Stantec hosted a public forum Thursday evening at Town Hall, summarizing the results of their work on the West Hartford Center Infrastructure Master Plan.
By Ronni Newton
Stantec, the consultant hired to assist in the development of the West Hartford Center Master Plan, presented a range of concept ideas to an audience of roughly 80 people at Town Hall on Thursday night that they believe would meet the stated goal of modernizing infrastructure and bettering the experience of walking and biking in the the Center and Blue Back Square while also addressing traffic congestion and safety issues.
Reverting LaSalle Road to a two-way street and with a different style of parking is recommended, and that change has a strong likelihood of happening. Better bicycle facilities with protected and dedicated lanes on Farmington Avenue and wider sidewalks with capacity for outdoor dining on both LaSalle and Farmington are also likely updates to result from the process.
Some of the transformative ideas include a “peanut-about” (or a more traditional roundabout) for the intersection of Farmington Avenue and North Main and South Main streets, relocating South Main Street traffic to just one side of Unity Green, and switching the entrance to the Farmington Avenue parking lot to the site of the current South Main Street exit.
The concepts were a developed after a review and consolidation of input from the community and other stakeholders that has been received over the past eight months since the West Hartford Center Infrastructure Plan development process began, through a survey, two in-person workshops in September, emails, and on an interactive online map where comments and suggestions could be posted specifically referencing certain intersections or parts of town.
The feedback has been robust throughout the process, with 502 responses received to the online survey, 589 online comments on the map, and 135 attendees at the September workshop which was held at Town Hall and on the corner of Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road.
“We heard a lot of different things,” Liza Cohen, a senior associate with Stantec, said Thursday, and some of the feedback was contradictory, particularly with respect to LaSalle Road where there are strong feelings about the direction of traffic flow as well as whether or not the road should be completely closed to traffic, and regarding the overall walking and biking environment.
Cohen said the Stantec team, which also includes Project Manager Travis Ewen and Senior Principal Jason Schreiber, reviewed West Hartford’s Plan of Conservation and Development, a Town Center Visioning project done in 2016, and Complete Streets.
“We took these high level planning goals and tried to figure out what that would mean for street design in West Hartford,” she said. Their work has focused on the project goals of examining Facilities + Infrastructure, Economic Development, Neighborhoods + Housing, Transportation, Open Space + Environment, Land Use, and Cultural + Historic Resources, and incorporating feedback from the public as well as other stakeholders.
“Respondents generally made the Facilities + Infrastructure, Economic Development, and Neighborhoods + Housing goals a high priority while making the Land Use and Cultural + Historic Resources goals a low priority,” Cohen said.
A heat map presented by Schreiber showed the location of crashes in the Center and Blue Back Square from 2017 through 2022, stating that many have involved pedestrians or bicycles. “We know the problem is the intersections are too big,” he said.
The North and South Main corridor sees 1,500 cars per hour during peak traffic time, many of which represent through traffic, Schreiber said. He added, however, that a lot of the circulation through the main intersections comes from people driving around on a “parking hunt.” It’s not that there aren’t enough spaces, he said. There are more than 5,000 public parking spaces, but the garages remain underutilized. “Tiered pricing is a very strong incentive,” Schreiber said, noting that one of the suggestions may be to have it cost less to park in a garage than on the street.
“We also looked at closing LaSalle,” Schreiber said, which was something many have suggested. The peak traffic impact on streets like Woodrow, however, would be significant and there aren’t enough other ways to get through town. He said that 90% of pedestrian malls in the U.S. have ultimately failed.
West Hartford’s bike network is “disjointed,” Cohen said, and the public comment indicated most of the bike routes do not feel “safe.” Stantec is proposing that Farmington Avenue, rather than Boulevard, be considered the primary east-west bicycle route, and they have offered several suggestions for how to implement that through the Center, noting that their recommendation is a dedicated bike lane on both sides of the road, at sidewalk rather than road level, with a buffer that also protects cyclists from car doors. Areas where there is currently angled parking would convert to parallel parking to allow for the bike lane area.
Stantec said other bike lane options were considered, including a street level cycle track that would create problems with plowing and at intersections, a two way cycle track which would not be compatible with the rest of the roadway system, and a “Copenhagen-style” hybrid model.
The plan also includes recommendations for trees, with an updated method of planting to allow for healthy roots and growth. Ewen, whose background is landscape architecture, said trees will be native to Connecticut and will encourage pollinators.
