Downtown Hartford's New Vision Faces Old Challenges
June 15, 2011
Tuesday was a day of exulting over a fresh vision for Hartford's latest downtown project. At the same time it was a study in the challenges of the capital city over the past 50 years — and an illustration of why it's hard to make a grand plan work.
The project, iQuilt, is a nifty flash of new urbanism that builds on a lot of smart ideas about connecting parks, museums, vistas and corporate byways in a pedestrian-friendly way. At its heart is an expansion of Bushnell Park where Gold Street now curves up toward Main, and a glitzy plaza that would occupy the now uninviting space between the Wadsworth Atheneum and Travelers Tower.
All of this is part of a necklace of connectors from the state Capitol to the Connecticut River, including a new waterway through the park. No, it's not the Park River, which will remain buried, and no, sorry kids, there won't be any swimming or boating. But it's a waterway nonetheless.
More than 200 people showed up at the Hartford Public Library in the evening to hear Hartford native Doug Suisman talk it up. He's a well dressed, well-spoken urban designer whose office is in Santa Monica, and he didn't pretend to have all the answers.
"This is really kind of a first pass," Suisman said. "Early ideas."
The challenge in Hartford, however, is layers deep — not just the challenge of physical problems, like what the heck do we do with that horrible Bushnell Plaza in the middle of everything. "That's not an easy win," Suisman conceded.
No, the bigger issue is that Hartford has had so many grand plans in the past half-century — starting with that Big Bang bungle, Constitution Plaza — that many people think any grand plan is doomed. Front Street sitting tragicomically idle just a few feet away is a reminder.
What's needed is not bricks and mortar at all, some critics say, but rather activity in the streets, social connections people-to-people and institution-to-institution.
"Every plan put forward is the next one to save the city," said Donald Poland, a city resident who's had several local urban planning positions. "We miss the mundane little things of what makes cities fun and successful. … Sometimes stepping back and trying to understand how cities work organically is a lot more important than urban planning."
Poland likes some of what he sees in iQuilt, but the potential price tag in the tens of millions of dollars and the bigness of the Gold Street portion make him and the folks of that mindset a bit nervous.
That's ironic, since iQuilt at its core is the anti-Adriaen's Landing. "We tried to connect projects, but we're not trying to bundle them into one big project," Suisman said, adding that iQuilt is a long-term vision.
For example, Travelers is of a mind to redo its entry plaza anyway, the Metropolitan District Commission needs to rejigger a major waterway that feeds into the buried Park River, and the Feds are offering grants to cities, so why not make it all add up?
Great answer, harder to pull it off. And then there is the Stone Field Sculpture, that collection of boulders next to Center Church installed in 1977 by the artist Carl Andre. Once controversial, now world-renowned, the boulders would be placed in a reflecting pond under Suisman's vision.
That's an insult, said Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, who lives across the park. "Treat it with respect."
Suisman said he's given it a lot of thought. He suggested asking Andre to weigh in, and concluded, in a comment that fits the big picture as well: "Whatever we do will be controversial. That's the magic of the boulders."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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