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We Don’t Let Planning Get in the Way: Pt. I

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Rob Rowlson, Community Services Director of the Town of Hartford
Rob Rowlson

by PlannersWeb Editor Wayne Senville, reporting from West Hartford, Connecticut

Rob Rowlson, the Town of West Hartford’s Director of Community Services, makes no bones about it: too often planning can be an obstacle to private investment and development.

Rowlson proudly says he’s “never written a report for anyone.” A waste of time. Instead, better to focus on providing a climate where developers will want to come into your community. “You take what the market gives you, and then you tweak it,” he adds.

On a beautiful Friday morning, I joined about twenty planners attending the Southern New England American Planning Association conference to visit West Hartford, and hear much of our “conventional wisdom” about the value of carefully preparing detailed plans and design standards challenged.

But first, a little about West Hartford and what we came to see.

West Hartford’s population is about 62,000. It’s a relatively wealthy town (or as Rowlson noted, really a “small city”) with income at 115% of the regional median. At the same time, there’s a wide range of household incomes within the town.

One very important fact highlighted to us: 85% of West Hartford’s grand list is from residential property. As a result, Rowlson said, “a key community goal is for MORE commercial development.” I emphasized the word MORE because Rowlson clearly did.

Strengthening West Hartford Center

With a background in economic development, Rowlson took a job with the Town of West Hartford in 1996 to help address this goal — one that, in the mid-1990s faced a challenge from the expanding Westfarms Mall just three miles down the road, and just across the town line separating West Hartford from Farmington.

West Hartford had — and still has at its core — a very substantial retail development called West Hartford Center, with some 200,000 square feet of retail space (but compare that to over 1.2 million square feet in the upscale Westfarms Mall). But when the Mall expanded, said Rowlson, it was as if “the lifeblood was drained out of West Hartford Center.” But it did send a wake up call both to the merchants and to the town government.

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