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Updated: May 20, 2019 Other Voices

A new vision for a downtown Union Station

Kyle Constable

It’s long overdue, but for the first time, Hartford has caught a glimpse of what life might look like without the I-84 viaduct downtown.

City officials unveiled a study last month to serve as the framework for development after the viaduct is removed a decade from now. The sweeping vision calls for the concrete colossus to be replaced by a new “Downtown West” of sorts, with glistening high-rise offices, apartments and retail built around new rail and bus stations, uprooted from Union Station and moved a few blocks westward.

It’s clear that Mayor Luke Bronin expects an unprecedented increase in private investment downtown over the next decade-and-a-half. By the late 2020s, the city will be desperately courting a limited pool of developers to construct new buildings practically everywhere all at once: Downtown West, Downtown North, The Bushnell and the current downtown core.

The city will be competing against itself. Private investment isn’t limitless, especially in a high-tax, no-growth metropolitan area. It tends to be piecemeal, which will have a noticeable impact on a density-dependent development like Downtown West.

Imagine spending a half-billion dollars on new train and bus stations, only to have them sit as isolated structures for years — removed from the buzz of downtown offices, apartments and restaurants. New Haven Union Station is proof that a few blocks can be a world away.

If Downtown West does beat the odds, it may do so by poaching many of its tenants and residents from the city center and Downtown North. It shouldn’t count as a win for Hartford if this development cannibalizes our progress toward a vibrant density level downtown.

This raises an obvious question: Why are we looking to move our transportation center farther away from downtown?

Our focus should be to build up the downtown core and Downtown North. Instead of moving the transit hub west, let’s build a new Union Station in the heart of downtown — in “Heaven.”

Heaven is a skate park that sits on a deck over I-84, the closest thing Hartford has to a highway tunnel. This site is comfortably nestled between downtown and what soon will be the bustling Downtown North development around Dunkin’ Donuts Park, truly “in the middle of the action.” The skate park has proven to be a tremendous community gathering space over the years, but it could find another home in the coming Downtown North development. The city’s central transit hub does not have that luxury.

But how could we build a viable transportation center above an interstate? If state planners are smart, the highway won’t be there anymore.

The state Department of Transportation is evaluating several options for I-84’s future. The leading scenario would lower the highway below grade level along its current path and place a series of decks over the top, creating a less expensive downtown tunnel. A good step, sure, but it’s not the best we can do.

There is, however, another DOT plan that presents real opportunity. This plan, in addition to lowering and capping the interstate, would reroute the highway outside of the downtown core. I-84 would follow the existing railroad right of way north of Xfinity Theatre, crossing the Connecticut River on a new bridge.

The current space occupied by I-84 would be wide open. Some have pitched restoring Connecticut Boulevard over the Bulkeley Bridge or creating a downtown greenway. Something else equally as grand should have a place there as well — a modern transportation center that rises to the occasion of lasting development in this once-in-a-generation moment.

The city’s new Union Station, at street level, should be a visually striking monument from every direction. Trains and buses would enter below the station, following a narrower version of I-84’s current path, underneath a system of decks. This would create a pseudo-underground tunnel and boarding platform area.

Imagine riding up an escalator from the platform to emerge at street level, with Dunkin’ Donuts Park and Downtown North on one side and the Stilts Building and the rest of the city skyline on the other. It would be marvelous.

The solution seems apparent to many of us on the ground. We know downtown is booming even while Hartford’s overall population is in decline. The U.S. Census Bureau’s ZIP code-level data show downtown’s population is on pace to nearly triple by 2020 from where it was in 2000. When the viaduct comes down, thousands of mass transit-using young professionals will be living downtown. Why not move the station closer to them?

Looking farther ahead, a downtown station also would open the door for expanded commuter rail in the next 25 years — especially for a possible “Middletown Line.” The state owns the vast majority of the tracks that run from Hartford southward to Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Cromwell and Middletown. Service could be extended northward to the University of Hartford and into Bloomfield.

Today, this line connects with the Hartford Line too far north of downtown for viable commuter service. A downtown station would bring the Middletown Line directly into the city center, while a Downtown West station all but eliminates the possibility.

There is a real sense of momentum downtown these days, but all of us who live here know the critical decisions are still coming. Hopefully, our leaders will see the value of bolstering progress in the downtown core instead of sinking billions of dollars into a transit gamble outside of it.

Kyle Constable is a Hartford resident, UConn alumnus and former reporter for the Connecticut Mirror.

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