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Paving The Way For An Arts District?

Tom Condon

September 13, 2009

When last this column visited with the irrepressible Steve Campo, and it was just in February, the TheaterWorks impresario had just finished a major renovation of his stylish 1927-vintage Moorish Revival building on Hartford's Pearl Street.

The first floor now featured a satellite art gallery of the New Britain Museum of American Art, called the Gallery of American Art, and a bistro operated by bin228 Cafe and Wine Bar across the street, named bistro233. There was new signage, carpeting, lighting and other changes. The "Lion of Pearl" fountain in the lobby spouted water once again, a tribute to the plumbing arts.

The building, renamed "City Arts on Pearl," had become a kind of incubator for small nonprofit theater, music and dance groups, and Campo was waiting for his ninth tenant.

Before Campo encamped there, Pearl Street was a downtown dead zone, a moribund back alley for the more active Asylum Street a block to the north. Campo wanted to turn it into an arts zone.

One building, remarkable as it is, does not make an arts zone. I opined at the time that it would take a few strategically placed infill projects to assemble an arts district. Seven months later, Campo is getting that ball rolling.

He and Theaterworks announced a three-pronged strategy last week. He and his lawyers are creating a legal structure that will ensure that "City Arts" continues in perpetuity as a community resource for arts groups by deeding it to a nonprofit caretaker organization.

Also, he has entered into an agreement with the owner of the adjacent and long-vacant former Ados Israel Synagogue to manage and use the building and its parking area. Though it's not up to code as a performance space and can only be used for such things as storage, it's a handsome structure with potential. Campo would like to improve the building and someday acquire it for an arts use.

Finally, Campo envisions an "arts walk" walkway, a pedestrian flow-through from Asylum down Haynes Street to Pearl Street between City Arts and the synagogue building, and then down the gentle slope to Bushnell Park. The focal point is the area between the Theaterworks and synagogue buildings, where SLAM Collaborative of Glastonbury, a nationally known architecture and design firm, has designed a park-like performance space where tenants of the arts building can perform or hang out.

The walkway could end up being the really inspired part of the plan.

What deadens this part of downtown is the acreage devoted to surface parking. If the walkway were built, it would bisect a lot of empty asphalt. But if it did, and drew foot traffic between downtown and the park, it could encourage the kind of small infill development that conceivably could become an arts district.

It could also tie into the iQuilt plan, released in June, to connect Hartford's cultural institutions with pedestrian and bicycling routes running from the Capitol and Bushnell Park to the river.

The city could give the walkway a big boost by providing an easement to use the small service road, called Service Court, that goes from Pearl Street almost to the park. Persuade one more property owner, it appears to be AT&T, to allow an easement through one more parking lot, and it works.

I like Campo's vision. If Hartford is to be revitalized, it needs to grow its arts presence, not watch it shrink. It also must use historic buildings and replace some of these that were demolished to serve the great god parking. Downtown must feel, and be, more connected for walkers.

Stay tuned.

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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