The West Hartford Center Infrastructure Master Plan also will be including recommendations for where benches should be – and the types of benches and will address the “gap” between the Center and Blue Back Square.
“There are places today where there are absolutely no places to cross,” Cohen said, and the plan will address the locations and types of crosswalks.
Ewen said their next step in the process will be providing the town with preliminary design plans for both LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue.
LaSalle will be seen as a “destination street,” Ewen said, likely with two-way traffic in 10-foot travel lanes. Sidewalks will be widened, and outdoor dining will either be anchored to the buildings or along the roadway. Stantec also suggested creating a curb-less street which would more easily and safely accommodate shutting LaSalle down for events.
The consulting team also suggested several ways in which South Main Street just south of Farmington Avenue could be realigned to accommodate safer crossing and make better use of Unity Green – which is owned by First Church – as a “more substantial common.” Ideas include anchoring Unity Green to either the east or west side of South Main Street and reducing the number of lanes of traffic at the intersection.
Long-term and short-term bicycle parking, loading zones for goods as well as for ride-sharing, and gateway elements include parklets will also be part of the final plans that will be presented later this spring.
Next steps, and challenges
“What I heard was a lot of positivity,” Director of Community Services Duane Martin said Friday. “A lot of people were very pleased with what they saw, including representatives of Bike West Hartford and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Commission.
“There were a lot of questions about the roundabouts,” Martin said. While the consultant isn’t necessarily going to recommend them as the best solution, “they wanted to get those concept plans into the presentation to be able to hear from the public.”
Some other comments after Stantec’s presentation included concern that street lighting in the Center is too bright and might interfere with the habitat for birds, but Martin said there needs to be a balance with safety as well.
He said there were questions about whether the newly approved as well as proposed development activities were taken into account by Stantec in their concept plans. “They are aware,” he said, but added that from a traffic standpoint, they “need to continue to do analysis on South Main and Farmington Avenue to Trout Brook.”
Stantec has urged the town to explore possibilities for three areas where the property is not owned by the town: Unity Green, the Memorial Road connector (which now has bollards between the Town Center garage and access to LaSalle Road), and Farmington Avenue parking lot.
Opening the Memorial Road connector could be a good solution for what has become a “super block” and could increase accessibility, particularly if LaSalle Road is open to traffic in both directions. The Farmington Avenue parking lot – which is maintained by the town but has multiple property owners – has challenging site-lines at the exit, but turning that into an entrance with an intersection at South Main Street and having the exit located on Farmington Avenue could improve traffic flow.
“We will focus on the Memorial Road connector first,” Matin said, then the changes to the Farmington Avenue lot. Unity Green and changes to South Main Street will be examined third. “We can’t have it all under construction at the same time,” Martin said.
The decision has not been officially made to turn LaSalle back into a two-way street, but Martin said that it will be up to Town Manager Rick Ledwith, who will likely consult with the Town Council and provide a recommendation within the month. Stantec will need to know that information before they can work on the plans for the reconstruction of LaSalle Road.
Martin said it’s likely that there will be parallel rather than angled parking on LaSalle Road, with narrower travel lanes. The bike lanes will not be needed because the roadway will be considered a destination, and traffic will not be intended to move quickly.
Martin said that Stantec needs to be prepared for feedback about the elimination of some on-street parking due to a move away from angled spaces, and needs to continue to explore solutions to the “parking hunt” with wayfinding and perhaps changes to parking rates.
Once Stantec is provided with information about traffic flow on LaSalle Road and the decision about whether outdoor dining will be anchored to the buildings or between the sidewalk and the roadway, they will develop the plans for the roadway design. Town staff will be involved with that process, Martin said. Plans for LaSalle and Farmington will be created at the same time, but the LaSalle Road work will take place first.
The designs should be finalized by the summer, but then the work will need to go out to bid.
“I anticipate we will be in construction on LaSalle Road about one year from now,” Martin said.
Further feedback was provided before and after Thursday’s presentation, which will be used in the final plan development.
Stantec will also be providing the town with recommendations for other areas that are outside of their plan design zone – such as South Main Street – and will be presenting the complete West Hartford Center Infrastructure Master Plan this spring. That plan will include a “catalogue” of suggestions for materials for sidewalks, crosswalks, recommended trees, and more.
It will be a plan that will be able to be applied to other parts of town. “We plan on using the Plan on New Park Avenue, Park Road, and other areas,” Martin said.
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