Themes Emerge from Hartford Planning, Visioning Meetings

Posted on Wednesday, December 2 2009 by Heather Brandon

Hartford COO David Panagore introduces the mobility and transit theme. Photo © H Brandon

Hartford COO David Panagore introduces the mobility and transit theme, November 21 at Union Station. Photo © H Brandon

With just one meeting to go in a series of five as part of Hartford’s efforts to renew its plan of conservation and development (see hartford.gov/oneplan), some discernible themes are emerging from small group discussions and panelist reactions.

The strongest ideas I’ve noticed relate to transportation needs especially as they relate to how easily and safely the city can be walked or biked, as well as filling in gaps in the city’s physical fabric, whether it’s vacant lots or empty storefronts, so there is a sense of activity, and so that increasing numbers of varied retail shops can be attracted to commercial centers. These themes were especially salient at last night’s meeting focusing on downtown (at the Lincoln Culinary Institute) as well as the meeting on November 21 (at Union Station) focusing on mobility and transit.

The final meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, December 8, from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Connecticut Science Center downtown, free and open to the public. The theme is integration of sustainable practices.

The meetings have been arranged well, with a regular presentation on the theme to start, followed by “panelist reactions” by four individuals, and then general reactions from the audience. Facilitator Ted Carroll of Leadership Greater Hartford has managed to be gracious and courteous while keeping everyone to a relatively punctual schedule. The audience is divided into four small groups at each meeting, each with a facilitator and a separate note-taker, to get more detailed responses and suggestions from participants.

Small group presentation at the POCD meeting on neighborhoods. Photo © H Brandon

Small group presentation at the POCD meeting on neighborhoods, November 14 at the YMCA on Albany Avenue. Photo © H Brandon

Then the task is to narrow down the group’s responses to maybe five items the group thinks is most critical on the theme at hand. When the large group reconvenes, each small group makes a very brief presentation sharing these five or so items.

Each theme has overlapped with the others, but has served nonetheless as a good starting point for discussion, and especially some interesting panelist reactions. While the small group responses may have a certain tendency toward chaos and untethered ideas out of the blue, there are also distinct patterns—repeated ideas that people bring with them to the meetings no matter the theme. The repetition will hopefully help city planners see what really matters to the public, if such trends can be determined clearly.

Adding to the notes from small group meetings, the facilitators cleverly asked participants to vote on the three ideas they think are most crucial by placing a dot sticker next to those items. Again, order emerges, and some ideas keep resurfacing as important.

Small group notes from three POCD meetings. Dot stickers show which issues participants thought were most critical. Photo © H Brandon

Small group notes from three Hartford POCD meetings over the past month. Dot stickers show which issues participants thought were most critical. Photo © H Brandon

For more details on each theme, the city prepared a slideshow presentation for each meeting (all PDFs): neighborhoods, the natural and built environment, mobility and transit, and downtown.

During last night’s meeting, panelist David Fay of the Bushnell remarked that the plan of conservation ought to “be bold” and have “sex appeal.” The intent behind the Bushnell’s ambitious iQuilt project, he said, is not just about the interconnection of cultural assets in the city, but “the whole pedestrian concept for downtown.” We should “make people walk,” he added, calling for a “district-wide sense” of parking. “Right now,” he said, “people are like, ‘I want to park within 12 feet of my desk.’ …What you want is for the public to go, okay, I’m going downtown, there are several places I can park, I know what the deal is, I can park my car in one place and walk where I need to go. That’s something we can encourage.”

Panelist Peter Christian of HB Nitkin, a real estate attorney leading the Front Street District development project, noted walkability as well. “The distance from the new science center to Trumbull and Asylum is about 2500 feet,” he said, “less than half a mile—under a 10 minute walk if you’re going slow. But if you talk to people, you hear, ‘You can’t walk in downtown Hartford, it’s too difficult to do; you don’t know where you’re going.’” Christian described attending the recent LEGO convention downtown, taking a break from it to walk to Trumbull Street for lunch. Many other convention-goers wanting to stretch their legs had no idea where to walk for a bite to eat.

“We need a way-finding system to let people know where to go and clarifying what’s already here,” Christian said. Two things Hartford needs, he believes, is making it easier for pedestrians to understand where they are and where they’re headed, and also making walking a more interesting experience. Signage from one landmark to another could help. “This time next year hope to have Front Street in operation,” he added. “I’ve talked to hundreds of prospective tenants about our project, and one of the things most often asked is, what’s the parking like in Hartford? Is it affordable, convenient, is there enough? Before you can even get to the economics of it, they want to know what the parking is like. It’s a critical piece. It’s not necessary to compete with the suburbs, but it has to work and not be cost-prohibitive or too difficult to find. That’s important for the downtown to continue to develop.”

Christian added that he believes a marketing strategy for the city or the downtown area is not critical. His opinion is that image is not really an issue keeping away retailers. “If you solve the problems of parking, downtown residential opportunities, and connectivity,” he said, “you’ll go a long way toward solving the marketing problem.”

Panelist John Motley of Motley Beup was very brief. “How many of you live downtown?” he asked. Many hands went up. Then, “How many of you work downtown?” Many more hands. Lastly, “How many of you live and work downtown?” Many hands went up again. Then Motley said the city needs more people like the last group—more people outside on the streets, more homeownership, and more stability. He made a few comments about homelessness, and remarked that it is “sickening in this democracy” that one-third of the homeless are veterans.

Panelist Tisa Rabun is a young professional, mother, and city resident, originally from Seattle. She brought up issues about the affordability gap for young people to live downtown, which costs thousands of dollars per month and seems prohibitive. “In cities where young professionals can afford to spend a higher rent,” she said, “they don’t need a car, don’t have car insurance, and don’t have to pay 10 or 20 thousand dollars per year for a parking space. Right now, if you can afford it [in Hartford], you still need your car to get to the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and the clothing retailers. I really see the price of the housing downtown to be a barrier if we’re looking to attract young professionals.”

Rabun added that downtown lacks opportunities for “spontaneous gathering spots beyond the bars.” We have plenty of ticketed events and theater performances, for example, but little to supplement those activities that are free or low cost and open to anyone, especially later in the evenings. “Lastly, we’re not utilizing the outdoor spaces we have,” she noted. “Bushnell Park, the riverfront and the amphitheater are good locations for spontaneous gathering to occur. But at Bushnell Park on a Saturday, you’re not likely to see people outside reading, sitting on park benches, talking and sipping a latte—maybe in part because [the downtown] Starbucks is closed on Saturdays.”

If you haven’t yet attended one of these meetings, it’s not too late to join in—and there will be more opportunities after the new year, when the Planning and Zoning Commission is slated to hold four public “listening sessions,” possibly in different locations around the city, and the City Council will hold public hearings as well. The city invites your comment at any time directed to oneplan@hartford.gov.

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