OP-ED | City Impossible: The Weird, Wonderful World of the Amazon HQ2 Proposal
Posted to: Analysis, Business, Economic Development, The Economy, Technology sector, Jobs, Opinion, State Capitol, Transportation, East Hartford, Enfield, Hartford, Stamford, West Hartford
Imagine a striking city of skyscrapers, greenery, pedestrian-filled bridges over a glistening river, buried highways, and a riverside ferris wheel, all contained within a “cohesive ecosystem” of nearby towns. This is the remarkable, radical revisioning of Hartford dreamed up by the creators of Connecticut’s longshot bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.
For those of you who don’t know about the Amazon sweepstakes, this is a massive competition between cities set off by Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of the online retail megalith. Bezos wants to build office space for his growing company beyond their current Seattle headquarters, and is dangling the possibility of billions invested and up to 50,000 new jobs. Instead of going through the usual murky process to do that, though, he opened it up to the entire continent.
The announcement set off a scramble. Wild ideas were pitched left and right. Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury created a hokey commercial where he asked Alexa, Amazon’s version of Siri, where HQ2 should go. Danbury, of course! Business leaders in Tucson tried to mail Bezos a cactus, for some reason. Cities all over the country set up “war rooms.” A little town in Georgia promised to rename itself “Amazon” should the company come.
I was going to make a joke about my own modest town of Enfield trying to pitch the site of the dilapidated mall to Amazon, but it turns out they actually did.
Yeah, it’s weird. But we’re all desperate and broke, so why not shoot for the moon? That’s what the Hartford bid, which is part of an overall Connecticut bid, is all about.
Hartford wants to build a massive corporate campus straddling the river, starting with the existing, state-owned CT River Plaza and expanding outward from there. Half the proposed campus would be in East Hartford in that awkward space between the river and the I-84/CT-2/CT-15 interchange. The two sides would be connected by a “reclaimed” Bulkeley Bridge, which would be turned into a “grand boulevard” for pedestrians, street traffic, and cyclists.
As for the highways, they’d be either buried or rerouted entirely. The plan envisions moving the I-84 crossing north, to the location of the rickety train crossing at the North Meadows, and putting decking over I-91 downtown.
On top of that decking? A ferris wheel. I have no idea why.
The city is also offering to “retrofit a 200,000 square foot office building” to be, well, anything Amazon wants, such as indoor rock-climbing. And they’re also promising that, “... soon, you’ll even be able to cross the river by zipline!”
Then the proposal takes a turn into the purely speculative, claiming that CTFastrak will be running service to Bradley Airport in 2018. A map shows a CTFastrak route running on the railway tracks from downtown to Bloomfield, and the text says it’s “under construction.” The DOT says none of that is true.
There are more serious problems, too. The Amazon proposal envisions the city partly as a playground for the young and the rich, a place with nice views and rock climbing walls and easy access to an international airport. There’s more than a hint of desperation, too. The language is so clearly trying to appeal to tech hipsters — West Hartford center is a “short bike or Uber ride away,” for example — that it feels a little like inviting aliens to come settle among us.
The city and region envisioned in the proposal seems farfetched, even silly at times, and it’s easy just to laugh, sigh, and wait for Amazon to hand their new headquarters to a “real” city like Boston or New York.
That would be a mistake.
Hidden under the obsequious toadying to Amazon and the weird ferris wheel idea is something of real value: a vision for how the city could be.
But some of the ideas are brilliant, like the transportation plans. Installing decking over I-91, rerouting I-84, and turning the grand, venerable Bulkeley Bridge into a boulevard are all things we should do, as is creating a new busway to the airport. Building “green” buildings and creating a city that is connected by the river instead of divided are smart ways forward.
Amazon probably won’t come, true. But let’s not put these ideas on the shelf afterward. Jeff Bezos dared us to think big. It’s a habit we should get into.
Let’s not do the ferris wheel, though. That’s ridiculous.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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