A Somewhat Holey Quilt

What would Hartford be like with people on the streets? As Doug Suisman put it, “people attract more people.” A bustling city would seem like a happening place to be. One might even reserve a seat on the MegaBus from Boston to come here. One of the goals of the iQuilt project is to do just this– make Hartford a destination. Yet for those of us who live here, we know that there are people out and about in Hartford– they are just not plentiful downtown. Park Street’s activity was alluded to during the presentation on the evening of June 24th at the Belding Center for the Performing Arts, as was the need for such a downtown project to reach out to the neighborhoods, yet that part of the plan was more talk than design. It’s early still in the process and every idea was clearly up for further discussion. Some of the iQuilt ideas are hope-inducing and would be positive changes; some ideas did not go as far as they needed to and other aspects were ignored altogether. Leaving the forum, I would have felt better had Suisman asked for comments mainly from people whose names he did not already know.

David Fay–President of the Bushnell—explained that two years ago the Bushnell began thinking about a plan for Capitol Avenue, as the center is isolated from much of downtown. The iQuilt project began about six months ago; “up to this point,” Fay said, the project “has been paid for.” They want feedback and public support before an organization is developed to manage the project and move it forward. Getting questions and comments during the public forum should be a start, but not the only effort taken to gather feedback.

The presentation on Wednesday was given by Douglas Suisman, of Santa Monica, whose role as one of the project’s planning principals seemed less of an odd choice upon learning that he grew up in this area. He is the principal of Suisman Urban Design (Los Angeles), which describes its vision and guiding principles this way:

cities are complex human artifacts which evolve over time. We believe that urban design solutions must therefore incorporate a deep understanding of the physical place and a profound respect for its social and cultural fabric. We are committed to broad participation, clear communication, and high quality. We are motivated by a passion for the lived experience of cities.

The site’s avowed dedication to the public makes one hopeful that they will continue to seek public input, particularly from those who may not have heard about Wednesday’s presentation.

The project’s name—iQuilt–seems like it is derived from Apple’s i-Everything trend, but during the presentation, it was explained that the “i” represents innovations, information, ideas, imagination, invention, and ingenuity, as well as the shape made by the walkway connection between Bushnell Park and the Connecticut River. The quilt represents the scattered art and cultural sites downtown (patches?), as well as the shape made by downtown. Though they have a logo already, it appears that the name could change. Heather Brandon of Urban Compass regards the iQuilt name as sounding “quaint.” “We do not need the lower case i,” Brandon says. “It is too abstracted from what it’s meant to represent and seems like a designerly flight of fancy. The shape of the i is also too abstract and forced. We need walkable areas and connections, yes, but not catchy names that really are no better than other tangentially related catchy names. The name is important because it gives people a solid concept to grasp and work with, a central idea that explains the why of whatever this is.”

The comments following Frank Rizzo’s column supporting this venture also have interesting critiques of both the project’s name and its logo. A few people took notice of how the logo reads too closely to “iQuit” and how the name and logo are “confusing.”

One of the major aims of this project is to bring Hartford’s offerings into the public eye. Suisman explained that many buildings have banners attached to them to show what sorts of events and activities take place inside. He suggested that there is a need for more transparency, so that passersby can easily see what goes on inside; in some cases, he envisioned cafes and the arts being moved outdoors.

Suisman began his nearly flawless presentation with an anecdote about the magazines found on airplanes. One of these, Hemispheres, runs a feature called “3 Perfect Days.” Hartford has never been spotlighted, so he put together a slideshow of images that might be found in such an article, should one be published. Many of downtown Hartford’s treasures like the Wadsworth Atheneum and buildings with interesting architecture were displayed, including the new Connecticut Science Center; however, this portion of the presentation was also problematic, as we recognized photographs belonging to us and other local bloggers. This would be great exposure for bloggers and photographers, except that the copyrighted works were used without permission or credit. Given that Suisman is a professional, he is expected to know what counts as acceptable use of other people’s work. We hope that in future presentations, he respectfully credits all photographers after receiving prior permission for using their works.

