The Downtown Highway That Could Drive Hartford’s Comeback

Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut Shutterstock/Raymond Deleon


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The Connecticut capital has been using zoning and transit reforms to stage a downtown recovery. But there’s one big thing in the way: an aging interstate.

HARTFORD, Ct.—If Connecticut’s capital city was looking to adopt a theme song, Elton John’s hit single “I’m Still Standing” would be a fitting anthem.

Battered by population loss and the departure of manufacturing and corporate anchors, Hartford has been on the brink of bankruptcy for several years. In response, the city has taken a sophisticated multi-pronged approach in plotting its post-industrial future: It’s implemented a series of zoning and land-use reforms, encouraged adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and improved mobility with new transit and better facilities for bike riders and pedestrians.

But in an illustration of how a mid-sized legacy city can work smart and still face existential challenges, Hartford finds another monumental task in its way: a crumbling piece of 20th-century infrastructure, a stretch of the Interstate 84 viaduct adjacent to downtown that is well past its expiration date. Completed in 1965, the elevated thoroughfare was part of the national urban-renewal campaign to ram freeways through downtowns, and it did extraordinary damage to Hartford’s urban fabric. The ideas for what to do with it now range from a plain-vanilla rebuild to a tunnel system more elaborate than Boston’s Big Dig.

Optimists might argue that the viaduct dilemma represents an opportunity for city-building on a grand scale. But most are unhappy—even resentful—about being stuck with this problem; it’s like working hard to rehabilitate a sore shoulder, then being told you need an expensive hip replacement.

Ultimately, the choices ahead will hinge on how much the state, and even more so, the federal government, is willing to invest. It will also be a test of the belief that a megaproject will truly save the day—or whether a more frugal and incremental solution would be the wiser path.

Hartford’s story is painfully familiar, of glory days giving way to poverty, crime, and abandonment. Founded in 1635, Hartford lays claim to a number of American firsts—the nation’s oldest continuously operated public art museum (Wadsworth Atheneum), the oldest publicly funded park (Bushnell Park), and the oldest continuously published newspaper (the Hartford Courant). Mark Twain wrote many of his treasured works while a resident there.

Through the turn of the last century, manufacturing and innovation was robust—Hartford gave the world firearms, typewriters, sewing machines, bicycles, and one of the nation’s first electric cars. The city also surged in the finance and insurance industries, earning the sobriquet as “the nation’s filing cabinet.” But the hard times arrived in the postwar period through the 1960s to 1990s, with a real estate collapse, a restructuring in finance and insurance, and a downsizing of defense contracts that accelerated manufacturing decline.

The exodus of tens of thousands making healthy salaries led to an inevitable hollowing out; the original G. Fox & Co. department store closed; the beloved Hartford Whalers NHL team left town. Aetna insurance—an important employer and symbol of local commerce— announced its departure to New York City in 2017 (though more recently promised to stick around a little longer).

Despite 11 years of economic expansion nationally, unemployment remains stubbornly high—11 percent at last check. Property tax revenue—the foundation of municipal fiscal health—has declined as the cost of city services increased. Hartford considered filing for bankruptcy in 2017, saved by effectively a state bailout on some debt. More support is unlikely as Connecticut struggles with fiscal woes, exacerbated by the departure of major companies like General Electric, which is moving from Fairfield to Boston.

Orchestrating a comeback has taken different forms. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge promotes worker retraining and education to develop appropriate skills in the transition to a more technology-based economy. City leaders also tried some standard economic development pump-priming—a César Pelli-designed science center that opened in 2009, a small reclamation of the Connecticut River, a convention center and hotel. In the late 1990s, Hartford almost became home to the New England Patriots, but the team withdrew its proposal and got a new stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

In the past few years, however, the thinking has shifted away from such silver-bullet schemes and more towards laying the foundation for more incremental, entrepreneurial development.

Led by planning chair Sara C. Bronin—wife of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin—the city’s zoning code was completely overhauled, bringing down confusing and unnecessary regulatory barriers. (In one example of bureaucratic red tape, Hartford had different rules for factories making rice versus vermicelli.) Special areas were created to encourage adaptive re-use of abandoned industrial properties for small-sized “maker spaces.” Incentives were thrown in to reward energy efficiency and composting, and the city encouraged everything from hemp to beekeeping. Absurd minimum parking rules that required two or more spaces for each new residential home were replaced by parking maximums, plus guidelines for encouraging bikes and electric vehicles. Building is mostly now “as of right,” under a form-based code that does away with outdated rules separating uses.

