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Testifying To Coltsville's Promise

Tom Condon

June 13, 2010

On Thursday, I testified before House subcommittee in favor of Congressman John Larson's bill that would make Hartford's Coltsville a National Park. Here are some exerpts from my written testimony:

When I came to Hartford in in the 1970s, Coltsville was still a manufacturing center, producing the M-16 rifle, among other things. Since then, manufacturing at the site slowed and then stopped. Colt's Manufacturing moved to a newer facility in West Hartford. By the 1980s the complex, the lofts of the South and East Armories in particular, had become an artists' colony, a two-building SoHo district. For the past decade, the property has moved haltingly toward a major revival.

The National Park designation would not by itself be the big bang, the silver bullet, that saves Hartford. But the park would stir the drink, be a major asset in itself and the catalyst that makes other things easier to accomplish.

The park designation would expedite the completion of the Coltsville restoration by Mr. (Lance) Robbins, meaning that Connecticut's most iconic 19th-century factory complex would be saved and reused, become a place to live, eat, work, watch vintage baseball at Colt Park or just hang out. Reusing its great mill and factory structures is one of the ways New England cities can achieve smart-growth density and vibrancy, and it is something that federal policy should encourage. The Colt complex would be a showpiece, home to hundreds of jobs and residents. Iit has more than 100 jobs and nearly 50 residents now people want to be there.

For heritage tourists, it pairs flawlessly with the Springfield Armory, the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses and other Victorian treasures.

It will make downtown Hartford bigger. Unfortunate highway placement in the 1960s shrunk the size of downtown Hartford to about six by eight blocks, too small to be the center of a metropolitan region of 1.1 million people. Recognizing this, the Adriaen's Landing development in the past decade expanded downtown a couple of blocks east to the Connecticut River. Coltsville would move downtown further to the south. It is the only plausible mixed-use, mixed-income area of new development within walking distance of downtown. With Coltsville as a southern anchor, Hartford could embark on a program of infill, which is usually easier to achieve than fringe downtown development. This, in time, will give Greater Hartford the downtown it needs.

Another strong argument for the Coltsville project is its transit orientation. Connecticut, like the rest of the country, is belatedly rediscovering that trains can move people more efficiently than cars without using as much land or fossil fuel, and that people who would never live next to a highway are happy to live near a rail stop. Connecticut and Massachusetts are now bringing commuter and high-speed rail to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line. Coltsville is adjacent to a parallel north-south rail line with a lot of potential stops from downtown Hartford to Wesleyan University in Middletown and on to the shore of Long Island Sound.

Beyond the tracks, under a highway and through a dike when the planned gate through the dike is completed in a couple of years Coltsville residents will have access to the Connecticut River. For nearly three decades, a terrific nonprofit called Riverfront Recapture has worked to reconnect Hartford with its river, after they were separated by, again, unfortunate highway placement. The Coltsville National Park would connect to Riverfront's three-mile system of parks on both sides of the river, creating marvelous recreational opportunities from hiking, biking, boating and fishing to UConn football on the East Hartford side of the river.

It wasn't the guns per se that were the key to the Colt contribution as much as it was the precision machining. If all went well, the Coltsville National Park would give emphasis to machining skills, hopefully incubating such businesses in that part of the city. With 700,000 square feet in the Colt complex, much is possible.

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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