After finding out that Gov. Lamont’s budget may reduce spending on the University of Connecticut by $160 million in the next fiscal year, the university’s president told an audience of students that she might use the XL Center as a bargaining chip. Radenka Maric said: “the money that we generate there doesn’t go to us and athletics, it goes to Connecticut … When I go and talk to owners of the restaurants, hotels, and the parking lots, they say that [their] business only spikes when UConn is playing in Hartford, and that’s when they generate revenue.”
Let’s play along with this scenario as if it were true and not an embellishment of UConn’s role in Hartford’s economy.
What I’m understanding then, is that if UConn opted to play games on its actual campus, making the commute to games less arduous for athletes and student spectators, Hartford’s parking lots would suffer.
Is there a way we could speed this up, then?
UConn professor Norman Garrick has figured that parking lots make up 17 percent of downtown Hartford. That number does not include land used for on-street car storage.
What could this glut of parking lots be used for instead?
The obvious preference would be housing, whether that looks like environmentally efficient apartment towers that blend with the character of downtown, or a quirky tiny home community, or a no-frills trailer park.
Because we are oversaturated with surface lots, there would be opportunity for other types of use after meeting one basic need. I crowdsourced ideas about what could go in a few downtown lots, and the next most frequent response was to have another need met: food. For some, this looked like the standard chain grocery store, for others, a robust farmers’ market like the Union Square Greenmarket, albeit scaled down, where one can secure everything from fruits and vegetables to milk, eggs, cheese, and meat, to bread – operating most days of the week and with longer hours.
Julia Pistell, co-founding member of Sea Tea Improv, has a vision of “coffee and treats as far as the eye can see,” and who can argue with that? Is there a reason not to use this space for roasting coffee or for a commercial bakery kitchen?
A few people thought that a mall, outlet stores, or office supply were desirable, but most envisioned something beyond material consumption for these spaces.
What unites us? The deep longing for green space. Maybe it’s because we’re in the most barren part of the year, or because the CT Flower & Garden Show was in town, but people are aching for lush color downtown, whether that is a topiary exhibit, botanic conservatory, labyrinth of native plant species, community garden, or trees. Once the pavement is removed, is there anything to prevent a Christmas tree farm in locations that receive enough sun? Gotham Greens, growers of herbs and lettuce, constructed rooftop greenhouses in Brooklyn and reused an abandoned airport runway in Colorado for the site of a 30,000-square-foot greenhouse. What’s stopping us from more local food production?
People also want democratic space for activity. This could be bocce courts, a velodrome or pump track, swing sets, a roller rink, or a public pool. Imagine if the increasingly popular salsa nights on Pratt Street relocated to the “Welcome to Downtown Hartford” parking lot on Asylum Street by Bushnell Park. A natural landscape playground would be achieved after depaving. What if a partnership with an art museum meant one weekend each month people of all ages, with help as needed from the facilitator, could make messy crafts from asphalt art to building forts from cardboard boxes.
There’s the potential for intellectual activity in these spots. People crave community centers, which sounds like a building, but what is really being requested is a safe space for neighbors to share ideas with one another. Why not have an outdoor or semi-enclosed coworking space? Add a book kiosk and some tables, and you have the recipe for a book club.
In short, when I asked what people thought would be a better land use than parking lots, I got more responses than I can include in a column with a word limit.
If anyone is skeptical about trusting parking lot barons to transition currently dead space to vibrant, community-oriented uses, keep in mind that the government could shift ownership of these via the power of eminent domain.
When an ultimatum is given, one should be prepared to hear a response other than what they had expected. We deserve better than what parking craters have to offer.