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January 7, 2023

Consultants outline four possible futures for the 200-acre Brainard Airport site

PHOTO | Contributed Hartford-Brainard Airport has seen declining activity over the past decade, but closing it for redevelopment wouldn't be cheap or quick.

Without redevelopment, Hartford’s Brainard Airport will continue to lose $500,000 to $1 million yearly and reduce public access to the Connecticut River, according to a study recently completed for the city of Hartford. Preserving the status quo would also mean lost opportunity to tie in with redevelopments being considered on nearby properties.

In one of the latest chapters in a long debate over the future of Brainard Airport, the city of Hartford has received a report outlining four possible futures for the 200-acre site that has hosted its municipal airport for a century. The city hired the consultant team of development think tank WXY and urban planning consultant Karp Strategies – both based in New York – in early 2022.

The team returned a report with four options: 1) continued use as an airport 2) a warehousing hub for logistics and distribution 3) a mix of industrial, retail, residential and entertainment and 4) an advanced manufacturing hub focused on aviation technologies including drones and automated vehicles.

The Karp/WXY report doesn’t explicitly recommend one option over another, but outlines positives and drawbacks of each. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to receive the report at its Jan. 10 meeting.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has long advocated finding a more productive use for the airport property. The Hartford City Council passed a nonbinding resolution in 2021 to close the airport but the Connecticut Airport Authority, which controls the airport, has rebuffed the notion of closure. City officials have tried to go over the quasi-public agencies head to plead their case to state lawmakers.

Through a section tucked into last year’s state budget adjustment bill, the Connecticut General Assembly required the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development to undertake a $1.5 million study of possible alternative uses for Brainard – with goals similar to the study undertaken by the city.  

Hartford’s completed study notes some positives of keeping the airport. This scenario doesn’t rule out creation of a riverfront trail. The airport’s continued existence would mean continued opportunity for recreational aviation, the aviation industry in general, small businesses and workforce training, according to the Karp/WXY report.

Development of warehousing would tap into a high-demand market with relatively minimal infrastructure costs, creating middle income jobs, notes the report. This approach would also be consistent with surrounding industrial uses in the South Meadows area. On the flipside, this would mean more trucks and pollution, and use up a “catalytic site” with broader development potential, the study said. This type of development would consume much of the available space, with a relatively low return of jobs, according to the report.

A mixed-use development could see new dwellings by the river with a mix of commercial, retail and office elsewhere on the site, along with new public spaces. This option could be coordinated with redevelopment of the neighboring MIRA site, according to the report. The state’s trash authority recently stopped its trash-burning operations on the 80-acre site in the South Meadows, and plans for decommissioning are ongoing. The Karp/WXY report notes a mixed-use redevelopment could also connect to nearby Charter Oak Landing and possibly even a planned East Hartford Marina. It labels this options as “high community benefit.”

Potential downsides include isolation of the new residential dwellings from the rest of the city, a lack of financial feasibility under current market conditions and high up-front costs for environmental cleanup and new infrastructure, according to the Karp/WXY study. The nearby MIRA property and wastewater treatment plant would also clash with the mixed-use option, notes the report.

The fourth option contemplated by the Karp/WXY report is a hub for advanced manufacturing; research and development and aviation technology. In this vision, the airport becomes a center for aviation technologies ranging from drones to automated vehicles, leveraging its current Federal Aviation Designation, as well as complementing – and possibly improving – surrounding industrial uses in the South Meadows.

It would be hard, however, to close the airport to traditional recreational users while allowing drones and helicopters, notes the report. This type of development would also be speculative and without proven economic value. The research jobs created might also be of limited benefit to Hartford residents and this option would leave large chunks of the site underutilized, notes the report.

The city’s report – along with other past studies of Brainard’s development potential -- will inform the work of BFJ Planning, another New York consultant, who has been hired to undertake the Department of Economic and Community Development study of Brainard Airport. The legislature mandated a study of the highest and best use of the airport land, to be returned to lawmakers by Oct. 15, 2023.

BFJ will hold at least five public meetings.

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