The iQuilt Plan: Building Hartford’s Future Upon Its Past
By Andy Hart
February 02, 2012
In the past, most of the big plans to revitalize Hartford have looked to the suburbs for inspiration, be it suburban office parks (Constitution Plaza) or suburban shopping malls (the Civic Center Mall). The new iQuilt?Plan, however, draws inspiration from Hartford’s own past.
At a recent presentation of the plan at the Hartford Public Library, Douglas Suisman, head of Suisman Urban Design, asked the audience of about 100 people to study a picture of Downtown Hartford from the early part of the 20th century. The photo shows Asylum Street looking north from the Union Station railroad bridge. The streets are lined with shops, the sidewalks are crowded with people and the Park River curves gracefully through Bushnell Park.
iQuilt is a multi-faceted plan to bring that vibrancy back to Downtown Hartford. For the past three years, Suisman and his firm have worked with Hartford’s arts, business, education, and community leaders to formulate a comprehensive plan for downtown based on the three themes of walking, culture, and innovation.
According to Chuck Shivery, CEO of Northeast Utilities and Chairman, iQuilt Partnership, “The iQuilt Plan lays out a strategy and design for making Downtown’s public spaces more enjoyable and walkable, day and night in all four seasons, by linking Hartford’s extraordinary arts and cultural assets and by showcasing the Region’s strengths in cultural and industrial innovation. The goal is to make Connecticut’s capital city more culturally vibrant, environmentally sustainable, and economically prosperous.”
To achieve that goal, the plan recommends a broad range of initiatives, both large and small. Some are in the not too distant future, some may be implemented as early as this year.
From the Park to the River
The core of the plan, said Suisman, is connecting two of the city’s main attractions:?Bushnell Park and the Hartford Riverfront. The main physical elements of this connection would be the reconfiguration of Gold Street and the creation of a “greenway” to its north. This would lead to another key component of the plan, the revitalization of Tower Square into a larger, more pedestrian-friendly space.
The Mortensen Riverfront Plaza/Constitution Plaza complex begins across the street from Tower Square so that, if the iQuilt plan were completed as envisaged, a pedestrian could walk from the State Capitol to Riverfront Plaza and only have to cross four streets (Trinity, Wells, Main and Prospect).
Suisman cited Riverfront Recapture’s role in changing the direction of development in Downtown Hartford. Until Riverfront Plaza, Hartford had primarily been looking for plans that would enhance the movement of automobile traffic through the city. Subsequent plans have concentrated more on increasing the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Like Riverfront Recapture, the iQuilt Plan also relies on moving water as a main attraction. Suisman said Bushnell Park was designed around the Park River, which was covered over in the 1940’s to prevent flooding. Putting the river above ground again is impractical and might lead to more flooding problems. Instead, the iQuilt plan calls for the creation of a new brook in Bushnell Park using water supplied by Gully Brook, which rises in Keney Park in Hartford’s North End and flows underground to the Park River. The brook would go above ground in Bushnell Park near Union Station and go back below ground at the Pump House. It would roughly follow the course of the Park River, vary in width from 50 to 100 feet and have a depth of about 18 inches. To accommodate the new brook, the Bushnell Park Carousel would be moved near the Pump House.
One of the great attractions of rivers all over the world are the bridges that cross them. Acknowledging this belief, the iQuilt?Plan calls for, “Eight new footbridges, along with the unearthed and restored Trinity Street Bridge, will provide a wide array of views and vantage points. The bridges will vary in height, length, and physical relationship to the water below. They will draw inspiration from the park’s historic bridges while taking advantage of contemporary structural systems and materials.”
The iQuilt?Plan also calls for the reconfiguring of Pulaski Circle, located just southeast of Bushnell Park, to make it more pedestrian-friendly. According to the plan, “Ample crosswalks will ring the circle. Pedestrians will be able to move easily from the SoDo neighborhood north along Hudson to Bushnell Gardens; and from the Hartford Public Library and City Hall along Wells Street to Bushnell Park. The reconfiguration will return nearly an acre of former park land to Bushnell Park, creating a new Pulaski Gate at the park’s southeast corner, marked by the relocated statue of General Pulaski [now on Main Street].”
From Gray to Green
Lying at the southwest corner of the intersection of Main and Gold Streets is Bushnell Plaza, quite possibly the biggest waste of space in Connecticut. To its north is Center Church, founded by Hartford’s founder, Thomas Hooker. To its northwest is the Travelers Tower, the jewel of Hartford’s skyline since 1919. To its east is the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in the country. Bushnell Plaza stands in stark contrast to these Hartford icons. A swath of concrete four feet above street level, it is run down, unused and long past due for a date with the wrecking ball. The iQuilt?Plan calls for replacing the dirty gray of Bushnell Plaza and the surrounding area with Bushnell Gardens, a 1.5 acre park that will run from Bushnell Park to Main Street. According to backers of the iQuilt?Plan, Bushnell Gardens will not only serve as a critical segment in the pedestrian “greenway” from the park to the Riverfront, it will become a major attraction and gathering place in its own right. This extension of Bushnell Park will feature a clocktower, a water tower, stormwater gardens, native plantings, teaching gardens, greenhouses, pedestrian wayfinding maps and new transit shelters.
