In the 25 years since Hartford embarked on the ambitious enterprise
to reconnect downtown with the Connecticut River, something happened
that no one then could have imagined. We gained a river, but
we lost Main Street.
Despite having the city's
largest concentration of headquarters, resources and landmarks,
Main Street's sidewalks no longer beckon or welcome visitors
and pedestrians. It's a pockmarked and uninviting thoroughfare
with a few glistening jewels surrounded large expanses of emptiness
and asphalt. It wasn't always so and must change if we have
expect to capitalize on our "rising star" expectations.
Hartford's Main Street was one of the most inspiring places in
Connecticut. It has been a place of commerce, of celebration
and homecoming, of ideas, beauty, learning and rest. Its institutions
and amenities are, or were, the stuff of legend: majestic temples
of faith brimming with parishioners, emporiums of art, history
and literature, elegant hotels, theaters and restaurants. It
has also been a seat of city and state government, a prestigious
residential address and the greatest shopping district Connecticut
has ever known.
Alas, somewhere along the way we took Main Street for granted
or have simply stopped seeing it for what it is - which is nothing
less than the best of what Hartford ever was or will be. All
the big projects of the past half-century, from Constitution
Plaza and the Civic Center to Riverfront Recapture and the Convention
Center, have centered their attention somewhere else. The major
corporations and their car-based commuter cultures gradually
transformed upper Main Street into an office park, abandoning
the mixed uses that are so essential to the active life of the
There is something puzzling watching planners heap subsidies
on a faux Front Street, while Main Street - the real thing and
a much bigger and better thing, just a stone's throw away from
the Convention Center - languishes in the face of our indifference!
Let's forget about Front Street and rebuild connections to Main
Despite the neglect of the past few decades, Main Street still
has an unparalleled collection of assets:
Main Street's churches do important public work merely by caring
for some of Connecticut's most inspiring art and architecture.
Christ Church Cathedral and Center Church have been public-spirited
in offering programs, concerts, and tours that enhance the Main
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is a national treasure
that could lead the downtown renaissance.
The Ancient Burying Ground used to be a neglected mess. Now
it is one of the jewels of Main Street, with a front lawn that
welcomes visitors to a place of solace, beauty and importance.
The Antiquarian & Landmarks Society's Butler-McCook House & Garden
and Main Street History Center is the best place in the city
to get an overview of Hartford history. There isn't a more fascinating
house museum in Connecticut.
The Connecticut Historical Society's move downtown to operate
the Old State House assures that this national treasure will
continue to be a major contributing asset.
Also, some important things are underway.
The Temple Street Gang, my name for developers Phil Schonberger,
Marc Levine and Sam Fingold, were among the first developers
back on Main Street. They've done farsighted work with the Richardson
Building, Sage-Allen and 990 Main.
The former G. Fox building is breathtaking and its primary tenant,
Capital Community College, exceeded all expectations by moving
Signage has improved substantially with a project administered
by the Greater Hartford Arts Council.
When it is completed, Hartford Public Library's new glass entrance
will give Main Street a stunning new architectural landmark.
The project to rebuild the gateway from Main to Park Street
is just getting started, as is the effort to replace the decrepit,
graffiti-covered bus shelters.
Alas, Main Street has its share of problems. But they are solvable.
It's time that cars take a
back seat to people in defining the uses of downtown. To achieve
this, we need to abolish one-way streets whose only purpose
is rushing traffic in and out of the city. Marc Levine recently
observed that "Main Street must
be made safer and more pedestrian- and customer-friendly. Currently,
there is no short-term, on-street parking to support retail uses;
crossing the street is a dangerous exercise; speeding is incessant;
and the constant noise from blaring car radios excessive and
Architect Patrick Pinnell
suggests restoring pedestrian-friendly block sizes, observing
that "over the decades, the original
historic street-and-block structure was given over for the sake
of making superblocks." Even Burr Mall is just another underutilized
wall of concrete. Calder's Stegosaurus would look so much better
in Bushnell Park. Burr Mall would be more useful if it was reclaimed
for sidewalks, streets and short-term parking.
We need short-term parking. Even with the new Morgan Street Garage,
the visitors and shoppers that Hartford needs most go to the
back of the line behind commuters. If you show up at Morgan Street
Garage after 10 a.m., it's six floors up or nothing. Few of the
downtown parking lots are priced to favor short-term uses and
none are advertised as such. We shouldn't have to visit Middletown
or Northampton, Mass., to learn how to put the customer's needs
We ought to commercialize the city's Sheldon Street parking
lots by offering city employees a transportation voucher to apply
toward any form of transportation they choose. Free on-site parking
is an extraordinary perk. Most days the city lots are not even
The poor will always be with us, but really - get a grip. The
continuing presence of homeless shelters and a methadone clinic
on Main Street makes you wonder who's minding the shop.
The fortress mentality still prevails, especially with the big
guys. St. Paul Travelers is not in the business of running attractions,
but what an attraction it has in the Travelers Tower. The observation
deck could be one of the premiere downtown attractions.
United Technologies is still headquartered in the Gold Building,
but who'd know? The building itself is Main Street's Darth Vader.
There's no reason it can't put on a more welcoming face. Hartford
is proud to be the world headquarters of United Technologies.
UTC ought to display its colors and make the street level amenities
(including a state-run art gallery visitors would never know
was there) more visitor-friendly.
If we want tourism, conventions and the tax base expansion associated
with empty-nesters buying into Hartford for its downtown experience,
we'd better focus on Main Street.
William Hosley is a historical consultant and a member of the
Place board of contributors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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