The ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership spoke with Mayor Pedro Segarra of Hartford, Conn., about the fellowship program and its impact on the city of Hartford and on his own professional and personal development.
Rose Center: At the ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago, you remarked that the Daniel Rose Center was the only school that trained mayors in how to be mayors. Do you feel that there is an unmet need in this area?
Segarra: The process by which mayors are selected does not necessarily ensure that mayors have any planning experience or architectural experience. Mayors tend to be more focused on political skills. It would be a real game-changer if more mayors were able to have access to more in-depth experience in land use planning.
The Rose Fellowship gives mayors the opportunity to appreciate planning, to understand the development of a city, how to balance these issues with the other things we do as mayors. Concepts such as market absorption rates, building to scale, historic resources, green infrastructure — these are specific issues that I learned about through the Rose Fellowship. It tremendously impacted my thinking and my understanding of the development of a city.
It’s also important to go to other cities, places that have perhaps experienced more development or development in a different context, to see what’s happening in the rest of the universe outside of the city of Hartford. You can go to a conference, but it’s not the same. We go to the [other Daniel Rose Fellowship] cities specifically to look at land use.
You get the benefit of being able to tag along with some of the best and most talented planners, to absorb some of those skills, but you also get to go on the road and actually see those skills and experience them in action. It’s critically important.
When the other fellows and advisers came to Hartford, we got the untainted, unbiased view of professionals coming to look at our projects. Sometimes there are so many things we can take for granted or not notice. These other professionals can instantly help us to see so much.
During your fellowship year, you worked to promote economic development on Albany Avenue and strengthen the avenue’s role as a gateway to your community. What is in store for Albany Avenue in the coming months?
We will break ground this spring; right now we are finalizing contracts and getting projects out to bid. We’re installing $2 million in amenities, such as recreational facilities, a baseball field, and we’ve worked to address some of the parking challenges. We been filling in the gaps on the avenue in preparation of the whole streetscape project coming in.
We did careful planning to ensure we could do all this construction without damaging access to local businesses. We recently completed a water and sewer project on North Main Street and there were a lot of hiccups with that. We can’t afford to keep businesses closed for long.
You didn’t run for your first term as mayor. How did your career in public service evolve and how did you end up in the mayor’s office?
Well, I do consider myself to be a political scientist. I studied revolutions, transitions, international law. But I always shied away from participatory politics.
I was one of the few Puerto Ricans to graduate with my academic background. I went to the University of Hartford for political science, then a master’s degree in social work, then I went to law school. So there was a lot of expectation in my ethnic community that I would run for something, but I always said, “No, thank you.” I stayed away from it.
In 2006, there was a vacancy on the city council. I had been city attorney for five years, and I was advising everyone at city hall on what to do about getting a replacement. But then I looked at the information in front of me, the names of who was interested in the open seat, and I just said, “Forget it! I’ll do it!”
That was how it always was in my career. It would be time to step down, but then I’d look around and think, “Well, I might as well just run for another term.” And then I was mayor, because I had become council president and then the previous mayor resigned.
Setting aside, for a moment, your role as mayor and your work in Hartford, how did you grow, as a person, during the fellowship year?
I have a great personal interest in architectural history. I had always wanted to get a graduate degree in it. As I traveled to the other fellowship cities, and especially to San Juan [Puerto Rico], it was great to see the historic resources, the value there. I saw firsthand the viability of using historic places to compliment economic development, and to give our cities a stronger sense of identity.
With my background as a social worker, I was blown out of the water by the bold statements of [incoming Daniel Rose Fellow] Mayor Kirk Caldwell of Honolulu, by his emphasis on doing development in a way that is culturally sensitive. Not just bricks and mortar, but actual cultural elements can be valued and promoted. Development can go beyond physical infrastructure, becoming more about society, as a way of reflecting its values and culture.
I feel sad that this experience might not be available to other mayors. For me, it made a difference in so many ways. I don’t know where else a mayor could go to have this opportunity.
As you mentioned, you were born in Puerto Rico. You spent most of your adult life in Hartford and participated in the fellowship’s San Juan Study Tour. What were you able to learn by contrasting the two cities?
It’s always interesting to see the level of large-scale redevelopment and comprehensive planning that goes into large cities. In San Juan, even in the historic area of Old San Juan, you see a lot of structures that were put up at the same time in a very organized way. But in some of the small towns in Puerto Rico you have TODs next to places that look like Levittown [in New York and Pennsylvania], places where the whole thing becomes very lopsided. Planning leaves a lot to be desired in some places, a nice little home next to a cafe next to a $20,000 home; a hodgepodge.
The lesson is that the processes are so open to political influence, so even when there are rules, the results don’t look like the rules. In Hartford we have very strict zoning and it’s followed very strictly.
During your fellowship year your team addressed issues of vacancy, code enforcement, and disinvestment. What progress have you made?
The foreclosure crisis hit us very badly. Predatory lenders came to many people who did not have an education in financial decision making. The lenders sold a bundle of goods, refinanced houses and so on, but then it spiraled to the point where a lot of people in the community could not sustain those loans.
But our collection rate on taxes is good. We are still getting the revenue we need. We fought very hard to develop a successful anti-blight program, to stop these blighted properties from having a domino effect.
When your term is over, will you remain in politics?
I still have so much work to do. Everybody wants to be mayor, in the sense that they want to be the one to tell everybody what to do. But no one really understands the complexities of this job.
Interview conducted by Timothy Boscarino of Issue Media Group