The ill-starred decision more than a half-century ago to run I-84 through downtown Hartford did wonders for moving cars — but at considerable cost to the physical integrity of the central city.
The highway cut the North End off from downtown, hastening its decline. It orphaned some buildings that were eventually torn down, creating a no-man's land of surface parking in areas where people once worked and lived. In combination with the second whammy, I-91 cutting the city off from the Connecticut River, it made the downtown smaller, limiting development options.
For decades, city officials have dreamed of restitching the urban fabric north of the highway as part of an expanded downtown with stronger peripheral neighborhoods.
The dream took a great leap toward the possible in January with the opening of the new $77 million public safety complex on High Street, on the site of a late 19th-century school. At about the same time, the city hired a team to do a master plan for the broad swath of land — 283 acres — to the north and west of downtown.
The findings have been presented at two public meetings thus far, with a third scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library. After that, the city plans to engage a broker and market the areas to developers.
The vision of bridging the highway and expanding downtown is the right one. A region of 1.2 million people needs a vital and active center. But as always, the devil is in the details. Let's start with the retail.
As part of the study, Gibbs Planning Group Inc., a national retail consultant, estimated that the two quadrants in the study area, 150 acres north of I-84 and 133 acres south of the highway, together have an existing demand for 235,600 square feet of retail space: stores and restaurants that could produce up to $85.7 million in sales. The report supports this estimate with data such as the site's proximity to 70,000 downtown employees, the 300,000 cars that pass each day on the two highways and the strong buying power of the region.
Nonetheless, the estimate appears to stretch the limit of the possible. The same general conditions obtained over the last three decades as downtown retail shrank dramatically. Is anything different? And if this demand exists, why does the city need to market the area?
The answer may be found in the maxim that retail follows rooftops. A separate housing study found that it will take 7,000 to 10,000 housing units stretching from downtown northward to support this level of new retail. New downtown housing projects are moving ahead. Officials expect to have 1,200 to 1,300 units permitted by early next year, which would about double the number of existing units. It's great progress, but still a long way from 7,000.
Another potential issue with the master plan concerns the XL Center. The Capital Region Development Authority is six months into a three-year planning process on the future of the 34-year-old downtown arena. One option will be to replace it with a bigger facility. A logical site for such a facility, if the current footprint is too small, would be the area just north of the highway. But there is no site for a new arena in the plans.
"Why wait?" said city development director Thomas Deller. The city needs to move ahead, and can deal with the arena question if and when it comes up. He and Mayor Pedro Segarra said they have a possible site for a new arena, but would not reveal it because it is now privately owned — and not in the urban core.
Locating the arena in the center of downtown was one of the best planning decisions of the past four decades. Whatever happens, the city and CRDA should work together to keep it there.