A question that I am always asking about any development is who will be benefiting. It’s fine to want to draw wealthy professionals into the city, but not if it means ignoring the needs of current residents. Something heartening about these discussions was that nobody was proposing anything that sounded like an attempt to change an historical park Downtown into a Disneyland. There was a balance between providing for existing park users and potential park users. Even in the discussion about raising up Gully Brook, nobody asked for anything (like duck boats) that would not fit in a small city.
This last session dealt with not so much what happens within the park, but how the park happens in the city. There was discussion about its entryways and boundaries. One idea was to extend the park to Tower Square, which is that foreboding slab of concrete you see when walking out of the park and up Gold Street. It’s always cordoned off now and functions as a dead space. The concept of extending the park space in this way is one that was mentioned in the very early stages of the iQuilt project.
There was discussion of creating a “better city edge” that would support the park. Basically, this entails, as Suisman put it, “putting streets on a road diet” by paring some down. When streets are wide, motorists drive faster. This means that they are not slowing down to look at their environment, and they certainly are not slowing down for pedestrians. Anyone who has ever tried to bike down Capitol Avenue near the I-84 on/off ramp can attest to this. Basically, the infrastructure sends the message that we want people to move through as quickly as possible.
When narrowing travel lanes, there would be potential to add bike lanes or make other use of the space.
The need to make the area along Elm Street more walkable was discussed. In all of this, one hopes that there is attention given to the need for these areas to all be walkable during the winter months as well. Having a nice view is a plus, but if people can not go from point A to point B because some clown left a snowbank in the middle of the sidewalk, that view does not really matter. This past winter demonstrated this issue all too well, as there were no thru-paths in the entire park for several weeks. Just as the city does not shut down at 5pm, it should not be expected to shut down during January.
For those who walk down Asylum, it’s no shock that improving walkability there would be a topic for discussion. Once again, pedestrians are forced to compete with vehicles flying on and off the highway; often, crosswalk lights do not ever signal the right of way for pedestrians, though it’s debatable if this matters since human lives are devalued anyway by many who rely on private transportation.
Dismantling Pulaski Circle was another suggested change. iQuilters had images of the original Pulaski intersection, which was without a doubt, more pedestrian friendly. Only once have I attempted to cross to the park in Pulaski Circle, and I learned from that mistake. Now, I give myself a detour so that I cross Wells Street, but even there, I usually have to hit the pedestrian cross signal and force motorists to stop because of (1) cars are speeding, and (2) there is a curve that presents a blind spot. Even after forcing a red light on drivers (and this is not even in Pulaski Circle itself) I have to wait before crossing because somebody always runs the light.
With the suggestion of changing Pulaski Circle, some were concerned that traffic would back up to get onto the highway. The response from an iQuilter? “The highway will back up. So what?! Highways get backed up all over the world.” There is this mindset that people, once done with their desk job or watching their UConn game downtown, have a god-given right to be immediately transported, with no delay, back onto the highway. When street parking is not allowed at certain times of day, this belief system, and in turn, practice, is enabled. Some iQuilters seem to believe, and I’m right there with them, that when people get off the highway, they should be forced to stop to recognize where they are going. Visitors should be inconvenienced a little so that instead of hopping right into their cars and escaping, they spend a few bucks on a coffee and danish, or slice of pizza, or what have you, as a way of self-regulating what kind of traffic jam will occur that day. I have a colleague who frequently waits out rush hour at a local restaurant; his philosophy is that he could be stuck in traffic on the highway, or spending that same time having a quick bite and chatting with friends.
Additionally, some participants wanted improvements made to the bus stops along Main Street. Many of these shelters are in poor repair, missing plexiglass panels. Besides the practical (shelter from wind and rain), this makes Main Street appear shabby and stuck in the 1980s. There are bus stops in West Hartford’s center which are not only in good shape, but decorated. There’s also one shelter on Pearl Street that is decorated. Hartford has plenty of artists; there’s no reason why we couldn’t make these very visible shelters functional and inviting.
An item that did not seem to get much discussion was that of integrating the East Coast Greenway. While iQuilters later acknowledged that this item was on their radar, nobody present seemed to know that the East Coast Greenway goes directly through Bushnell Park. There are small white markings on the pavement with “ECG” written inside. These point in certain directions. This is the trail indicator. The trail then does between the intimidating National Guard parking lot and the railroad tracks. It exits onto Capitol Avenue. The only maintenance this trail receives between the Legislative Office Building and Bushnell Park proper seems to be that to which community members contribute. As a result, it’s often covered in fun debris, like broken glass and syringes. A good start to integrating this better would be to extend park maintenance to this section of trail, including snow and sand removal. For many, this path is the entryway to Bushnell Park, and it does not create the most positive first impression.
When the iQuilt project began a few years ago, it felt like residents were excluded from the conversation, only to be told later on what would be good for the city. It seems like this has evolved, as residents have been asked to more actively contribute ideas. Beyond the public workshop, there are plans to get people more involved through interactive components on the website.
A lot of good ideas — complete streets, sustainability, family-friendly activities, and encouragement of nightime use — came up during the sessions. Even with what may have been a bit of leading with a presentation of activity ideas, it’s hard to be too cynical. The people who frequently make it out to events like urban planning workshops are opinionated and generally not too afraid to express themselves, whether their ideas are relevant to the discussion at hand or not.
Something that several participants and myself were wondering about is how any of this would be implemented. Phase II is a planning stage, but there’s no immediate information available about what Phase III will entail. There appears to be a strong team behind this and a push for funding sources that are not taxpayers’ dollars, but residents may be skeptical when so many interesting plans (Plaza Mayor, a vibrant Front Street development, etc.) have failed to come to fruition over the years. Dreaming out loud is nice, but some may be wondering if anything is going to come of their brainstorming sessions. Because the iQuilt has a new website with plans for interaction, maybe we will see upcoming phases spelled out more clearly in the near future, so that interested parties do not need to wait until the next public workshop.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.