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You Just Need To Get Started': A Conversation With Ken Greenberg
Ken Greenberg is a city planner from Toronto who spearheaded a 1998 master plan for downtown Hartford that came to be known as the Greenberg Plan. Now a consultant to the Capital City Economic Development Authority, he spoke with The Courant's editorial board last month. This is the complete interview.
Q: Four years ago, you walked through downtown and concluded that it's an urban desert. Do you see flower buds in the desert today?
A: A few. For example, the Bond project that wasn't there before. That's a small sign; that's something.
Q: But do you think sufficient progress has been made?
A: I think people are feeling some frustration. They would like to see more things happening. Making the sort of changes that were advocated in the downtown action strategy is like turning around a battleship. You have something that has a tremendous momentum going in a certain direction. Some of the things that were advocated do require a time to sort of sink in to have the necessary political and administrative changes and budget commitments made.
Q: In your study of downtown four years ago, some things you recommended would have cost very little, such as putting up signs and changing one-way streets to two ways. They haven't been done. There has been little progress on downtown transportation by building a circuit liner. Also, what's your assessment of the progress being made on Adriaen's Landing?
A: I feel like I'm continuing to draw on the Fifth Amendment. I will be meeting with the CCEDA folks to see the next generation of plans for Adriaen's Landing. I literally have not laid eyes on them yet so I don't know quite how to respond to that.
Q: Is it fair to say from your of the city four years ago the city that you are not ecstatic about Adriaen's Landing and the Six Pillars of Progress? Were there were other ways to approach development and make the city more livable?
A: Well, I did feel that there were priorities in terms of a series of incremental things that could be done in the downtown in support of initiatives that were already under way that should have had a high priority and should have been dealt with fairly expeditiously. One of the things that worried me about some of the earlier versions of Adriaen's Landing is it seemed so much a world on its own. It was very isolated and eccentric and extravagant and hard to get to, and I worried about that and did convey that at the time. The plan currently being considered is somewhat different from the earlier one.
One of the things I'm fearing is - If I compare Hartford to some of the other cities where I've been working recently and where progress is being made, you just need to get started to get started. You can stall around at the starting gate for a long time and keep talking about things. But you need some real example to get people excited. Those in turn draw additional investment and the phenomena starts moving. I feel like we're still waiting for that in Hartford.
Q: The three major components of Adriaen's Landing haven't really changed since the downtown football stadium was abandoned. They are a huge convention center, a 1,000-room hotel and this very undefined amusement facility that is presently focused on a science center. In other words, three big projects. Branching out from that, maybe, are little projects, retail and housing. But much of it is still up in the air. So, are big projects good?
A: On their own, not necessarily. You really need a coordinated response that combines a variety of different elements and exploits the synergies.
Q: In recent years, housing developers have contended that there's no way to make the numbers work without massive public subsidies for their projects. Is it your experience that in order to create downtown housing in a city like Hartford there have to be massive public subsidies?
A: Typically Hartford would represent a situation where you have to overcome a certain gap in the numbers in the initial stages. But the expectation should be that if there is subsidy to prime the pump, the subsidy will not be required indefinitely. In fact, what will happen is you start to create a market and at some point you move out of the situation where any subsidy is required into a healthy market.
In St. Paul, the city had to prime the pump on the first generation of new housing. But as soon as you had a situation where more people saw it was attractive to live downtown, you didn't have to keep subsidizing indefinitely. I think that first round of subsidy is a very strategic investment that is made in order to get something started. It literally is a form of pump priming.
The demographics nationwide are suggesting that all across the country there are segments of the population who now like to live in downtowns. You have a lot of young people who are probably the biggest cohort in that group. You also have empty nesters. And you're starting to have young families coming back into downtown. If you start to make downtown feel like an attractive place to be and you get a bit of a buzz and there's marketing, people will come back.
It's not as if what was being advocated for Hartford is unusual. It really would be following the national trend. So I think the winning conditions are there, and it's a matter of finding the right set of projects to kick-start this and get it going.
Q: We have a kick-start of sorts. Whatever housing is available right now downtown is full. There are virtually no vacancies. The Bond project was done without any subsidies and the developers believe they can make money on this. Yet every other developer who has proposed anything in the city has his hand out. Is there a culture of dependency?
