Parts of downtown Hartford are very attractive, but other areas suffer from serious structural problems. The Aetna Viaduct, the elevated portion of I-84, divides downtown in half, walls off adjoining neighborhoods and wastes land. Much of downtown feels disconnected because of large gaps in the streetscape, usually for surface parking. Many streets are unfriendly to walkers and bicyclists.
These long-standing problems hold the city back, detract from its quality of life and impede the development of more housing and commerce. If Hartford is going anywhere, it must have a really dynamic downtown.
Three planning efforts are underway that could make major long-term improvements. They are:
•The Hub of Hartford. This remarkable citizen-initiated effort is organized around what to do with the 44-year-old Aetna Viaduct, which is at the end of its useful life. The Hub's steering committee, with support from the city, the Capitol Region Council of Governments and the state Department of Transportation, has hired a consultant to study possible options (while the DOT does safety repairs). This could be anything from another viaduct to a tunnel or a surface boulevard, or some combination of these.
For example, it might be possible to create a tunnel for through traffic and a surface boulevard for local traffic. Among other things, this would allow the expansion of the Union Station Transportation Center, which may be needed to accommodate new commuter rail and bus service.
The first public workshop on the study will be held on Nov. 19, with an open house from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and the workshop from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Lyceum Resource Center, 227 Lawrence St., Hartford. For more information on the study see www.crcog.org/viaduct.html.
•The iQuilt. This is a plan initiated by the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to connect Hartford's cultural institutions with pedestrian and bicycling routes running from the Capitol and Bushnell Park to the river. The area would then be enhanced with physical and programmatic improvements, such as outdoor performances or displays, to entice more walking and biking and general connectivity in and around the park. (The East Coast Greenway could be brought through the park.) A steering committee has been formed, and the plan is gaining considerable support. A presentation by planner Doug Suisman is available on www.bushnell.org, and there's a new website in the works.
•"One City, One Plan," Hartford's Plan of Conservation and Development. This plan, a decennial guide for policy and development last updated in 1996, is a chance to promote good ideas in transportation, culture, business and the environment. It will be the subject of a series of public meetings beginning next week. (See www.hartford.gov/development/planning; a separate website will be available later this week.)
Now the hard part. So many plans across the country never get implemented that someone invented an acronym for them — SPOTS, for "strategic plans on the shelf." To avoid that unhappy fate here, two things need to happen. Residents and taxpayers must get involved. Go to the meetings and workshops and offer your ideas.
Second, the plans need to be woven together with such earlier good plans as the two by Toronto planner Ken Greenberg. This task will likely fall to the city's chief operating officer, David Panagore. He is a planner as well as an administrator who came to the city as director of development services. He gets the picture, has the support of Mayor Eddie Perez and is up to the task. Mr. Panagore has already talked about including the iQuilt in the city's plan.
With its transportation, medical, business, government, religious, cultural and entertainment institutions, downtown Hartford is the center not only of the city but of the region as well. As these planning efforts go forward, they must be integrated into a sound regional plan that strengthens the town centers and transit corridors throughout the area. Greater Hartford could be more than the sum of its parts, instead of less.
With imagination and organization, the problems with the built environment can be fixed, and Greater Hartford can be the bustling center of southern New England, the city it was and always should have been.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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