I ran into a guy at the gym a couple of years ago who came to the area in the 1970s to work in a downtown law firm. "It seems that ever since I've been here, we've been trying to fix Hartford," he said.
An older fellow who arrived in the 1950s could have said the same thing. Hartford, which Henry James called "the richest little city in the country" in the early 20th century, was devastated in the years after World War II by flight to the suburbs, loss of entry-level manufacturing jobs, highway construction, drugs, gangs, etc. The city has lost about a third of its population since 1950, when it had nearly 180,000 souls.
There have been major efforts over the years to "fix Hartford," from Constitution Plaza to the recent "Six Pillars" projects that include the science and convention centers, G. Fox building renovation, housing and riverfront improvements. While these have all helped in some ways — even the plaza, largely considered a failure, kept some major companies in the city — they haven't turned Hartford into a vibrant, prosperous city.
I'm not sure that can ever happen without some kind of engagement — merger, confederation, service-sharing agreement, something — with the region. Though I think this would be good for all involved, creating more of the contacts that make metro regions hum, the political appetite for it isn't readily apparent.
But if Hartford can ever again thrive on its own, the time may be the next several years.
This occurred to me when I attended one of the "Greening America's Capitals" sessions earlier this month. This is a federal program to help state capitals develop a vision for distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods. As Mike Crosbie reports on this page, it produced a modest, potentially helpful rethinking of Capitol Avenue. I'd hoped it would go a bit further and plan a Capitol campus or district, but it's a step in that direction.
But what really hit me at the session was how much else is going on, how many other plans and projects are in the pipeline. These include:
• The Hub of Hartford, a visionary plan to lower the aging I-84 Viaduct that has walled the city in half, creating a no-man's land where commercial and residential buildings should be.
• The Metropolitan District Commission's sewer separation project, including plans for a water feature in Bushnell Park.
• The iQuilt, a plan to connect Hartford's cultural institutions with pedestrian and bicycling routes running from the Capitol and Bushnell Park to the river, and then enhance the area with physical and programmatic improvements.
•The New Britain-Hartford Busway. I hope the busway will open in 2014, with commuter and high-speed rail service to follow shortly thereafter. Both can reduce the need for parking in the Capitol area.
•Coltsville. U.S. Rep. John Larson is leading an effort to turn the historic former South Meadows industrial village into a National Historic Park. The park would anchor the south end of downtown.
The city's new public safety complex is well along, as a program to improve its parks. Planners from the Capitol Region Council of Government are trying to bring a bike/ped path through the city.
What is desperately needed, and what hasn't been a strength in living memory, is coordination, some entity that ties all of these things together in a logical sequence. The city's planning division is overseeing much of it, as it should, but it doesn't have authority over the state projects. Someone has to pull all the pieces together.
Here's a possibility, at least for the Capitol area. State Rep. Matthew Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, has introduced a bill to reconstitute the moribund Connecticut Capitol Center Commission, which once oversaw the Capitol neighborhood, but has been defunct for years. This entity could partner with the city, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and other institutions to make the area more walkable, interesting and urban.
However accomplished, there should be a permanent partnership. One problem with past renewal efforts was that the emphasis was on one-time, big-bang projects. But successful revival of the city will be a process over a period of years, into the indefinite future (see: Riverfront Recapture). If it succeeded, there'd be a real neighborhood around the Capitol, served by trains and buses as well as cars. The major empty lots would have buildings on them.
There'd be a boulevard through downtown, instead of a super-highway, and downtown would expand north of the highway. The energy from the center would spread into the neighborhoods, to build on projects such as Billings Forge and M. Swift & Co..
That is when we will have fixed Hartford.
Tom Condon can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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