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Downtown Hartford has a glut of parking lots some say could hold the key to growing the city’s grand list

By , Hartford Business Journal | July 19, 2019

At the tail-end of 2017, Hartford became one of only a handful of U.S. cities to do away with minimum-parking requirements for developers who want to construct or renovate buildings within its borders.

The move marked an aggressive step by city officials who want to transform Hartford from a commuter city that empties each day when white-collar workers leave office buildings for suburban homes, into a vibrant, walkable metropolis where more young professionals and others work, shop and live downtown.

An overabundance of surface parking lots in Connecticut’s Capital City has for decades been a drag on development, said Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Sara Bronin, one of the main proponents of no longer requiring developers to offer parking for newly built projects.

“A lot of times buildings were torn down to provide parking because of the zoning-code requirements, and now we have policies in place that will not force people to do that,” said Bronin, a UConn School of Law professor and architect who is married to Mayor Luke Bronin. “Ideally, we’d see the surface parking lots that we see in far too many places in the city be filled with buildings.”

Bronin isn’t the only one holding those hopes. Others, including city officials and economic-development experts, say Hartford should develop more parking lots and other vacant land into apartment, office, retail or other types of buildings in order to enhance Hartford’s vibrancy and help grow the grand list.

About 17 percent of downtown Hartford’s nearly 2 square miles is occupied by parking lots, said Norman Garrick, a UConn civil engineering professor who has studied the city’s parking and transportation for more than a decade. That’s about 80 percent more land dedicated to parking than in cities with similar populations, like Cambridge, Mass., and Arlington, Va.

In addition to wasting space that could be occupied by businesses or housing, Hartford is missing out on some $20 million a year it could collect in property taxes, if buildings were constructed on the lots, according to Garrick’s research.

Nixing the city parking requirement was seen as a positive step in promoting infill development and the rehabilitation of old office buildings into new uses. But less clear is how Hartford should go about replacing more parking lots with residential or commercial development, or if demand for it even exists.

Hartford’s high property tax rate — 74.29 mills, by far the highest in the state — is a major impediment to ground-up development, and most newly built projects in the city require public subsidies and/or tax breaks.

Efforts to force development — like taxing parking lots at a higher rate to make it less appealing to sit on vacant properties — would likely backfire on the city, leading developers to simply avoid Hartford, said Jonathan Putnam, executive director of commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield Inc.’s Hartford office.

Meantime, others say the city doesn’t have enough parking, arguing Hartford is and always will be a commuter city, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in mass-transit investment in recent years, including a new bus line and expanded rail line.

“We are the ultimate car culture,” said Hartford City Assessor John Philip. “Everybody drives in from the burbs.”

At least two major new parking garage projects are currently in the works — a $39 million, 1,007-space garage at the corner of Washington and Buckingham streets for state workers, which is nearing completion and doubling the capacity of a garage its replacing, and another $19 million garage on Clinton Street.

Ironically, both of those garages are seen as catalysts for a long-awaited development around The Bushnell Performing Arts Center that would eventually transform acres of adjacent parking lots into high-rise apartments/condos, office and retail space.

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED UConn civil engineering professor Norman Garrick says 17 percent of downtown Hartford’s nearly 2 square miles is occupied by parking lots, creating lost opportunity.

Competing with the burbs

Hartford didn’t develop its glut of center-city parking lots overnight. The city’s decadeslong move toward catering to cars tracks with a nationwide trend since car ownership became ubiquitous in post-war America, with millions of people leaving cities for the suburbs.

Hartford’s population dropped by more than 36,000 between 1970 and 2000, almost a quarter of its total inhabitants, according to state population data. During the same period, suburban towns in Greater Hartford saw significant population increases.

“It was a genuine fear that the cities were losing out to the suburbs, and the idea at the time was that we needed to be more like the suburbs in terms of having access to parking,” Garrick said.

Between 1960 and 2000, Hartford’s ratio of off-street parking to building area ballooned by 208 percent, according to one of Garrick’s studies.