A: Yes, that exists. You have certain developers who get used to operating that way and expect to operate that way. But the moment you go to an established or a strong market there are no subsidies for people who operate in those markets.
Q: From your knowledge of Hartford, could you briefly tell us what are the city's assets and what are the drawbacks?
A: The assets are many. I think the size of the city, the location.
Hartford downtown is very walkable in terms of distances; it's two-thirds of a mile by half a mile. It's a 15-minute walk. That's a terrific asset. Nearby, you have neighborhoods that are potentially already very attractive and can operate in unison with downtown.
There's a very rich legacy of public space; Bushnell Park just across the street behind the Armory is a jewel. It's just a superb public space. There are other quite wonderful public spaces in downtown Hartford.
You have a wealth of architectural riches because of the age of the city and the fact that Hartford at the beginning of the century was perhaps the most prosperous community in the country and commissioned many fine architects to do buildings here. I think you have some great institutions that have grown up and remained part of the city. By that I mean arts institutions, educational institutions like Trinity College, the Atheneum, the Bushnell theater, on and on. They're terrific organizations and groups of people who are very tenacious and care a great deal about the place.
Q: And the drawbacks?
A: Hartford, probably more so than most other cities, took a series of traumatic hits economically. Sectors of the economy that it had relied on were rapidly and devastatingly changed: I'm thinking the insurance industry, the defense industry. Things that happened everywhere seemed to happen here with greater drama and intensity and rapidity. All that left a sense of vacuum, a sense of loss of purpose, a loss of role, and that has been difficult to counter.
One of the other challenges is that Hartford, with a population of about 125,000, is a very small city relative to its suburbs, where nearly 1 million people live. The solutions we're talking about are solutions for the city-region; they're not just solutions for Hartford itself. So there's an issue in the region that has to be dealt with.
I think Hartford was probably more victimized than the average [city] by the set of transportation improvements that went with the interstate highway system. All the one-way streets and all the things that conventional wisdom now says you should never do to a city, Hartford did to itself more than most.
Hartford also jumped more enthusiastically on certain bandwagons than most cities, such as Constitution Plaza, where you tried to create a pedestrian network on an upper level and the skyways.
The state seems to have more extremes of wealth and poverty than most states. You are you still one of the wealthiest states in the union, and your cities outside of certain parts of the south among the poorest. There are all kinds of historic and demographic reasons for that but that's an issue.
You have another issue, which, coming from Toronto, I see as a positive, although it poses a challenge in terms of working together. You have enormous cultural diversity. Hartford may be the most Caribbean city in the United States.
That's just one of the interesting cultural characteristics of the city. So getting those groups of people to work together politically is I think another one of the challenges.
In Toronto, we have turned diversity to our advantage because people from everywhere have worked in a very positive way and have great pride in their city.
Q: How much of a role does government play in all this? Hartford relies primarily on real estate taxes and state aid.
A: The fiscal policy, the array of programs that are available, the ability to access federal programs, state programs are enormously important for cities. I'm working now in a host of American cities and I think this is a better time for American cities in terms of first of all the understanding of what makes a good city, in terms of people who put all these programs together and the array of programs that are smart and aggressive.
Now, in order to do that effectively, you have to have a team Hartford. You have to have a coalition. You need your senators and congressmen, you need your state legislators and city councilors and whatever regional agencies there are to all work together. Cities that are successful at doing that across political lines are typically the cities that are most successful in taking advantage of all the programs that are out there and moving things ahead.
I don't think government is the whole answer, however. I would say at least of equal importance is the private sector, the entrepreneurs in the community of all scales because. Also, the nonprofit sector can play a key role. The hope in all this is that you get a vision that sort of feels right to a lot of people and a language that is both graphic and verbal, a way of looking at the place and talking about that place and identifying its features and getting people to understand and buy into and then you get people in the business community and government and profit sector who work together to go after the resources to make the changes. That's the ideal and when those elements come together things can happen pretty quickly.
Q: We're working on an idea aimed at linking the Colt factory complex to downtown and actually turning it into a historical space run by the National Park Service. Does an urban national park make sense?
A: On first look, I think it's a very, very exciting idea. Parks can be many things. The idea of drawing on this industrial heritage and creating a park that would feature some of the things that Hartford was known for is highly appealing. The notion of parks just being traditional, passive or active parks, recreation, grass and trees and so on is being challenged in many ways. Boston Harbor with its 35 harbor islands is one of the newest national parks.
