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State Capitol Needs A Neighborhood

Tom Condon

February 13, 2011

The capitol in Annapolis, Md., adjoins cozy old streets. The Vermont State House in Montpelier is across from a hotel and restaurant. The State House in Boston is amidst the bustle of Beacon Hill. Indeed, most state capitols are in lively urban neighborhoods.

In Hartford, not so much. Our bad.

The Connecticut Capitol, the wonderfully ornate structure designed by Richard Upjohn and opened in 1879, is deservedly a national historic landmark. It is surrounded by other stately buildings; the Legislative and State office buildings, the State Library and Supreme Court, the State Armory, the Bushnell and a couple of churches, among others. If these buildings worked together as a coherent, walkable campus or district, with some retail and more residential thrown in, this would be a destination, a point of pride, a generator of commerce and excitement. But they don't, and it isn't.

"Indeed, there is no tight-knit urbanism hugging the Hartford Capitol, no bustling throng, no tankard of taverns. Instead parking lots and highway-style streets roll back all milieu where spontaneity amongst Connecticut legislators might flourish," wrote Robert Orr, the New Haven architect and planner. He teaches a graduate class in urban planning at the University of Hartford and sometimes uses the Capitol area as a hypothetical redesign project for his students.

It ought to be a real project for the city and state, and perhaps there's a way to get it moving. In September, Hartford was named one of five state capitals to receive design assistance under the "Greening America's Capitals" program, a federal program to help state capitals develop a vision for distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

Hartford's application focuses on the Capitol Avenue corridor and connections to nearby locations, such as the proposed Sigourney Street bus rapid transit station. The city proposes, among other things, to make "green" improvements, enhance public open spaces, improve the pedestrian environment and aesthetic character of Capitol Avenue, and take steps to encourage redevelopment. This would be done in tandem with the iQuilt plan to focus on arts and culture in and around Bushnell Park.

There will be a two-day workshop on the program on Tuesday and Wednesday, headed by the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects of New York and Charlottesville, Va.

Though the workshop will be lead by a landscape architecture firm, let's make sure that the ideas go beyond better stormwater management, more trees and a water feature. Nothing wrong with any of that, to be sure, but there's a chance here to do something bigger.

The problem with this area is that it, like much of Hartford, suffers from being too aggressively retrofitted for automobiles. Highway ramps go along the west side of the building, streets were widened, buildings demolished for parking lots.

If we can figure out a better way to accommodate cars, and use trains and buses, then it becomes possible to reclaim and remake this potentially vital area. For example, it would be possible to build a mixed-use community on the vast six-acre parking lot behind the State Office Building. There was once a factory at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street; what if there were a mixed residential and business incubator there?

I asked architect and planner Patrick Pinnell to toss me an idea, and he suggested making some or all of the area car-free. What a thought. Consider, if this weren't an intimidating automobile environment, the movement of people between buildings, which I believe would trigger market demand for restaurants, taverns and apartments. Pedestrian zones in the right places Church Street in Burlington, Vt., Times Square, etc. are great assets.

Robert Orr thinks the lack of urbanism around the Capitol actually inhibits the work of the General Assembly. The lack of places for informal gathering keeps legislators from chance meetings, keeps them on script and "unwittingly closes the door on debate and uncharted compromise." In other words, if they met on the street, or sat down for a burger and a beer, they might work out some differences.

If redesign would improve the working of the legislature it certainly couldn't hurt let's move the workshop up to Monday.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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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