January 29, 2006
By TONI GOLD, Courant Staff Writer
Mayor Eddie Perez wants a new building
for the Pathways to Technology magnet high school that is now housed
in a recycled strip mall on the Windsor-Hartford border. He wants
to build it on the southeast corner of Farmington Avenue and Broad
Street in Hartford.
Few passing motorists even realize
there is a building site on that corner. It is high ground that
offers a spectacular long view of downtown skyscrapers and the Capitol,
but it also has a much nearer view of I-84 at its congested best.
Could such a site be anything other than a piece of right-of-way
left over after years of tweaking the Exit 48 ramps? It is that.
But it is also a perfectly buildable site where a signature building
at the gateway to one of the city's busiest precincts would be a
Unfortunately, the triangular site
is bordered on one side by the interstate itself, and on the other
two sides by "No Man's Land," as the surrounding streets
are known locally. No Man's Land is a sea of asphalt and traffic
signals where Farmington and Asylum avenues and Broad and Cogswell
streets all meet next to a patch of park containing a historic monument.
From here, Asylum and Farmington avenue
join, widen and plunge downhill toward Union Station and downtown,
meeting three of Exit 48's five highway ramps, plus Spring, Garden,
and Spruce streets, along the way. No Man's Land is congested to
the point of dysfunction for much of the day, and plagued by speeders
the rest of the time. There are frequent accidents. Why would the
mayor choose such a location?
To put the school's students near internships
with the large employers, and because of his desire not to take
any real estate off the tax rolls - laudable motives both. But the
neighbors were appalled, as they told the architects, school board
members and the mayor himself at a recent presentation.
The neighbors' objections don't center
on the school, which could be a fine addition to the Asylum Hill
neighborhood. They are worried about No Man's Land, the blighted
and dangerous barrier of streets that would cut the school off from
everything else, and about the total gridlock that additional traffic
would likely bring.
No Man's Land is a poster child for
the failure to link transportation and land use. In the 40-year
effort to "improve" I-84, and to add and relocate ramps
to accommodate ever more cars, intercity buses and the General Assembly,
both transportation and land use have been degraded.
Aggravated over the years by the big
companies' creeping demolition of historic houses for additions
to their parking empires, and by the public works department's desire
to accommodate automobile traffic on the city's streets at the expense
of virtually everything else, such a barren and dangerous environment
is a predictable result.
The three-minute walk from The Hartford
to downtown has become challenging if not unthinkable; property
values have fallen and crime has risen in Asylum Hill; and the big
companies' employee recruitment has been hurt by the dismal surroundings.
The Hartford-New Britain busway is currently stalled at Flower Street,
unable to find its way through No Man's Land.
The experience of a former director
of the YWCA illustrates exactly what No Man's Land has become. She
rented an apartment in Morgan on the Park, the high-rise apartment
building about 200 yards down the hill and across Asylum Avenue
from the Y, so she could walk to work. After first being terrified
by the pedestrian environment, and then being accosted more than
once by motorists who assumed she was a prostitute, she gave up
and began driving to work.
The urban revival that Mayor Perez
seeks cannot occur until places like No Man's Land are transformed.
The good news is that something can be done about blighted public
spaces like No Man's Land - something big that really makes a difference.
Detroit's Campus Martius is a good recent example; Portland Oregon's
Pioneer Courthouse Square is an older one (see www.pps.org/info/newsletter/
december2005/squares_intro?referrer= newsletter_contents for descriptions
of these and others).
When asked to fix the public space
blight first, the mayor said, "That's a whole separate project,"
and not one the school project could wait for. Indeed, it would
be a whole separate project, a much bigger one than the magnet school
itself. But such a project could also have a much greater economic
impact than the school, and is probably essential to the school's
success there in the long run anyway.
A vision for a transformation of this
space has actually been created by Bill Mocarsky, a local keyboard
musician who is also conversant with computer design; his work can
be seen at www.peopleofgoodwill.com/esplanade/ esplanade3.html.
He shows visions of parkland and grand promenades superimposed on
existing photographs of the Capitol and on the impressive classical
facade of The Hartford.
Mocarsky imagines I-84 buried underground,
and green and pedestrian-friendly connections made from Asylum to
Capitol Avenue, and from Broad Street to Bushnell Park. Fantasy?
Perhaps, but the particulars are not the point. The point is that
this kind of big vision is possible when a public blight is thoughtfully
re-imagined. It is a necessary ingredient for the kind of change
that No Man's Land requires. The other necessary ingredient is leadership
- leadership that is seriously committed and will expend political
chips to make such a thing happen.
Mocarsky has provided the vision; can
Perez provide the leadership?
The mayor has been a savvy and creative
advocate for development projects in the city, both downtown and
in the neighborhoods. But until he can look beyond the boundaries
of individual sites and grasp the significance of the 50 percent
of Hartford's real estate that he already owns and controls - the
streets, sidewalks and other public spaces - he cannot claim to
be a visionary leader.
Toni Gold of Hartford is a consultant
and a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit
whose mission is to create and sustain public places that build
community. She is a member of the Place board of contributors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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