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Street Project Serves Highway, Not City

August 7, 2005

Do you remember Chicken Man?

He was a wonderful character named Nicky LaTorre who ran a live poultry shop in a small, five-sided building at the corner of Columbus Boulevard (near Front Street) and Grove Street and refused to move for a planned expansion of the Travelers. So he held out, and they built around him.

After he died in the 1980s, his nephews opened a deli in the building. It was the kind of curio or cranny that you like to discover in a city. Alas, city officials didn't look at it that way. The city took it by eminent domain, over my objection and that of tens of others, to widen Grove Street so Travelers employees could get out of town a few seconds faster.

Why is the solution always to widen the road? Two years ago, the state Department of Transportation was going to widen Columbus Boulevard to six to eight lanes, as part of the Adriaen's Landing project. This was daft. Roads that are too wide function as moats; they inhibit pedestrian passage. An eight-lane Columbus Boulevard would have isolated the project from the downtown it was supposed to revive. Fortunately, neighborhood activists, The Courant and others protested vehemently, and the design was changed to an actual boulevard of four to six lanes.

We never learn.

There is a city/state project on the drawing board to reconstruct Broad Street in Hartford, including the part of the street where The Courant is located.

The northern part of Broad Street meets Farmington and Asylum avenues just west of where the two avenues meet in a "V" intersection and descend to the train station. This area is one of the most dangerous pedestrian zones in the city. To cross any of the streets requires a quick first step, good peripheral vision and a certain indifference to danger.

This mess is a byproduct of the disastrous decision to run I-84 through downtown Hartford. Broad Street was widened to accommodate a highway entrance. Now this part of the street is barren and litter-strewn. It's also a speedway. Cars coming south, those that don't enter the highway, are offered a wide, straight, downhill surface that invites the motorist to floor it. Cars come over a rise, and I swear I've seen wheels leave the ground.

So what we have is a poorly designed, ugly section of road that is a pedestrian nightmare and walls off the Asylum Hill neighborhood from downtown. If the preliminary plan for the reconstruction is followed, the state will spend millions of dollars and aggravate the problem.

The plan would move Broad Street 12 to 14 feet west to line up better with Cogswell Street, a small street that meets Broad at Asylum Avenue. This would require taking some land in front of the YWCA building, which just reopened as supportive housing. There's also discussion about reintroducing one-way streets in the area. I don't understand; making Asylum Avenue one-way at rush hour was just done away with.

To be fair, most of the widening of Broad Street - except one section that goes from 48 to 60 feet - is minor. This is more a failure to redesign a street that's already too wide. The whole point of the new plan is to create more "storage," more places to queue up commuters' cars at rush hour until they can get on I-84. There are no pedestrian or esthetic improvements to speak of.

City streets have to accommodate commuters, but they should also be attractive places to walk or bike. Why can't they make Broad Street an urban boulevard like the revised Columbus Boulevard? Members of the Farmington Avenue Alliance, a citizens group advocating for improvements to that thoroughfare, have made such a request. They're right. The mistakes of the past need to be corrected, not amplified. With the new housing and possibly a school going into the area, there should be an effort to make this area walkable.

What about long-term planning to lower the Aetna Viaduct, the elevated highway that goes through the area? Can't we use staggered dismissals, alternative routes to the highway or, dare I even hope, transit incentives to reduce the congestion at rush hour? Doesn't DOT really believe in its own busway proposal, which should reduce congestion in this area?

As with its original eight-lane Columbus Boulevard proposal, the whole thrust here is the "toilet flush" theory of getting a lot of cars out quickly. But since the highway itself is congested at rush hour, why don't we compromise and have an attractive and pedestrian-friendly street?

It seems that every time the DOT gets involved in a road project, it becomes a road-widening project. James Howard Kuntsler, the social critic, has observed that I-95 in Florida is so wide that one cannot see the K-Mart on one side from the Wal-Mart on the other because of the curvature of the earth. There must be people at the DOT who think that is a good thing.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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