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Can't Let Main Street Languish

Historic Thoroughfare Needs Attention, Too

June 19, 2005

In the 25 years since Hartford embarked on the ambitious enterprise to reconnect downtown with the Connecticut River, something happened that no one then could have imagined. We gained a river, but we lost Main Street.

Despite having the city's largest concentration of headquarters, resources and landmarks, Main Street's sidewalks no longer beckon or welcome visitors and pedestrians. It's a pockmarked and uninviting thoroughfare with a few glistening jewels surrounded large expanses of emptiness and asphalt. It wasn't always so and must change if we have expect to capitalize on our "rising star" expectations.

Hartford's Main Street was one of the most inspiring places in Connecticut. It has been a place of commerce, of celebration and homecoming, of ideas, beauty, learning and rest. Its institutions and amenities are, or were, the stuff of legend: majestic temples of faith brimming with parishioners, emporiums of art, history and literature, elegant hotels, theaters and restaurants. It has also been a seat of city and state government, a prestigious residential address and the greatest shopping district Connecticut has ever known.

Alas, somewhere along the way we took Main Street for granted or have simply stopped seeing it for what it is - which is nothing less than the best of what Hartford ever was or will be. All the big projects of the past half-century, from Constitution Plaza and the Civic Center to Riverfront Recapture and the Convention Center, have centered their attention somewhere else. The major corporations and their car-based commuter cultures gradually transformed upper Main Street into an office park, abandoning the mixed uses that are so essential to the active life of the street.

There is something puzzling watching planners heap subsidies on a faux Front Street, while Main Street - the real thing and a much bigger and better thing, just a stone's throw away from the Convention Center - languishes in the face of our indifference! Let's forget about Front Street and rebuild connections to Main Street.

Despite the neglect of the past few decades, Main Street still has an unparalleled collection of assets:

Main Street's churches do important public work merely by caring for some of Connecticut's most inspiring art and architecture. Christ Church Cathedral and Center Church have been public-spirited in offering programs, concerts, and tours that enhance the Main Street experience.

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is a national treasure that could lead the downtown renaissance.

The Ancient Burying Ground used to be a neglected mess. Now it is one of the jewels of Main Street, with a front lawn that welcomes visitors to a place of solace, beauty and importance.

The Antiquarian & Landmarks Society's Butler-McCook House & Garden and Main Street History Center is the best place in the city to get an overview of Hartford history. There isn't a more fascinating house museum in Connecticut.

The Connecticut Historical Society's move downtown to operate the Old State House assures that this national treasure will continue to be a major contributing asset.

Also, some important things are underway.

The Temple Street Gang, my name for developers Phil Schonberger, Marc Levine and Sam Fingold, were among the first developers back on Main Street. They've done farsighted work with the Richardson Building, Sage-Allen and 990 Main.

The former G. Fox building is breathtaking and its primary tenant, Capital Community College, exceeded all expectations by moving downtown.

Signage has improved substantially with a project administered by the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

When it is completed, Hartford Public Library's new glass entrance will give Main Street a stunning new architectural landmark.

The project to rebuild the gateway from Main to Park Street is just getting started, as is the effort to replace the decrepit, graffiti-covered bus shelters.

Alas, Main Street has its share of problems. But they are solvable.

It's time that cars take a back seat to people in defining the uses of downtown. To achieve this, we need to abolish one-way streets whose only purpose is rushing traffic in and out of the city. Marc Levine recently observed that "Main Street must be made safer and more pedestrian- and customer-friendly. Currently, there is no short-term, on-street parking to support retail uses; crossing the street is a dangerous exercise; speeding is incessant; and the constant noise from blaring car radios excessive and offensive."

Architect Patrick Pinnell suggests restoring pedestrian-friendly block sizes, observing that "over the decades, the original historic street-and-block structure was given over for the sake of making superblocks." Even Burr Mall is just another underutilized wall of concrete. Calder's Stegosaurus would look so much better in Bushnell Park. Burr Mall would be more useful if it was reclaimed for sidewalks, streets and short-term parking.

We need short-term parking. Even with the new Morgan Street Garage, the visitors and shoppers that Hartford needs most go to the back of the line behind commuters. If you show up at Morgan Street Garage after 10 a.m., it's six floors up or nothing. Few of the downtown parking lots are priced to favor short-term uses and none are advertised as such. We shouldn't have to visit Middletown or Northampton, Mass., to learn how to put the customer's needs first.

We ought to commercialize the city's Sheldon Street parking lots by offering city employees a transportation voucher to apply toward any form of transportation they choose. Free on-site parking is an extraordinary perk. Most days the city lots are not even two-thirds full.

The poor will always be with us, but really - get a grip. The continuing presence of homeless shelters and a methadone clinic on Main Street makes you wonder who's minding the shop.

The fortress mentality still prevails, especially with the big guys. St. Paul Travelers is not in the business of running attractions, but what an attraction it has in the Travelers Tower. The observation deck could be one of the premiere downtown attractions.

United Technologies is still headquartered in the Gold Building, but who'd know? The building itself is Main Street's Darth Vader. There's no reason it can't put on a more welcoming face. Hartford is proud to be the world headquarters of United Technologies. UTC ought to display its colors and make the street level amenities (including a state-run art gallery visitors would never know was there) more visitor-friendly.

If we want tourism, conventions and the tax base expansion associated with empty-nesters buying into Hartford for its downtown experience, we'd better focus on Main Street.

William Hosley is a historical consultant and a member of the Place board of contributors.

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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