In the mid-1990s, with construction in downtown Hartford slowed almost to a halt, Mayor Michael P. Peters urged state officials and private developers to get hopping. "Show me a crane, baby," said the irrepressible Peters.
He soon got his wish. Gov. John G. Rowland and the legislature committed three-quarters of a billion dollars to the "Six Pillars of Progress" and other construction projects in the city, most of them downtown. Soon there was construction equipment aplenty.
A decade ago, in September 1998, we began the periodic "Cranes and Scaffolds" feature in the Sunday Commentary section to keep track of the various projects. And, as a look at that first list shows, the face of the city has changed.
Some projects, such as Bushnell II, the Learning Corridor, the G. Fox building and Veeder Place, have long since been finished.
Downtown housing has been built at two sites on the list — the former Civic Center, now Hartford 21, and the Cutter Site between Trumbull and Lewis streets, now Trumbull on the Park — as well as at several sites that later made the list.
One of the original projects, renovation of the Hartford Public Library, was just completed.
Another, 410 Asylum St., just got under way.
The Colt Building is not finished. The Connecticut Science Center, then envisioned for East Hartford, is well on its way. Adriaen's Landing is still missing a key component, the Front Street development. The Capewell Building, stalled in 1998, is still in the starting gate today.
The Six Pillars project also resulted in downtown parking and neighborhood housing. There was talk of using satellite parking lots connected to downtown by monorail. It's a neat idea, but still on the drawing board.
Still, no one ever thought all the projects would be completed post-haste, the vagaries of development being what they are. Some projects, such as the rebuilding of the former Sage-Allen Building, were physically daunting because of the poor condition of the structures. Projects such as the Capewell have proved fiscally elusive.
Yet many of the projects are done, to the benefit of downtown. With 662 new downtown apartments and condos finished (and another 172 units under construction and 286 on the drawing board), there are many more people on the street. Some new restaurants flourish.
The restoration of the grand G. Fox, Brown-Thomson and Sage-Allen buildings, with the former American Airlines building (1 American Plaza) across the street, saves Hartford's great Main Street department store row and gives impetus to spread development north across the highway.
Bringing students downtown to study and to live — Capital Community College students in the former G. Fox building and UConn graduate business students on Constitution Plaza, as well as University of Hartford students in Sage-Allen apartments — has made it a livelier place, which in turn helps retain existing employers.
The key now is not to stop. Hartford has had an unfortunate tendency to complete a major project such as Constitution Plaza or Civic Center, assume the work is done and rest on its laurels.
History shows us that this is invariably a mistake. City-building is much more a process than a big project or two. It's something that needs to go on incrementally, over time. It is good that there were six pillars and not one, but bad that there were only six.
Perhaps the best example from the 1998 list of what should be happening is Riverfront Recapture. Riverfront predated the list; it has been around since 1981, methodically planning and executing one project after another to reconnect the city with the Connecticut River.
This is the kind of long-term process the city should embrace. The city has a plan, Hartford 2010, that envisions stronger connections between downtown and neighborhoods, as well as adjoining suburbs. That, coupled with a plan to fill in the empty spaces downtown, should be the basis for future development.
It's true that the legislature isn't likely to come up with another major outlay for Hartford development, at least in the immediate future. Fine. Do smaller projects.
For example, create an arts-themed mixed-use corridor where there is now a moonscape of parking lots along Capitol Avenue behind the State Office Building.
The state should redefine the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which built the Connecticut Convention Center and other Six Pillars projects, so that the state can remain involved and investing in Hartford development.
Right now CCDEA is a caretaker, limited to acting as owner, for the state, of the convention center, a small utility plant and some 3,000 parking spaces. That role hardly justifies its existence.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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