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Tapping The Power Of Convergence

October 15, 2006
By Tom Condon

James Howard Kunstler, the gonzo urbanist and author of "The Geography of Nowhere," opined some years ago that the Great Depression and World War II were so traumatic that they caused Americans to forget everything they once knew about building cities.

It was one way to explain highways slashing through wonderful old neighborhoods, the sacrifice of buildings for parking lots, the anti-urban bias of "urban renewal."

He may well have been right. For the past decade or more, as cities have tried to undo the damage and revive themselves, they've relearned street grids, sidewalks, mixed-use neighborhoods and other sensible staples of sound cities.

Officials in a few cities - Boston and Washington, for two - have also begun to look at "tridents" or "pinch points," the circles or intersections where older arterial streets meet as they feed into a downtown. These are traditional strong points of a vibrant city. In Hartford over the past half-century, they've become, as the planners say, "underperforming."

A team headed by Toronto planner Ken Greenberg is looking at Hartford's tridents, so-called because of the (frequent) shape of the intersection, to see how they can be strengthened.

Greenberg was the principal author of the 1998 downtown plan that has helped guide a substantial development effort. The new project, a 10-month, $250,000 study called Hartford 2010, funded by the city and an array of business and civic organizations, aims to connect what is a strong beginning of downtown revitalization with the neighborhoods and suburbs.

Tridents have always been places of energy and commerce. Our word "trivia," for example, comes from the Latin tri via, three roads, and evolved from the chitchat at places where three roads met in ancient Rome.

In modern times, such intersections often became "100 percent corners," places where there was a bank, a bakery, a gas station and an array of other businesses to serve the people living there and passing through. These important places supported vibrant downtowns.

But in Hartford, as in many cities in the postwar period, middle-class flight and blight took a toll on what were once lively tridents. The South Green area, where Maple, Wethersfield and Franklin avenues and Park Street converge; Albany Avenue and Main Street; Albany and Blue Hills avenues; and Asylum and Farmington avenues are all, to some degree, underperforming. Pinch points have become choke points, disconnected and sometimes unsafe.

At this stage of the study, Greenberg and his planning team are visiting the "trident" neighborhoods and talking to residents and business owners. The team is assessing strengths and weaknesses and looking for ideas on how to make the areas perform better.

What they're finding is many people on the same page. They want safe, walkable, attractive, commercially viable neighborhoods that are connected to downtown and the inner suburbs. The doing is much more difficult than the saying, but the saying is an important first step.

I went to one of the neighborhood sessions, in Terry Square. This is the area where Main and Windsor streets converge in the North End. I'm sure many people who pass it don't know there's a distinctive neighborhood there.

That may be because there is no square in Terry Square, not central point of focus, just the streets. The area looks like a semi-rundown, underused old industrial area, a pass-through with the windows closed.

But as with all of the North End, it's much more nuanced and interesting than it might appear. There are thoughtful business owners and residents who've been meeting and planning for a decade. There's still some manufacturing. There are some restaurants, notably chef Thomas Armstrong's justly famous Rajun Cajun. It's also a serious nightclub district, with at least seven night spots (the meeting was in Yvon Alexandre's spacious Vibz Uptown). The once-fetid Bellevue Square and Stowe Village housing projects are gone, replaced by homes people can buy and live in. The city is improving the streetscape. A lot of traffic passes on I-91 and Main Street.

The challenge is to get more of it to stop. The people know the perception of the neighborhood is negative, that too many parcels are underused. They talked about connecting with the commercial success in the nearby North Meadows. Perhaps the way to do that is to redesign the area, create a square and punch Boce Barlow Way (nee Jennings Road), which crosses the highway, through to Main Street. How an area is designed is important.

The Greenberg team will distill the recommendations into a plan in the next few months. As I look at some of the tridents in Hartford, I wonder if the state shouldn't join this effort. For example, the Asylum-Farmington area is half-dead because it's cut off from downtown by an elevated highway. If there were a plan to, say, bury it, then the neighborhood could reconnect.

Nonetheless, I very much like the trident approach (at which Greenberg is an innovator). If Hartford can solidify the trident neighborhoods over time, so that middle-class people choose to live there instead of fleeing to the suburbs, then the city will have come a long way back.

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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