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a paper I wrote

October 20th, 2006 (07:34 am)
current song: Kenny Rogers


Hartford’s Downtown Plan for Revitalization

            In 1998, the City of Hartford, Connecticut, along with several other non-profit and civic organizations, sponsored the preparation of the Downtown Hartford Economic and Urban Design Action Strategy.  The plan was written by Urban Strategies, Inc. and studies the business and entertainment district of Hartford.  I chose Hartford to study because I am familiar with the city, having grown up in Wethersfield, because it is a smaller city that is easy to understand in a few hundred pages, and thirdly because Hartford is a once-prosperous northeastern city that is now a shell of its former self.  The economic fabric of the city was unraveling for several decades but suffered a significant, sudden blow in the early 1990’s during a recession.  It is an example of how planning can help envision a prosperous yet shrunken city. 

  

          It was not easy to locate this plan.  I visited the city of Hartford website in preparation for this assignment and did not find this plan; I found other, less user-friendly, more policy- and bureaucrat-oriented plans such as Hartford’s Plan of Development.  Finally, I located the plan on Hartfordinfo.org, a project of the Hartford Public Library.  At this website I was also able to find a map of projects suggested by this plan that have been started, such as apartment buildings north of Bushnell Park and the Adrian’s Landing convention Center[1].  They also have a PDF of the current governmental and organizational context within which the 2010 plan will be written.

            The plan is 114 pages long plus appendices.  Unfortunately, I was not able to locate the appendices.  The primary purpose of the plan is to start the revitalization of Downtown Hartford.  The plan explains the methodology used in authoring it, and it gives a vision of Downtown with principles, action strategies, and a first phase plan to start to create the vision.  It then lists guidelines for built forms and strategies for implementing the plan.  The plan has many maps, diagrams, and photographs, though they seem to have been reduced to black and white when they were originally in color.  It contains photographs of buildings, parks, streetscapes, important historical figures, and healthy urban scenes.  Major maps include a vision plan map with a key, and maps associated with specific action strategies, such as the Action: Historic Structures and Areas and Action: Retail maps.  There are not very many tables.  The Appendices included responses to surveys; it is safe to assume they are in table form.  There are diagrams illustrating traffic calming options and proposed intersection improvements. 

Additionally, many of the maps are too small to easily read writing on them.  It is very likely that the Library put a photocopy of the plan on the internet for download instead of an original.  Unfortunately, there are several grammar mistakes, such as:  “the emerging downtown… will balance streets so that both pedestrians and cars are comfortable to use them.”  It also lacks a simple map of Downtown with labeled streets, so the reader must either have his/her own map or know the area well. 

            The Plan presents fairly broad proposals for downtown.  There are specific recommendations when needed, such as removing a building on Temple Street that blocks the street.  For revitalizing Downtown, the plan takes a strong pedestrian oriented approach, while simultaneously looking to ease vehicular traffic flow.  It also takes a holistic approach to Downtown, balancing and connecting diverse elements.  The Action Strategy section breaks up actions into three categories:  Urban Structure, Land Use, and Movement.  Each of these is broken up further, and issues, opportunities, and recommended actions are outlined.  For example, Section 5.2.4 is in the Urban Structure category and is titled Heritage Resources.  The issues section describes the general historic legacy of Hartford including its parks, brownstone housing, the Old State House and others, and highlights the issues of destruction of this legacy through neglect and badly-planned urban renewal and the splitting of Downtown from the river.  It then describes the problems that result:  weakened ties to the past and a weakened sense of place. The Opportunities section describes how to ameliorate these negatives: by protecting and enhancing historic resources The Actions section lists specific actions to be taken, including a public signage system and preparing a master plan of the Colt Factory area. 

            There were many themes and ideas that influenced this plan.  Most sought to make downtown more pedestrian friendly.  These ideas included removing “discontinuity” and “creating better cohesion,” reconnecting the Downtown to the River and Bushnell Park, and making Downtown streets friendly and animated, with “outward” rather than “inward” buildings.  Outward buildings have friendly exteriors with windows and doors, shops, and at-grade entrances.  Inward buildings tend to be large buildings built for a single purpose, without easy entry, windows, or interaction with pedestrians, such as the Hartford Civic Center, a coliseum and mall built to compete with suburban shopping malls. 

