Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
New Britain, Connecticut, is split by a highway overpass—which is also the city's main street. Will a high-design walkway bridge deep divisions?
New Britain, Connecticut, seems like an idyllic place. Tucked away in the southernmost part of the Hartford-Springfield corridor, the city is a hardware manufacturing center with a large Polish population and a small, beloved American art museum.
New Britain takes a lot of pride in its favorite son, Elihu Burritt. A metalworker who advocated for peace, abolition, and temperance as a diplomat for President Abraham Lincoln's administration, the "Learned Blacksmith" coined the Latin phrase that serves as the town slogan: Industria implet alveare et mele fruitur ("Industry fills the hive and enjoys the honey").
Burritt is even responsible for the city's official emblem, the beehive, which appears on everything from stadiums to the city seal. Now, city leaders hope to apply some New Britain honeycomb to a highway overpass—one that's been a problem for the city for almost 40 years.
That highway is Route 72, which was steered right through New Britain back in the 1970s. The overpass itself is the city's Main Street. According to Mark Moriarty, director of public works for New Britain, the aim of the new overpass is to stitch back together two severed parts of downtown.
"For quite a long stretch, it’s unfriendly," Moriarty says. "One side of Main Street is flourishing more than the other."
The "Beehive" overpass—the work of civil-engineering firm Fuss & O'Neill, designers Pirie Associates, and architecture firm Svigals + Partners—will be the centerpiece of a new plan to create a more walkable downtown. The project aims to relink New Britain's downtown with its Little Poland neighborhood by building a standardized, pedestrian streetscape across what is now a fairly desolate overpass between the two.
It's a bridge with a Burritt flourish. Architect Chris Bockstael says that the central sculptural element in the design—the "skep," configured in the shape of the traditional basket used to house beehives—will serve as an interactive component for pedestrians. The skep dome is where the "macro scale" (highway-facing) overpass meets the "human scale" (Main Street) bridge, Bockstael says.
Just adjacent to the overpass is the gateway station for CTfastrak, the new bus-rapid transit system scheduled to open in March 2015. While the Beehive isn't technically a fancy BRT stop, it is something of a BRT signpost. The project has received funding from the FTA's Bus and Bus Facilities Livability Initiative. (The overpass is not yet fully funded.)
The overpass project is just a small part of New Britain's Complete Streets master-plan effort to make a more walkable city. At least one planner thinks that it will play a large role in making BRT work for the city. And in New Britain, better transit means more honey in the hive.
"The gateway station is right next to this overpass," Moriarty says. "It adds something of interest, it's extremely noticeable. This is definitely a landmark that supports ridership."