For years, critics of downtown Hartford have complained that the layout of the business district creates a series of islands that make it difficult to navigate as a pedestrian. All that is about to change as one final piece turns the side of the city closest to the river into a grand plaza that will connect almost directly to Main Street and the west side of downtown.
Federal funding has been secured for a bridge connecting the external esplanade of the Connecticut Convention Center with the Connecticut Science Center plaza. Once it is complete, convention visitors, and everyone else, will have the ability to walk from the convention center, to the science center, directly to the river, the Old State House, the Wadsworth and other key downtown destinations. Similarly, people coming from downtown points west will have easier access to the river, the science center and the convention center.
The scheduled completion of the convention center/science center bridge will match up almost perfectly with the completion of the long awaited Front Street project which has devolved into a retail-only development. Its not what everyone had hoped for, but perhaps more importantly, when complete, the Front Street project will provide another connection between the convention district and the rest of downtown. The Front Street block, which has been surrounded with construction fencing for five years, will offer a walkway directly to the municipal building, the Wadsworth and Main Street, putting Bushnell Park and the Capitol within sight.
The expansive plaza system on the east side of the downtown business district has been historically under used. Starting with Constitution Plaza, it stretches to the Phoenix building, toward the river and south to the Travelers building. This vast landscape of 1960s style concrete is used on a limited basis for special events and small groups of smokers.
The elimination of various dead ends will provide employees of the insurance companies, the many other businesses with offices in the area and visitors to make better use of the space as a pedestrian walkway and a center for commerce and entertainment. The new connections offer the various owners of the plaza system an opportunity to turn it into a vital part of downtown.
Other critics of Hartford architecture have complained about an over reliance on second-story walkways that keep people off the streets. While the plaza system does have that downside, the combination of the Front Street development and Columbus Boulevard entries for the convention center, the Marriott, the science center and the planned AI Technical Center (former Broadcast House) will keep the street level active too.
Now the question is: How do you make the plaza system something it never has been? There is no shortage of ideas and there is no shortage of people willing to help turn vision into reality. The biggest obstacle may be expense and the fear some property owners have of unforeseen consequences lawsuits, maintenance, operational issues.
This is no time to halt the progress. Ten years ago, the east side of downtown was completely cut off from the river and a group of disconnected plazas was surrounded by huge, dusty, open air parking lots. Today, thousands of out-of-town visitors use the convention center every week and children and families from around the region visit the science center daily. It takes only a little imagination to keep the momentum going.