Hartford is far from unique in this respect, said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at San Francisco-based transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard. In an attempt to offer the same conveniences of the suburbs, cities across the country took steps to become more car-friendly, with many decimating their cityscapes.

Those moves ultimately proved ill-conceived and disastrous, Tumlin said.

“There are so many case studies of vibrant cities that completely destroyed their economic future by trying to suburbanize themselves,” Tumlin said. “The suburbs are always going to be able to compete for people who want suburbia; downtowns need to compete on their own strengths.”

Taxing land

While some say Hartford would be better off with less parking, figuring out how to fill empty lots is complicated.

John Gale, Hartford City Council

In 2016, Hartford City Councilor John Gale advocated for a land value tax to encourage development. The idea was to make taxes on land high enough to severely reduce the profitability of parking lots.

“The goal of this is to discourage land banking,” Gale said. “[The tax would] flip taxation on its head, and say that it’s the land that has the value, and so we’re going to tax the land at a certain tax rate, and then the building that you put on it, we’ll tax at a lower rate.”

Gale dropped the idea amid pushback from parking-lot owners and others who said the new tax structure wouldn’t spark development, but he’s still critical of major Hartford-based property owners sitting on vacant land.

“[They’re] not willing to risk money in their hometown,” Gale said.

Philip, the city assessor, said he’s skeptical a land value tax would achieve Gale’s intended aim.

“You need demand if you are going to go out and develop parking lots, and that is why I’ve always personally been suspicious of a land value tax,” Philip said. “I don’t see that spurring development. If demand is there it will be developed. If it isn’t, it won’t.”

At the same time, ground-up development in Hartford is largely a losing proposition right now because rents for commercial or residential units aren’t high enough to cover the cost of construction, according to Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), a quasi-public development agency.

Michael Freimuth, Executive Director, Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA)

Most major new developments that do happen in the city require significant public subsidies or tax breaks, in addition to other funding sources like tax credits, said Freimuth, whose organization has invested close to $100 million of bonded state taxpayer money in recent years to help finance construction of more than 1,500 apartment units downtown.

He’s currently involved in a few proposed ground-up developments. One, in Hartford’s Downtown North neighborhood in the shadow of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, aims to convert parking-lot space into a mixed-use project.

The first phase, to be developed by Stamford-based RMS Cos., calls for a $46 million investment at 1212 Main St., which will include a 200,000-square-foot mixed-use building containing 200 living units, plus 11,000 square feet of retail and 259 parking spaces.

CRDA has pledged $12 million toward the development’s first phase, which is currently on hold until the city can settle a legal dispute with a former developer.

RENDERING | CONTRIBUTED Developers have proposed a ground-up 108-unit apartment and retail development on vacant lots at the corner of Main and Park streets in downtown Hartford.

The other project is a long-awaited 108-unit apartment and retail development on 13 acres of vacant city-owned land at the corner of Park and Main streets. South Norwalk-based Spinnaker Real Estate Partners and Hartford’s Freeman Cos. are the developers of that project, which will include 125 parking spaces and an $8.5 million loan from CRDA.

Without CRDA funding, both projects likely wouldn’t be possible.

Freimuth is also involved with the two new parking garage projects near The Bushnell, which he said will actually benefit the city’s development ambitions by consolidating parking used by a variety of people — state workers, Bushnell patrons, visitors to state courts and offices, etc. — and then freeing up nearby surface lots that can be used for a planned mixed-use development.

It’s tough to say if the city has too much parking, Freimuth added.

“There’s always a greater concern than a reality when it comes to parking,” he said. “It generally boils down to where and at what price.”

With few exceptions (Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco), most cities of any size will need parking, Freimuth said.

“It’s how best to manage and optimize it,” he said.

Is there demand?

Freimuth and Putnam, the commercial realty broker, agree that demand for retail and office developments is weak in Hartford. Putnam estimates that market conditions required for a new office building won’t exist for at least another decade.

The last time someone proposed a new office tower downtown was in 2008, when entrepreneur Abul Islam, CEO and founder of AI Engineers Inc., unveiled plans for a 13-story, $40 million high-rise to house his Middletown-based engineering firm and other tenants, as well as retail space. He even paid to knock down the former Broadcast House, a ‘60s-era structure that was the former studio-offices for WFSB Channel 3, to make room for his building.

