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Capitol Avenue Focus Just A Part Of Larger Vision

Michael J. Crosbie

February 27, 2011

Developing an environmentally friendly neighborhood along Hartford's Capitol Avenue, one that uses sustainable strategies and infrastructure, was the goal of a recent two-day planning session at the Capitol. The gathering was part of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Greening America's Capitals" program. Not surprising for an effort supported by the EPA, there was a lot of emphasis on dealing with water quality and stormwater management.

The agency received proposals from 38 state capitals, and Hartford was one of five chosen, according to the EPA's Abby Hall, because there's already a lot of momentum here, with such efforts as the One City, One Plan initiative, the iQuilt and the Hub of Hartford study. Hartford proposed upgrading the one-mile stretch of Capitol Avenue from Sigourney Street east to Main Street. Leading the visioning charette was Nelson Byrd Woltz, a landscape design firm based in Charlottesville, Va. In a wrap-up session, the ideas were presented to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

This was not an overly ambitious effort. No one was acting like Daniel Burnham, Chicago's late 19th-century visionary architect, who believed that you should make no little plans because they don't have the magic to "stir men's blood," as he put it.

There was little blood stirring on Capitol Avenue. The designers focused their efforts on envisioning how stormwater might be channeled west to a new park between Broad and Flower streets, whose main feature would be a retention pond. Another idea lined the west end of Capitol Avenue with trees from Sigourney to Flower, sprucing up the shopfronts, widening sidewalks, and placing more water-management features.

One interesting notion was to create a wildflower meadow on the Capitol grounds, turning the acres of grass into a place that was more humanly scaled, with pockets of places to sit amid the butterflies, while the east side of the Capitol grounds would be densely planted with native trees.

Bike lanes heading east and west were planned along the avenue. In the long block that stretches from Trinity to Hudson streets, the designers saw an opportunity to increase density by building on some of the surface parking lots (there were no specifics on what exactly might be built there).

The governor paid polite attention to the landscape architects while they presented their vision of a new and improved Capitol Avenue. Although Malloy didn't appear to have his blood stirred, he did mention the need to raise people's expectations for Hartford through such visioning exercises.

As sound as the ideas explored in the planning session are, collectively they're timid. You can argue that timid, low-cost ideas might actually come to pass, providing some incremental benefit to Capitol Avenue. I'm all for the wildflowers at the Capitol, or even a vegetable patch on the Supreme Court lawn, but ideas such as these need to be part of a much larger vision of what could give the Capitol area a good shot in the arm—opportunities for housing, entertainment, nightlife and retail, while also strengthening ties to transportation.

The Hub of Hartford proposal to build a walkable/vehicular connection with new mixed-used development between Union Station and the Capitol Avenue, after relocating part of I-84 and the train tracks to grade, seems to have all the right ideas in place. The economic analysis of this plan indicates that this could be achieved with little if any addition to the cost of rebuilding the elevated highway and train viaduct, which are coming to the close of their useful life.

That's a vision, along with the iQuilt, to get Hartford's blood stirring again.

Essex architect Michael J. Crosbie is chairman of the University of Hartford's Department of Architecture, and is on the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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