The commotion over digging up the Park River is missing a larger opportunity.
The rampant and sometimes counterproductive debate over the past few months has focused on whether to bring back part of the long-buried river as a water feature in downtown Hartford. Like that idea or not, it isn't the river's highest and best use. What should be in the spotlight is the river's old corridor. It could become what Hartford has long needed: a multi-use trail coming into downtown from the west.
This forgotten and unused corridor has the potential to become Hartford's central greenway system for non-motorized traffic and the city's East Coast Greenway link.
The main branch of the river, and small sections of the North and South branches, were buried in sections over three decades beginning in the 1940s. But even with the main branch underground, the entire corridor still exists within the Hartford metropolitan area. It could become a network of trails that would function as a vital recreational, educational and commuting connector that ties together the city's schools, institutions, parks, businesses, neighborhoods and various public spaces.
The river's old main corridor is invisible at first glance, but it's easy to find once you take a look at the urban fabric around Capitol Avenue. There isn't a riverbed, road or old rail line to follow; instead you have to look at the gaps. To this day, nothing has been built on top of the buried river except for roads and parking lots, so it is fairly easy to map the gaps.
Originally, the river flowed north from Pope Park, went under Capitol Avenue and then gently curved back and forth before arriving in Bushnell Park. Today, looking at the curve of surface parking lots and unused plazas weaving by Aetna's steam plant (with its whimsical smokestack), the Hartford Courant, the State Armory and the Legislative Office Building, you can begin to see the corridor and its potential as a link between the city's west side and downtown.
Farther from Capitol Avenue in Pope Park, you can see the forgotten valley east of the Park Towers where the river once flowed. At the Mark Twain House, you can follow the curve of the hillside sloping away from the house and realize that the river once weaved right past Twain's estate.
Both regions can be linked with other surrounding parcels to form two urban greenways that run westward from the Capitol Avenue area to the river's unburied north and south branches.
The North Branch comes above ground just north of Farmington Avenue and the South Branch appears from a tunnel on the west side of Pope Park. These two unburied if trash-filled branches weave by a number of the city's universities, schools, neighborhoods, shopping centers and institutions on the west side. Currently there are plans to build trails along both branches.
The North Branch runs by the University of Hartford, the Watkinson School, The Village of Families and Children, the Annie Fisher School, the UConn Law School and other institutions. The South Branch runs out to West Hartford, by the Charter Oak Marketplace, the Job Corps Center, The Breakthrough School, etc. A greenway along each of these branches would tie these entities together and make the western part of the city a more accessible and connective fabric.
Multi-use trails are hugely popular in urban areas and extremely useful. People use them for jogging, walking and bicycle commuting. They are a great tool for business recruiting.
Hartford desperately needs to begin developing a substantial urban greenway system for its residents and visitors that's comparable to those underway in cities with which Hartford competes. In New Haven, the Farmington Canal Greenway is progressing block by block into the city's downtown. In Providence, the region's Woonasquatucket River Greenway will link the city's downtown with the metro area's western neighborhoods.
In addition to these regional greenway projects, a whole new level of innovative green urban corridors is emerging nationwide. The best example is the Highline corridor in New York City, an old elevated rail line in Manhattan's industrial Chelsea district that will be transformed into a weaving eco-corridor. Such a concept was inspired by the Promenade Plantee project in Paris, a green walk on an old rail line that first runs above and then below the streets of the city.
The popularity of these corridor projects magnify Hartford's need to assemble a strong urban greenway system, and Hartford's citizens have the creativity, passion and skill to carry out such a vital and creative task.
The transportation implications of the corridor, what it links together, and the overall social benefits of the project will dramatically improve the quality of life within the city with just a few properly designed trails. This simple yet expansive project may take decades to complete and may be built in spurts, but its potential is just too overwhelming to ignore.
Water in downtown Hartford would be nice, but an urban greenway system would be a breakout development, a priceless amenity.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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