Spotlight on Sara Bronin

Aug 20, 2014

On September 10th, we're hosting Keep Calm and Hartford On: Planning and Zoning at the Old State House. If you've been to one of these events before, you know it's a Family Feud style game show that also educates attendees on the topic of the day (which means we have a survey and we need 100 responses! Click here to test your knowledge on Planning and Zoning). At the event we also have an expert who talks about that topic and helps to dispel any myths that may exist. So we met with Sara Bronin, the new Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission for Hartford, and we think she's awesome. So we asked her a few questions so you can get to know her as well before the event!

Tell us about yourself, what’s your background?  

I'm an architect, attorney, and professor. My "day job" is serving as a law professor at UConn, where I teach and write about land use, property, historic preservation, and renewable energy law. Most recently, I've agreed to undertake a major revision to a treatise analyzing national trends in zoning law, along with Robinson & Cole's Dwight Merriam. (It's 91 chapters long - wish us luck!) I also serve on a variety of boards, ranging from the hyper-local (the Bushnell Park Foundation) to the statewide (CT Trust for Historic Preservation and CT Fund for the Environment), and do consulting work that directly relates to, and enhances, my academic work.

On the personal side, I live downtown with my husband Luke, and our three kids (ages 5 and under), in a brownstone we rehabilitated on Elm Street. Luke currently serves as the Governor's chief legal counsel, and he's on the board of the Hartford Public Library. His commitment to public service runs deep: he served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Treasury Department and fought financial crime in Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer. We are both very committed to the well-being of Hartford's neighborhoods.

How did you get involved in the Planning and Zoning Commission?

Serving on any commission in Hartford requires the Mayor's nomination and the Council's confirmation. I went through that process and was grateful to make it to the other side - officially appointed in October of 2013. I wanted to serve on the Planning & Zoning Commission for a couple of reasons;

First, I wanted to be involved in shaping the city's approach to some potentially transformative developments: the busway, changes to I-84, a potential stadium project, the Housing Authority's Westbrook-Bowles rehabilitation, and even a shift in the entire zoning code (from a "use-based" code to a "form-based" code). The Commission's job is to figure out how this development can be done most sensibly.

Second, I wanted to help ensure that our neighborhoods were strengthened through the planning and zoning process. A lot of the city's focus has been on downtown development, but our neighborhoods are vitally important as well. You would be surprised at how many of our neighborhoods' more difficult challenges can be addressed, at least in part, through zoning.

What is it about Planning and Zoning that young professionals should be aware of? How does it affect them?

First and foremost, Hartford is an extremely hot market for young professionals' housing needs, and the Commission plays an important role in facilitating that market. Our Commission authorizes where any housing can occur in the city, and for the larger projects, we often do very careful reviews of plans for the site - including everything from trees to drainage. We're seeing hundreds of new housing units coming online in the downtown area, thanks in large part to the work of the Capitol Regional Development Authority (CRDA), led by the genius Mike Freimuth in partnership with the state, thanks to Governor Malloy. I took a tour of 5 buildings with the CRDA last week, and whether it was the views at 777 Main Street or the quirky and cool apartments at 201 Ann Uccello Street, there's going to be something for every young professional downtown. The Commission is also working to stimulate creative rehabilitations and new housing in other neighborhoods. For example, the Commission just created a new "overlay" zone on almost all of Bartholomew Avenue (where Hartford Denim and the Dirt Salon are located). That overlay zone will allow for those industrial buildings to be redeveloped for housing and other uses.  

I know from my law students that the environment and energy are also big areas of interest and concern to young professionals. The Commission has taken a big leap forward in these areas. We have firmed up our requirements for trees and open space, and we are in the process of limiting the amount of impervious paving (like concrete) to better manage stormwater and reduce the heat island effect. I have a special interest in our parks, and I'm hoping we can help guide the city toward a more rational park usage policy in the years ahead. We are also going to tackle the question of renewable energy siting in our communities - a topic I write about in my research. There is no reason why West Hartford should be a focus of private industry's "Solarize" efforts, while Hartford lags behind.  

Another thing that young professionals might be interested in are recreational and entertainment opportunities. My biggest hope is that we can figure out how to better utilize our natural assets, including the Park River and the Connecticut River, through thoughtful zoning of the land alongside them. As far as sports goes, I've already mentioned our role in the proposed stadium: our Commission is in the process of deciding whether a stadium is an appropriate use for our downtown. We just gave our blessing to the Council's proposed investment in renovating Dillon Stadium. And what about brewpubs, which have also been in the news? We're proposing lifting some restrictions on brewpubs seeking to locate downtown. At the same time, we have in the recent past strengthened restrictions on the sale of alcohol, which is an important quality of life issue for our neighborhoods.

Finally, let me make a direct appeal to your audience: we have some vacancies for alternates, so if you are interested, please contact me! You have to be an elector of the city of Hartford, and have expertise in planning, architecture, law, or real estate. We have some real dynamos on, and soon-to-be-joining, the Commission, so your energy and enthusiasm would be most welcomed.  

What do you love about Hartford?

Of course, the people - who are engaged, creative, and civic-minded - are Hartford's greatest assets. But in terms of physical assets, my whole family - Luke, the kids, and I - sees Hartford's parks, historic buildings, rail lines, and rivers as our biggest opportunities. Weaving these physical assets together in some meaningful and rational way, while ensuring that both our neighborhoods and our downtown thrive, is my mission. It's a years-long effort, but we're not going anywhere!  

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