new sports and entertainment arena replacing the Civic Center would be difficult to finance and not be in Hartford's best interest, a 10-member visiting panel of experts in urban development said Friday.
The visitors, participants in a panel organized by the city, the MetroHartford Alliance, and the Urban Land Institute, spent a week studying the potential of three neighborhoods immediately north and west of downtown.
Among the panel's recommendations:
A new east-west park from the city's Clay-Arsenal neighborhood to the Connecticut River.
A "study commission" made up of stakeholders across the city to serve as its "master developer."
Reinvesting in the Hartford Civic Center instead of replacing it.
The panel's recommendation for the Civic Center conflicts with the long-term goal of its current manager and downtown's biggest landowner, Northland Investment Corp., whose principal owner, Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, wants to raze the existing facility and erect a new one.
The panel gave a two-hour presentation of its findings to an audience of about 50 people Friday morning in the Aetna Theater at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Its sweeping recommendations are advisory only.
Ray Brown, the panel's chair and an architect and urban designer from Memphis, Tenn., said the goal of his group was "to challenge [the city] to ask, `Why not?' But we'll also provide you with some means to answer the question, `How?'"
Brown said "there is no single, silver-bullet project," adding that big projects should be used to help fill in what lies between them - much like department stores at different ends of a shopping mall.
The panel was part of the Urban Land Institute's advisory services program and included architects, planners, developers and politicians from across the country.
On the idea of a new sports arena, panelist Jennifer Ball from Atlanta told the audience that "uncertainty about the market impact of these proposals" has left large swaths of that city's downtown undeveloped.
"The time has come to set aside the notion of a big idea," she said. Instead, she said, there should be "a commitment made to right-size, modernize the existing Civic Center."
Ball and others explained that finding public money for a new arena would be difficult, and that a renovated, perhaps downsized facility could better suit the city's needs. The city should focus on smaller, grass-roots development projects, the panel said.
The future of the Hartford Civic Center has been a hot-button issue since 2005 when the arena's steward, the Connecticut Development Authority, decided to study its options. In the process, the authority's consultant told it that the center was outdated, too small and not right for major league professional sports.
The authority has picked a new arena operator - a partnership between Gottesdiener and AEG of Los Angeles, a sports and entertainment presenter. Chuck Coursey, Gottesdiener's spokesman, said Friday that Gottesdiener still believes in the new arena. "We still believe that a new downtown arena could enhance Hartford's revitalization," Coursey said.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eddie A. Perez has a report from a consultant studying the viability of a new arena in Hartford. Sarah Barr, the mayor's spokeswoman, refused to release it, saying it is still in draft form.
Panel members struck familiar themes Friday, from extending the city's vitality to 24 hours to involving the entire community in discussions about the city's future.
One fresh idea that got the audience's attention was an east-west "green corridor" from the intersection of Albany Avenue and Main Street east to the Connecticut River, a linear park lined with residential and mixed-use buildings.
But Brown, in his closing remarks, put a point on what he sees as the most essential step for the city: focus.
"You've built new anchor developments, you've changed the face of the city, and you've really made some great strides," Brown said. "But you've got to decide, what kind of city you want to be."
"It's not enough to say, `We've got to be a great place to live, work and play.' What does that mean? It's unfocused. That's what it means," Brown said. "By trying to be everything to everybody, you lose yourself and you lose your identity."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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