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Rethinking Bushnell Plaza


August 18, 2011

As downtown workers line up at food carts and bustle around the Old State House at lunchtime on a summer day, just down Main Street at Bushnell Plaza there is rarely a reason to stop. A large, concrete wall runs along the sidewalk for dozens of yards.

On Wednesday, the scene was a bit different as splashes of color, and activity, invited people to linger.

Armed with easels, markers and open minds, a team of 15 landscape architects from throughout the state gathered around the plaza's walls in an effort to re-envision the raised, mostly barren holdover of urban renewal that separates Main Street from Bushnell Park.

The project, called "Design AmBUSH on Main Street," challenged participants to draw up plans for the space at Bushnell Plaza spontaneously, with input from passers-by. It was part of a national day of similar events around the country mounted by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The designers, including three students, set up shop and began sketching, and discussing. None had made any advance plans, said Jeff Mills, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the ASLA.

"We didn't want to guide anybody," he explained. "It's a very spontaneous exercise."

It's been painfully clear for years to residents and visitors that the Bushnell Plaza space is not welcoming. Still, the plaza and the office building and condominiums that anchor it have remained relatively untouched since their construction in the late 1960s.

The plans were originally drawn up by I.M. Pei, the architect and mastermind behind the controversial glass pyramid at the Louvre, and other modern structures. But the plaza doesn't exactly conform to the architect's plans. A lack of money for the project meant that many of the original features went unrealized, the landscape architects said, including a second high-rise tower that would have been built on what is now a giant concrete slab off Gold Street.

Among the plans launched Wednesday, one would create a new entrance to the plaza; many would add greenery, and some would level the concrete wall.

The historical significance of the site, however, has been an impediment to change.

"What these students should know is that this property is already registered with the Connecticut Historical Society," said James Rouman, a member of the board of directors of the Bushnell Plaza Association.

The designation restricts the architectural changes that can be made, he said. Another concern for the association, he said, is a huge investment in technology that sits below the plaza and is leased to Verizon. Repairs to the equipment and the structure after recent water damage were costly, he said.

"We want to beautify the space," Rouman said, "but it has to be done with all of these things in mind."

Bushnell Plaza has been part of the recent discussions in Hartford's iQuilt plan, a sweeping set of urban design changes that would connect Bushnell Park to the eastern half of downtown and the Connecticut River. Although the plaza is in the middle of the targeted area, the many local groups involved in iQuilt have generally recognized that altering the plaza would be difficult.

One thing Rouman says will never change is the wall and raised nature of the plaza. And that's not a problem for Jesse Harris, one of the AmBUSH architects. An architect with BSC group in Glastonbury, he said there are many possibilities for working with the existing structure, including murals, trees or even vegetation that could snake up and down the wall.

"Green it up," Harris said. "Right now we're thinking of it as no limit, no budgets, just develop the ideas and get people interested."

Arturo Arroyo happened upon the design crew by chance Wednesday. Although not part of the project, he said he has long wanted to address the void created by the plaza. An architect at JCJ Architecture and a Hartford native, Arroyo said he has often thought about redesigning the space, something he believes should have been done long ago. "I've seen Hartford change in a lot of ways, and this is one of the ways it really hasn't changed," Arroyo said.

Antonio Matta, an architect for the city of Hartford, dropped by to see the project along with co-worker Jonas Maciunas. Maciunas said he thinks change is inevitable. "It's a question of how a place evolves," he said.

Matta and Maciunas believe that the space should be opened up to the sidewalks and exposed to the outside urban environment.

Matta says the historical significance of a place has as much to do with its role in the community as its origins. "The significance of a building to its fabric and to its city is far more important," he said. "It has to do with the imprint on an urban environment."

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 |
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