In 2004, The Hartford Courant editorial board laid out a vision for restoring the downtown leg of the Park River, most specifically the piece of the now-buried tributary of the Connecticut River that lies beneath the Whitehead Highway.
The idea was to create a calming, beautiful water feature where concrete and cars now rule. Such a project would be costly, but could yield incalculable benefits for a city looking to revive residential life and commerce downtown.
The timing then seemed right for the capital city to reclaim part of the Park River, with Hartford in mid-renaissance, several major development projects underway and sewer work pending in that area. It is still right.
So it is heartening to note that others share at least part of that vision.
An event at Trinity College, billed as the inaugural Park River Watershed Symposium, took place earlier this month. Participants acknowledged that exposing that section of the river to daylight once again would be monumentally expensive and politically difficult. But many agreed with The Courant that other cities, most notably Providence, have not let the challenges deter them.
This is the kind of can-do attitude that will put Hartford on the map, and that inspires creativity. A vision needs persistent souls behind it if it is to materialize.
One of the most persistent has been Chuck Sheehan, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan District Commission and a former member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Courant's push to uncover the Park River inspired him to develop a less costly plan that would restore some of the ambience of the river where it used to run through Bushnell Park. His proposal is for a three-pond water feature along the historic path of the Park River. Ingeniously, it would be a functional part of the ongoing MDC project to separate sewer pipes from storm drains downtown.
The water would come not from the underground river, but from Gully Brook, a Class A stream that flows from Bloomfield. Its sparkling water would flow via gravity drains into three scenic pools that would serve as retention ponds to prevent downstream flooding as well as function as public refuges.
We haven't given up on the bigger idea of freeing the Park River from its downtown tunnel to make Hartford more people-friendly. We wrote in 2004 and still believe that "water is an asset, a lure for economic development, whose recreational and commercial value can't be overemphasized."
But the Bushnell Park pond proposal is a realistic compromise that deserves public and political support.
So is the idea of rehabilitating sections of the Park River that still flow aboveground. Mary Rickel Pelletier, director of the Park River Watershed Revitalization Initiative, has been a persistent and persuasive advocate for that cause.
Here's to the energy and passion of those who recognize the Park River and its watershed as an asset to the region, and who work tirelessly to educate others.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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