iQuilt: Dotting i’s

rendering courtesy of iQuilt

rendering courtesy of iQuilt

As barrels of trash heaved into the pond in Bushnell Park remain there for nearly a week and as the water feature in the playground nearby continues to be broken for years on end, residents and stakeholders were presented with the iQuilt‘s dream plan of bring flowing water through the park.

Using identity strategy and enculturation to rally support, those leading this project dismissed skeptics as lacking vision. As much was said twice yesterday at a mini-presentation during a Rising Star Breakfast and in the evening before the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. The presentation included codewords,  as several supporters described selves as “believers” and even went so far as to say that bring flowing water back into the park would be good for our “souls.”

The presentation included visual appeals to nostalgia and romance. The lovely, verdant design renderings seduced the participant into imagining a pristine urban paradise in which those seeking recreation can choose to wade across a 50-100 foot wide brook, meander through pop up studios and greenhouses, or linger on any of the nine bridges that would be added to Bushnell Park.

Urban design presentations, as a whole, dazzle those from whom they want support, but fail to provide real answers that concerned residents have about what is slated to happen in our backyards.

Prior to the presentation, Real Hartford readers submitted questions they had about this project, which are marked in bold and are direct quotes, unless noted otherwise.

Who is doing the planning?

The iQuilt, in the works for several years now, is described as a “culture based urban design plan for Downtown Hartford.”

The iQuilt is a private/public partnership which receives support from various institutions including the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Bushnell Park Foundation, CIGNA, City of Hartford, State of Connecticut, MDC, Riverfront Recapture, Connecticut Light & Power, Northeast Utilities, Travelers, and United Illuminating. Suisman Urban Design has been leading the iQuilt design team. A 501(c)3 was formed recently.

Why does it have such a stupid name?

The name for this project has been explained as the shape of Downtown and its attractions appearing like a patchwork quilt. As noted previously, the “i” stands for “innovation, information, ideas, imagination, invention, and ingenuity.”

How are decisions made? Who is paying for it? Who is supposed to benefit?

Move the carousel, why the hell would they want to move the carousel?

Since the beginning of iQuilt in 2008, they have asked for public input several times each year in meetings and have included a form on the plan’s website for people to send in comments, but as noted after presentations in 2011, it’s not clear if all public comment is valued equally. For instance, while there was no overwhelming public support for moving the carousel to a new location within the park (near the Pump House Gallery), this decision is one iQuilters have opted to continue pressing for anyway. They have stated that the ground beneath the carousel is sinking. In conversation with an individual involved in historical preservation and with another high-ranking City employee, I was informed that the carousel was not, in fact, sinking (or that he had not heard anything about that), and that the operator of the carousel does not want the structure to be moved at all.

The price tag on this collection of projects is over $100 million, with $8.4 million of that going into the design end of it alone. This is being funded by a variety of sources including public, private, and non-profit. It received the NEA Cultural Placemaking Grant in 2010 and 2011.

Cost estimate courtesy of iQuilt

Cost estimate courtesy of iQuilt

The plan is such that segments of this can be completed separately, so the entire collection of projects does not need to be funded all at once.

Who benefits? Everyone benefits from a beautiful, walkable, well-maintained city, but much of this project appears geared toward attracting visitors and changing perspectives about the city.

In earlier configurations of the iQuilt, stakeholders were given the impression that the ugly surface lots — especially those along Capitol Avenue between Trinity/Washington Street and Hudson Street, an area that has been dubbed “Connecticut Square” — would be transformed into something more sustainable and pedestrian-friendly. The plan now is to install permeable pavers because State workers are not going to give up their parking and there would be hassle with the unions, Doug Suisman said when Councilman Deutsch asked about their plan to remove the surface lots.

On Wednesday evening, Councilman Deutsch also inquired about the old YMCA building, which through neglect, is becoming an eyesore next to the park. No succinct, definite response was provided about how the iQuilt plan would address this visible blight.

Any progress working with Bushnell Tower on doing something at the southwest corner of Gold and Main?

One consistency with the iQuilt has been the idea of narrowing Gold Street and essentially extending Bushnell Park along it. With the plan, Gold Street would be realigned, leaving more green area to the side closest to the Ancient Burying Ground. A rendering shows the removal of high walls around the Bushnell Plaza complex and addition of trees in that area. Between the presentation and glossy pocketguide distributed after it, there was no indication how specifically this area would be used. A full report and overview is slated to be posted online on January 24, 2012, according to Suisman who continues to say “nothing is set in stone [with the iQuilt plan] but there is forward momentum.”

How do they expect to keep new watercourses clean when the current ones are trashed?

