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Building A Campus Around Capitol

Tom Condon

April 26, 2009

As a final assignment for his graduate architecture class in urban issues at the University of Hartford, architect and planner Robert Orr has charged his students with replanning the area around the State Capitol and Bushnell Park.

His premise? "There's no urbanism around the Capitol," no places for informal gathering where lawmakers can be off-camera, let their hair down and reach the agreements that push democracy ahead. If there were "authentic urbanism hugging the Capitol," Orr wrote in his assignment, there would be such opportunities.

He's right, and then some. The area includes the golden-domed Capitol, several state office buildings, the State Armory, the State Library/Supreme Court building and two courthouses, as well as churches and the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

I think it's fair to infer that, in some way or fashion, this collection of grand buildings was intended to work as a campus. If it did, it would attract more people, more street life, more adjoining development.

But it's never been treated as a campus. There is no vision for the area. As a result, there are parking lots where buildings ought to be, offices where housing ought to be and, as Orr says, none of the mixed-use vitality or urbanism that would advantage the presence of so many major institutions.

If ever there was a time to challenge the status quo, to create a Capitol campus plan, it is now. Consider:

In a few years, the Lord and the DOT willing, commuters will be coming into the city via the new busway and commuter rail service. Many will be state employees. There needs to be a plan for getting these folks to their jobs, and offices close to the train station now make sense. The Capitol could be the state's biggest transit-oriented development project. Also, if the budget forces agency consolidation, this could be part of the same plan.

The Bushnell and the Greater Hartford Arts Council have quietly begun a planning process to create "downtown cultural pathways." The idea is to connect the city's cultural attractions with programs and physical amenities such as streetscape improvements, signs and kiosks. The June opening of the Connecticut Science Center makes this all the more sensible.

Part of the project is a "Capitol District Vision Plan," a re-imagining of the corridor running from the Capitol east to the SoDo neighborhood and Riverfront Plaza.

There is federal stimulus money available, though the amount is unclear, for planning "green" areas around state capitols. Officials from the city, the state and the Bushnell are talking about working together on this, as they should. If Uncle Stim will pick up the tab, why not get the planning done?

A 2007 assessment of downtown Hartford by experts by the Urban Land Institute called for fewer big-bang projects and more small "in-fill" projects to link existing assets. Also, the city is proposing to spend $1.7 million in local and stimulus funds to create arts and heritage jobs, some of which are likely to go to the Capitol area.

Wouldn't it make sense to coordinate all of this into a campus plan for the Capitol area?

A visionary, comprehensive plan for the area could, over the next 10 or 20 years, create the exciting mixed-use, mixed-income urbanism that Orr is talking about. It might be possible, as housing expert Arthur Anderson suggested a decade ago, to move the state workers out of the stately buildings on Elm Street across from the park to a new building and turn the Elm Street buildings into very desirable housing. It might be possible to develop the six-acre parking lot behind the State Office Building on Capitol Avenue.

Orr challenged his students to envision a "bustling ... urbanism, a kind of Dickens cityscape in the context of the Capitol and Bushnell Park." Make some copies.

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.
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