The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, believed to be the first permanent triumphal arch in the country, is one of Hartford's great historical treasures. Such an edifice ought to be protected from damage, but Hartford has arch enemies. Five times in the past three years, the arch or the brownstone wall adjoining it have been hit by idiots/drunks driving with astounding incompetence. It is expensive and structurally challenging to keep repairing this 119-year-old icon.
So, what's the best way to protect the arch?
The arch spans Trinity Street, which runs through the park and along the east side of the Capitol. Many, including me and the rest of The Courant's editorial board, supported the idea of closing Trinity Street under the arch and making it a pedestrian promenade. Indeed, the southbound lane that goes under the arch was closed for about a year after a spate of four crashes in two years, but reopened this summer. When the road reopened, the arch was protected at both ends by large planters, set out in the road to force slow turns. Ford Street, which confusingly becomes Jewell Street near the arch, was relined in an effort to control traffic.
Nonetheless, a truck nicked the wall near Jewell Street in September. Even though this accident resulted in minimal damage, it led to more calls to close the road.
Linda Osten, a member of the Bushnell Park Foundation's board and a planner at the Capital Region Council of Governments, thought this was wrong. She believed the arch could and should remain open to traffic.
Her thinking: Where you can have downtown traffic circulation, you should have it. If downtown is designed only to get people out quickly, that's what will happen. If they can get around, they might well stay and move around.
The arch was designed by the great Hartford architect George Keller as part of a bridge over the Park River, which then flowed in that part of the park (it was buried in a 1940s flood control project. An early photo shows a streetcar scudding under the arch. In short, it was meant to carry traffic.
Most major urban parks around the world have roads going through them. If well-designed, parkways add to the ambiance of the park.
Closing the street to southbound traffic created its own set of problems. The relining encouraged drivers on Ford Street to pass on the right, the likely cause of the September accident. It caused school buses bringing kids to the Capitol area to make U-turns on Trinity Street.
And, since the arch would have to be kept open for emergency vehicles, there's still the danger of some dipso driving through it whether it's closed or not.
But as Osten well understood, these arguments were contingent on being able to protect the arch from less responsible members of the motoring public.
She and others prevailed on the board to commission a plan that would achieve both goals of keeping the road open and protecting the arch.
The plan, prepared by a team headed by the Avon firm Richter & Cegan, has just been completed. I've seen the plan and walked the street several times. I think it works.
Let's look at it from north to south. Drivers who turn from Ford Street will have to enter a long turning lane, partitioned by a raised median, and then stop at a stop sign before going south under the arch on Trinity Street.
As they go under the arch, they'll notice that the sidewalks have been widened, a curb installed and the road narrowed. There'll be a row of bollards and chains along the sidewalk, so that if they veer off the road, they will hit sharp granite and heavy iron, not soft brownstone.
Past the arch, there'll be a raised pedestrian "table" or crosswalk where the sidewalks from the carousel area meet the sidewalks from the Corning Fountain area. This should visually unite the east and west sides of the park and bring order to a somewhat disorganized section of the park. There'll be bump-outs along the street, but parking between the bump-outs. The northbound entrance to this section of the street, at the intersection with Elm Street and the Capitol driveway, will also be redesigned.
Thus, it becomes easier to walk and safer to drive in the park.
The Bushnell Park Foundation is pushing ahead with this redesign. Foundation director Susan Wallace said the project, along with a cleaning and repointing of the arch, will be done in three phases at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million. "It's our top priority," she said.
The foundation has rescued and restored the park over the past 25 years, with a long series of projects including the restoration of the arch. This is another in that series.
Osten is right and should be congratulated for her steadfastness. If the arch is protected, there's no good reason to close the road.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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