Realty experts at the time said the tower would never get built. They were right. Not only was the timing bad — at the start of the Great Recession, which wreaked havoc on commercial real estate downtown — but the office vacancy rate and cost of construction were too high for the project to make sense. Islam pivoted at one point and proposed to build a new residential building instead, but the project never materialized.

That space remains a vacant lot.

The office vacancy rate for Class A office space downtown is currently 17.7 percent, which is still high and signals there’s not enough demand for more space, commercial brokers say.

Demand for residential units downtown is stronger, but again, the city’s high costs limit ground-up development, so it’s difficult to envision a significant number of new shiny apartment towers filling parking-lot space in the near term. (Apartment rents for CRDA projects are currently about $2.50 per square foot vs. $4 a square foot needed to support ground-up development.) Most CRDA-backed apartment projects that have come online so far converted old, existing office buildings into rentable, mostly market-rate living units.

Removing parking requirements from Hartford’s zoning code is a developer-friendly step, Putnam said, but it’s not nearly enough to start a development wave.

“I haven’t seen anyone put up a tower or a new building from scratch without getting some kind of subsidy,” Putnam said. “It’s pie in the sky until you get a financially sustainable model.”

Hartford comparisons

In his research, Garrick, the UConn professor, found several cities with populations and land areas similar to Hartford that have significantly reduced surface parking in the past few decades. And while they don’t make for perfect apples-to-apples comparisons, their stories are still relevant.

Between 1960 and 2000, Arlington, Va., a Washington D.C. suburb, shrank its ratio of off-street parking to building area by 52 percent, according to one of Garrick’s studies. Cambridge, Mass.’ ratio went down by 5 percent during that same time period, while Hartford’s skyrocketed by 208 percent.

Both Arlington’s and Cambridge’s reductions were the result of decades-long efforts to favor buildings over parking and encourage the use of transportation options other than cars.

“Beginning in the 1970s we went through extensive long-range planning efforts to basically focus on transit-oriented development” around the D.C. Metro subway system, said Anthony Fusarelli, Arlington County’s assistant director of community planning housing and development. The goal, he said, was “to build the very walkable and active neighborhoods that we were seeking to achieve.”

Cambridge passed legislation in 1992 to de-emphasize driving and parking and reduce road congestion. It introduced measures like a pedestrian bicycle program, said Susanne Rasmussen, Cambridge’s director of environmental and transportation planning.

A few years later it passed another ordinance that required off-street parking owners to better manage their lots so that spaces don’t go unused, and include things like indoor bike parking to encourage cycling, Rasmussen said.

Both of those cities differ from Hartford because they are attached to a major subway system, and neither has ever been the kind of commuter city where people drive in for work, and drive home to the suburbs.

Putnam said Hartford doesn’t “have a transit system that is going to replace cars anytime soon.”

However, Hartford is trying to encourage modes of transportation other than cars, Sara Bronin said. Plus the CTrail Hartford Line that began making trips between Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, paired with the rapid transit bus system that runs between Hartford and New Britain, make it possible for more commuters to get around without a car. Putting more resources into such transportation efforts could shift habits over time, she said.

“We need investments from the state and our regional partners to invest in public transportation as well as biking networks that can allow people to get in and out of Hartford without cars,” Bronin said. “I think many people will find that commuting in and out of Hartford using a non-personal vehicle option is much more pleasant and safer than using a personal vehicle.”

Tumlin, the transportation-planning expert, said the fact that Hartford officials are looking for ways to reduce surface parking bodes well.

Cities like Grand Rapids, Mich., and Pittsburgh, currently have enviably dense and walkable downtowns, after starting at a more difficult position than Hartford currently finds itself, Tumlin said. And as a capital city at the center of a New England state, Hartford has the potential to develop into a lively, live-in city designed around people rather than cars.

“It’s the most urban place in the state,” Tumlin said. “Hartford really should be the great capital of Connecticut, and not just some weird financial center halfway between Boston and New York.”

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