So, what would happen during a perfect three-day vacation in Hartford? According to Suisman’s plan, visitors would never leave downtown. One could easily spend several days occupied with activities downtown, yet it would be a crime if a visitor never ventured into the neighborhoods, where one can get a better sense of the city’s cultural diversity and offerings. As a sidenote, SoDo (South Downtown) was frequently described as a neighborhood, which it is not. Hartford’s neighborhoods are: Asylum Hill, Barry Square, Behind the Rocks, Blue Hills, Clay Arsenal, Downtown, Frog Hollow, North Meadows, Northeast, Parkville, Sheldon Charter Oak, South Green, South End, South Meadows, Southwest, Upper Albany, and the West End. I wanted Suisman to explain how they planned to connect the downtown-centered iQuilt to the cultural institutions outside of downtown, like The Artists Collective, The Studio @ Billings Forge, and Real Art Ways, but I only caught one idea, which was in the creation of a shared cultural center to be located on the corner of Gold and Main. Suisman seemed aware of the need to connect to the neighborhoods, as he mentioned cultural institutions and parks a few times, yet he either omitted details about this part of the plan (perhaps the public forum was not the place to discuss what might interest residents?) or did not have this aspect hashed out. To be fair, it’s an ambitious plan, but it is also filled with holes.

For instance, there was no recognition of the Hartford Public Library or City Hall. Given that the library has one of the elements–transparency– that Suisman described as being more needed in buildings, it’s strange that it was overlooked. Additionally, the library houses the Hartford History Center. That may not seem like a sexy thing to include in a visitor’s guide, but for history buffs who might be checking out Mark Twain, Butler-McCook, Beecher Stowe, and the Old State House anyway, why not mention a free option? Heather Brandon points out that “the library is a great example of how we can see what’s inside and when we’re in it, we can see to the outside. Also, it has this unused cafe space. What suggestions would Suisman offer for how we use it, and what about the space between the building and the sidewalk?” While the library was included on the iQuilt map that was published in the print edition of the Hartford Courant, Suisman totally ignored the library and City Hall during this presentation.

As for City Hall, this might have more appeal for local/regional visitors than to someone from California if we’re simply looking at how it functions; however, a mere trip inside shows its value in terms of architecture, as it was designed in the Beaux-Arts style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brandon adds, “I’m bothered by his omission of these two buildings because they represent the civic heart of the downtown. They should be honored and recognized as such – free and public spaces where anyone is welcome to partake of services. Above and beyond this is the notion of a place where *families* are actually welcome.

Suisman overlooked families a bit much just like so many other facets of downtown regard children as though they don’t exist. The only mention I caught about children was that they are so tactile and like to touch public art pieces. He also did mention the need for parents to sit and have coffee if there’s a place for children to play. Are there places for children to play?”

Another slight was the failure to mention the former G.Fox building, which offers more interesting architecture and relics from the department store. A friend who is an architecture junkie, upon entering 950/960 Main Street for the first time, practically swooned over the design. Also in the building is Capital Community College, which among its many courses, offers classes in the fields of architecture, art (drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, and ethnic art), music, and theatre. There are art galleries inside. How does this get overlooked? Trinity College and University of Hartford were mentioned in the presentation, and given that neither is in downtown—the focus of the project—it seems like a massive oversight to not give a nod to Capital. Hopefully, as iQuilt is refined, institutions and venues that are not listed in every tourism guide will be included.

Primarily, Suisman focused on ways to make the downtown more appealing to pedestrians. One of his suggestions was to improve signage, such as placing arrows on the back of pedestrian walk lights, indicating both the direction of a nearby attraction, and how far the distance is for someone on foot. He spoke of the need for better marked crosswalks as well. Given the absence of painted crosswalks in many areas, this is a clear need; however, there needs to be better enforcement of traffic laws as well. I can not tell you the number of times that I have been crossing the street while the pedestrian signal granted me permission to walk, one or more cars have run the red light nearly hitting me, and a police officer was mere yards away…and the officer has not done a thing.

Another idea that Suisman had was the ability for tourists to rent iPhones that have been pre-programmed with maps and itineraries. This use of technology might be worth the money for people visiting from afar, but for locals who are somewhat familiar with the area, it seems to be more sensible to stick with old-fashioned maps and added signs that direct pedestrians to the various sites.

