I was driving on Farmington Avenue on Tuesday when a car shot past me on the right, cut in front of me and then took a sharp left turn. (The car, according to its roof sign, was a delivery vehicle for Timesaver Pizza.) The driving wasn't unusual; most days on Farmington Avenue I feel like I've happened into a bad driving contest. The avenue, mostly four lanes in Hartford, invites speeding and lane-jumping. It gets speeding and lane-jumping.
Like so many arterials in so many old cities, Farmington Avenue in the postwar years gradually defaulted to a speedway, mostly for suburban commuters. The helter-skelter traffic diminished the street's pedestrian and bicycling enjoyment. By the mid-1990s, despite its many outstanding historic, cultural and commercial structures, the avenue looked tired. There were empty storefronts. Someone had proposed demolishing the Colonial Theater building, a neighborhood landmark.
What had been forgotten was the dual role of successful urban thoroughfares. They are to move people, but they are also places where people live. They are linear neighborhoods, communities where people can shop, dine and be entertained, and where they can walk or take transit to get around.
Fortunately, many of the people who live along Farmington Avenue got mad and decided not to take it anymore. The West End organized to save the Colonial. It's now rebuilt as Braza, one of the most beautiful restaurants in the region. Then the West Enders joined with Asylum Hill to form the Farmington Avenue Alliance and began a redesign of the street itself.
They raised nearly $200,000 and engaged the highly regarded Project for Public Spaces to do a conceptual plan for the avenue. The urban planning organization completed the plan in 2002. It called for a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard with a planted median in some parts, bike lanes, mini-plazas, roundabouts and other amenities.
Meanwhile, the city had bond money for streetscape improvements on five major arterials, including Farmington Avenue. City officials were thinking about a traditional streetscape program, with repaving, new lights and the like. The alliance was looking for a major redesign.
They've negotiated their differences over the past year and now have a plan for a first phase, a redesign of the area between Marshall and Kenyon streets.
The residents don't get everything they wanted. There are no roundabouts; city officials think signalized intersections will move more traffic. There are also no bike lanes. Transportation official Kevin Burnham said the corridor isn't wide enough to accommodate bike lanes and traffic, but said there will be more shoulder room for biking in some areas. (A possible answer: Let east-west bicyclists use Fern Street, and put a bike trail through the UConn Law School property and over the Park River to Woodland and Niles streets).
What the avenue will get is intermittent medians with grass, trees and what are called pedestrian refuges, more street trees, better lighting, bus pull-offs, wider sidewalks and calmer traffic. Part of the avenue will be two-lane, part three lanes, with appropriate turning lanes.
Though there are still some issues with crosswalks and parking, everyone thinks the plan will be a vast improvement over the present situation. The phase is estimated to cost $4.3 million. Burnham said the city has $3.3 million in the till, but will try to make up the difference between now and next year when, it is hoped, construction begins. The alternative is to build in smaller segments.
The avenue was once primarily residential, with large front lawns and verandas. Zoning still reflects this, with large setbacks. This has allowed a few small, suburban-style strip malls into the street, with ugly front-field parking (and in the case of the Family Dollar store, formerly Arthur's Drug Store, constant litter). The Farmington Avenue Alliance hoped the city would negotiate with private property owners to provide alternate parking and beautify the properties.
What the city has done is attempt to inspire voluntary improvements by creating "enhancement areas," in which a consultant will offer design alternatives to owners to spiff up their properties. This may work; there's nothing like Mr. Smith fixing up his house to inspire Mr. Jones to similar action (especially if incentives are available). And along the avenue, there are models of good voluntary improvements. There are several new restaurants. A new three-story building is going up on the corner of Lorraine Street. The clothier Japanalia, which started in the West End, is putting a clothing and art store, Japanalia On One, in the CVS Plaza. Good stuff.
I was going to call this a triumph for persistent activism, but that would be redundant; all successful activism is persistent. The Farmington Avenue Alliance makes a great point; the avenues are the skeletal bones of a city. If they are healthy, the city is more likely to be healthy.
A final note. Last week on Farmington Avenue near Sigourney Street, a small section of old trolley track had worked its way up through the asphalt. The original Project for Public Spaces plan suggested bringing back a light rail system, which once ran out to the town of Farmington. This was dismissed out of hand. As the price of gas increases and the effects of global warming become more obvious, we might want to keep light rail in the picture.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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