            Other ideas sought to increase downtown residents.  These ideas included, not surprisingly, building more high- to medium-residential housing.  It is well known that only 1300 to 1600 people lived in downtown Hartford around the time this plan was written.  This increased resident base will fuel downtown retail and add viability to a supermarket in the area. 

            The bulk of the other ideas were aimed at making Downtown friendlier to visitors.  These ideas included “gateway” enhancements at key street and freeway entrances to Downtown.  Downtown is cut off from most of Hartford by I-84 on the north and west.  The plan is to make the streets that pass over or under I-84 friendlier to pedestrians and beckon people at key intersections outside Downtown.  Another key idea involved the construction of a convention center and stadium.  At the time it was thought that the New England Patriots would be moving to Hartford.  It if fortunate that the Downtown plan was not centered on this, because it did not happen.  The plan seems strong enough to succeed without a major sports team in Hartford.  A third key idea was to reconfigure traffic patterns in Downtown by converting most one-way streets to two-way, the aforementioned idea to open streets that had been closed to traffic decades ago, and to open the pedestrian-only street next to the Old State House back up for transit use. 

            The word “experience” was used many times in describing how to make Downtown better.  The experience of the visitor and resident is of the utmost importance, according to this plan.  The word experience is worrisome due to the malleability of human tastes and because it reduces human responses and lives to episodic, exploitable events.  This is an unfortunate outgrowth of post-modernism.  It is important that planners not look at cities as amusement parks or shopping malls. 

            It is important for a plan to present a compelling, attractive vision of the future that could be.  The vision communicated in this plan will be compelling to most people, and it certainly lays out the beginning steps.  There are many drawings and a Vision Plan map.  In the downloadable version I read, the map was misplaced into the back of the document.  The vision focuses on Hartford’s assets and how they will be connected to Downtown.  It talks about what will be added to make those connections and what Downtown will look like and how it will be used.  Most of the plan makes reference to Bushnell Park, the river, or one of the cultural institutions on Main Street in some way. 

            This is explicitly a strategic plan.  The plan really does a good job laying out a framework for implementing the vision.  It’s very immediate, and feels very urgent.  It is a call to action; the 6th chapter calls for the implementation of high-priority items over a 3 to 5 year span.  The authors called these collective items the Circle Line, calling for street improvements and an electric shuttle along a U-shaped path through Downtown.  The plan rolls out basic issues and concentrates on them.  The plan is linear in that it sets out priority items and follow-up items, and the planning process began with a discussion of Downtown’s “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and favorite places” with the public.  Workshops specific to areas of Downtown were invitation-only.  However, the plan seems to have been written in partnership with multiple local and regional organizations.  It also, as noted earlier, gives guidelines for future built forms  and recommendations for strengthening implementation. 

            The assessment of current conditions and trends is included in the introduction, but it is not extensive.  It could probably be better.  Perhaps these were covered extensively in other documents; the plan mentions an economic plan for the Hartford metropolitan area prepared by the Connecticut Capital Region Growth Council.  The plan talks about the plight of cities in the US, and specifically Hartford, but seems to focus more on counteracting these trends.  So it focuses not so much on the trends, but on its goal of revitalization.   

            In the methodology section, the authors write about how they put together the plan.  They stressed a “multi-disciplinary” approach to this project, with other consulting organizations as part of a team that followed a holistic, iterative process of planning.  There were meetings and workshops with residents and important stakeholders like land owners, business people and organizational representatives.  Monthly bulletins were published to update the public on progress.  The planning team met with developers of so-called “pipeline projects”—development projects that were in the process of being planned when this plan was written.  The planning team also met with officials to discern an implementation plan, and surveys of downtown parking and downtown residential demand were completed. 

            Overall I found this plan pleasant and enjoyable to read.  It is exciting to read about plans for a city I know fairly well.  From reading Ken Greenburg’s website, I know that the city of Hartford has commissioned him to prepare a 2010 plan for Hartford.  HartfordInfo.org has a website, www.hartfordinfo.org/hartford2010, with the purpose of keeping the public informed of the status of the plan.  It seems that many of the recommendations laid out in the Downtown plan were followed. 

               



[1] This map can be found at: http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/economicdevelopment/Completed2006.pdf