West Hartford Forums

“A candle is enough to light the world”

“Mixed Use” Development and The Means of Forgetting

Posted by whforums on August 20, 2008

You’ll have to forgive me if it seems this post is piggy-backing on the conversation that’s happening over at Talk of West Hartford (an ongoing discussion about the successes and failures of BBS) – I was going to add another comment over there, but the more I wrote, the more it seemed clear this was going to be its own post.

It seems to me BBS begs a larger question than its parking garages (or even its own success or failure – which, let’s face it – we’re not going to adequately judge after the short gestation of nine months). And, though I don’t think a lot of you are going to like what I’m about to write, the question BBS begs is a regional and ethical question.

I caught some justified flack in response to my post about the Hartford shootings – people said that my call for greater regional responsibility was long on rhetoric and emotion and short on concrete ideas. And I think that’s true – when I wrote what I wrote, I was sorting through my own emotional reaction more than I was proposing solutions. I’m a critic, I’m a “feeling perceiver,” but I’m no politician – proposing solutions isn’t my strongest suit.

But as I’ve continued to sort, in my own mind, the disparity in dialog between West Hartford’s concerns (the cost of parking garages) and Hartford’s concerns (poverty and its consequences), one thing suffocates me – the energy West Hartford spends in its public spaces (everywhere from Blue Back Square to this blog) to create what amounts to a “Hartford amnesia.”

Blue Back Square makes a sound example of this. BBS was marketed as “mixed use development,” and it certainly is mixed use development. It’s shopping, living and it’s gathering – it’s your 21st century plaza, awash in brand and capital. And while I’m not always so crazy about capitalism, I’m willing to accept BBS for what it is. But in so doing, what BBS hides – or worse, what BBS encourages us to forget about, as we talk about it or walk through it — is that, as a new development, it has a social and ethical role beyond its own borders that it does not seem to be fulfilling. In other words, by mixing its properties and zoning, and by labeling itself “mixed use,” Blue Back Square actively encourages us to forget just how not mixed it is in the context of its region. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that BBS was not designed with economic diversity in mind – but we seem to gloss over this essential problem in our dialog about it. As much as we talk about taxes and garages and LED lights, the greatest problem with Blue Back Square is that it lacks the economic and human diversity that will ultimately help the entire region grapple with the segregation poverty induces.

That all seems somewhat roundabout. We know who BBS is for, and that’s fine. We know who can live there and who can shop there, and that’s fine. I have nothing against those who do, and I’m not on any high horse – I’ve spent money at Blue Back Square, too. But I would challenge the town of West Hartford to make its next development project – its next mixed use project – a smart growth project. I would challenge the Town of West Hartford to make its next development project a project that welcomes economic and social diversity by making housing affordable and by making the focus of that development not its jeans stores or restaurants (which it may very well have) but rather the opportunity of access that is the bedrock of our ideals. It’s not that I don’t understand that development is more about money than ethics – it’s that I’m demanding that we begin to more seriously consider the ethical, democratic, human and regional implications of our development. In the end, it’s not about who we’re inviting in to what we develop – it’s about the passive, invisible and too often forgotten discrimination against who we’re keeping out.

West Hartford, Blue Back Square, and our bickering about it, is missing the point. The greatest problem isn’t the cost of the garages (though, as time goes on, that may prove to be a problem), the problem is that the development we undertook, by the nature of its exclusivity, induces an amnesia about the problems of our region and our own responsibilities in their light.

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14 Responses to ““Mixed Use” Development and The Means of Forgetting”

  1. Zohan said

    Town suggestion? Stop treating Elmwood like a third-world country.

    It has fabulous restaurants. They’re also real places run by real people, much less than I can say for Boring Template Back Square.

  2. Richard said

    Zohan.. I agree, I thought BBS would finally bring a nice sportsbar/pub to downtown WH for “the rest of us”… No such luck… I go there for coffee, but my nightlife goes elsewhere.

  3. whforums said

    My first thought, when I moved back here from upstate NY:

    “Um … where are the bars?”

  4. Cynic said

    Interesting post, for the fun of it I’ll throw some stuff out, will any stick.

    First, you are correct economic diversity was the last thing in mind with Blue Back square. As the rest of WH Center, it caters to higher incomes.

    Housing in WH may have plateaued, but it has done so at higher levels and that includes Elmwood. Even if we see a drop in property values, it will not be a big enough drop to make housing more affordable in WH, for the goups you’re looking for.

    So if you are looking for housing to bring in a more “diverse” economic representation where are you going to put it. Developers will want to make a profit, they are ot going to put in inexpensive housing on expensive land. How dense a project will the Town allow is another question. Cheaper housing brings in less tax revenue than more expensive developments. They also have to figure out the effect of cheaper housing on the surrounding community, such a development could have serious negative impact on surrounding housing. Should we discuss how such an expansion would require expansion of the schools.

