City Focus: Greater Hartford

 

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“We’re ranked 14th of 140 U.S. cities in culture,” says David Fay, president and CEO of The Bushnell, “and every one of the institutions takes great care of its patrons when they’re in the door. The problem is we don’t take much care when they walk back out on the street. We need to animate the pathways between institutions.”

To do that, downtown leaders turned to a Hartford native son, Doug Suisman, an award-winning urban designer whose firm in Santa Monica, Calif., has created innovative projects across the globe. He looked at the map of downtown with all its features—the river, the Capitol, The Bushnell, Bushnell Park, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the restaurants, the theaters—and saw something that looked like a New England quilt. He also saw that a walk from the Capitol to the riverfront takes 18 minutes, and it’s 15 minutes from the northern end of downtown to the southern border. But nothing is linked together and it can feel like walking through a war zone, past empty parking lots and poorly lit streets. Bushnell Park, for example, closes at dusk, yet if brightly and creatively lit it could reclaim its place as Hartford’s version of Central Park. A greenway could easily link the whole downtown.

The good news is that virtually all arts and cultural institutions, as well as public agencies and corporations with buildings downtown, have bought into the plan. The city won a competitive $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to undertake an initial study, and a report on specific projects various stakeholders can commit to is due out by year’s end.

The other form of linkage that could change everything is transportation. Rail advocates have long lobbied for high-speed train service from Springfield, Mass., to New Haven, and on into New York. That could still happen, but in the meantime, Gov. Malloy has authorized construction of a $600 million, 9.4-mile rapid-transit busway between New Britain and Hartford.

Besides boosting the local economy and the construction industry short term, by 2015 the busway could relieve congestion on I-84, 60 percent of which is west of downtown. Moreover, it could lessen objections among some suburbanites about coming downtown.

“It’s potentially transformative,” says Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), which has long pushed for the project. “You wouldn’t have to worry about parking. You’d get on the rapid transit and it would go exactly where you wanted to go.” If you missed one bus, you’d know another one would arrive in another three to six minutes.

To make a major difference in regional driving habits, of course, Connecticut Transit would need to establish reliable and frequent service to towns in all directions, including service to UConn in Storrs and to Bradley International Airport. And to make it truly transformative, town and regional officials would develop new zones and incentives to spur so-called high-density-transit-oriented developments, where housing and retail co-exist close to transit stations, something CRCOG is working on along with the Partnership for Strong Communities, another Hartford-based planning and research group.

But the transit project that could be a true game changer is direct hourly train service to New York from Hartford. The $900 million in federal funds for the project is committed, so Wray believes it will happen. Another project, linking Worcester to Springfield, would give Hartford train service to Boston. Wray believes even if it’s not true high-speed transit, the frequency factor coupled with Wi-Fi service would make taking the train to New York a positive experience.

As for the economical implications, he says that when an economically colder region (Greater Hartford) is connected to a hotter region (New York or Boston), both regions can benefit. New York or Boston companies’ back-office operations might consider moving to the Hartford region, where space is less expensive. The area could also become more attractive for the key demographic of 20- and 30-somethings who’d weigh the economics and realize that they’re only a train ride anytime from a major-league game or a big-city get-together with friends.

City Focus: Greater Hartford

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