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Getting Main Street On Track


December 27, 2009

The peasants are gathering, torches and pitchforks in hand, demanding, "Take back our streets; give us more green; build transit; preserve our heritage; reconnect us to one another!"

OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. But remarkably, the five well-attended public sessions that Hartford's Department of Development Services has been running to gather input for the city's plan of conservation and development have repeatedly evoked several clear, related responses: "We want a more walkable, bikeable, green and transit-friendly city, better design and maintenance of the public realm, and a reduction in the dominance of the automobile." And the undercurrent, "Be bold."

As the urbanist Jane Jacobs observed, streets are a unifying force that bring life to the city. Unless, of course, they have become little more than sewer pipes for automobiles. Which is exactly what has happened in Hartford starting 50 years ago with the construction of two interstate highways through our small downtown, and continuing with the widening of streets at every opportunity, the elimination of on-street parking and the ongoing demolition of buildings for surface parking lots and garages usually in the name of economic development.

It didn't work. By paving over downtown, we threw away our competitive advantage: that we are a compact, historic, diverse, interesting, accessible city. Our failed approach to "economic development," built around the automobile and its storage needs, is bankrupt.

Where urban life has been killed by a thousand cuts, a thousand band-aids are needed, but even more, a Big Idea a bold, permanent project that not only strikes at the heart of the problem, but also resonates symbolically. It must be highly visible, and it must arouse the commitment and affection of the people, so that it will inspire the political leadership necessary to make it happen. But it also needs to happen fast; it can't be one of those decades-long, federally funded, environmentally reviewed ad infinitum infrastructure projects that we know only too well. And it can't cost an arm and a leg.

Here's a suggestion: Take back Main Street. Redesign it and reclaim it as a walkable, bikeable, green and transit-friendly promenade, with this key piece: Bring back a trolley, also called a streetcar or tram, on real tracks, running every 10 minutes back and forth through the heart of downtown, from the South Green to Keeney Clock Tower.

The distance is only 1.2 miles. The trolley would reconnect the north and south neighborhoods to their downtown and to one another. But it would do much more than that. It would reclaim the city's historic structural spine, the nearly 400-year old "Road from Windsor to Wethersfield" as it was labeled on the map of 1740, and connect institutions and enterprises large and small.

A Main Street trolley need not break the bank and it need not take forever. The city owns the street. Financially, a trolley line can be a do-it-yourself project for a city; they aren't that expensive.

From Paris to Portland, trolleys have proved to be powerful catalysts in a way that buses are not. Investors will invest in the permanence of tracks, even before the trolley is up and running. The modern trolley is green, quiet, comfortable, safe, clean and, with its low floor design, easily accessible. And they inspire affection. In some cities, such as New Orleans, they have survived even without the modern amenities.

Trolleys are made for urban life; they weave comfortably among walkers and bikers, enhancing street life by adding vitality and urbanity, particularly when combined with a supportive street redesign. There's no doubt that in the long run, reinstituting an entire system of trolley lines make sense for Hartford, reaching the suburbs in all directions.

For starters, however, the 1.2-mile Main Street Trolley could connect to the regular bus system at each of its ends, possibly even obviating the need for a downtown transit center by substituting two more modest hubs instead.

Many cities, including New Haven and Stamford, are reclaiming this eminently sensible and delightful heritage. Perhaps its time has come in Hartford; clearly the people are ready for something bold. A

nd federal money has become available just this month the first program of the Obama administration's "Livability" initiative to grant up to $25 million per project for "urban circulator projects such as streetcars." Priority will be given to projects that "connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments." Bingo.

But the federal money is not essential. We need to start reclaiming Main Street because it is the best investment strategy for the city, and because it is the right thing to do.

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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