A question routinely asked by Hartford residents is if attending the endless number of public meetings serves any purpose. People feel their voices are not heard. Sometimes nothing comes from these conversations. Some suspect that these feedback sessions are held just so various entities can check “public engagement” off their lists before moving on to the next stage.
Last week’s Downtown North Park meeting did little to improve confidence in such things.
The public was informed of the meeting one week before it happened; it was also held on the same night and time as several other meetings that would appeal to many of those likely to attend — City Council, Board of Education, Frog Hollow NRZ, and likely others. Surely an evening could have been chosen when fewer civic meetings were planned?
Not knowing every person in attendance, a liberal estimate is that there were fourteen people participating who were not employed with the City of Hartford or Boston-based design firm Utile.
When asked where everyone was, the response given indicated the the Utile Principal believed this was a Hartford problem, saying that another city had no trouble turning out 200 participants.
When asked where the Clay Arsenal NRZ was — the lack of racial diversity at the meeting was another elephant in the room — I was given a defensive response, saying that the NRZ was represented at the stakeholders meeting held one week previous. Having heard nothing up until that point about such a meeting raised other questions, such as why the general public was divided from the stakeholders when everyone could benefit from a wider range of opinions.
When asked how those not present at this sparsely attended meeting could provide input for Utile and the City of Hartford, there was no real response for that. After pressing, I was told those not present could “contact Caitlin and Laura.” No last names, no introduction of who they are, no explanation of their affiliation, no email addresses provided. A vague promise was given to put information on “the website.”
What is a stakeholder?
Apparently it is not someone who has a vested interest in one of the spaces that Utile has suggested be radically modified.
During the presentation, New Ross, County Wexford Park (AKA Heaven) was referred to as a space to potentially be turned into a “village green.” There was no acknowledgement that this is actively used by skateboarders, nor was there mention of the plans that have been in the works since at least 2009 to create a skate park here. The skate park is not some far off pipe dream; last year, the Tony Hawk Foundation awarded grant money for it. There have been planning meetings in the same space as where this Downtown North Park meeting was held. Several active members of the Skate Board Task Force that I spoke with did not seem to know that there was a Downtown North Park stakeholders meeting, nor that Heaven was even up for discussion.
When the existence of this park and Skate Board Task Force was described to Utile, I was told by Tim Love, its Principal, that the skate park may need to move because it might not be in line with the goals of redevelopment.
Is the public being heard?
As with the previous meeting, when the public shared its concerns, people were generally greeted with a kind of defensiveness.
Suzanne Hopgood of the Capitol Regional Development Authority asked several times for the notetakers present to repeat back to her what questions and concerns were going to be relayed from the public to the City of Hartford where adjustments would be made to these plans. The summaries left out some of the public’s concerns, including where funding for this would come from or any of the discussion about New Ross, County Wexford Park.
When some challenged data — like the assertion that “Downtown West” has 72,400 square feet of supportable retail — the public was told that the Gibbs Market Analysis was correct, nothing more. This same study claims that the Downtown North area can support a 31,000 square foot grocery store and that there would be an additional 235,000 square feet of supportable retail in this area by 2017.
As questions about the market analysis went largely unanswered, so did questions about how the XL Center would figure into all of this. The civic center is considered outdated by many and in need of a major overhaul if it wants to compete with other area arenas. When asked if any of the vacant parcels had been considered for use by a new civic center, Utile suggested follow up meetings with those interested in it.
Abandoning Standards for Marketability?
Much of the presentation was given to justify a weakening of standards.
After being shown example after example of how strong market/strong demand areas like Battery Park City could mandate curb cut locations and building heights, the public was reminded that Hartford, to no one’s surprise, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from sites in Manhattan and Boston. Or, as Tim Love put it, he didn’t think the “level of guidelines would be as stringent in Hartford” because developers would “require more creativity.”
The message was delivered about a dozen ways in case anyone missed it, with Utile Principal saying, “we want to require some minimum standards,” but want “zoning to be reasonable enough that developers don’t circumvent.”
Standards are not currently rigid in Hartford, yet some properties have remained vacant for years. Is sacrificing the character of architecture or the culture of an area required to seduce businesses into the area?
Most of the meeting was a rehashing of what was discussed back in July, with few new details. One item given more attention was how to connect Riverside Park more directly to the rest of Downtown. There is currently a pedestrian and cyclist bridge that crosses I-91 so that people can make such a connection. One access point is in Riverside Park. The other access point is behind an empty lot beyond a gas station. No mention was given of easy fixes, like installing low cost signs that point the way to the bridge.
Instead, changes discussed included holding a public art competition in order to decorate the bridge to make it “more inviting.” This does little to inform people how to approach the bridge if they are seeking access to the park.
Another proposed change was to add lighting for this structure.
Both of those are inexpensive proposals when compared to other ideas thrown out about connecting Downtown to the area along the Connecticut River. Some plans were shown of a gradually sloping earthen berm that would connect to the I-91 pedestrian bridge so that people did not need to use the stairs.
Another idea was to create some kind of ramp off of the Bulkeley Bridge’s bike path. Love said, “we’re still monkeying with what the best connection is,” a relief to hear since this bridge’s path is extremely narrow, difficult to access on the Hartford side, and generally less appealing than the Charter Oak Bridge or Founders Bridge.
Utile said that its next stage is to “coordinate with citywide zoning study and in-progress city design guidelines to formulate design guidelines based on preferred massing and street sections.”
What should be the next steps for those who already live and work here?