December 17, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Hartford's mayor plans to build a magnet school on a lonely strip of land at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Broad Street, but critics say that the site, hemmed in by office buildings, I-84 ramps and nightmarish traffic snarls, is no place for a school.
The city-owned, 2½-acre empty lot is what's left of the historic site of Hartford Public High School. The second-oldest public high school in the nation was demolished to make way for the highway and a plaque remains there as a memorial.
But today, locals refer to the spot as "no man's land" because it feels desolate and forbidding to pedestrians until they get to the train station.
"There's no campus there. It is the worst place to put a school. Period," said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford. "It won't attract suburban students. ... I can't imagine what the proponents are thinking other than it's free land."
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school building committee and the school board, said the selection committee chose the site in part because officials for the Pathways to Technology magnet school requested a spot close to downtown businesses so students can walk to internships and because he didn't want to remove existing buildings from the tax rolls.
The state gave the land to the city for use as a park or to build a police or fire station so it is not assessed for taxes, but the legislature would need to change the deed to allow a school.
Regarding the complaint that the site is barren, Perez said the remedy is to build on it. "The only way to correct a lonely corner is to put people on it."
Sally Taylor, president of the board of the Farmington Avenue Alliance, said the design for the building is not aesthetically pleasing from the street because it's nearly flush with the sidewalk and its high walls facing the street don't have many windows. The building is oriented toward the Capitol and the downtown so the side of the building facing those areas has plenty of windows.
Perez said it's not too late to tinker with the design and add more windows and doors to make the building friendly to the street. As an example of the building committee's responsiveness, Perez noted towers planned at Rawson Elementary School were eliminated after residents complained they would make the building seem like a prison.
"We're trying to make the site work for the [Pathways] school," Perez said.
But critics are skeptical. They worry that the small site simply can't fit a building for 400 students and parking while being attractive and enhancing the streetscape. As it is, they point out, the site can't accommodate ballfields or lawns for lounging.
They also bemoan the addition of traffic to an already congested corner and the effect that school buses stopping to pick up and drop off students would have on the daily traffic jam around the highway. In addition to being hazardous for students on foot, the critics say that worsening traffic could drive businesses to move to less congested suburban sites.
The building committee will order a traffic study to see if there are ways to improve traffic flow and make the site more pedestrian friendly, Perez said.
If the building project does lead to improvements of the streetscape and traffic flow, then that could help, Taylor said. "I hate to see the school rocketing forward without these other things being addressed."
Perez said he is mindful of concerns and will do his best to address them, but the committee must make a decision on a site by January, he said, or construction will be delayed a year.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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