At the halfway point of the planning stage for the Bushnell Park Restoration Plan and GreenWalk, the iQuilters held another public forum on Tuesday evening; the skepticism that had subsided during the last session has reemerged.
In March, there was a lengthy public discussion about ways to improve Bushnell Park. (You can read all about that here, here, and here. ) A few participants wondered if those steering this plan were perhaps steering a bit too hard. Upon the release of the Programming and Pre-Design Report and the recent so-called public forum, this question might be asked even louder. One might also ask whose interests are being served by this plan.
For the time being, let’s set aside the factual inaccuracies that can be found in the report– we will get to some of that later. First, let’s do a compare/contrast between what people (the public, of that public forum) thought were great ideas and what the iQuilters have decided to run with, even if these concepts were not popular during the meeting.
On page 13 of the plan, they list “Possibly Recommended Uses” for Bushnell Park: volleyball, ping pong, basketball, bocce/petanque, horse-drawn carriage rides around the park, biking, skateboarding, farmers markets, book loaning/book carts, weather station, puppet theater, barbecuing, and a Christmas market. It seems as if planners are pushing these ideas, even when the public at the March workshops had not gravitated much toward any of these. Skateboarding, for instance, is silly to promote as a possible activity when the City is currently hashing out funding for a skate park in an already established skating area of north Downtown. Nobody even knew what a weather station was at this previous meeting and only one person seemed to be fascinated by the book loan idea, which would again be redundant, as the library is in very close proximity to the park. None of the ideas on that aforementioned list really resonated at the March public workshop. Reading the Programming and Pre-Design Report before attending Tuesday evening’s public forum was a warning of what was to come.
In that document, it is stated “all agreed that the park has sporadic use during the weekdays, some use during the weekends, and little to no evening activity” (13). There is no indication as to who was in this group of “all,” and as someone who travels through Bushnell Park on weekdays, weekends, and evenings, I find it to be inaccurate. The characterization, for instance, of the western side of the park as getting little use except for during concerts is false. During the school year, gym classes have regularly used that side for major parts of the day during the week. This inaccuracy was not the only one presented in the iQuilt documents and presentations. The Programming and Pre-Design Report erroneously states:
Bushnell Park Café, which is open only in the summer months, occupies the building’s southern wing, and offers drinks and dining on an outdoor patio. (15)
This establishment has not been in operation for several years. Though it is expected that designers and planners from out of town might make this error, it is astounding that nobody has corrected this mistake during their dozens of meetings. Again, there were other errors and omissions, which we will deal with later.
On a map distributed at Tuesday’s forum, the carousel was pictured as moving next to the Pump House Gallery. In that previous public forum in March, concern was expressed about splitting up the play area for children. It's been hinted that the carousel may need to be relocated at some point due to problems with its foundation, but nothing definitive has been publicly released. During Tuesday evening’s forum, the planners made more of a case for moving the carousel, as Bushnell Brook — the major change to the park — would be disrupting the carousel and playground area. But, on the beautiful map distributed to all attendees, there is no indication of where a replacement playground would be developed. Except for during special events, the playground is probably the most popular area of Bushnell Park. It is one of the few child-centered areas in Downtown Hartford. Should money — regardless of where it comes from — be allocated for a major water feature when it would disrupt two of Bushnell Park’s strongest assets?
The architects — along with some of the public who are only now tuning in due to a fluff piece published in a major media outlet — seem dazzled by the attractive renderings, so much so that they have misplaced their need to keep one foot solidly grounded in reality. If the goal of the iQuilt plan is to improve connectivity between Bushnell Park and the Connecticut River, then why focus so intently on an already enjoyable Downtown space? Why not look harder at what needs to be dealt with, like the concrete barriers, blocks of surface parking, and the pedestrian-last infrastructure?
Some of those aspects are being dealt with, but seem, now, like afterthoughts rather than focal points. Most of my interactions with Downtown are as a pedestrian and a cyclist; traveling through Bushnell Park is easy and enjoyable, but I can point to about a dozen trouble spots elsewhere in Downtown that need more attention.
A related item that has been overlooked is the importance of cycling. The literature briefly mentions the East Coast Greenway, yet it seems to be under the radar in the iQuilt plan. It’s not highlighted on any of their maps. There are no proposals for drawing attention to it or adding better signage for it. After listening to the entire presentation on Tuesday, I asked about how the iQuilt project would highlight this trail which links 25 cities along the East Coast. The response was disappointing. In March I had observed the ignorance of the ECG, and it seems little has changed since then. The iQuilt folk seemed confused about what exactly this major path is and does, even though it had been brought up at previous meetings. Although it is not marked well, there are ECG arrows throughout Bushnell Park. During the presentation, I was informed that they were not envisioning bicycles going through the park, but instead, around the edges on bike lanes that would be developed on bordering roads. Street bike lanes are welcome, but they should not attempt to replace something so well established, nor would they solve the connectivity issue of some neighborhoods to Downtown. Unless there are immediate plans to make major traffic calming measures to Broad Street, Capitol Avenue, and Asylum Street by shutting down the highway on/off ramps, cyclists need a calmer, safer alternative. Anyone who spends considerable time on a bicycle in Hartford knows this.