[T]he Park River was buried due to flooding issues. What precautions are being taken to prevent the same from occurring.

How will the proposed waterway support ‘green infrastructural needs’?

There are no plans to unearth the Park River. Since the last big public meeting, all talk of bringing flowing water into the park has been in connection to Gully Brook, which runs from Keney Park and would be diverted to created a new brook, typically fewer than eighteen inches deep.

The pocketguide says that “natural runoff from the Downtown watershed will be purified by riparian plantings and bioswales before flowing into the brook” (17). No details were provided about the nature of the pumps that would be used to bring water in for this brook, beginning across from Union Station.

At the last meeting, designers said that people would not be “interacting” with the brook, but now, people would be free to wade across it.

The possibility of rats in the water was a concern expressed at several public meetings. Suisman assured the public that there would be no rats in the brook.

Maintenance of the brook and the remainder of the park has been a concern. When I asked for Suisman to provide me with information about this aspect, he pointed to how the MDC works to keep the Riverfront clean and said that City government alone could not maintain these projects. Jack Hale, the Park Operations Manager with the City of Hartford, had more insight regarding this aspect, saying that “the current pond is a maintenance nightmare because it is essentially stagnant water with an earthen bottom.  Although the brook will be larger, it will be shallower and I believe it will have a flat concrete or otherwise sealed bottom.  It will be readily accessible for maintenance and relatively easily flushed out.”

Right now, litter and natural debris regularly clutters up the pond, making it less than attractive.

Hale acknowledges that ruts created by vehicles along the edges of walkways present a maintenance challenge. He says that “the new system should be designed to greatly reduce that problem by identifying some pathways as appropriate for vehicle use and laying them out so that vehicles will have little reason to leave the pavement.”

In the redesign, Hale says he hopes to “introduce some new drainage strategies that would make some currently marginal areas more usable and easier to maintain than they are now.”

As for lighting, Hale said that higher efficiency lights would reduce the need for maintenance staff to frequently replace burned out ones.

Suisman said that the iQuilt could make recommendations about maintenance, but would not be mandating anything. Yet he assured residents that the iQuilters were not interested in implementing projects that they would be unable to maintain.

The cost of estimated maintenance has not been provided yet in the iQuilt literature.

Have they come to a resolution on the waterworlding of stone field sculpture?

Was there going to be a mini task force on [the waterworlding of stone field sculpture]?

Controversy was previously stirred up when the iQuilt folks discussed partially submerging Stone Field Sculpture in a water feature. This disrespect for public art was called out by Will K. Wilkins of Real Art Ways, and others. Judging by the landscape renderings and absence of discussion at Tuesday’s presentation, it appears this plan has been nixed.

Have they gotten together with the East Coast Greenway people and adjusted plans accordingly?

This is one area where the iQuilt plan has been especially receptive to public input. As late as several years into the iQuilt plan, key designers were unaware that the East Coast Greenway passes through Bushnell Park. After reminders from Bike Walk Connecticut, this path has received acknowledgement. Suisman said that in August riders who will be ending a 500 mile ride in Hartford (it originates in Maine) should be welcomed.

There are plans for an East Coast Greenway bike station, which would provide storage for bicycles.

[H]ow [do] they hope to engage the disengaged?

It seems that branding is another component of this. This is reminiscent of the controversial branding conversation that happened in July. Everyone wants his brand to be The One, and we already have a plethora of signs presenting different messages. For clear branding, the City is going to need to step in and decide which brand to settle on.

Will [the iQuilt plan] address the average Hartford-avoiders’ general complaints of “parking” in any way?

By implementing “road diets,” working on safer routes for pedestrians, installing wayfinding signs, improving infrastructure for cyclists, and promoting mass transit, there should be fewer reasons for people to be concerned with parking cars.

[H]ow do we convince iQuilt to… NOT do it? Or, better yet, how do we make it actually matter?

It appears that the City is firmly behind the iQuilt.

As to how to make it matter, that’s what these public input sessions have been about. Everyone wants to have his/her worked cheered on. Criticism can be hard to take, especially in the early stages of something. But being surrounded by yes-men means that important issues, like sustaining funding or dealing with maintenance, could be overlooked and present much larger problems later. For those who love Hartford and desperately want to see innovative ideas succeed, it is crucial that they step up and risk losing popularity by making sure all i’s are dotted.

It was said that Hartford is twelve years into a 35-year plan to reconnect the cultural institutions in Downtown. The full report will be available before the end of this month and an open house for all cultural institutions Downtown — called Invisionfest — is planned for September 28-29, 2012.

UPDATE: The Pocket Guide referenced in this article is now available online (PDF)