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Hartford's Triangle Is Fertile Ground For Great Redevelopment

Constitution Plaza Holds Lessons For Site Where 'Butt Ugly' Building Is Coming Down


September 19, 2010

Construction of the new public safety complex on High Street and the impending demolition of the "Butt Ugly Building" create the opportunity for a major redevelopment project in downtown Hartford.

The creative rebuilding of the area just north of I-84 would not only reconnect North Hartford with downtown, but also help establish a new identity for Hartford. What makes the opportunity truly remarkable, however, is that much of the land in and along the triangle bounded by I-84, Main Street and High Street is vacant and already owned by the city. This means redevelopment can occur without trampling property rights in the name of eminent domain, or the wholesale demolition of (often historic) buildings, or the destruction of a viable neighborhood and the displacement of its residents and businesses.

To capitalize on this opportunity will require vision, commitment, resources, cooperation and a true understanding and appreciation of the city's redevelopment history. Sadly, all of these are in short supply, but that need not be the case.

It is difficult if not impossible today to discuss Constitution Plaza except in relation to the demolition of Front Street, the colorful if decaying ethnic neighborhood on the city's east side.. Yet the plaza was a remarkably ambitious undertaking from which we can draw valuable lessons.

Admittedly, probably the most obvious are what not to do. We must avoid the mistake of Constitution Plaza and not simply clear-cut the site, demolishing virtually all existing structures. Although there are few buildings in and along the triangle, every effort must be made to save and refurbish them. Ideally, those buildings, along with the Keney Clock Tower and the Capital Preparatory Magnet School, could serve as an architectural reference point for new development.

Second, we must avoid the mistake of Constitution Plaza and make every reasonable effort to avoid the permanent displacement of residents and businesses. There were 108 businesses employing more than 1,000 workers, plus nearly 200 families, in the path of the plaza, and most eventually left the city. Fortunately, there are very few residents and businesses in and around the triangle, but there must be a place for them when the project is complete.

Finally, we must have the resolution to see the job through to completion. To the extent Constitution Plaza failed, it is because its design was compromised. Had it been constructed as originally designed with an arena where the Hartford Steam Boiler Building stands, a land bridge linking Main Street (and G. Fox and Sage Allen) to the plaza, and more than 1,000 high-end apartments atop the office towers and in the area between the plaza and the Hartford Graduate Center it might really have been a city of the future.

Less obvious is what Constitution Plaza can teach us about what to do. Certainly, we cannot simply try to duplicate that project.

We can, however, think big. Even today, Constitution Plaza would be an ambitious project, especially as originally designed. We must draw inspiration from the ambition of our predecessors, even while being more careful.

We must also take a holistic approach. As designed, the plaza was an integrated, multi-use facility with considerable artistic and architectural flair. It also had a radically new heating and cooling system.

Whatever is done in the triangle, it must be comprehensive in its functionality, incorporate the latest architectural ideas and construction technology, and be truly beautiful, not merely functional, in its presentation. It must also provide a natural transition between the structures and activities of the central business distrrict and those in North Hartford, tying them together physically, economically and spiritually.

We must also pull together. Constitution Plaza could not have been built without a working partnership between government and the business community, as well as the support of 80 percent of Hartford voters whose approval was required for the city to issue bonds necessary to construct aspects of the project. Redevelopment of the triangle will require similar cooperation and public support.

We must have the courage to take risks. Constitution Plaza was a truly revolutionary project. Such undertakings, however, bear not only the promise of crowning success but also the possibility of catastrophic failure (as evidenced by the fact that the initial developer of Constitution Plaza was unable to complete the project).

We must thus act upon great ideas acknowledging that such effort implies the possibility of failure, as well as success. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without risk, however calculated. We must accept such risks and yet work tirelessly to succeed in spite of them, and we must work with confidence knowing that a new and better Hartford is within our grasp.

Richard F. Wareing is a lawyer who has lived and practiced law in Hartford since 1994. He served on the Hartford Redevelopment Agency from 1999 until 2003.

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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