Having grown up in Hartford when there was an arcade on Main Street across from what is now the Capital Prep Magnet School, a man explained that areas north of downtown experienced divestment beginning in the late 1960′s. “They called it civil uprising,” he said of the trigger for this loss. “We called it riots.”
He was not the only one at Wednesday’s charrette to point at spaces on maps of the Albany – Homestead Avenue corridor and name what used to be there. Another participant commented on the drastic change in character between downtown and the neighborhoods: “It’s a different planet.”
Besides hosting rundown buildings, vacant structures and lots, this corridor experiences the wear-and-tear of traffic; the Urban Land Institute says 17,000 vehicles travel on Albany Avenue and 13,000 on Homestead Avenue, daily. While there are plenty of institutions, restaurants, and other vendors along this corridor, navigating on foot or bicycle can be unpleasant, as the existing infrastructure favors motorized vehicles.
The purpose of the charrette — held at the University of Hartford Handel Performing Arts Center — was to gather feedback from anyone willing to give it, but beyond that, no explanation was provided, at least not at the beginning. The average resident coming in off the street who has not been paying close attention to Albany/Homestead redevelopment would have no idea what the meeting was supposed to achieve. There was only the vaguest mention of the connection to the ULI Daniel Rose Fellowship.
Questions were not entirely satisfied upon their asking.
After the briefest introduction, people were encouraged to go to the different tables where conceptual overviews and maps were provided. It felt like the “teams” were given scripts. One of the “concepts” was of relocating Hartford Lumber and filling its void with residential housing. I asked if Hartford Lumber — which has been in the same location since 1875 — was on board with this concept, not to be incendiary, but because I wanted to better understand what stage this project is in. The response was a dodge, giving information about nodes instead of how businesses were involved in this process. Having to interrupt and press for an answer, I learned that no, the businesses being considered for relocation had not been approached.
At another table, after noticing that “plans” included student housing on Homestead Avenue near its intersection with Albany Avenue, I asked for which institution this would provide housing. She did not know, but agreed with me that University of Hartford seemed like the most practical one due to proximity. Asking if that institution was seeking student housing in the corridor, she could only tell me that she had no idea.
There was also confusion about how the “node” boundaries were determined. One business owner wanted to know why his establishment was outside the node boundaries and how this might ultimately impact his business. The answer eventually provided suggested that these boundaries were utterly arbitrary.
Was this whole thing just wishful thinking that participants comment on? Was the charrette just a charade?
There was nothing in the plans quite as inane as making a fake river on top of a buried one, but some of these ideas did boggle the mind.
Someone’s wishful thinking involves creating a roundabout at Albany and Main, which would also include the “proposed” addition of an outdoor cafe in the space between the Albany and Main cusp. It involves relocating an historic house on Main Street to a corner of this roundabout to “bookend” the public safety complex. Which historic house this might be was not clear.
Among the more meaningful suggestions– bike lanes on Albany Avenue, Homestead Avenue, and Vine Street. Improvements for pedestrians seem minimal, with really only a mention of planting trees. Would this be working alongside other street improvement projects? If so, this was also not clear.
A “green artwalk,” whatever that is, was named as a possibility for the section of Woodland Street between Albany Avenue and Greenfield Street. When asked what this would be and why it could not be extended out and along the Ave up to Mark Twain Drive, no answer was given. The talk was changed to “nodes” again.
The proposal to create a “nature/running trail” along the Park River shows an absence of knowledge that a partial trail already exists; an extension of this would be more accurate. Several of the suggestions made for the first segment of the corridor, which spans from Mark Twain Drive to Woodland, depend upon the addition of student housing. This is what is believed will allow an existing bank near Baltimore Street to begin to thrive. This is why a nature trail would be considered.
At the charrette, participants were encouraged to vote for designs they liked and provide comments. An Albany/Homestead Goals Timeline Sheet was given so opinions on priorities and timeframes could be given, but they were just distributed with no explanation.
In the disorganized, cluttered room, someone did circulate trying to get a mailing list together — a task that might have been better accomplished with a welcome table and greeter who could get people up to speed as this charrette was set up for people to drop in and leave whenever. Maybe we will hear about what happens to all the feedback from today.