    There is also the question of where in WH you have the land for such a project.

    Finally, there is the law of unintended consequences (are we seeing this with Blue Back). It has happened many times before that such a project goes up and speculators end up getting their hands on the units and quickly flip them for large profits quickly making the project unaffordable to those it was intended. West Hartford is a prime location for this to happen.

    As to Hartford, the city seems determined to take itself ever lower. The bill the Mayor just signed in effect turns Hartford into an open city for illegals. West Hartford should be concerned. Taxes are driving out business, preventing new business from coming in, and driving out the middle class. The schools system seems hopeless no matter what is tried, and face it if they can’t improve the schools they’ll never revive a middle class in Hartford.

  5. Anonymous said

    Several years ago, during a meet-the-candidates night at one of the local public schools I had the following exchange with Carolyn Thornberry:

    Me: Are you concerned about the lack of newer affordable housing? It seems like everything that’s getting built is more luxury. (I think I was thinking about all the condo units that were in planning.)

    CT: Those aren’t luxury units.

    Me: I think you and I have different definitions of luxury.

    CT: What’s your definition of luxury?

    Me: Well, we’re a single income family with three kids…

    CT: You’re right, we do have different definitions of luxury.

    She then took the next question.

    So, how do we start a dialogue about affordable housing in this town? And economic diversity? The only reason we go to BBS is for the library. All the stores are too expensive for us. I’d love to shop at Crate and Barrel, but it’s Freecycle and Craigslist for us!

  6. Cynic makes some good points, particularly related to land availability and “speculators.”

    There really isn’t undeveloped land available in WH (around current retail/restaurant areas anyway), so the only way more economically diverse housing/mixed use developments could be put up is to raze and potentially re-zone. That entire process doesn’t come cheap, so why would a developer even entertain this? They’re forced to cater to higher income in order to make the project profitable. Hartford gets money from the state to entice developers to do projects. West Hartford doesn’t have that luxury, so they need to front the money. Then you get into the whole bond issue again…

    As far as keeping out speculators, the only way to do that is to put income restrictions or owner occupancy restrictions on units and this is just another barrier that causes developers to shy away.

    Regarding areas of town that could use some work, New Park has some good redevelopment areas available, but the Design District already seems to be doing a pretty good job of revitalizing that area. The old Caldor space offers quite a bit of land, but as someone else mentioned, the town seems to ignore Elmwood. I don’t know why, I think it’s a great walkable area with tons of potential and great restaurants.

    On a side note, does anyone know where the development of the Aldi grocery store stands?

  7. Andy said

    From Cyric, above

    “Housing in WH may have plateaued, but it has done so at higher levels and that includes Elmwood. Even if we see a drop in property values, it will not be a big enough drop to make housing more affordable in WH, for the goups you’re looking for.

    So if you are looking for housing to bring in a more “diverse” economic representation where are you going to put it. Developers will want to make a profit, they are ot going to put in inexpensive housing on expensive land. How dense a project will the Town allow is another question. Cheaper housing brings in less tax revenue than more expensive developments. They also have to figure out the effect of cheaper housing on the surrounding community, such a development could have serious negative impact on surrounding housing. Should we discuss how such an expansion would require expansion of the schools.”

    Thank you for elegantly demonstrating why relying on the “private sector” for critical infrastructure such as housing, and funding schools based on local property taxes does not work. My solution to this would be to fund schools based on a statewide (or better yet, nationwide) distribution of tax income, and to heavily involve democratic government in building housing and other infrastructure. From the tone of your post, it appears your solution is to leave the current state of inequality and segregation in our society as it is.

    Oh, I know, you’ll point to the federal housing projects of the mid-twentieth century as a clear example of why state involvement in the housing market is doomed to disaster. Except, of course, those were projects designed and built by technocratic planners as dumping grounds for the poor they were evicting from urban neighborhoods destroyed to build highway overpasses and other instruments beneficial to capital’s endless search for profit. And, as I’m sure you are aware, they ended up being the last-ditch housing solution for minorities shut out of the suburbs – first by FHA redlining and later by “white flight” – and trapped in a segregated housing market that destroyed any chance for them to accumulate value in their homes as most white Americans did over the last half of the twentieth century.

    Oh, and the fact that those projects were built in Urban cores that were then promptly de-industrialized as capital sought lower-priced labor elsewhere… leaving their residents (who can’t leave, remember, they’re shut out of the white housing market) dependent on illegal industries (esp. the drug trade) and trapped in an escalating cycle of poverty and violence.