During the question and answer period, an audience member asked about Suisman’s ideas regarding CT Transit, which he admitted was important, but also had not put much thought into yet. He had previously suggested altering the Star Shuttle route; the details on this seemed undeveloped. Many of his plans seemed to integrate more environmentally-sound suggestions; his brief encouragement of a bicycle culture did not materialize into real cyclist-oriented ideas, such as a few visible, centrally-located bike racks in downtown. There are, of course, bicycle advocates pushing for such things, but to have the need echoed by Suisman would have been a nice gesture toward people already living in the area. He did, however, express the need for district rather than destination parking, which would encourage people to do more walking, and as a welcomed side effect, lighten some of the congestion downtown. Every successful city, he said, had an organized parking system; Hartford does not have this.

Perhaps the focus on the arts was due to the audience that Suisman was pitching this to. As David Panagore said early into the forum, in Hartford, “the arts is off the charts.” Suisman suggested Hartford become recognized as “Art City,” emphasizing that the iQuilt project is “not just about consuming arts. It’s also about the arts economy.” In conjunction with colleges and existing arts venues, this could be developed. He showed examples of interactive public art in other cities, adding that the Wadsworth Atheneum has already showed some interest in leading the way with this.

Suisman closed out his presentation with a veritable laundry list of things he believes would need to be fixed, changed, and/or created for the iQuilt project to work:

–The cafe that is currently inside of the Travelers building would need to be moved “outside” into the glass atrium near the giant red umbrella. This fits in with his theme of more indoor-outdoor spaces, especially for restaurants.

–The ugly wall alongside that Wadsworth Atheneum could be taken down and The Russell at the Wadsworth Atheneum could be moved to what would then be a more visible side entrance. While there is some value to this concept, it is already adjacent to Gengras Courtyard, which provides diners with a nicer lunchtime view (golfclubs notwithstanding) than they would be granted if the eating area were moved to face the Travelers’ building.

–He suggested that the Bushnell Cafe expand its hours. Until going to the presentation, I had no idea this cafe existed, and I’ve walked, driven, biked, and ridden a bicycle past it many times.

–The parking lot that is used by the State Office Building and Bushnell would be reduced and “greened.” Part of the lot could be used for outdoor activities that are too harsh on the Bushnell Park lawn. The asphalt would be replaced by materials that help to filter water.

–The giant ugly wall that separates Capitol Avenue and the State Office Building would need to be removed. In its place, Suisman suggested a terrace and cafe be constructed.

–The details were missing, but he suggested that a Taste of Hartford occur on “The Mall,” which is the area next to Bushnell Park where the food trucks line up.

–Lafayette Circle (at the edge of Frog Hollow) would need to be “greened” and made more friendly for pedestrians.

–Several changes would have to be made to Bushnell Park. Suisman said that since the MDC already has to address the need for flowing water in Bushnell Park, adding a kind of running water feature is not unrealistic, though he thought that “daylighting” the buried river to be not a possibility. Showing original plans for Bushnell Park, Suisman explained that some of the original bridges could be restored. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch is where one of these bridges is located.

Extending the park along Gold Street (closing Gold Street for this, perhaps) to Main Street, where a main entrance-type gate announce the park was another change that he envisioned. If this were to occur, it would affect some of the CT Transit bus routes.

An audience member involved with the Bushnell Park Foundation suggested that more winter activities be planned and that ice skating be returned to the park. Suisman said that he would be looking at what other cities in northern climates have done in this regard. He also mentioned that this could mean rethinking some of the park layout, as apparently the carousel is going to have to be moved anyway due to soil problems.

He also suggested adding lots of lighting through the park. Having walked through Bushnell Park at night (against the advice of signs declaring park closed between dusk and dawn), I can say that while a bit more lighting would be nice, it’s not exactly the worst-lit place I have walked. It felt safe, and could feel safer if more nighttime activities were permitted there, like evening concerts.

The ideas given in the presentation seemed like a start, but were lacking the depth that could be developed after discussing such plans with the public, including those who live outside of downtown and the West End.

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