Erasing established bike paths is not the only way the iQuilt plan messes with something that works. The Stone Field public art sculpture is something that they are actually considering modifying by immersing some of the rocks in water because there is desire (by whom, it’s unclear) for a reflecting pool in an area dubbed “Bushnell Gardens.” Whether a piece of art is popular or not is beside the point. This art work is recognizable and is an interesting natural contrast to the pervasive concrete landscape nearby. Those who pay attention might notice that Stone Field almost reflects the Ancient Burying Ground. Will K. Wilkins, director of Real Art Ways, spoke out in defense of keeping this public art space just the way it is, noting that even though it is controversial, it is recognizable and should not be made into a “water park” as he so aptly put it. If the desire is to address underutilized space, then I would suggest casting one’s view at the concrete slab across the street.
The perennial call to daylight buried rivers seems to be taken too far and not far enough. In the renderings, a lot of proposed water features are visible, yet the long term planning seems shaky. In the March meeting, the idea of having any river be an interactive space was popular. On Tuesday, the public was informed that there were no plans to invite participation in the water. We were also told that “Bushnell Brook” would be a few inches to 24 inches, maximum, in depth. A member of the audience expressed concern that this might end up looking like a drainage ditch. Later, a Hartford resident pointed out that this would be deep enough to drown in, but not well-suited for much else. When an audience member questioned what would be done during the winter months and major events (annual flooding, etc.) Michael Vergason, the landscape architect, responded that the “system will be adapted,” but provided few other details. Someone else in the audience voiced her concern about rats and maintenance; in short, she was told that everything would be taken care of, but the response was hardly detailed enough to invoke confidence. Already, the maintenance of the parks is sub-par. If the City of Hartford can not/will not hire enough qualified professionals to manage what we have now, what reason do we have to believe that new water features would not flood, clog, and become filled with litter?
These low points are too bad. What began as an idea to highlight what Hartford already has by making the area more walkable has spiraled into plans to change what need not be, taking on projects that will be expensive to maintain, and ignoring other aspects that seem more pressing. While there are grandiose plans for adding lots of gates, bridges, greenhouses, etc., one of the most troubling areas between Bushnell Park and the Connecticut River has barely been addressed: the surface parking wasteland along Capitol Avenue.
Some have speculated that this entire project has no purpose other than to ensure that the Bushnell gets to keep its parking; while the enthusiasm for certain elements of the iQuilt seems too much to be faked, a look at the treatment of said parking wasteland does little to contradict such a notion. The area dubbed “Connecticut Square” would get a makeover so that the damage done by parked vehicles is minimized, but that barely addresses the problem. It appears that most of the Capitol Avenue parking would remain as is, and there was no further mention of creating a parking garage. Moreover, the most recent document includes a telling statement: “It would be a benefit to the project to maintain the current visual link from The Bushnell box office to Connecticut Square.” In other words, one parking area can be greened up a bit, but nothing drastic can happen – heaven forbid theater patrons lose their beeline from parking lot to the building! As innovative as the planners could be in other segments of the project, it was a disappointment to see how little imagination was applied here. If we’re looking to make Downtown more walkable, more people-friendly, then the first thing to do is deal with the wide open lots which are space wasters and ugly. They have said as much themselves in previous meetings. Bushnell Park is already beautiful. It does not need to be gussied up, just maintained. Work on the complete streets and environmental needs first; worry about whether or not Bushnell Park has a greenhouse restaurant after the City of Hartford has figured out a way to just get its existing pond to look attractive year-round.
There has been some criticism of the iQuilt, mainly by haters who do not understand how projects would be initially funded. This aspect is fairly sensible. As architect Douglas Suisman stated, “this is not a new Convention Center project [...] this is about the small things [...] it’s about tying together what’s already there.” He said, “this is not one project. This is many projects.” This approach is logical. It’s responsible. But it does nothing to address these projects in the long term. It’s one thing to create a stunning brook, inviting entrance-ways, and spacious bike lanes; it’s quite another to ensure that they remain attractive and functional years down the road.
The iQuilters have certainly put time into this, as the renderings and creative ideas demonstrate, but the question remains: who is being covered by this quilt? The public have been brought into dialogue — sometimes for sessions lasting four hours — but our input seems valued less than that of the “stakeholders.” Perhaps they could be challenged to redefine who counts as stakeholders; are these the politicians and Downtown business owners exclusively, or do residents who actually interact in these spaces — without seeking gains in wealth or power — get to count here too?
During the Tuesday forum, the audience was reassured by Suisman, that “while drawings may look final [...] we’re exploring” and that “there’s still plenty of time for input, changes.” He said, “we don’t want it to look compulsory.”
If you attended any presentations and/or have read the document, please take a moment to leave comments here (they are aware of Real Hartford and have read it in the past) and/or send them your remarks: email@example.com
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
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