Hartford and East Hartford Can’t Do It Alone

I’ve been reenergized a bit by Mayor Bronin’s wisecrack several months ago.  At an event to promote the Hartford 400 interstate highway design project, someone suggested that since the project would connect Hartford and East Hartford much more closely than currently, perhaps the two towns should merge.   Mayor Bronin apparently responded by saying something like, “Where do I sign?”

Hartford and East Hartford should be one city.  They are similar in many ways: Diverse, relatively poor populations, old and deteriorating housing stock, underutilized former commercial real estate, active and energetic efforts to revitalize the communities.  East Hartford is in the early stages of reinventing Silver Lane, a promising urban redevelopment opportunity.  Hartford is revitalizing Parkville, and it seems that finally, after decades, critical mass is growing there.  The effort shows signs of spilling down New Park Avenue, another great redevelopment opportunity.

Urban planning for the combined city could be substantially more dynamic and cooperative.  For example, if Hartford and East Hartford were one city, the discussion about what to do about Brainard Field might be substantially different.  For decades, people have proposed ending airport operations at Brainard Field to allow for more productive use of that real estate.  Others have argued that the airport will help attract new employers to the region.  Hartford alone might consider Brainard a waste of good land, but Hartford and East Hartford together might see it differently.  They have plenty of real estate to develop, and they will have a lot more if Hartford 400’s highway plan becomes a reality.  That plan would free up more than 100 acres of prime real estate almost directly across the river from Brainard.  A city of nearly 200,000 people might find it beneficial to have a local airport, rather than add to what already is a large inventory of developable land.

Some might say, “Great idea!  Let Hartford and East Hartford negotiate a joint development plan; they don’t need to merge to accomplish great things” but of course, that’s wrong.  That’s like you and your next door neighbor deciding it would be nice to have a basketball court and you starting from the premise that the court would be in your neighbor’s backyard.  You would have unlimited access to the court, while your landscaped backyard would be yours exclusively.   Why would your neighbor ever agree to that?  No, cooperative planning for real estate has to start with combined ownership of the real estate.  Hartford and East Hartford must be one if we expect them to move forward together.

Fun to talk about, but merging Hartford and East Hartford alone simply is not enough.  Brainard Field is a good example.  Greater Hartford should want to keep Brainard operating, because the existence of an air operating downtown airport is an irreplaceable asset that can help make greater Hartford attractive to businesses and their owners.

Decisions like what to do with Brainard are of greatest interest to all of the towns that surround Hartford and East Hartford.   Not so much Windsor and Bloomfield, because they already have Bradley International next door, but forward looking people in Manchester and Newington and Farmington and West Hartford and Wethersfield recognize the continued importance of Brainard.  The suburban towns don’t get any immediate benefit either way, but why give up an asset that may be of long-term benefit?  Those towns should want a say in whether to keep Brainard Field.

Some might say, “Great!  Let’s form a multi-town task force and negotiate the long-term future of Brainard Field” but, of course, if such a proposal can’t work for Hartford and East Hartford alone, it certainly will not work with six or eight or ten towns sitting around the table.  Imagine you and six of your neighbors negotiating to put a basketball court in your backyard but available to all.  No, if greater Hartford is going to decide the future of Brainard Field, the only way that will happen is if all the towns are under one tent and working together – and sharing costs – as one cooperative community.

What’s the point?  It’s not whether greater Hartford should or should not repurpose the real estate at Brainard Field.  It’s that the City of Hartford alone cannot be expected to make that decision in the best interests of greater Hartford.  East Hartford alone cannot be expected to decide what to do with Silver Lane in the best interests of greater Hartford.  West Hartford cannot be expected to make decisions about its commercial development in the best interests of great Hartford.

Greater Hartford is one community.  Our community likely will continue to struggle until we make decisions as one.  We can make decisions as one only if we have one government instead of several.

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