Web Sites and Documents >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Avenue Worth More Than A Face Lift

July 24, 2005

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 in.

Yet, because the street didn't look as bad as some others, it didn't get much attention.

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 Restaurant.

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 an agreement.

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 bode well.

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 neighborhood.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He 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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?