Taking It To The Streets?
The final major component in iQuilt connection between Bushnell Park and Riverfront Plaza is Travelers Plaza, a one-acre open space south of Travelers Tower. Suisman said Travelers was already planning to renovate the square and has expressed interest in following the iQuiltplan in designing that renovation. According to the plan, Travelers is planning to resurface the plaza and, as part of this project, may remove the high walls that currently surround it so that it is more accessible from the street.
To compliment this project, the City of Hartford is looking into altering Atheneum Square North, the street that runs along the south of the plaza, in order to make it more pedestrian-friendly. And the Atheneum is considering a plan to move its cafe to the north side of the building, facing Travelers Plaza. According to the iQuilt Plan, “These three initiatives provide an extraordinary opportunity to jointly plan and design the space as the virtual centerpiece of the GreenWalk and the iQuilt...It can become a kind of “living room” for all of Hartford, comparable to the similarly sized Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland.”
Travelers Plaza is bordered by Prospect Street to the north. The Constitution Plaza complex, which leads directly to Riverfront Plaza, starts on the other side.
The Big Picture
The pedestrian-friendly greenway connecting Hartford’s Riverfront with Bushnell Park is the main component in one of iQuilt’s nine initiatives, “Link Downtown’s cultural assets.”
Build walkable, vibrant streets
In recent years, urban planners have rediscovered the pedestrian after concentrating on America’s automobile culture for almost half a century. The iQuilt?Plan calls a variety of changes to make walking through Downtown Hartford a more pleasurable experience, including wider sidewalks, physical protection from moving traffic, providing more protection from the elements, encouraging more interesting building fronts and reducing the number of curb cuts.
Link downtown’s cultural assets
Anyone familiar with Downtown Hartford generally has trouble understanding the confusion of someone who isn’t. The iQuilt Plan proposes several methods to make it easier for people to find their way from one destination to another. The plan also includes suggestions on how to link up all of the city’s cultural assets in one large, integrated network.
Develop a visual language
One of the quickest and most cost- effective ways to increase foot traffic and the use of mass transit is to improve signage. The iQuilt?Plan calls for the use of a series of distinctive symbols on signs, signals, symbols, maps, banners, posters, and other imagery. These same symbols would also be used in the city’s printed and online marketing materials.
Show the way (and how long)
Signs have always pointed the way. The iQuilt?Plan calls for signs and maps that show how far. This is vital information for someone on a tight schedule as well as those with limited mobility.
Enliven with cultural interaction
Hartford has an inordinate number of cultural assets for a city of its size. But many of these are hidden from view. The iQuilt Plan calls for cultural institutions to increase their exterior presence by increased use of banners, signs, window displays, outdoor performances and displays.
Enhance hospitality and comfort
“It never rains in an architectural rendering,” sums up the idea that many plans designed to increase pedestrian traffic are based on perfect conditions. The iQuilt Plans suggests easing the effects of less than ideal weather by making umbrellas, blankets and similar items available to visitors. Increasing the city’s hospitality would also providing well-informed guides and other similar amenities.
Make it easy to bike, run, exercise
Cycling played a major role in Hartford’s past and the iQuilt Plan envisions it playing a prominent role in the city’s future as well. The plans calls for the creation of bike lanes on city streets and “bike station” at the Bushnell Park Greenway. The station would offer repairs, supplies, snacks, parking, lockers and showers for those cycling for both exercise and commuting.
Bring Transit into the Mix
Mass transit increase pedestrian traffic because riders have to walk to and from their stops. The iQuilt Plan calls for numerous improvements to Hartford’s mass transit system, including improved bus stops, signage and shelters; upgraded transit amenities, including wayfinding signs, maps and schedules; and a more integrated visual language at stops and on buses and vans.
Tell Downtown’s story online
According to the iQuilt Plan, a comprehensive website “is the most critical vehicle for telling the story of downtown’s past, present and future – its extraordinary cultural history and assets, current events, and future plans.” The look of the website should reflect visual language seen at street level.
Although most elements of the iQuilt Plan are still in the future, Suisman said several smaller initiatives might be implemented as early as this year, including biking amenities, map kiosks, cultural markers and giant chess and checker sets in the park.
“The biggest obstacle [to the iQuilt Plan],” said Suisman, “is not political will, we have that. It’s not money, because we’re talking about relatively small amounts for a project of this nature. It’s the self-doubt and cynicism that says it can’t be done. ..but it can be done”