March 6, 2007
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer
Visitors to Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood get an eyeful when they get off I-84 at Exit 48.
First, there's the bombed-out Capitol West building, with its boarded-up windows and graffiti-splashed walls.
Now there's a newer eyesore awaiting after they turn right at the light: mounds of soil and upended tree roots on a corner lot to the left, the mark of ill-fated land-clearing for a disputed magnet school.
Visitors have just entered what some call a no man's land, right at the gateway to the city's insurance nerve center, home to Aetna and The Hartford.
Although plans to use the site for a magnet school appear dead, there's now the problem of what to do with the torn-up property, a 2.4-acre triangle of city-owned land that, until recently, had been dressed up with some shrubs and pines.
There are plenty of ideas: shops and restaurants, office space, housing and, perhaps even temporarily, an open air market.
Local planners and business leaders say the problems with the lot reflect those of the larger surrounding area on Asylum Hill.
"It's a tremendously underused area," said urban planner Ken Greenberg, whose 1998 city study created a discussion about the future of downtown Hartford. "It should be a valuable asset to the city - its close proximity to Union Station, Bushnell Park."
The problem, Greenberg and others say, is that the area - including the wedge of land that is part of the former site of Hartford Public High School before I-84 plowed through the city - simply is not friendly to pedestrians.
"There's too much asphalt, and it's too confusing to get around," Greenberg said.
Where Farmington and Asylum avenues meet on Asylum Hill is considered a key intersection in the city that links downtown Hartford with its neighborhoods and regions beyond. It is one of six such intersections in the city now being studied in a 10-month, $250,000 project known as Hartford 2010, which seeks to revitalize such key crossroads.
Although the wedge-shaped piece of land is key to any development in the area, Greenberg and others say the flow of traffic is just as critical and should be addressed as part of any proposed use of the property.
"The issue is almost less what should be done with the land than what needs to be done to make that area a legitimate part of downtown," said Toni Gold, a Hartford consultant and a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group that aims to create and sustain public places that build communities. Gold said it is key to address what she describes as a "horrendous" traffic situation along Broad Street and Farmington and Asylum avenues.
A couple of proposals have surfaced. One would create a rotary involving Broad Street, Cogswell Street, Farmington Avenue and Asylum Avenue. Another would eliminate a portion of Asylum Avenue, creating "green space" and rerouting traffic along a widened Farmington Avenue.
Developing the land sought for the magnet school is challenging because it also backs up to I-84. And although that highway is due for repairs, the state Department of Transportation appears less likely to move the highway than repair it.
Despite those challenges, Gold said the site has potential because it's a highly visible site and has good views of downtown.
"It would be a good place for a residential tower or mixed-use office and retail," Gold said. "It's got a lot of potential."
Patrick Pinnell, a Hartford-area architect, said he believes shops and restaurants would be a good use for the site, which would put retail on both sides of the street. That would provide a boost for the streetscape and take away the barren and vacant feel that characterizes the area, particularly at night.
Those uses would be consistent with a deed restriction that only allows the land to be used as a park, a public safety complex or for economic development.
Pinnell also said he believes retail stores should be positioned wherever possible to the east of the site, going down the hill to Bushnell Park and the rest of downtown.
Although development in the area could be months or even years away, Pinnell said the ill-fated magnet school site should be restored, uprooted trees removed and leveled off, something that the city intends to do.
The area could, at least temporarily, be used as an open air market.
"You need to get some placeholder use there," Pinnell said. "You can't leave it like it is."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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