Jack Dollard, the architect, planner and artist, stopped by one day in
1990 and dropped off a sketch he'd made of Farmington Avenue in Hartford.
It showed the churches, cultural institutions and businesses.
The picture was his vision of the avenue
as a "linear neighborhood," a
successful community where people lived, shopped, dined and were
entertained, and could walk or take the bus to much of what they needed.
The avenue needed a vision then because
it was heading downhill, figuratively. Over the next few years, the Farm
Shop closed, Cheese & Stuff moved
out and things weren't looking good. But in 1996, a proposal to
tear down a neighborhood landmark, the former Colonial Theater, and replace
it with an auto parts store got the West End neighborhood galvanized.
West End activists saved the Colonial building, at least its facade, and
a few other buildings to boot. They even saved - and now operate - a duckpin
bowling alley. They also commissioned a plan that will make the avenue an
attractive urban boulevard. If the city gets behind it, as may be happening,
this could be a very good thing for Hartford and the region.
The major avenues are spokes of the wheel, the structural supports of the
city. They carry workers, goods and customers, and are also, as Dollard
saw, neighborhoods unto themselves. Farmington Avenue is a remarkable corridor,
a river of life. It occurs to me that I haven't lived more than two blocks
from the avenue, in Hartford and West Hartford, for the past 27 years.
Farmington was a grand thoroughfare. The Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher
Stowe homes, along with great churches, Aetna's headquarters and elegant
apartment and commercial buildings, all set well back from the street, suggest
its grandeur in the trolley age.
But in the decades after World War II, the city began to ignore the avenues.
Weak zoning combined with other urban ills to degrade the once-proud thoroughfares.
Farmington Avenue has a mixed record over the past 30 years. The demolition
of OlIies Steak House to make way for a gas station should have been a distress
signal - at least it was to me. Some genuinely crummy buildings were allowed
Yet, because the street didn't look as bad as some others, it didn't get
It sometimes takes a hit-bottom event, a catalyst, to get people moving,
and that was the proposed Colonial demolition. Residents formed two committees,
one to save the building and the other to redesign the street.
After several thrusts and starts, and with help from a well-placed resident,
House Speaker Tom Ritter, the theater was converted into the stunning Braza
The other group joined with Asylum Hill
activists to form what is now the nonprofit Farmington Avenue Alliance.
By 2000, they'd raised nearly $200,000 and engaged a consultant, the highly
regarded Project for Public Spaces. PPS released a plan in 2002 that would
turn the street into a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard with
a planted median in some parts, bike lanes, mini-plazas, roundabouts and
other amenities. The group want sto consolidate bus stops and make each
one a "place."
Meanwhile, the city garnered $17 million in bond funds for streetscape
improvements on five major arterials, including Farmington Avenue. What
the city had in mind was a traditional streetscape program, with repaving,
new lights and the like. The Farmington Avenue Alliance is thinking much
bigger; it wants a major redesign of the whole avenue.
So now it's negotiating over how much and where. City transportation official
Kevin Burnham said the city wants to do as much of the plan as the money
will allow, and that he thinks the alliance and the city will soon reach
I hope so, because there's momentum that shouldn't be wasted. The best
vote of confidence is private investment, and that's been happening over
the past few years, said alliance board member Rudy Arnold. Several new
restaurants, new office buildings and the new Mark Twain Education Center
If I were Mayor Eddie Perez, I'd bend over backwards to implement the whole
plan. The more attractive and vibrant Farmington Avenue is, the better chance
the city has of retaining the large companies that reside along it. If Farmington
Avenue were all it could be, would MassMutual have left? Might ING have
taken the MassMutual campus? (Come to think of it, why didn't they?)
There are things the city could do quickly - there are a few bad litter
problems on the avenue, for example - and the mayor should take care of
them. With Blue Back Square and Farmington Avenue improvements coming in
West Hartford, the corridor could be as Dollard envisioned it: a great linear
Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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