That's a completely different kind of park than anyone has ever seen before.
So the idea of drawing on this industrial heritage and creating a park that would feature some of the things that Hartford was known for is extremely appealing. When I looked at that ensemble of buildings, I thought it was very, very powerful and significant.
I also think it's a great example of a community going back to its own DNA: Hartford was always known for ingenuity, inventors, people who did all kinds of clever things in manufacturing. Those roots seem to me to be a very interesting kind of approach. And the other thing to go back to is the fact those buildings are within walking distance of downtown.
Q: That includes the Old State House, the Capitol, some of the Antiquarian Society buildings.
A: And then to be able to connect that further to the Riverfront Recapture effort and opening up the edge of the river -
Q: We're asking our governor and the congressional delegation to push this in Washington.
A: It seems to me that something like that is so much more authentic and interesting than just conjuring up something out of nowhere and saying we want to have an amusement area that doesn't have any roots in the community.
Q: Armsmear, the Colts' house, is still intact. The family's furniture is still there. Part of the house is being used as a senior residence for widows of Episcopal priests as bequested by Mrs. Colt. There is also this very whimsical building that she built for her son and it's being used, it's underused actually. The magnificent Church of the Good Shepherd is also part of Colt complex.
A: One of the movements that is really interesting in the world now is cultural tourism. You have people who will travel not just for beaches and casinos, but will seek out places of cultural interest.
Q: What cities have faced problems comparable to Hartford and are resolving them?
A: St. Paul is a great example. It's a state capital, a city that was suffering, that had lost its economic base. It's is really in a comeback mode now.
Charleston, S.C., is another city that just went into a complete stall. Virtually nothing was happening until Mayor Joe Reilly did an extraordinary job of turning the heritage resources of Charleston into something that has given it a whole new economic base combined with health industry and other key economic sectors.
Of the cities I've worked in, Detroit has been the most significant challenge. The downtown area has a real piece of heritage. The city's original plan, proposed in 1807, may sound far-fetched today. At the center was supposed to be something called the Campus Marshes. It was a two-acre public space where all the radials, all these great streets in Detroit, came to a point. In the automobile age, it turned into a traffic mess. We advocated that they actually create the original Campus Marshes for the first time in history and it's under construction now.
Q: Did the Renaissance Center work?
A: The Renaissance Center was a disaster because it literally built this big moat around itself. It sealed itself off from the city; it sucked away all the office growth that would have occurred in downtown. What's interesting about the Renaissance Center is what's happened now. General Motors has moved to the Renaissance Center. It commissioned Skidmore Owings &Merrill to do a retrofit. They're doing two things. They're taking down all the moats, and they're restoring the relationship to Jefferson Avenue, which is the street that was completely sealed off in Renaissance Center. They've also created a new waterfront promenade, and they've created parts of the building that face out on to that. So they are really trying to bring the Renaissance Center back into the city. The downtown Renaissance is a critical distance like the one between the Coltec and downtown.
Q: Where else?
A: I did the plan for the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Brooklyn is one of the most parks-deficient urban areas in the country. Some of the wealthiest people in American live in Brooklyn Heights, and some of the poorest live nearby. There are also young people living in areas like Hobble Hill. The challenge was to get all those communities, which are typically cranky and litigious and rarely agree on anything, to come together around a common vision. The Brooklyn Bridge Project has now been approved.
Q: How did they all get on the same page?
A: It was a great object lesson for me. Our team went through an intensive nine-month public process. We came back to the community for three-day sessions every month. We held meetings during the day, in the evening and on weekends, in different places. Our goal was to have everyone attend. We had different venues and brought lots of models and drawings. We gradually got people to understand that this roughly 80 acres of land could actually improve everyone's lot and not do any serious damage to anyone.
Q: What are the three or four most successful cities in the country?
A: I always find those the hardest questions to answer because cities can be successful in so many different ways. Certainly, with all their trials and tribulations, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. Pittsburgh is another great comeback story. It is doing extremely well. I would throw in the range of medium-sized or smaller cities I think both St. Paul and Charleston are for their size. Providence has been doing some very interesting things.
On the West Coast, Seattle and Portland are having great successes in different ways.
Q: Why do you choose to live in Toronto?
