A dramatic vision for making downtown Hartford more walkable — including extending Bushnell Park to Main Street and creating gardens and restaurants in the space — will be shown in detail Tuesday for the first time.
The project, known as iQuilt, has been in the works for four years and its rough form has been public since 2009. Details such as a redesigned Gold Street and Travelers Plaza, with an ice skating rink outside the iconic office tower, would be part of a "continuous walkway" connecting the Connecticut River with the state Capitol.
"We hope that people will think of this when they think of downtownHartford," Douglas Suisman, a Hartford native and principal of Suisman Urban Design, said Monday.
Launched by The Bushnell in 2007, iQuilt is organizing as a nonprofit that now includes many downtown groups, such as the Greater Hartford Arts Council, MetroHartford Alliance, Metropolitan District Commission, Hartford Business Improvement District and Bushnell Park Foundation, as well as the city of Hartford and the state ofConnecticut.
The project builds on ideas to make downtown more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, notably two reports by Toronto urban planner Kenneth Greenberg. In addition to making Hartford more walkable, iQuilt seeks to emphasize the ease of walking to the city's restaurants and cultural attractions, rather than depending on vehicles to go from place to place.
Although Hartford has been successful in building big-ticket projects such as the science center, the convention center and the Hartford 21 apartment tower, planners say, it has not given residents and visitors a reason to enjoy the spaces on their way to and from restaurants and cultural attractions.
"This is the glue that is missing," said Suisman, whose Santa Monica, Calif., firm is leading the design. "It has to feel great to walk around."
The city has long backed the effort, but for the vision to become reality, support from a wide cross section of the community will be required. Tuesday's meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library is for the public and will focus on the walkway, dubbed the "greenwalk," and restoration plans for Bushnell Park, including bringing back a river that once wound its way through the park.
It is unclear how much the improvements would cost, but Suisman said he believes that the total would be far less than any one recent development project in the city, such as the $160 million Hartford 21 tower. Most of the costs, he said, would likely be paid for with state and federal transportation and greenway grants.
"Perhaps this would be done over many years and phases," Suisman said. "You don't have to do them all at once, but you have to have the long-term vision."
The project has already received major grants for design and planning from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the National Endowment for the Arts, totaling nearly $1 million.
"We need to be working on the places that are in between," said David B. Panagore, the city's chief operating officer. "Right now, those connections are weak. We have to create a sense of place."
Highlights of the greenwalk plan include:
"Bushnell Gate" would extend Bushnell Park east to Main Street along a swath of land now dominated by Gold Street. That street would be relocated and, in its place, public gardens would be planted. In addition, greenhouses — not just for growing plants, but to house restaurants and perhaps a banquet hall — would be built.
Suisman said it was hoped that a restaurant in the area would become a jazz club, a nod to a hotel that once stood at the edge of the park. The hotel was a jazz mecca for the city until it was demolished in the 1960s.
While the city owns the land that would be involved in the extension, any development would have to be sensitive to the nearby Ancient Burying Ground, Suisman said.
"Tower Square" would open up the current Travelers Plaza on Main Street and connect it with Bushnell Gate. The area would serve as a public square, a hub for iQuilt, perhaps with an ice skating rink in the winter. The street, running between the plaza and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, could be narrowed to further emphasize the square.
Suisman said that Travelers already plans improvements to the plaza as part of larger renovation of its tower and has indicated a willingness to work with the iQuilt project.
One particular challenge will be linking Tower Square to the river, but that can be accomplished with signs and plantings, Suisman said.
The greenwalk also includes the vast lot across from Bushnell Memorial that is used for parking for state workers during the day and theatergoers at night and on the weekends. One alternate use might be for large festivals and events normally held in the park, but that take a toll on the grass and plant life.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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