I had planned to write an essay about how Chubb’s offer to buy The Hartford reaffirms the end of Hartford’s reign as the insurance capital of the country. As of this writing there is no deal, but the handwriting is on the wall: Hartford’s namesake insurance company soon will be no more.
We’ve been watching the gradual but persistent decline of greater Hartford as a significant regional economic hub and employer for over thirty years. Greater Hartford once was an important banking center; no more. Greater Hartford once was a significant manufacturing region; no more. Soon, The Travelers will be the lone surviving major insurance company in greater Hartford.
What have we, the citizens of greater Hartford, done to arrest our community’s serious and persistent economic decline? Pretty much nothing. It’s hard to understand why we have been content to sit back and enjoy the splendor of this region without having done anything that renewed the economic vitality that drives the good life here. It seems that, as a community, we just don’t care.
That’s what I had planned to write about, but we don’t need another what’s-wrong-with-Hartford essay. And I will spare you another let’s-merge-Hartford-and-the-towns essay, although there will be a little of that later. Instead, this essay is about the best idea for Hartford to come along in a long time, the best idea since the interstate highways sliced greater Hartford into four disconnected quadrants.
Hartford 400, a self-appointed regional planning group that grew out of the iQuilt project, has proposed a new, innovative plan for the reconstruction of I-84. Much of I-84 through Hartford is coming to the end of its useful life and must be rebuilt or replaced in some way. DOT has been seeking public input and considering options for the past few years. DOT’s options all rebuilt the highway along more or less the same route.
John Larson then threw in a new proposal from deep left field, suggesting massive tunneling, essentially putting all of I-84 underground from West Hartford across the Connecticut River to East Hartford, a breath-taking Connecticut version of Boston’s Big Dig. I dismissed the idea as pie-in-the-sky grandstanding that would cost a fortune but do very little for the region except, perhaps, move interstate traffic through the region more easily.
With the support of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Hartford 400 and urban planner Doug Suisman took a fresh look at the proposals on the table and the region’s broader challenges and came up with a better a solution, a great solution. Their plan is described in Tom Condon’s article in The CT Mirror on March 17, 2021. https://ctmirror.org/2021/03/17/theres-a-new-plan-for-realigning-hartfords-highways-is-the-third-time-the-charm/ The plan is described in more detail in Condon’s piece, but in short, it goes like this:
- Entirely eliminate the I-84/I-91 interchange in downtown Hartford.
- Entirely eliminate the “mix-master” in East Hartford.
- Reroute I-84 from Flatbush Avenue through a tunnel under the City to the Charter Oak Bridge, connecting along the way to I-91 southbound.
- Connect I-84 westbound to I-91 northbound by extending existing I-84 underground to the North Meadows.
- Complete lowering I-91 through the City and cover it with a deck.
- Build a north-south city street over the deck.
- Build three new bridges across the river, connecting downtown Hartford to East Hartford. Once the Bulkley Bridge (no longer necessary to carry I-84 traffic) and the Founder’s Bridge (no longer connected to the “mix-master”) are fully repurposed, East Hartford’s and Hartford’s downtown areas would be integrated and easily accessible from either side of the river over five bridges.
- Extend Riverside Park south along the Connecticut River through downtown Hartford, providing full-fledged, continuous access to the river. (Thanks to Riverfront Recapture for getting this ball rolling more than 30 years ago!) In the process, rebuild the dikes, an overdue Hartford infra-structure project.
- Redevelop the 150 acres in East Hartford currently occupied by the mix-master. Redevelop the reclaimed city land that I-84 and the highway interchanges and off- and on-ramps currently occupy.
Hartford 400’s plan has lifted my spirits about the future of greater Hartford! Nothing has done that for me since some crackpot proposed merging Hartford and the surrounding suburban towns. Just think about how much different our community will be when this plan is executed:
Imagine a broad boulevard running from the North Meadows to the South Meadows, downtown Hartford on the west side and a riverfront park to the east.
Imagine Hartford’s version of WaterFire Providence, with thousands of people enjoying summer evenings in miles of parkland lining both sides of the Connecticut River.
Imagine a mixed-use commercial and residential area in East Harford where the mix-master now sits, bordered by downtown East Harford to the north and east, Great River Park to the west, and Goodwin College to the south.
Imagine NO interstate through-traffic in downtown Hartford. Imagine reconnecting the North End to the rest of Hartford. Imagine resurrecting the Capitol Avenue corridor. Imagine no dark, abandoned caverns under the interstate viaducts.
Imagine – okay, I can’t resist – Hartford and East Hartford merged into one racially integrated city of 175,000 people, taking advantage of the enormous economic development opportunities created by the removal of all that concrete and steel from some of the most valuable real estate in the country. The merger would create Connecticut’s largest city, connected by bridges, not separated by a river. If Manchester and West Hartford joined the party, two natural additions, we would have a regional powerhouse of 300,000 people, economically and racially diverse, a new and vital hub realizing economies of scale worth tens of millions of dollars annually and broadening its tax base.
Imagine greater Hartford reborn!
Greater Hartford needs a vital core city. There are plenty of reasons why Hartford has struggled for the past 50 years, two of the most important reasons being the construction of the interstate highways through the city and botched downtown and neighborhood redevelopment. Hartford 400’s plan treats the need to rebuild I-84 as an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past and to revitalize greater Hartford.
Hartford can be a small-city jewel in the economically vibrant northeast if we take advantage of the opportunity Hartford 400 has shown us.