May 13, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
A major project with the potential to bring dramatic traffic and streetscape changes could be coming to one of the busiest intersections in Hartford.
As part of a sweeping effort to increase the number of magnet schools in the city, officials in Hartford are planning a business and technology magnet school for a vacant lot on the southeast corner of Broad Street and Farmington Avenue.
The lot where Pathways to Technology would be built - with views of the state Capitol, the downtown skyline and I-84 - was the original site of Hartford Public High School, which was knocked down to make way for the interstate.
But the prospect of returning hundreds of school children and dozens of buses to an already-busy interchange has sparked concern, particularly among members of the Farmington Avenue Alliance, a coalition of West End and Asylum Hill business and civic groups.
To address those concerns, Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez brought in noted urban planner Ken Greenberg, whose preliminary plans call for dramatic changes: closing a stretch of either Asylum or Farmington avenues as part of a broader scheme to improve the flow of both cars and pedestrians through the area.
"It will have a ripple effect on Farmington Avenue," Perez said. "It's part of our economic development strategy."
Greenberg said the school can be a catalyst for fixing woeful traffic and aesthetic problems that already exist in the area.
His idea - still preliminary - is to close either Asylum Avenue or Farmington Avenue from the point where they intersect to the spot where Sumner Street intersects with Asylum. Although Sumner ends at Asylum, he said the city should consider exercising its right to extend the street to Farmington Avenue.
The closed portion of either of the thoroughfares would then be converted into green space. The addition of broad sidewalks along the southern side of Asylum Avenue and attractive lighting would connect the green space to Bushnell Park.
The goal of closing a stretch of either Asylum or Farmington would be to make the intersection safer and more accommodating to pedestrians. With just one road running to downtown, less time would be needed to accommodate turning cars and more time could be devoted to green lights for pedestrians and cars traveling on the main road.
On Broad Street, the addition of barriers with trees and plants in the middle of the road would calm traffic and prevent drivers from making left turns out of - or into - the school's driveway.
City officials are waiting for a written report from Greenberg, then they will estimate a cost and try to identify available federal and state grants.
Sally Taylor, president of the Farmington Avenue Alliance, said her group's support is contingent on the feasibility of road improvements and on the approval of area businesses, including Aetna, The Hartford and The Courant, all of which could be affected by the proposed changes.
Representatives of those three companies said they need more details to formulate an official position, though Courant Publisher Jack Davis showed enthusiasm for the proposal.
"We welcome good ideas to fix traffic patterns in our neighborhood and to make these streets less hostile to pedestrians," Davis said. "I personally think Hartford and state road designers have focused too much on getting people in and out of downtown too fast, at the expense of the city's quality of life. This might be an opportunity to reverse that.
"It can be done smartly, without reducing access to Asylum Hill businesses," Davis said. "But we'll withhold judgment until we see actual plans."
The Courant and Aetna may be looking at other traffic changes, too, if the long-discussed regional busway ever becomes a reality. The state Department of Transportation recently revived plans to change Flower Street between Capitol and Farmington avenues from a through street to two dead-ends. The plan is part of an effort to create an unimpeded path for the 9.4-mile busway that would run alongside the railroad tracks.
The debate over traffic has spilled into the state legislature as well.
Because the state gave the land to the city to use as a park, legislative approval is needed for the city to proceed with building a school on the site. But the project recently hit a snag when state Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, plucked the city's request to build on the land from a bill just before the legislative session ended.
As it turns out, Kirkley-Bey said she was unaware of the ideas to improve traffic around the proposed school site when she removed the project from a conveyance bill. Now she said she'd like to know more.
"My concern was for the safety of the kids," Kirkley-Bey said. Now, she's concerned about the cost of the improvements and the amount of time that drivers would be disrupted, but she's not necessarily opposed to the idea.
Undaunted by the legislature's failure to take action on the city's request to build a school on the empty lot, Perez said he's prepared to buy the property from the state to clear away the need for legislative approval "and the state will reimburse us" as part of the $24 million cost of the magnet school.
"We're talking about how the school could be an economic generator for the whole area and for a parcel they call `no man's land,' " Perez said. "We have traffic engineers. We have a renowned planner we all trust and we have people from the neighborhood."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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