    Now, imagine if, instead, one were to work to build a real, vibrant democracy. Imagine that democracy was empowered to make real decisions about material conditions in the community, rather than turning those decisions over to the whims of so-called “private” interests.

    Oh, I know, you’ll insist that such a system would be doomed by “inefficiency.” Well, then, I’ve chosen democracy over efficiency (which seems logical to me, since we seem to producing way too much shit and distributing it in ridiculous ways). You have chosen efficiency over democracy. I can live with my choice….

  8. Andy said

    Oh yeah. I’d like to give the editor of this forum a big thumbs-up for having the guts to afflict the comfortable and speak truth to power… even when the powerful are his neighbors. Keep fighting the good fight, man.

  9. Cynic said

    That world exists it’s called Russia and China. Works real well too.
    The word is Marxist Socialism, not Democracy.

  10. Andy said

    Ok. Well, thing is, Socialism is an economic system. Democracy is a form of government.

    Now, granted the solution I’m calling for does involve quite a bit of government intervention in the economy, which could be called Socialism. However, while I’ve proposed some very socialist ideas in different settings in the past, the stuff I’ve described here is quite mild, and very much more analogous to the programs of the Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson administrations than even the programs of say, the Italian or French socialist parties, let alone the State Communism of the bad old Soviet system.

    More importantly, the thing that made the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union and the Maoist regime in China so very nasty was not so much the Socialist economy (ask the Scandinavians how repressed they feel by theirs) but rather the authoritarian government. Those governments, interestingly enough, have more-or-less survived the transition to a capitalist economy and are now gleefully in the business of executing dissidents and controlling the press, with the new added advantage of access to global markets and global credit.

    The involvement of democratic government in economic affairs has worked well in Western Europe, in Japan, and here when it was tried in the past. The major failings of these programs was that they usually weren’t democratic enough. The mid twentieth century programs that were largely responsible for the rise of the American middle class, for example, tended to exclude Black Americans from their benefits whether by sins of commission (the FHA’s notorious “redlines” that excluded Black neighborhoods from housing loans) or omission (the GI bill’s dumping of money into a racially segregated college system) resulting in disparities in income (and even more signifigant disparities in wealth) that we still see today.

  11. Cynic said

    Unfortunately, since the government (town, local, fed) has no money/land of its’ own the only way this can come about is by confiscating land and money from others. Eminent domain is always possible, ala Kelo, but that doesn’t make it right.

    Then you have the problem of the town taxpayers. Since the project as presented is to bring “diversity” to the town (it is already considered 36% minority) will they go along with a project that:
    1- Will take their land
    2- Very possibly hurt their property values
    3- Increase the population/economic burden to the schools

    BTW, just a couple of years ago didn’t they rip down just such a project on the Hartford/West Hartford line because the problems and maintenance became to much to deal with?

  12. whforums said

    I’ve long thought that democracy and capitalism don’t comfortably coexist, and, in any rational context, should be seen as contradictory. While democracy demands the equality of its people, capitalism demands the inequality of its people.

    I guess I’m arguing that development (capitalism) has an ethical responsibility to the good (if not the equality) of its people (that development should be democratic in its ideology), and that BBS actively reinforces, through its exclusivity, a system (capitalism) that demands inequality.

    I do think it’s a problem that wealth and poverty are so concentrated and distant from each other across Hartford county, and I do think that if our future development (and thinking) doesn’t work toward “the good of the people,” it’s to our own historical and human shame. I’m not necessarily advocating for legislation or regulation — I guess I’m trying to agitate as many as possible to stand up and say “In all we do, we must be working for the good of our neighbor …”

  13. Cynic said

    “I’ve long thought that democracy and capitalism don’t comfortably coexist, and, in any rational context, should be seen as contradictory. While democracy demands the equality of its people, capitalism demands the inequality of its people. ”

    You are confusing a politcal system – democracy – with an economic system – capitalism.

    Yes,in a democracy you have equality – one man one vote. The individual can vote for the candidate of his choice according to the policies espoused by the candidates that interest him. The situation where this falls apart is when a class of voters discovers that they can vote for candidates who will give them the most at the expense of others; witness Hartford.

    Capitalism is an economic system where the individual rather than the State is in control of the wealth. In this country there are many instances of those at the bottom have risen to the top and visa versa. The individual has the control over his economic well being.

  14. turtle said

    WHforums and Andy are right on, but I don’t have a problem with BBS catering to the well-off (although Thornberry’s remark is just jaw-dropping). Taxes have to come from somewhere. Also, BBS isn’t all high-end. The Cheesecake Factory is kind of middle American, isn’t it? No, I’ve never been there.

    Also, affordable housing exists in the economically and socially diverse south end. This kind of diversity comes with social costs, however, which taxpayers are ambivalent about paying.

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