Good architecture is an economic engine

That the arts are an important component of economic development for New Britain, especially its downtown, is recognized by virtually everyone actively involved in urban renewal here. But “the arts” are often understood too narrowly as exclusively places and performances that create economic activity, like the New Britain Museum of American Art, or Hole in the Wall Theater. The arts certainly do generate economic activity as hundreds of people in downtown New Britain for the theater, a gallery opening, or a performance at South Church or Trinity-on-Main attest. But art is not just things to see and do. Art needs to be involved with the design of the streets we walk and most especially the buildings where we work, eat, shop, and recreate.

Whether a piece of music, a play, a sculpture or a dance, art is about the relationship between elements and making these relationships about more than what is merely functional. Art brings pleasure. We are intrigued by a drawing, or stop to listen to a song, or appreciate a good book. Nowhere is art’s attention to relationships more key than in architecture. Great architecture is visually thrilling, but how buildings relate to what is around them is an essential part of that. Great or even simply good buildings make sense in their location. They fit in, they relate.

If you have not taken the opportunity to check out West Hartford’s new Blue Back Square, it’s worth the short ride to see what intelligent planning (and investors with deep pockets) can bring about. The first time I saw it I was unexpectedly stunned. Apart from the vintage cars, I thought I was stepping back into a John Fitzsimmons painting of 1950/60’s downtown New Britain. It’s not just the street life; it’s the scale, layout, and variety of the buildings. It’s the feel of a place where you live, and work, and shop, and eat, and catch a movie, or stop at the library. In other words, it’s the art thing. They got the relationships right.

A prime example of not getting the art thing right, and the subsequent waste of resources that results, is the recently departed failure of a building at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets in downtown New Britain. Half a block of historic structures, including the Strand Theater, were demolished to make way for a building that was never fully occupied and ended up being torn down 30 years after its construction. The worst part was that its empty hulk helped drag down New Britain’s downtown for decades. The merits of its design as a standalone building might be debated, its complete inappropriateness for its location cannot be. What is important now is to understand why that building was such a failure so that we don’t make the same mistakes again, not only at that site but elsewhere in our downtown.

It’s the art thing, i.e., relationships. Suburban buildings that serve the public are built as destinations. They are set back and surrounded by a sea of parking. They are by nature car friendly and hostile to pedestrians. Buildings in an urban downtown, by contrast, need to be pedestrian friendly and lead from one location to another. If they are to encourage pedestrian activity they need to be designed so that people feel comfortable walking near them. Blank walls and windows with blinds drawn are not very interesting and make people feel unsafe. Attractive storefronts with lots of doors and windows to look in, on the other hand, keep people’s interest as they walk and make them feel engaged and comfortable.

Downtowns represent cities whether for good or for ill. The fate of downtown New Britain affects all the residents of the city as well as the surrounding area. New Britain has an opportunity to get it right and to make it better. While we need to be vigilant and carefully evaluate proposals for our downtown, we also have every reason to be optimistic. We have a solid core of interesting and well constructed historic buildings, many of which have been completely or partially rehabilitated. We have market forces that favor urban living. We have leaders who appreciate the important role the arts can play in revitalizing our city. Very practically, in a sign of wonderful bipartisan cooperation, Mayor Timothy Stewart and the Common Council worked together to change our zoning laws for downtown to bring them in line with recommendations by experts in urban revitalization.

One of the great pleasures of working at the New Britain Downtown Visitors Center is to meet people from out of town and hear their reactions. While many New Britainites are acutely aware of how much of our historic downtown fell victim to the wrecking ball because of the highways and in the name of “urban renewal,” folks from elsewhere tend to notice how many of our historic building are left and they comment favorably on their experience. This gives them a reason to stay around, to want to come back, and especially for us who live here to be proud.

Stephen Hard is executive director of the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance.