Saturday, June 23, 2018

A View of the Riverfront

I’m a member of the Middletown Boathouse committee and here’s my perspective on our progress and what should happen next.  Consider this article “opinion, with a dose of information” (or perhaps visa versa).

The Middletown Riverfront is complicated.  

I think virtually everyone agrees that our riverfront is not living up to its potential, either as a resource for local residents or as a boost to economic development.   It’s complicated for lots of reasons - from environmental issues, access, funding, and regulators, to good-old-fashioned politics.

But after a half-century of stop-and-start planning efforts, we might be getting somewhere.  

That Smell

Middletown will join the Mattabassett District and close the old sewage treatment plant on River Road; the projected completion date of Spring 2019 is just around the corner.  Voters approved the approx. $55 million project in two referendums.  That’s a big price tag, but reportedly less than the cost to renovate the current plant.  In addition to the cost and environmental savings, moving the plant opens Middletown’s riverfront to new recreational, commercial and residential opportunities, without the industrial mess and the olfactory offense that made the plant a true roadblock to the efforts of previous generations.   Of course, one person’s “development” is another person’s “destruction” — so once the move was underway, figuring out what kind of development we want (or don’t want) became an urgent issue.  

A Community Vision

One of the best riverfront planning firms in the country - the Project for Public Spaces - took Middletown through a community brainstorming process that involved about 500 citizens in 2013 and 2014.  The plan that emerged suggested that residents like the idea of a linear park along the water’s edge for walking, biking, jogging, with the image of a “necklace” of smaller attractions along the way rather than one big attraction.  In other words - no stadium or convention/hotel complex.  Instead, a playscape here, a dog run there, places to put your kayak in the water, rent a bike, get an ice cream cone.  The community vision describes just the kind of “Riverwalk” that is attracting people to cities all over the world.  They've invested in small scale improvements to their waterfronts, reaping a higher quality of life, a lift in property values, a boost in recruiting the best employers and other benefits that come with being a destination. 

Taking a Next Step

It’s great to have a plan, but it’s nothing new for Middletown…we’ve had more than a few plans over the years.  What’s hard is taking the next steps and not getting off course while doing it.  The Mayor and Common Council chose one of the new community vision’s recommendations for a first project - building a boathouse.  The plan mentions the need for both a better facility for the Middletown High Crew Team and a better facility for our community rowing program.  The project also encompassed another of the vision’s suggestions - of an event/meeting space on the riverfront, for holding large gatherings such as weddings.  The town leaders put their political muscle into getting some support from the state for planning this first project, receiving $2.6 million for remediating contaminated land in the boathouse area, and doing a “concept” plan for a boathouse.  

I’m going to go more into the boathouse planning process - but I want to acknowledge that the three steps named above have brought us closer to a worthy use of our riverfront than we’ve ever been before.  It’s progress.

Of course, the devil’s in the details. 

The Work of the Boathouse Committee

The committee started meeting in March/April 2016, with the idea that there might be several crew teams who would be interested in sharing a new boathouse - including Wesleyan, Middletown High and a few other area high schools.  We also started with the idea that a 300-person venue could be included on the top floor, to take advantage of the views, with the income of the event space supporting the overall costs of the boathouse operations.    

That’s where we started - but not where we ended up.  

In short, after designing a Really Big Boathouse, we (ahem) came to our senses and took a step back to consider what we’d learned and what made the most sense at this point in time.

Before you cry that this was a waste of time and resources, let me say that we learned valuable things along the way:

-we learned about the remediation needs and general contamination of the riverfront area, and how to accommodate the regular and not-so-regular flooding events.  Some of the remediation will go forward with the state grant funds.

-we learned that the current dock generally only has room to launch two crew boats at a time - which begs the question of how we expect to have an increase in rowers at the riverfront.  I think one of the most useful things to come out of the whole committee process was the design for a floating dock which could accommodate 8 boats at a time, plus the necessary coach/motor boats, and improvements to the slope and safety of the ramp.

-we learned about what “best practices” would suggest for how much space the MHS team needs (roughly half-again-as-much as they have right now) and about the potential to grow the community rowing program (that’s adults and young people who are not part of a school team - in other words, the town park & rec operation and independent clubs). 

-we looked at boathouses around the region and considered the market for both event spaces and rowing facilities - perhaps not getting enough information from the consultants or absorbing those realities as well as we could have.  

As we persisted with the original concept, the conflicts started to add up.  We found that accommodating both a rowing and event facility had more of an exponential effect on costs than any kind of cost-savings (unless we put the needs of one over the other, which would have defeated the purpose - other towns have created event spaces by making the crew team vacate the space for events, sometimes during their busy season).  Combining space for multiple teams also added cost - the safety of school kids from other users had to be considered, requiring a separation within the building.  A potential event space would need to be competitive with other venues and required a certain level of finish.  An idea to incorporate a rent-paying tenant, like a for-profit rowing tank business, further expanded the footprint.

Despite the challenges, we soldiered on, directing the project architects to create a concept plan and cost estimates.  And the numbers which came back were just unsustainable.  To be honest, I think we spent more time than we could have in trying to make this work - but I understand the drive to explore the potential of the project.  I just wish that our consultants had given us more perspective as we went forward about what the implications (and price tags) were of our various agendas.  We waited too long to get a ballpark cost estimate - a back-of-an-envelope bit of math earlier in the process could have saved time.  On the other hand, we fully explored the charge of the committee - and found that it wasn’t feasible.  It took the committee some time to shift direction - but I thought it was refreshing that we accepted that our first design wasn’t the best option for the town.

