Friday, September 27, 2013

Riverfront Planning: It's not too late to play

In a downtown full of armchair urban planners, Thursday night was one of the biggest games of the season.   About 100 people gathered at City Hall for a community brainstorming session about the potential of Middletown's riverfront.  

The crowd had depth - businesspeople, kayakers, garden club types, environmentalists, developers and politicos.  It was clear that we all take this opportunity very seriously - the chance to finally make something of our riverfront.

(Don't panic if you missed it, because the workshop will be repeated this Saturday morning, September 28th.  But you have to call Michiel Wackers at the city planning office at 860-344-3425 and get your name on the list!)

NYC-based Project for Public Spaces facilitated the workshop -- PPS is a planning group that specializes in helping cities create...well....public spaces.   To put it bluntly, Middletown is lucky to have PPS as our guides through this process - you can read their philosophy and view their projects on their website.  Thanks go to Laney Bank, a member of the ad-hoc Riverfront Committee, for being the matchmaker.

One of my favorite things about PPS is their focus on small, doable ideas that can quickly change how a community feels about a space, which can be the first step to long-term transformation.  They showed an inspiring collection of photos of creative waterfront ideas. In Paris, a stretch of riverfront highway is transformed into a pop-up beach for a month in the summer; in Buffalo, NY, a barren zone under an elevated highway comes to life with bright Adirondack chairs and a temporary stage.  They also showed more mature and spectacular waterfronts, like the delightful public spaces that now line the Hudson River in New York City, mixing up play structures, waterfront bars, lawns for lounging, boating classes, and public art.

They gave us an idea of how the "After" shots could look.  And here we are, way way back at "Before".

The workshop started with bus trips to various sites throughout the riverfront area.  Small groups visited the Omo Manufacturing property, Peterson Oil, the wells on River Road and the former Jackson Corrugated factory, to get a close-up look at the challenges and opportunities of each parcel.

I was a lucky member of the group that toured the Sewage Treatment Plant, which we all hope will be torn down some decade soon.

Just one of the "diamonds in the rough" along our riverfront, the treatment plant has a few buildings and a number of tanks, as well as a glorious but overgrown stretch of waterfront.   Because the area is mainly in the floodplain, it's unlikely that new buildings could be constructed, so the existing buildings are important  - we can re-use their foundations.

Guy Russo, the City's director of Water & Sewer, and Common Councilman Gerry Daley led our group on the tour.   Even through the brush, it was clear that the views of the downtown and the Arrigoni bridge are spectacular from this site.  One tidbit that I learned from Guy is the importance of keeping mature trees along the riverfront itself, not just because they help with erosion problems - their shade plays a role in maintaining fish habitats.

We briefly walked through the main building, which had some geek appeal:

And just be grateful that this blog doesn't come in smell-o-rama, because even a pleasant day at the treatment plant is a bring-your-own-clothespin kind of event.

After our tour, we all returned to City Hall to meet with our groups and brainstorm new uses in the area we had visited.  At the end of the evening, each group presented their ideas.

There was lots of consensus on the desirability of creating a linear bike and walking path from Harbor Park all the way to the Town Farms Inn, varying from boardwalk to path, depending on location.  Mike DiPiro pictured the Middletown Road Race running along the water in the future.  Everyone agrees that Union Street needs some serious help, and that the recent improvements to the Harbor Park tunnel were a good thing.  Gerry Daley and a few others are enamored with the possibilities of running a limited trolley on the rail line, continuing on to DeKoven Drive.

Other ideas were more specific.  Patti Vassia charged the garden club to come up with a way to beautify the exterior of the bunker-like water filtration building at the end of River Road.  Seb Giuliano suggested building a stage that overhangs the river, perhaps bridging the spot over Sumner Brook where the Columbus Park meets the Peterson Oil property.   My group pictured terraces going down to the water, which could double as seating for watching events on the water.

Parking, as ever, was a controversial topic.  A few voices called out for keeping the cars on the other side of Route 9, as much as possible.  Some of the options for parking could be affected by the DOT's new proposal to lengthen the on-ramp that runs from Route 17 to Route 9, which was marked on a map taped to the wall.

Overall, people seem to like the idea of the riverfront as a recreational destination - or perhaps a series of destinations, like a seasonal skating rink/beach volleyball court, a water playground, a skate park.  There were lots of ideas: morning yoga, art festivals, chess tables, Middletown historic re-enactments and food carts.   Other parcels, set back from the water's edge, were mentioned for residential and cultural uses.

The potential is there for the riverfront to boost the vitality of Middletown - but how do we get from "Before" to "After"?    After these sessions, PPS will be synthesizing all the ideas, tempering them with a little reality and experience (or maybe jazzing them up) and helping the Riverfront Committee settle on a vision for the area.  The next steps would be aligning our zoning and creating a method for overseeing the work, and putting together plans/partners/finances for how each step could happen. 

It was exciting to hear my fellow citizens express their ambitions to create something that is worthy of that beautiful setting.  If you've ever been one of those people who says "Middletown should really do such-and-such with the riverfront" (and let's face it, who among us who read and write the Eye haven't said this?!), then you should make your voice heard tomorrow morning at City Hall.  


Elizabeth Bobrick said...

Jen, thanks for this terrific summary of the meeting. I was unable to get there last night, so I'm particularly grateful to you for letting us know what went on. This is so exciting. Thanks to all the folks who are putting their ideas and energy to work!

Anonymous said...

You can sign up online at the following link for Saturday's workshop (Sept 28th from 9am to Noon)

Michiel Wackers

Ed McKeon said...

I agree with Jen that the meeting was encouraging, and having PPS working with Middletown is great.

I do want to note that Gerry Daley mentioned that the decommissioning of the sewage plant is inevitable and that the recent negative vote by Cromwell to allow Middletown to enter the Mattabassett District is just a "bump in the road."

He also mentioned more then once that a developer still has an option on the Jackson Corrugated site, and that bears watching.

But to hear Daley speak enthusiastically about a trolley is simply fantastic.

Finally, I encourage readers to keep their eyes open for something to happen very soon. PPS believes in utilizing the space quickly and inexpensively to allow the community to get an idea about what is possible.

Newpawta said...

Yes, yes, yes!! Informative and entertaining, not to mention optimism-inducing. Thanks, Jen.

Anonymous said...

Todays workshop was also great.

We video taped both workshops and will be creating a public access / youtube video so those that could not attend can see the PPS comments and each groups presentations.

Please continue to submit your thoughts and ideas on "Riverfront Middletown" facebook page. Or email us directly.


Bill Warner

joseph getter said...

Here's the facebook page for Riverfront Middletown:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the full report! The sooner that stenchy plant is decommissioned, the better. I agree that encouraging people to walk, bike, etc., along the river should be a major element of future plans. Because a road already exists, a road that is closed to motorized vehicles, it would appear that the obstacle to getting people to the river is not because of impediments to accessibility. Perhaps the professionals will have a visionary and creative solution to increase use by outdoor enthusiasts and reduce the use by the derelicts, criminals, trash throwers and lost souls who frequent the area now.