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First Fix Roads, Then Build School

Hartford Parcel Seriously Flawed As Site - But It's Not Past Repair

March 18, 2007
Commentary By TYLER SMITH

Its full name is the Pathways to Technology Interdistrict Magnet School. Its purpose is to train students for today's technology-based job market. The mission statement for the high school states: "Students will learn in an environment that emulates the business world."

Being located downtown with its concentration of major employers, city and state government centers and the University of Connecticut business school offered synergies that only the downtown can. A downtown site for this school seemed like a smart decision. But locating this school on the corner of Farmington Avenue and Broad Street, on the edge of downtown, has now been deemed a bad idea.

The focus of the criticism of the proposed Pathways site has centered on it being located at such a congested and unsafe intersection. And that it is. Those in the city who proposed this site tied their endorsement to the necessity of doing a virtual makeover of this intersection and the Broad Street and Farmington Avenue connections to I-84.

Lest we forget, or if we never knew, this proposed 2–-acre parcel was once the site of the Hartford Public High School, a glorious and forceful building constructed in 1883 in the Gothic Revival style. It was demolished in 1963 to accommodate I-84, which arcs around the southeast portion of the site. Therein lies the problem that has derailed the Pathways project.

The problem is the highway, not the site. This is just the latest confirmation of the havoc that I-84 (and I-91) has wrought on Hartford. I-84 has cut Hartford in two, isolating both north Hartford and Asylum Hill from the downtown. The ramp entries and exits compound the barrier of I-84. Any semblance of pedestrian accommodation has been obliterated to make way for widened vehicle access lanes. The confluence of all this anti-urban highway planning occurs along Broad Street at the intersection of Farmington and Asylum avenues. Not only is it congested, but pedestrians must take their life in their hands trying to walk along, much less cross, any of these thoroughfares. This area has been dubbed "no man's land" for good reason. To add insult to injury, I-84 cuts off pedestrian access from Asylum Hill to Bushnell Park, downtown's most treasured amenity.

As the state-vs.-city brouhaha over the site selection for Pathways has unfolded, we also learn that the state Department of Transportation intends to spend $100 million to make "improvements" to I-84 in this area. This prompts me to ask "What if?"

What if DOT officials actually did a makeover of the highway and highway-access infrastructure from Union Station to Broad Street? What if they introduced wide, attractive sidewalks, crosswalks and other pedestrian amenities in this area? What if they employed traffic-calming strategies on all feeder streets to I-84? What if they reconnected, via a terrace similar to the one that connects downtown to the riverfront, Asylum Hill to Bushnell Park? What if a hunk of those dollars were re-allocated to the Hartford-New Britain busway and the station stops in Hartford?

Then, what if Hartford and the other participating districts in the Pathway school came up with a transit plan to get kids to and from school? The plan might include vans rather than quarter-full buses running to each town; bus passes for CT Transit buses; satellite parking facilities for students and faculty; and safe ways for youngsters to walk to school from neighborhoods and local bus stops.

If this was done, one could ask: "Could there be a better site for Pathways than the one downtown at the corner of Broad and Farmington?" I'd say: "No."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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