So we regrouped.  In all the planning, our top priority had always been to give the Middletown High Crew team the kind of upgraded facility that other school sports received when the new high school was built (of course the boathouse, being off-site, was not part of that bond).  This goes beyond the benefit to the team - the active boathouses are a genuine attraction at the riverfront, not just on regatta or race days, but as people see the daily practices and use of the waterfront.   And beyond the riverfront, I think that our rowing program is an asset that puts us in the Farmington/Glastonbury bracket of Central Connecticut towns, and that’s good for home sales, the school system, and generally makes us a more vibrant place to live. 

The committee concluded that an event space could eventually be developed elsewhere, probably without the higher costs brought on by the third-floor location and the flood zone materials, though the view from up there would have been a great draw.  As an advocate for downtown, I think a large event space on the riverfront would bring a needed boost to Main Street - more nights at the hotel, more lunches at restaurants, more people strolling in our stores.  But it’s clear that the boathouse is not the place.

So here’s what you already know if you read the recent article in the Courant:  

The boathouse committee has agreed to move forward with the concept planning of a new boathouse for Middletown High on the site of 10 to 12 parking spaces adjacent to the current Middletown High boathouse.  It would be roughly the same size as the current Wesleyan boathouse (which would stay in use and reportedly meets the college’s needs).

The existing Middletown High boathouse would then be used for community rowing programs (and perhaps some other boat storage, like kayaks, or other high school teams that have smaller programs).  The old boathouse will need some renovations - a heating system, at a minimum.

Note to anyone who worries about removing parking spaces:  future work on River Road is projected to more than replace those parking spaces by creating a lot on the opposite side of the street. That would take place during the state’s work on the redesign of the one-car-per-green onramp that causes so much trouble as cars from Route 17 merge North onto Route 9.

This boathouse project is vastly smaller than the earlier proposal. If it holds together through a concept design and cost estimate process, it would then go the voters for approval.    

Two (more) Cents

If this project does goes forward, it should lead to the next one.  

At the last meeting, the committee considered locating the new boathouse on Columbus Point - and I’m so grateful that idea did not pass.  This preserves the potential of the Point and the old Peterson Oil property -  which was pitched in the community vision plan as a “great lawn” connected by a footbridge over Sumner Brook.  The remediation work (partially provided in the state grant) will be a first step in improving that area of the riverfront, so hopefully another community planning process is close on the heels of the boathouse committee, because the design of these spaces deserves careful consideration. Also, during the two years that the boathouse committee has been meeting, the Middletown Garden Club spearheaded a landscape design for the area of Harbor Park around the tunnel and south toward the Canoe Club restaurant, and that work should be considered as well.

I think the new boathouse proposal holds lots of promise for the riverfront, and embraces the spirit of the community vision developed with Project for Public Spaces.  So let’s keep going.

As a bonus for making it this far into an article on two years of committee work, here's a photo of a possible future for Columbus Point, with steps down to the river on one side and Sumner Brook on the other.  A wooden footbridge connects to the Peterson Oil property.  From the Project for Public Spaces report.

This post is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the riverfront planning process - but there are several online resources that can fill in the blanks, including resources on the city planning office’s website and a facebook page on Middletown riverfront development.  


Sheila said...

Thank you, Jen

Catherine said...

I wouldn't welcome a cul-de-sac because of the claim that there would be a gain in parking spaces. There is no need to erase the on-ramp from River Rd/Union St. This is another poorly conceived Route 9 DOT plan. The problem is not RiverRd, but the location of the Route 17 north entrance. The queer one car-at-a-time entrance was built long after River Rd's, so we know it worked without that nonsense. A Route 17 North ramp should be located much farther south, incorporating the Silver Street on-ramp.

The proposal that was put out asking for architect to design a boathouse was ill-conceived. It demanded the would-be firm not only design a building but also see it built within 16 months of getting the contract. Who would agree to terms like that - not knowing the unknowns of the site, and being contractually obligated to still deliver a building in just a year? So the talent pool was considerably tiny, given the parameters required.

Also, with $2 million for a budget, the only thing you could really build is the IKEA Bigbox Boathouse design you got. You don't even need the back of an envelope to do that math, nor to imagine the likely product.

The PPS proposal had a few good ideas but was not thoroughly fleshed out. There was and is a lack of understanding of how the city meets the river, how the city overcomes the highway, and what role the riverfront plays, during all times of the calendar - not just when there are groups of people there. They went as far as they could go, as they as primarily landscape architects -the ideas for the buildings within the floodplain and Union Street were not very sophisticated.

Despite the committee's best efforts, it and we will be at a disadvantage attempting to make any decisions about the riverfront without a clear vision about what it should look like. I think we're a long way off from building a boathouse. How about focusing instead on lean solutions that bring people there instead of putting your efforts into making such a substantial boathouse? Can't you have the activity with more modest shelters? This is part of the tradition of boathouses, and part of what makes them lovable.

Anonymous said...

And again higher taxes. It's got to stop somewhere. Don't forget that new middle school. How about freezing the tax rate for seniors on a fixed income?

Jen Alexander said...

Catherine...can you clarify if you think the latest boathouse concept is unreasonable? It's for a relatively modest structure - similar in size to the current Wesleyan boathouse.

Anonymous said...

How does the committee reconcile taking the opinion of a paid consultant...the ethics are typical...I will oppose it to sink Tighe and Bond