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Hartford Arena Fine - If It Fits

Hartford Courant Editorial

January 22, 2006

Chicago offers the world both approaches to sports stadiums. On the South Side, we find the newest Comiskey Park (aka, ugh, US Cellular One Field), home of the World Champion (how again did that happen?) White Sox. The park, built 15 years ago, is a charmless concrete doughnut in a sea of asphalt.

Over on the North Side, there is the venerable Wrigley Field, wonderfully woven into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood, known as Wrigleyville. The home team hasn't won the World Series since 1908, when Tinker, Evers and Chance patrolled the infield, but so what. All the young people in the city want to live there, every game is a neighborhood block party and tickets are very hard to get.

Which do you like?

There's talk once again of a new sports arena in Hartford. Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, chairman and CEO of Northland Investment Corp., says he'll put up a tenth of the money for a $250 million hockey-basketball-concert arena in Hartford on the northern fringe of downtown.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Development Authority has asked developers for ideas about the future of the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum. Old friend Howard Baldwin, for one, has offered to pick up the lease, upgrade the arena, bring in a new minor league hockey team and build momentum for a National Hockey League team.

The coliseum is owned by the city, leased by the state and managed by a private entity, Madison Square Garden Inc., which also owns the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League.

Gottesdiener, who's invested more in downtown Hartford than anyone else in decades, is trying to make a more exciting place for his tenants, as he should. Baldwin, as a very young man, brought the New England Whalers of the World Hockey League to Hartford and nursed the team into the NHL. It would be quite a second act to do it again.

The key would be to avoid the mistakes that were avoided the first time.

When the Civic Center - comprised of a coliseum and a mall - was built in the 1970s, there was considerable sentiment to put it in the South Meadows. But the powerful Democratic council of that era, Nick Carbone et al., advised by architect Jack Dollard, insisted that it be built downtown.

They were right. For decades, the building worked. It added excitement to downtown. It was within walking distance of offices and restaurants. The mall portion of the complex, soon to be high-rise housing, didn't fare as well as the coliseum, in part because there was virtually no residential base downtown.

Also, the Civic Center was built with tremendous corporate support - which meant, for many years, tremendous corporate support.

It may be possible to upgrade the arena and keep it going for a time. I'm not sure the General Assembly is ready to make another massive commitment of bonding money to Hartford. There are also questions about whether hockey has been priced out of mid-sized markets and, frankly, whether the interest is there.

But eventually the arena will need to be replaced. The first step should be a commitment to again make it part of the downtown fabric.

A large, boxy building can be a bookend, a wall, if built in the wrong place. The site being discussed is just north of I-84. One of the city's planning goals is to reintegrate the North End with downtown. City Councilman Robert Painter has proposed a college campus across the highway. There are enough of the bones of the Victorian neighborhood that once stood there to rebuild it in that style as downtown north, as long as it isn't blocked by a big blank box of a building.

Plans for a new arena should be part of an overall downtown plan that integrates the near North End, Union Place and the riverfront into a larger and vibrant downtown. Thanks to Gottesdiener and other developers, downtown will soon have a critical mass of residents. They must be able to walk to a new arena. There's been a seismic corporate shake-out since the 1970s, but there are still large corporations here, and they still have an interest in a vibrant community. I hope they can be induced to get back in the game.

When stadium builders go after public dollars, they sell the projects as economic development. This argument has been pretty convincingly deflated. Stadiums don't generate many jobs or secondary benefits, beyond a hard-to-measure public relations buzz. The only real justification for the UConn football stadium in East Hartford was as a way of opening the rest of the Rentschler Field site for development.

Nonetheless, sports events are fun. Going to a game, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger has observed, is the only time many people involve themselves in a large public setting. A combination hockey-basketball arena gets a lot more use than a football stadium.

Hartford is the capital because it's in the center of the state. The highways lead here. If there's to be a new arena, it ought to be in downtown Hartford, and also part of downtown Hartford.

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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