Hindsight really is always 20/20. It’s easy to inveigh against anything that retroactively appears to be poor decision making by asking, “What on earth were they thinking?” And that’s precisely what disability and accessibility activists are likely to do if they ever roam the perimeter of the downtown Hartford’s XL Center, a massive events complex that serves as both a sporting venue and the city’s secondary convention center. (The primary—and biggest in the state—is the Connecticut Convention Center, just a few blocks to the east.) The rest of us are unlikely to notice, which gets the activists’ dander up even more. “Why is it so hard for you to see what’s wrong here?” But it just goes to show that, when dealing with banal spaces—areas not intended to be special or to encourage people to linger—neither the original conceivers nor the users of the space give certain details all that much thought. I know I’m speaking obliquely and need to stop, so I’ll at least offer a hint of what I’m talking about.
Pictured below is as reasonable of a vista of the XL Center as I can offer.
Yup, more hulking brutalism: an almost perfect extrusion from its footprint, with few recessed areas, not a lot of windows, and heaps of thick concrete. Not an inviting façade, but it was typical of civic buildings back in 1975, when construction completed. That period was a bleak one for most American cities, Hartford included, as crime spiraled out of control and, seeing no possible relief, middle class households retreated to the suburbs en masse. The XL Center, formerly the Hartford Civic Center, typified attempts to bring people back to ailing downtowns through sports and trade shows, among other allurements.
Up until the mid-2000s, the Hartford Civic Center complex was significantly larger than what survives in the XL Center, which occupies only the northeast one-third of the square; the remainder of the superblock consisted of the Civic Center Mall and affiliated offices. Civic Center Mall declined precipitously in the late 1980s, closed within ten years, then was demolished and redeveloped into Hartford 21, a residential-retail-office complex culminating in a 36-story tower on the southeast corner of the superblock. The vertically-oriented photo shows a fragment of the Hartford 21 in the left/foreground, harnessing a glassy architectural language typical of the dawn of the 21st century. About this same time, Stamford-based insurance company XL Group purchased the rights to the surviving arena, giving the remnant building the name it has today. Edgier-sounding though “XL” may be, the 1970s brutalism juxtaposed with a sleek new highrise makes the XL Center look that much more like a relic.
Even if not exactly extra-large, the XL Center seems to punch above its weight class: it still attracts conventions and remains the primary home of the Hartford Wolf Pack, an American Hockey League franchise—apparently the oldest continuously operating minor league team in the country. Additionally, the lucrative men’s and (especially) women’s basketball teams of University of Connecticut (UConn) routinely play at XL Center. Tired though it may appear, the XL Center is unquestionably still a viable venue.
But, returning to the article’s first paragraph (have I been cagey enough?), there has to be an explanation for this architectural blunder.
Most people strolling here, along Ann Uccello Street, probably wouldn’t think twice about the problem here, but that number rises considerably when one considers any person with access and functional needs…or readers of this blog, who tend to be attuned to that type of thing. Maybe it’s not obvious from the photo above. How about this one, taken a few dozen feet away from the first?
The vantage point is critical, and for reasons unknown to the novice shutterbug writing this article, the photos farther away from the subject convey the point more clearly. Here’s one final image, and then I’ll stop being so cagey.
The above photos show two pillars from the XL Center, planted in the middle of the sidewalk, and in both cases, the clearance is questionable. The pillar with the red-and-yellow fire hydrant nearby is particularly problematic because it almost perfectly bisects the sidewalk. Therefore, neither side of the pillar offers enough room for many wheelchairs to fit through. I’ll concede that I didn’t run a wheelchair into the space to test it out, but I can say with confidence that it would be a very tight fit at best, and it most certainly wouldn’t offer adequate space for, say, a twinsie stroller to fit through. But individuals who must use wheelchairs are the greater priority in my opinion, since they might be on their own, and they have no real option other than circumventing the pillar by jumping the curb and continuing on the street—a dangerous prospect no person should ever have to risk. Many people no doubt would simply have to turn back to the corner of Ann Uccello and Church streets, then use a crosswalk.
Then again, it’s possible they may never even make it as far as the pillar near the fire hydrant. After all, the sidewalk around the XL Center is filled with these impediments.
Cue the much deserved cri de coeur: “What were they thinking?” The answer is simple. It never occurred to the architects who designed it, nor the City entities that helped finance it. Individuals in wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to use some of the fundamental sidewalks in Hartford’s downtown. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) didn’t become a federal fiat for nearly twenty years after approval of the XL Center designs, and the goal at the time was—as one would typically expect with an arena/convention center combo—to lure both locals and visitors at time when most American downtowns were hemorrhaging businesses and jobs. But even after the 1990 passage of the ADA, what could they do here? These pillars aren’t simply aesthetic; they provide critical structural support to the XL Center. (The only relevant provision in existence in the early 1970s was the recently-passed Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968, which required federally funded buildings to be accessible to the full public, including individuals in wheelchairs. This ABA, still in effect today, was the first attempt to accommodate wheelchairs in building code. But it only applied to federal funded construction, a condition unlikely to apply to the Hartford Civic Center.)
I would speculate that this has been a minor source of complaint among Hartfordians over the last fifty years, tempered slightly by two factors. First of all, it’s not the XL Center’s only architectural and engineering oversight. During the punishing winter of 1978, less than three years after completion, the roof collapsed. Thankfully, it happened in the middle of the night and caused no injury, but subsequent structural assessments determined that heavy snowfall was not the culprit; design errors would have resulted in the collapse sooner or later. It couldn’t reopen for two years. Secondly, arenas in general are thorny designs from a disability rights perspective: the very physicality requires numerous slopes and stairs to enable mass numbers of spectators with unobstructed views. It is most likely impossible to make an arena 100% wheelchair accessible, let alone the other disabilities that warrant reasonable accommodations. At best, most arenas offer as many wheelchair-friendly seats right next to aisles that require no steps to ascend, which means wheelchair-bound individuals can indeed watch the live Hartford Wolf Pack and UConn games; they just have a limited array of seats from which to choose.
It’s fair to cut some slack on the designers of the XL Center from over a half-century ago. Less excusable is the absence of any other City-financed solution in the intervening years. It really wouldn’t be that tricky. I pointed out a few years ago how the very small town of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland devised a workaround when the utility pole stood right into the center of a narrow sidewalk, making it impossible for a wheelchair individual to get around it. All it would take is an extra piece of cement that projects out into the street, giving enough clearance space so that a wheelchair can avoid the curb. Sure, the City would loose a little bit of space for on-street parking; but, in aggregate, it might amount to one sacrificed space at most. But it’s certainly a lot cheaper intervention than re-engineering the XL Center’s structural support. So, until the XL Center can no longer meet the demands placed on it, Hartfordians are stuck with it. To be fair, it might be a perfectly decent venue, so why bother considering something new? Installing pillars in the wrong place isn’t exactly a deal-breaker. With simple infrastructure solutions like the one offered here, even the disability activists would have to concede.