Thursday, December 12, 2013

Throwing down the Gauntlet, or Chris's Great Idea

You either engage or enrage.  Pick one.
What an amazing community showing at the third and final public info session.  The pitch from the seemingly professional Boston planning and marketing firm, Utile, envisioned a smooth and continuous outgrowth of the existing Downtown Hartford pattern.  Curiously, embedded in his delivery, one presenter cautioned that it is hard to understand or plan for the future that you cannot see.  The minivan or the personal computer were offered up as game changers.  I was on board for most of the presentation, the developments and plans they presented did seem to be contiguous with the fabric of downtown Hartford.  Unfortunately, the consultants not being local, missed the fact that Heaven is not and should never be a town green.  For those new to anything outside the cozy womb of downtown, Heaven is the enthusiastic remaking of an otherwise neglected city owned space bridging I-84 as a mecca of legal walls, skate park, and performance space.

Why can't the model for development in Hartford be a game changer.  The junction between Hartford's downtown and the near North area of empty lots and under utilized spaces served as a buffer, perhaps historically intentional, between an income level (and color) of residents that did not fit into the calculations for likely residents and customers in the newly developed housing proposed for the study area.  The Heaven skate and graffiti park straddling I-84 may not look like the grassy knoll that the insurance companies would instinctually prefer to overlook or walk past.  But the vibrant youth and young adults, the current makeup and future of Hartford that showed up in force, made clear that any plan for the area needs to balance the business needs with that of a rising, organic, and local creative class.  That rising tide, if not used to fuel Hartford's growth and regional draw, could turn and leave or become stagnant and frustrated in the box that they are consigned to.  You don't want to end up with frustrated graffiti artists, believe me.

I agree that there there is much opportunity in the area just North of I-84.  Open space provides a developer a blank slate without the hassle of redeveloping.  It also cuts down on demolition costs.  The vacant space often comes with funding or tax abatement from the city and / or state to fill it up with something that adds to Hartford - jobs, housing, commercial space, groceries, or even industrial.  Being a city, it is infill like this that pulls in new residents from the burbs (finally seeing the light) and is best done with some sort of plan.  Developers (large and small) don't like to risk or waste their money and plans generally last more than the tenure of a mayor or through the current whims of the city council.  Plans are good, but only if the plans involve, complement, and have the support of the community.  This plan wasn't looking good out of the gate.  Out of town consultant.  Poor publicity and minimal public involvement at the first two info sessions.  Unfamiliarity with the area and an overwhelmingly downtown-centric lens on the plan.

The residents, NRZ's, and Heaven supporters got news of the third and final session and showed up in force. It took grass roots organizing, but the session at the Hartford Public Library was packed.  I'm a huge fan of HPL, but please note that all three info sessions occurred outside the area being studied.  Good on ya Hartford citizens for making the appropriate noise.  I'm glad I live here, especially when I see stuff like this come together.  At this point we need to keep a keen eye on the final report and make sure that the input from the final session was absorbed and incorporated.

Now I ask, what should Hartford strive for as a future state so that we're not at the third and final session trying to claw back the community focus of an urban development plan?  Chris Brown said one of the most prescient things I've heard in a while during the feedback and comment session.  "Why can't Hartford develop an urban design firm of it's own?"  When studies like this are taking place, it could be with a firm having local roots and connections.  If an outside firm comes in on big projects, it will also be able to contract portions of the work to Hartford-local urban planning professionals.  I challenge Trinity College, UCONN, or Capital Community College to fill this vacuum.  There are local and national jobs in urban design and transportation planning.  Can we start filling them in Hartford, Connecticut with students educated in Hartford?  UCONN is bringing more classes and the metro Hartford Campus downtown, that would be a great fit.

A penny for your thoughts o'loyal readers and radical thinkers?

Don't piss away what you just started.  Build on it.  Own it.  Make it awesome.


Ken Krayeske said...

We need a modern day George Keller.

Anonymous said...

"Why can't Hartford develop an urban design firm of it's own?" That's worth a few pages of commentary right there. Considering that Hartford is the Capital of The Land Of Steady Habits, I couldn't foresee many ideas for change coming from a native population that generally lacks drive to relinquish what is lacking yet familiar in favor of improvements that come with inconvenience. In the meantime, I'd rather see projects get proposed, approved, and completed sooner than later. The more I hear lifetime Hartfordites cite their local longevity as if it were some credential for being better qualified to gripe about the state of Hartford, the more I appreciate Haussmann's take-no-prisoners "assault" on the medieval city of Paris.

Tony C said...

Who's griping anonymous? This looks more like change making to me? Have you been to Heaven? Not a product of the stereotypical Land of Steady Habits.

Interstatement said...

Anonymous sounds like a DOT troll.