Kudos to Seven Media Outlets for ‘The Cities Project’

by Susan Merrow

If you are an observer of Connecticut’s public policy-making process, you no doubt have a personal list of ill-fated, embarrassing, sometimes catastrophic laws that were adopted in the heat of the moment or late at night in the waning days of the legislative session.

The world would be a different place if policymakers reasoned in a calm and orderly way, armed with relevant data, and supported by an informed public. The folks on the roster of this website regularly lament the absence in Connecticut of something like an independent, unbiased public policy institute, that could shape a rational policy-making process.

In its absence, however, the post-legislative-session months of summer offer a time for probing thorny issues and reflecting on them in the light of day. We should therefore applaud a series called The Cities Project, “…a collaborative journalism and reporting project on how to revitalize Connecticut cities from The Connecticut Mirror, Connecticut Public Radio, Hearst Connecticut Media, The Hartford Courant, the Republican-American (of Waterbury), the Hartford Business Journal, and Purple States.”

Kudos to them. The seven media outlets have so far published two dozen articles about the challenges and opportunities that our cities must come to grips with if they are to be part of a bright economic future for Connecticut. It is a timely topic in light of the unfair political spotlight recently shined upon Baltimore and other U.S. cities. The articles can be found here: https://thecitiesproject.news/ 

You will find plenty of provocative ideas in these stories, and we hope that they inspire the conversations that foster good public policy. They also remind us that there are no easy solutions. As journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong….”

That is especially true in a state that is heavily dependent on property taxes, where non-taxable properties occupy as much as half of some cities’ grand lists, and whose cities have no room to grow because they’re hemmed in by suburbs. Fully funded PILOT, access to alternative sources of revenue by municipalities, creative use of land banks, bigger contribution from tax-exempt nonprofits, - or some combination – are among the solutions described in these articles. With time and data, good things may come of this public debate.

There is some optimism to be taken from the featured success stories. For instance, New Haven and Danbury have been named to the list of America’s 50 Best Small Cities in a study by Resonance Consultancy, a marketing firm that specializes in destination branding. The city of Newburgh, NY, is bringing blighted neighborhoods back to life using a land bank, a special purpose entity that focuses on the management and cleanup of blighted, under-used properties. Connecticut is the 14th state to pass legislation creating a land bank.

And there are other reasons to celebrate as well. Reporter Tom Condon’s recent contribution to the series focuses on the revitalization of New Britain’s city center that is largely attributable to transit oriented development (TOD).

Condon quotes longtime City Development Director Bill Carroll, a New Britain native, as saying, “More downtown buildings have been sold in the last two years than in the last 20 years. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart gives CT Fast Track credit for hundreds of new housing units and the city’s downtown revitalization. It’s happening elsewhere, too. According to Condon, Windsor Locks, Windsor, West Hartford, Berlin, Wallingford, Clinton, and Fairfield each have new development directly attributable to their proximity to public transit.

TOD is more than just a way to revitalize cities and attract millennials. Because TOD reduces dependence on driving, it is also supremely sound environmental policy. Fortunately many young people and retirees are seeking out lifestyles in compact, walkable neighborhoods in more urban settings with access to transit.

There are challenges and hurdles to be sure: reliable and frequent transit, adequate parking, and neighborhood resistance, to name just a few. But the TOD is proving to be a powerful and useful tool for our struggling cities. Thanks to Condon for his hopeful, insightful article, and thanks to the seven media outlets for this thought-provoking series.