A: Because I love the city. I like the fact that I live downtown. One of the major factors for me is that I hardly have to use a car. My wife and I walk and bicycle everywhere. We live in an old industrial area that been recycled into something else. So it has a pioneering sense, a sense of adventure to it. I like the social diversity. I love the waterfront. We keep a kayak. It's a great city for food shopping. It's all those kinds of amenities, all within walking distance.
Q: Is crime an issue?
A: Not to any great extent. Certainly it's not crime-free, but relatively speaking it's a place where you free comfortable walking around.
Q: Is it because Canadian law-enforcement authorities are more tough-minded? Or is society less tolerant of crime?
A: One of the factors is that Canadian cities in general didn't fall apart the way American cities did in the postwar decades. We also didn't have an interstate highway program, so we never got the same extent of urban expressways smashing through the cities. We never had the urban renewal resources that were nearly as much as in the United States. We didn't have GI Bill preferential mortgage financing to move out to the suburbs. The middle class really didn't really abandon the cities in quite the same way.
We kept our streetcars, and they're still operating today because we didn't have GM coming in and buying up the streetcar lines and trashing them.
Also, Canadian cities were looking south across the border, in the '60s particularly. We started to see the disinvestment and the very rapid decline and decided to do things quite differently.
So there were very strong programs, then, through Canada Mortgage and Housing Appropriation to finance housing downtown, to do a lot of heritage preservation, to invest in public transit, in bicycle trails - all those things 40 years ago. In the United States at mid-century, we had the worst combination of things. We had enormous wealth and resources and terrible ideas and that's an awful stew.
Q: How so?
A: We had so much money being thrown around so wantonly in aid of things that people just didn't understand. You go back and you read Jane Jacobs writing in 1961 or Lewis Mumsford or William H. White. They did know how devastating all this would be. But the prevailing wisdom had decided that cities as we had known them for millennia were useless. We had to destroy and remake them.
For example, Hartford's Constitution Plaza. Planners didn't want blocks of streets and people walking on the sidewalks and shops on the ground floor. They wanted something completely different. My optimism now is that after a terrible painful learning curve we have gradually come back to believe in the idea of urbanism.
We've lost a lot of the hubris that was so damaging, where we thought we could rip everything apart and do it over again on a grand scale. There are still bits of that here and there, but it's a much more modest, a much more hopefully focused understanding of how things work and what can be successful. And even though there isn't as much money around, hopefully the money will be used to better purpose.
Q: A few decades ago in Minnesota, they came up with regional tax sharing districts. The first one was pioneered in that Minneapolis- St. Paul region. Was that a factor in the rebirth of St. Paul?
A: It's probably a factor but I think it's part of a larger picture. In that part of the country, there is a real sense in which the state of Minnesota and twin cities and the two counties in the area function as metro. All understand that the success of the two core cities, both together and individually, benefits everyone. That's an easy thing to say but that's profoundly important.
Q: Visiting cities such as Seattle and Portland, one gets a sense that they have a great deal of civic pride. We don't seem to have that here, as well as a belief that this region will actually take off. How do you get a handle on that? What changes attitudes?
A: Sometimes the problem is that people fail to perceive what's obvious and right in front on them, and they're looking for prepackaged solutions. They don't bother with the messiness of reality. I'll illustrate an example. If I look back at real accomplishments - the one piece of planning that I did here that seems to have borne the greatest fruit - was master plan for the Learning Corridor.
It took Evan Dobelle to drive that and the current mayor, Eddie Perez, who spent so many hours of his life working on that. But it was so tantalizing to be able to create a link between the hospitals and the college that were just a block apart, separated by the old street-car barn site, and to use that site as a vehicle to sorts to get things going. It's been pretty successful.
Park Street is a very interesting phenomenon. When we did the numbers, in terms of retail sales, Park Street is actually a pretty high performer. I think it's the largest Latin American shopping street in New England. It draws on a wide population. It's a stone's throw from the Capitol and Bushnell Park. The parking lot along Capitol south of Bushnell Park could be a great candidate for linking downtown to Park Street and bolstering investments on Main Street.
Your Colt example is another great one. What I've learned about this is that, especially in times when money is hard to come by, it's so important to start from those existing resources, human resources and physical resources, and work with them and start to tie them together. Then the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. I've just seen that over and over again.
I think what we have to do is go find those acupuncture points, the places where you can apply energy that will start to cause other things to happen.