“We’ve really felt within the city we have to take matters into our own hands,” Bronin told me in an interview for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Land Matters podcast.

Zoning reform is just one part of a broader planning effort. The city recently kicked off a new comprehensive planning process called Hartford 400—a reference to Hartford turning 400 years old in 2036. Surveys posed big questions to the citizenry about what the city should look like by that time. The Capitol Region Council of Governments, representing 38 communities and a population of nearly 1 million in the metropolitan region, started using the cutting-edge practice of scenario planning—making multiple projections into the future, to manage uncertainty and be more nimble in setting policy prescriptions or plunging ahead with physical interventions.

Amid all that earnest activity, however, the nagging question remains: what to do with the two-mile section of I-84 just outside downtown, which in an ironic reference to past glory is known as the Aetna Viaduct. Its projected lifespan ended in 2005, and engineers are now worried about catastrophic failure.

Replacement options under consideration include just fixing the viaduct so it is in a state of good repair ($2 to $3 billion), or lowering the highway with a series of decks ($4 to $5 billion). A study commissioned by the city calls for a more artful integration of the urban streetscape and the area’s existing rail and bus rapid transit system, known as CTfastrak.

From there, things get more creative. Connecticut Congressman John Larson seeks to bury not only I-84 in a tunnel, Big Dig-style, but also I-91 just to the east of downtown, in the process reclaiming waterfront property along the Connecticut River. The estimated price tag: at least $10 billion.

Yet another proposal would take the need to rebuild I-84 and combine it with the ultimate in big plans: a re-routing of Amtrak’s Acela through New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester. Linking those post-industrial cities to New York and Boston via the Northeast Corridor’s popular high-speed rail service would open up economic development opportunities all along the way. Vehicular and rail traffic could be combined in a multi-level tunnel through Hartford, similar to Boston’s never-built North-South Rail Link, which was proposed to be bundled with the Big Dig.

That solution is found in the Rebooting New England initiative, a University of Pennsylvania studio led by Robert Yaro, president emeritus of the Regional Plan Association. The plan was inspired by the U.K.’s Northern Powerhouse scheme for the north of England, which includes $100 billion in infrastructure, downtown regeneration, applied research, skills training, and governance reforms to revitalize a similar set of older industrial cities from Manchester to Newcastle.

High-speed rail has great potential to link proximate hot-market cities, inherent in the proposed Cascadia route providing a speedy trip between Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia (and plainly seen in high-speed rail connections that have long been in place in Europe and Asia). A new rail route through New England would benefit not only New York and Boston, but all the left-behind places in between, Yaro argues. Planners need to look at these larger collections of cities as megaregions, he says—broader geographies that open up all kinds of possibilities as agglomerated housing and labor markets. Those priced out of Boston and New York could find more affordable housing in places like Hartford—as long as they have 21st-century transportation infrastructure to get to work.

“We all know cities are where young talent wants to live, and these cities in Connecticut have great bones,” Yaro says. Re-routing Acela through Hartford could cost up to $100 billion, and combining the rail with the I-84 reconfiguration would require billions more. But the payoff, he believes, would be activating a megaregion to its utmost potential. “The combined economy of New England and the New York metro region is $3 trillion—making it the fifth-largest economy in the world, larger than California’s. If the U.K. can afford to make this investment to rebuild its infrastructure and economic potential, why can’t we?”

Earlier this month, Connecticut officials announced that they will put the brakes on all plans to consider the bigger picture of the region’s transportation challenges.

All the while—and amid doubt that massive investment in infrastructure is forthcoming—momentum is growing for yet another idea: getting rid of the highway altogether and replacing it with surface boulevards—a feat accomplished in cities like Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Rochester. A similar process is underway for the Sheridan Expressway in New York City and under consideration for New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway and in Syracuse, New York, to name a few.

The Congress for New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards database calls out the Hartford I-84 stretch as the perfect place for such a dramatic conversion. Backers of this approach say the surface boulevards could be designed to accommodate the roughly 175,000 vehicles using the current interstate system every day—and would avoid spending billions on an elaborate reconfiguration. “It’s time to stop doubling down on expensive urban planning mistakes and kick I-84 out of downtown Hartford,” wrote Connor Harris, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

So go big with a transformative megaproject, or find creative ways to make more incremental progress, similar to the successful efforts in zoning reform? That is the decision confronting one legacy city in its ongoing quest for regeneration. Planners are going to have to bring their best game to study the scenarios and keep the hope alive.

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow and Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

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