charges its employees for parking—between $70 and $125 per month—and allows carpools to park for free while also subsidizing public transit passes. The Travelers only provides enough parking space for half its employees.

As a result, only 71 percent of them drive alone to work, compared to 84 percent of Aetna, Inc.’s employees, who are also charged an undisclosed amount to park, but provides enough for 85 percent of them.

Of all the major employers surveyed that provide free and ample parking, between 83 and 95 percent of them drive alone to work: the Hartford Courant, Hartford Hospital, the City of Hartford, and (in my opinion the biggest offender) the State Department of Environmental Protection.

McCahill and Garrick argue that if all employees in Hartford imitated the pattern at The Travelers—71 percent driving alone, the rest using alternative means to get to work, including carpools—the city could reclaim 90 percent of the surface lots downtown, enough for 19,000 parked cars.

I urge the city and the state to lead the way by adopting a model where their employees are charged for parking. This would change more than the surface lots. It could free up space for construction to fill in the empty areas, which makes it increasingly more pleasant and practical to walk, bike, or use the bus. As the authors put it, “Hartford should build upon its urban fabric instead of dismantling it.”

7 Responses to “Urban Fabric”

  1. Kerri http://realhartford.org

    The sedentary American lifestyle contributes to oftentimes preventable ailments like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Who do you think pays for the health care of many City and State employees?

    Incentivizing these employees to make healthier choices can have financial benefits for taxpayers.

  2. Rebecca

    I agree 100%. Thanks for showcasing this article.

  3. David

    Just out of curiosity, does the McCahill/Garrick paper (or any other readily available source for that matter) indicate the utilization of the downtown spaces? I’d be willing to wager that outside a couple of notable “hot” spots, utilization is generally low. If that guess is correct then (1) it is even more of a shame, but (2) maybe there is an immediate opportunity to start stitching the fabric back together.

  4. Brian

    It would be interesting to find out how many people work in Hartford that live in New Britain and drive to work. And then how many of them are predicted to shift to the BRT when it is completed? Would that be the 19,000? Another interesting thing to find out is, do the municipal and state agencies working on BRT understand this parking problem aka do they even know it is a problem? After the introduction of the new bus system it will be inexcusable to allow this to continue. Some strategies to deal with the problem: Make everyone pay market-rate for parking / encourage lot-owners to build mixed-use or anything for that matter with whatever instruments are on hand / mandate all city employees live in Hartford like they do in Philly (I’m sure that would put some upward pressure on property prices…hopefully) / after the BRT goes in and you have appropriate parking prices, subsidize fares for ~5 years and then let them drift up to what would otherwise be normal / build better pedestrian services

  5. Tom

    It is terrible to see people getting literally furious just because they cannot find a free parking spot here in Toronto. Instead of parking a bit further and taking a short walk, they would rather drive around the block for hours and get even angrier.

  6. Mourad

    Since the 1960′s following the advent of Constitution Plaza, Downtown Hartford has essentially become a place that can be characterized a glorified office park with some decent restaurants supporting it, and host to the occasional arena event. Ok there are some highly viable and even world class institutions that make downtown a cultural destination as well, but in that time so much surface parking has eviscerated former human scale structures that gave the city’s center a distinct sense of place.

    There are many details in terms of spacing features such as sidewalks and bump-out etc, the basics of a quality street still remain the same. Vibrancy comes form having people oriented facades and on BOTH sides of the street so that when you’re walking on one side you can envision yourself at another interesting site on the other side, perhaps on a return trip heading in the opposite direction. This creates a simple yet powerful dynamic flow of pedestrians that Downtown Hartford lacks as it possesses far far too few of these contiguous stretches when you compare it to a location such as West Hartford Center / BB Square. Other than tiny Pratt street, there are few examples of a walkable, enjoyable street that mirrors SoHo our Philadelphia’s South Street.

    I’m actually a huge booster of Hartford from an activity standpoint – there are many things to do in the city and region, but thanks to the inundation of heinous surface parking, the walking vibe Downtown Hartford has feels as though IT were one of the cities bombed out in a World War but just hasn’t had the moxie to rebuild yet. Most shameful is the surface parking lot at the former Oakleaf site on Allyn Street, as the corridor from Union Station to the center commerce district should be replete with structures that invite one to stroll to the streets within the center city, but instead it looks like a pockmarked collection of disjointed buildings that make for a woeful incomplete street.

    I would hope that setting codes and standards for the right type of development can overcome resistance from behemoth parking lot operations who have failed to properly serve and who have only embarrassed the city with serious price gouging when notable events come to town.

    ’nuff said…yo


  7. Mourad

    Oh, and don’t the maps from 1960 and 2000 look as though it depicts a cancer that has metastasized over time – YES peeps, surface parking is an urban cancer that is killing our downtown, and we need some aggressive treatment to have any chance of saving this patient.

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