Virginia Iacobucci said business declined at her coffeehouse when busway construction in December blocked cars from reaching it by using Flower Street.
She now wonders if her business, La Paloma Sabanera, will survive if pedestrian and bike traffic from Flower Street is shut down, too.
"It's as though we really don't matter," Iacobucci said Thursday, sitting at a table in her shop, visibly shaken. "We're the ones here every day — running a business, living here, letting our kids go to school here — and it's as though we don't even count. The city leadership owes residents a better explanation for what happened."
Residents of the Asylum Hill and Frog Hollow neighborhoods say the CTfastrak busway is splitting the city and hurting businesses by shutting off Flower Street, a north-south connector between the insurance office buildings on Farmington Avenue and the merchants of Capitol Avenue.
They had been counting on Mayor Pedro Segarra to fight the state's plans to cut off pedestrian and bike traffic and expressed frustration when he abandoned the battle.
Bernie Michel, a member of the Asylum Hill neighborhood revitalization group, said Thursday that the mayor should have reached out to residents and business owners before making a decision.
"We were hugely invested in this," he said. "It's hard to understand how this is the right thing for the city or the neighborhoods. I don't know how we could possibly expect the DOT to treat neighborhood organizations with respect, because the message they're clearly sending is they don't need to. It is embarrassing that our mayor would do this."
The state transportation department confirmed Thursday that as part of an agreement with Segarra, it has abandoned a proposal to build a $4 million series of switchback ramps to carry pedestrians and bicyclists over the intersection where the busway and Amtrak lines cross Flower Street. Instead, it will focus on constructing a landscaped pathway that will detour people east to Broad Street.
That decision, which has infuriated business owners and neighborhood groups, was made to accommodate Segarra, according to Deputy Commissioner Anna Barry of the Department of Transportation.
"We would still build it if the city wanted us to," Barry said Thursday morning at an administrative hearing at DOT headquarters in Newington. "The city would rather apply this [construction money] to other improvements."
Segarra said in a prepared statement Thursday that he empathizes with the businesses affected by the road closure, but is concerned about maintaining a good relationship with the state.
"I … completely understand the concerns of the Frog Hollow and Parkville neighborhoods and businesses along Capitol Avenue who will be most affected by this closure," Segarra said. "However, for years I have heard concerns from all corners of Hartford that the city and state need to have a better, more effective working relationship.
"This agreement was not reached without significant back-and-forth and discussion regarding how to balance the needs of the immediate community with the overall benefit that this project — the first rapid transit project in the state's history — will generate. Our development director, Thom Deller, will work closely with the businesses on Capitol Avenue to make sure we're doing everything possible to mitigate any adverse effects of this decision."
He did not elaborate on how he would help the businesses.
During the winter, the city's objections were threatening to become an obstacle for the busway, but the city abruptly backed off after extensive negotiations between staff for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Segarra.
The city had legal standing to ask the DOT's administrative law unit to order that Flower Street stay open, and had threatened to bring police, fire, public works and economic development chiefs to hearings to testify why the shutdown shouldn't be allowed.
At a hearing Thursday, the DOT acknowledged that shutting off Flower Street would inconvenience walkers and cyclists, but emphasized that it is offering to run a bus that would make loops along Broad, Capitol, Sigourney Street and Farmington Avenue.
"Details are being worked out, but it would be paid for by DOT and operated by a contractor," a DOT spokesman said in a statement.
The DOT insisted that it had studied every possible way of getting pedestrians through the busway crossing at Flower Street, but couldn't come up with a safe and affordable answer.
Wedged between the Aetna property and the Hartford Courant's building, the right of way for Amtrak and the busway is too narrow for a traditional crossing like one that will exist less than 2 miles away, where the busway crosses Hamilton Street.
A stream of buses and trains will pass through the Flower Street crossing every day, and there's no practical way to install crossing gates as well as a safety island for pedestrians, the DOT said.
A bicycle advocate told Hearing Officer Judith Almeida on Wednesday night that he thought the DOT had deliberately scuttled practical alternatives, and instead put forward "Dr. Seussian" proposals that it knew wouldn't fly. But DOT officials disputed that Thursday, saying there's simply not enough room on Flower Street.
Business owners on Capitol Avenue worry what will happen if foot and bicycle traffic is cut off. Since many workers only have 15- or 30-minute breaks during the work day, they're not likely to walk the extra distance around Broad Street to get to establishments on Capitol, they said.
"We're a forgotten piece," said Donald Mancini, who has owned Red Rock Tavern, at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Flower Street, for 17 years. "You're cutting me off from all of those people who come to work in the city. They're not going to patronize this area anymore."
Mancini said he has also seen fewer customers since Flower Street was closed to motor vehicle traffic. Many of his patrons walk from the insurance companies to the restaurant along Flower Street.
"It's a shame that the city doesn't back its smaller businesses," he said Thursday. "It makes me feel like I don't want to be a part of Hartford."
Iacobucci, with her coffeehouse, said she has sought to create a community gathering spot similar to what city officials say Hartford needs.
"We're trying to make this a more livable, walkable city and we're dividing the neighborhoods," she said. The people who live and work on the other side of the busway "basically have no place to go," she said.
Almeida said she intends to issue a decision by May 20. The DOT wants to close Flower Street access for a month this spring during construction, and then shut it down altogether in the fall.
It said it will use the money that would've been spent on the switchback ramps for other pedestrian or bike projects in the area, but will wait to talk with the city and neighbors before deciding what those projects are.
If Almeida refuses to go along, the DOT might have to stop the busway at Sigourney Street, which would make the service less appealing to riders and potentially cost the state millions of dollars in reimbursement of federal construction grants, the DOT said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun