Affordable Housing, Community Development

IForum Highlights New Approaches to Reviving CT Cities

 

Energetic, engaged conversation ensued at the first 2013 IForum, “What Makes a Strong Community?”, indicating a strong desire for progress on reviving places in Connecticut that have suffered disinvestment. Despite bad weather and traffic jams, over 100 people from an eclectic array of disciplines heard a refreshing variety of potential solutions at the January 29 forum, organized by the Partnership for Strong Communities.

If you are having trouble viewing the slideshow, click here.

The Partnership’s Executive Director Howard Rifkin summarized Connecticut’s relationship with its cities, offering a comparison to the movie Groundhog Day, where the main character relives the same day over and over.  Over decades Connecticut has talked and worked to revive its urban areas, and it can feel like we’ve “been there, done that”.  But he urged us to realize (and later speakers confirmed it): this is a new time with unique opportunities that haven’t existed before. Demographics, an imbalanced housing market, high energy prices, unsustainable development patterns, movements aimed at encouraging young professionals to stay in Connecticut, and new, successful revitalization methods, all mean our cities are poised for revival, if we can unleash these opportunities.

Keynote presenter by Kaid Benfield, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, adeptly illustrated the opportunities. His presentation is here. The highlights include:

  • Nationwide, real estate markets are trending toward urban living. America’s two largest age cohorts are driving the housing market toward compact, mixed-use communities.  The Millennial’s (born 1981-2000) want urban living, transit, walkability. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) have raised their kids and are looking to downsize.
  • CT’s overall flat population trend is an average between two extremes:  population growth in suburban and rural towns where we consume green land and pay for new infrastructure; and population decline in already-developed places that have infrastructure from past investment.
  • Among market growth by 2025, 85% of those new households will not have children.
  • Demand for multifamily rental housing is increasing – and CT does not have enough supply.

Benfield shared many examples around the country of challenged communities that are remaking themselves. Many more examples can be found on his blog. Highlights include:

  • Atlanta formed a network of community land trusts and community developers to rehab and build on brownfields and vacant properties – and connect the developments by a commuter rail loop (The Beltline).
  • Melrose Commons in the Bronx revived a badly deteriorated 80 acres on 35 blocks, building 2000 mixed-income green homes. The process was driven by residents and despite enormous uplift in conditions and property values – there was no displacement of residents.

Then, a panel of Connecticut experts tied Benfield’s ideas to the situation in our state. The panel included Lee Cruz of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Leslie Creane of the Town of Hamden, CT, Andrea Pereira of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Connecticut Program, and Marina Rodriguez of Smalley Academy in New Britain, CT. It was moderated by the Partnership’s Shelby Mertes.

This discussion covered a lot of ground.  A few highlights:

  • More engagement of local residents in planning is a must as it leads to better ideas, builds community support for activities and mitigates conflict, and it can ease growing pains and socioeconomic mixing during revitalization. 
  • Hamden town planner Leslie Creane described her town’s charrette process that involved hundreds of residents in creation of innovative form-based zoning.  More on this in the Partnership’s video Idea Factories.
  • Young adults can be powerful agents of change, bringing energy and creativity that makes cities interesting places to live and visit. 

For resources on revitalization, click here.
 

 
 

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