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Hartford Could Use Some Cool Northern Ideas

Commentary by Tom Condon
September 4, 2005

Years ago I asked Mike Bangser, executive director of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, why he didn't fund a particular program. It was working well in New Haven, said I. "It doesn't travel," said he.

It's a point worth remembering for grant-makers and the rest of us. Sometimes, programs or projects work because of the unique circumstances in a particular city. What works in New Haven doesn't necessarily work anywhere else. Many cities that tried to imitate Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Boston's Faneuil Hall wasted a lot of money learning this lesson.

I thought of this when I was in Burlington, Vt., a week ago. Vermont's largest city, with nearly 40,000 residents, keeps getting on "most livable" and "most fun" city lists, and rightly so. It's hopping. So I wondered if any of the Burlington stuff would travel to Hartford.

Like Hartford, Burlington has some obvious assets. It's on the shore of Lake Champlain, and wisely didn't cut itself off from its waterfront. It's got a decent economy: five colleges or universities in or near the city, a major hospital, a smattering of manufacturing and some successful boutiquey businesses (see: Lake Champlain Chocolates). It is also, like a smaller Providence, the big city with the political clout. Like Providence and all other cities, Burlington has had problems with drugs, poorly run housing projects, poverty and the like.

None of the above ensures that Burlington will be a cool city, but it is. Why so?

I've visited the city sporadically over the past 20 years, since my brother Jim moved there. Burlington has a sense of place. People are engaged. "We have a whiteboard-and-marker culture," said Ron Redmond, executive director of the Church Street Marketplace. He explained that when a problem needs to be worked out, residents are willing to sit down, write goals and objectives on a whiteboard and then agree on a strategy. Local politics is activist enough that the city employee health plan includes prescription drugs from Canada.

The city has developed a number of amenities that add to its charm. Here are three that are hard to miss.

Church Street: The Marketplace is the largest outdoor pedestrian mall in the state, covering four blocks in the center of the city. After a decadelong debate in which two designs were rejected, the city closed the street in 1980 and went to work.

The mall now has a brick surface up to storefronts, with trees, planters, sculptures and benches all along the four-block, slightly downhill stroll. Deliveries are in the morning. Cars are allowed on the intersecting streets, but they creep through because of the flood of walkers. Buskers were out last week; the accordion player did not play "Lady of Spain," as far as I could tell. The restaurants have outdoor seating and were mobbed all week. There are more than 100 businesses on the street. In the past five years, scores of people have moved into apartments on the upper floors of Church Street buildings.

Would this work in Hartford? I don't know. New London tried it in the 1970s, renaming State Street "Captain's Walk," and it failed. A key factor is that Burlington already had a strong retail base, and didn't face the level of suburban mall competition - though it has some now - that Hartford or New London faces.

Hartford's Pratt Street is cool, and ought to be completely closed to cars, but it's only one block. There isn't a natural four-block run where closing the street makes sense. Hartford might be better off enhancing the club district around Union Place and Ann Street.

The bike path: Burlington's 7.6 mile multi-use trail along the lakefront is fabulous, and is used constantly. This is something that would work here if we made it a priority. There ought to be car-free paths into the city from all directions, using the riverfront trails as much as possible. Bike trails are so popular they are bait to recruit workers. If people commute to work on bikes, it keeps the air cleaner and lessens the need for more parking.

Parking: Burlington has a surface lot and three garages that offer two hours of free parking. In other words, parking is used as an enticement to visit the city, not an impediment, as it is in Hartford. Hartford needs to get more of its parking into garages and fill in the giant asphalt blank spaces that have been underused for surface parking.

My brother Jim, thanks for asking, used to be in radio news, when there was such a thing, and now co-owns a deli and serves in the Vermont legislature. In Burlington, that's a fairly normal career path.

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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