Hartford's iQuilt Plan Isn't A Home Run, And Maybe That's Just What City Needs
By Rick Green
June 07, 2012
Sometimes, the iQuilt project reminds me of those blocks of empty taxpayer-financed storefronts down where the much hyped Adriaen's Landing was supposed to transform Hartford.
iQuilt, a streets-and-parks improvement project backed by arts groups and local government that has huge potential, could cost as much as $100 million. Luckily, though, this save-Hartford strategy might be different from past efforts.
The pay-as-you-go tactic of iQuilt – essentially an urban plan for Hartford – might offer a more practical approach for a capitol city that has spent the last few decades paying big and still whiffing when it comes to renewal.
At a community meeting this week it was encouraging to hear both the enthusiasm of iQuilt lead designer Doug Suisman and the skepticism of state Sen. Joe Markley, the lonely watchdog legislator from Southington who doesn't much like big government spending projects.
Suisman is the planner who sees a hidden Portland, Oregon lurking behind Hartford's gray insurance façade. Markley, famous for his opposition to the Busway, wonders why folks are talking about creating a more walkable city in a place where few folks walk or bike.
With these two extremes, it's possible Hartford will find the right balance and make some much-needed changes. We ought to stop thinking about homeruns like Hartford becoming Portland. But ignoring the downtown's potential – there are hundreds of new downtown residents who have fresh ideas about living in the city -- and leaving it as a car-commuter wasteland would be a big mistake.
In a lilliputian but practical first step, the iQuilt plan is bringing new signs for walkers in the downtown – "wayfinding" is the buzzword – to help visitors and residents find the city's many attractions.
Meanwhile, in a related move over at the Boat Building, The Phoenix is adding trees and grass around its base, replacing some of the concrete that dominates downtown Hartford. And this fall, iQuilt will sponsor a big downtown party from Sept. 27 to 29 called "iNVISIONFEST" to promote ideas and spark more discussion about the project.
"It's small to start. We hope it will grow over time. But the iQuilt is made up of patches,'' said Suisman, who is savvy enough to know that he must build support as much as find the right mix of trees, streets and bike lanes for Main Street. "It's doable and it's real and it's happening.''
Suisman and city officials say there are a couple of other more transformative iQuilt ideas on the drawing boards. One would re-create the streets on the North side of Bushnell Park, adding trees, bike lanes and the opportunity for sidewalk cafes. Another would extend Bushnell Park up to Main Street along Gold Street, creating a dramatic entrance. Plans to redesign Main Street, making it more narrow, adding trees and improving sidewalks, are also underway.
"It really should feel like Bushnell Park comes right to the front door of Main Street,'' Suisman said. "Right now, the park is cut off from the city."
Money for these initial iQuilt projects could come from a variety of state and federal grants. iQuilt backers haven't missed the fact that a couple of critical potential supporters, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his wife Cathy, who leads the Greater Hartford Arts Council, now live in the city.
"Is it going to bring people into Hartford? That's the question,'' Markley told me after the iQuilt update at the library this week. "Nobody walks from the capitol to the river. Nobody is ever going to walk from the capitol to the river."
Actually I've walked from the capitol to the river, but that probably proves Markley's point. I see him as both right and wrong here, which means he's a useful addition to a dialog that is too-often dominated by Hartford boosters. He's right that not enough new people are thinking about coming to Hartford and walking (and living) in the city.
But there may be a good reason to create a "Greenwalk" from the Capitol and Bushnell to the river, especially if it strings together Hartford's many, but isolated, popular attractions. Re-creating a lost river in Bushnell Park, as the iQuilt contemplates, could be a step too far, and too costly, however.
Hartford doesn't need another swing-for-the-fences, Rising Star solution to its sad city image. But an approach that makes careful, measured progress toward a bigger goal isn't the Busway, Adriaen's Landing or the New England Patriots. If we don't start taking steps toward what Hartford could be, all we have are those empty storefronts.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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