The idea came to Erin Stewart shortly after she was elected mayor of New Britain in 2013. Decades earlier, downtown had been sliced in two by Route 72. Main Street now crossed over a highway, and the main downtown area was cut off from the ever-popular Little Poland section of town. The 265-foot bridge spanning the highway was an unsightly concrete overpass that was poorly lit, had narrow sidewalks and resounded with the roar of the passing cars below.
“Quite frankly it was just scary to walk over,” Stewart recalls. That’s why when she learned repairs were needed for the bridge, she began to envision something more.
“I drew it on a napkin. I’m not kidding,” Stewart says of the first rough outline of what would ultimately become the Beehive Bridge.
In September, the city held a grand opening for the $7.4 million bridge. The city contributed more than $2 million toward its construction, with the rest of the funding coming from grants. It is a dramatic reimagining of a once-unattractive overpass. Inspired by the beehive theme of New Britain’s official seal, it features colorful translucent panels in a honeycomb pattern, as well as four stainless-steel honeybee sculptures and two pocket parks at the approach to the bridge. The panels light up at night, and the bridge has bike lanes and wider sidewalks than in the past.
The city has two main goals for the bridge, Stewart says. By cutting down on the noise from the highway and making it significantly more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, it is designed to better connect the two sections of the downtown area. Second, the bridge, with its unusual design, will serve as a brightly colored beacon to the city’s quirk and character.
“Everything we work toward is changing the perception of the city of New Britain,” Stewart says. “This is certainly making the tens of thousands of people who drive by each day look up and say, ‘What is that up there? That’s New Britain. We may want to get off this exit and go up there and see what they have to offer.’ ”
That’s high expectations for a bridge, but it’s already accomplishing those goals, says Gerry Amodio, executive director of New Britain Downtown District. “This bridge gives New Britain an iconic structure,” he says. “Not only is it a link between two ends of Main Street, but two different cultures.”
When Route 72 was routed through New Britain in the 1960s, it not only split the downtown but eliminated 20 to 25 percent of the city’s downtown real estate, Amodio says. “It caused the relocation and closure of over 200 businesses. … It gutted downtown.”
Over the years there was talk of building a platform over the highway to reclaim some of that lost real estate, but no projects came together to address the problem until this bridge. “This is our consolation prize,” Amodio says. “We’ve already seen people come to downtown to see the bridge.”
Bees have long played a role in New Britain’s identity. Next to the beehive in the city seal is the motto “Industry fills the hive and enjoys the honey,” a nod to New Britain’s historic ties to industry. The Beehive Bridge builds on existing infrastructure improvements in the city and is next to the CTfastrak bus station. More pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly sidewalks will continue from the bridge down East Main Street, and Stewart says it has led to “increased interest from developers looking at property for sale around the bridge.”
The first phase of the Columbus Commons development is scheduled to open with 80 housing units this winter on the downtown side of the bridge.
Stewart hopes the bridge will help people realize “New Britain is a changing place.” She adds, “while we’ve not had the best reputation in the past, we have a lot to offer, a lot of cultural diversity, a lot of amazing restaurants and places to visit. We are home to a world-class American art museum [the New Britain Museum of American Art]. We are home to the Broad Street Little Poland neighborhood. There is so much that is unique about the city.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the location of Columbus Commons in relation the Beehive Bridge. It is on the downtown side of the bridge not the Little Poland side.