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Thinking Big on Eradicating I-84

Highway Overwhelms Feel of City

Ken Krayeske

November 24, 2009

Sitting in a room with 40 other people Thursday, November 19 at the Lyceum on Lawrence Street in Hartford, thinking 40 years in the future, planning how to tear down the I-84 viaduct and repair the fabric of the city, provided a rare tangible point to chart a goal once deemed unimaginable.

This column owes part of its genesis to Tuesday night bar talk among progressive friends (a.k.a. the Progressive Happy Hour, still meeting at Red Rock Tavern). Q: "How long will it take us to tear down I-84?" A: "Oh, about 40 years."

The consensus at the meeting was that it would indeed take at least 15 years to bring this to fruition.

"This is step one of what could be a decades-long process," former city councilman Bob Painter told the crowd Thursday night. "We don't have to do it all tomorrow."

A new Hartford without a highway running through it will not happen without meetings and bureaucracy and process. So rather than write about who said what last week, allow me an opportunity to dream and present a "Process Wish List."

First and foremost, the City of Hartford is paying $100,000, and the federal government is chipping in $200,000 to kick start the visioning process, according to David Spillane, a principal at Goody Clancy, the Boston-based architecture, planning and preservation.

Goody Clancy has promised the city three public meetings, the first of which was last Thursday night. In the future, I dream of seeing the community itself better represented.

Of the 40 or so people who attended the meeting, exactly one was black, one was Puerto Rican and one of Asian descent. Yet the Hartford neighborhoods through which I-84 runs are mostly black and Puerto Rican, and in Asylum Hill lately, I have been seeing more and more Asians, along with a smattering of many other ethnic identities.

I heard about the meeting because I got a spiffy postcard in the mail. It must have been because I am on the Hartford 2000 mailing list, Spillane said. They mailed out 1,200 postcards. Goody Clancy had the other 300.

Next time, let's doorknock Broad Street and Babcock, Asylum and Marshall and get people there. We need to hear from the teen mom and the Somali immigrant about their visions for the city. Let's dream big if we are going to spend $10 billion for a massive public works project.

Let's pass the extra flyers out at Capital Community College, Hartford Public and West Middle School. After all, the great Hartford Public was destroyed for the highway.

The students will be inheriting our decisions. Let's make them part of the process, and use this as a teachable urban design moment for an entire city. What should Hartford look like in 2020? 2030? 2040?

Thus we must include students to listen their ideas too. Chances are some sophomore at HPHS or a third grader at West Middle has an idea that will revolutionize the way we all think about moving people.

The problem of I-84 is pretty intractable, and as the expensive Power Point presentation said: "There are no easy solutions."

Approaching it with a child's curiosity and sense of "why not?" might be helpful. For anyone who thinks that fifth graders can't contribute, I direct them to Will Phillips of West Ford, Arkansas who refuses to stand for the pledge because there are not equal rights in America, and can articulate his argument on CNN as well as anyone.

That goes for process, too. If the means are a non-democratic, cookie cutter process directed and financed by the same federal government which bisected city with the stupid highway in the first place, then I am wary about a process starting with a study driven by out-of-state consultants.

Goody Clancy is a solid, professional firm that has worked for New Orleans and Chicago, Boston and Miami. They put on a solid, professional show. But we must not end up with a boulevard or decked highway that does not represent and reflect the unique character of the city and its landscape.

Of course the work they are doing elsewhere can inform what is happening here. For instance, Goody Clancy set up maps and photos in the Lyceum that highlighted different features of the Asylum Hill-Frog Hollow neighborhoods and I-84.

Goody Clancy also brought pictures of cities like Syracuse and Toronto, cities which are facing similar challenges with terraced highway viaducts that run through cities. Syracuse has a council of citizens that has been leading the charge to tear down I-81.

Although this process in Hartford can be said to be grassroots driven, we need to fertilize and plant more grass seed. Some of that $300,000 should go to organizing and bringing in more local residents to contribute.

That is not to say the project Goody Clancy is steering isnít vital to the overall goal. Goody Clancy will create a plan of economic development, urban design and community vision that the City will present to the DOT, which hopefully wonít discard it all in favor of traffic flow.

Hartford outsourced management of this study to the Capital Region Council of Governments, the local regional transportation agency. This is a good thing, because Bob Painter noted that CRCOG director Tom Maziarz can walk into DOT headquarters without a badge.

Although Goody Clancy won the contract six months ago, paperwork, etc. prevented it from starting until six weeks ago, Spillane said. There will be two more community meetings, and he expects to have a finished product in April or May 2010.

I dream that this project and its final product will mesh with the other half-dozen vision and planning seminars going on throughout the city, like the Plan of Conservation and Development, the 2010 Tridents, the Tiger Grant Proposal, the I-Quilt, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail and the New Britain-Hartford Busway.

For example, from what I understand, the plan of Conservation and Development is not provisioning for possible land that the destruction of the viaduct might free up. We could be talking hundreds of acres, considering that there are eight exit ramps from Sisson Avenue to Ann Street.

There is a lot of information, and we need to make sure that all the projects are intermeshing well, and being considered.

David Spillane presented us with three options: bury it, keep it the same, or turn it into a boulevard. Great. The assumption seems to be that Hartford will always have to shoulder the burden of 175,000 cars a day through its city core.

For comparison's sake, New York City's George Washington Bridge deals with a daily volume of 300,000 vehicles. I posit that the planning of this future "boulevard" must include the eventuality where gas always costs $5 a gallon.

Barring the luck that cars will become economically unfeasible for the majority of Americans, Spillane said that we could divert maybe 40 percent of the traffic on I-84 that neither originates nor terminates in Hartford. Still, that leaves us with 105,000 cars a day.

The main part of the traffic coming through seems to be cars crossing the river, going from Vernon or East Hartford or Farmington or West Hartford and vice-versa.

To further force box us into a corner, Aetna's Mike Marshall noted that at rush hour, Aetna alone could use the entire capacity of the rapid transit chimera known as the "New Britain-Hartford Busway."

We obviously need a more robust vision of mass transit than we currently have. I love Toni Gold's idea of a streetcar on Farmington Avenue that runs all the way to Plainville. Let's think bigger than that. Let's consider streetcars on Wethersfield Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Maple Avenue, Fairfield Avenue, Albany Avnue and on North Main Street, too.

While these projects could be decades away, in the meantime, we have to change behaviors like tax-credits for bicycling or going car-free and beefing up our buses to make mass transit use a more probable transportation option.

The other option, having people repopulate the city, well, there's that racism and class thing that our society can't seem to surmount. Even the most progressive suburbanites I know scoff at the idea of taking their child out of a Simsbury-quality school to one that serves the second-poorest population in the United States.

While the dream of better schools seems distant, I am confident that by the next meeting, some of these process dreams will come true.

Reprinted with permission of Ken Krayeske, author of the blog The 40 Year Plan. To view other stories on this topic, search The 40 Year Plan at http://www.the40yearplan.com/.
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