A rowing class moves towards downtown Hartford. Besides the rowing class, many classes run at the Riverfront, including zumba, yoga and tai chi. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
A rowing class moves towards downtown Hartford. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

It sometimes seems that the second 50 years after World War II are being spent correcting the mistakes of the first postwar half-century.

One was situating highways so they blocked cities from their waterfronts, as happened in Hartford and Middletown.

This year, Hartford celebrates the 40th anniversary of its effort to reconnect to the Connecticut River. Middletown has just initiated a riverfront revival plan.

In retrospect, it seems crazy for a city to wall off its river or harbor, given the myriad economic, aesthetic and recreational advantages of waterfront access. But early highway builders weren’t thinking about community impact, they were thinking about moving cars. Waterfront land was often the easiest to acquire.

Waterfronts were “sadly, an all too common location for highways, since early highway building manuals recommended waterfront routes as expedient,” said Ben Crowther of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit that promotes walkable cities, in an email exchange.

“Generally speaking, since waterfronts had already been put to industrial uses, routing highways along them was considered less contentious than in, say, a residential neighborhood. That’s not to say that people didn’t also live along these waterfronts, just that they were lower-income communities, so highway builders could justify the routes publicly through lower cost of land acquisition. And these communities had little political capital to fight back,” said Crowther, who heads a CNU initiative that helps cities remove aging highways and replace them with traditional city streets.

Having built the highways along waterfronts, it didn’t take that long for cities to ask: What were we thinking?

Starting in the 1970s with the replacement of a six-lane highway along the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., with a boulevard and linear park, cities across the country began clawing their way back to their waterfronts: large cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, smaller cities such as Chattanooga and Savannah, and a host of others joined the movement. None appear to regret it.

Connecticut’s newest waterfront reclamation project is Middletown’s, where officials have announced a plan to readapt a 200-acre swath of underutilized land along the river south of Harbor Park as a new, mixed-use city district.

By contrast, Greater Hartford’s Riverfront Recapture has methodically reconnected Hartford and East Hartford to the river since 1981, with plans to link to Windsor and Wethersfield as well. It can serve as a model for Middletown or for other urban revitalization projects.

A river there somewhere

The construction of I-91 and the I-91-I-84 interchange in the 1960s cut Hartford off from the Connecticut River so effectively that, it was said, children growing up a mile away didn’t know the river was there.

To even see the river from downtown you needed to be in a tall building. One day in 1980, Travelers Cos senior executive C. Roderick “Rory” O’Neill looked out the window of his Travelers Tower office and wondered why Hartford wasn’t taking advantage of its riverine location.

He’d worked in Chicago, which glories in its lakeshore park system. Why not here?

In 1981, O’Neill, lawyer Jack Riege and others formed a nonprofit, Riverfront Recapture Inc. In the ensuing four decades, it has turned a forgotten and forlorn asset into a vital part of the community. Riverfront, led for nearly 30 years by the gently persistent Joe Marfuggi, built parks and river walks on both sides of the river. Marfuggi and his troops got the state to lower the highway and then built a platform connecting downtown to the river, with a promenade across the Founders Bridge connecting to East Hartford.

A Riverfront Recapture rowing class gets ready to leave the dock. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Riverside Park just north of downtown was a truly scary place — ask a Hartford cop from that era — until Riverfront went to work. Now it has a playscape, boat launch, a community rowing program and a lovely boathouse that is a popular venue for meetings and receptions.

The rowing program is one of many, many activities, including fishing contests, river cruises, dragon boat races, raft races, fireworks, concerts, reunions and food fests that bring people to the river.

In the early years, Rory O’Neill called the project “the work of a generation,” and he may have underestimated. Marfuggi, who died in 2018, believed it was the kind of project that would continue to evolve and, as he said, never be finished.

Not so far. Next year, Riverfront will build a two-mile river walk, to be named for Marfuggi, connecting Riverside Park with Windsor Meadows State Park in Windsor.

The next project after that, getting underway in the next year or so, will be the construction of a new park on the Hartford-Windsor line, which will include a 10-acre cove for recreational boating, said Mike Zaleski, Riverfront’s president and CEO.

“You shouldn’t have to go all the way to Collinsville to rent a kayak,” he said.

When the new river walk section is finished next year, the bike/pedestrian trail will stretch for about seven miles, from Windsor to the Charter Oak Bridge, with connections to East Hartford. Zaleski said he is in discussions with Wethersfield officials about extending the river walk south to Old Wethersfield, with potential connections to the Putnam Bridge.

Riverfront’s recreational relevance was never clearer than during the pandemic. The parks normally draw just under 1 million people, Zaleski said. In 2020, that number dropped to only about 800,000 — with none of the usual public events. “Our parks were full,” Zaleski said, “people needed to get outside.”

Riverfront was not a silver bullet, a one-time project that was guaranteed to save the city. Such projects often promise more than they can deliver. Rather, it was an incremental development, well-planned and executed over decades.

It is also — rare in Connecticut — a regional effort. Riverfront park maintenance is funded in part by the eight member towns of the Metropolitan District Commission. The connection to Windsor and eventually to Wethersfield will create bridge access to South Windsor and Glastonbury, meaning bicycle commuters from all of those towns will have clear sailing to downtown Hartford.

Finally, Riverfront has laid the groundwork for Hartford 400, a bold and river-centric plan announced earlier this year by the iQuilt project. If it goes forward, it will remove or cap the highways and bring development in Hartford and East Hartford right up to the river. “It will radically change how we relate to the river,” Zaleski said.

A first step toward that visionary project may have been the recent passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of the $715 billion INVEST in America Act, the recurring federal transportation funding bill. The bill included a $16 million request by U.S. Rep. John B. Larson for the Greater Hartford Mobility Study, a 2-3-year study begun last year to analyze and address the region’s mobility needs.

Larson is a strong supporter of the Hartford 400 plan. It is his fervent hope that the bill passes the Senate and that the subsequent study incorporates major features of the Hartford 400 plan.

Down River

Middletown is at the beginning of its riverfront development adventure, although plans and proposals for developing the large swath along the river have been kicking around for decades, said Mayor Ben Florsheim in a recent interview.

He said there were three obstacles to developing the large parcel and connecting it to downtown. For one, it is blocked by Route 9, a state highway. Also, there is a wastewater treatment plant on the site. Finally, there’s the money to acquire the land and clean the site.

But things are looking up. The aging water treatment plant was recently decommissioned and will be demolished, not replaced, because the city has joined a regional wastewater treatment program based in Cromwell.

Last fall, voters approved a $55 million infrastructure bond, which includes money for the riverfront development.

Also, the state Department of Transportation has two projects underway to improve Route 9. Florsheim said he hopes to work with the state to incorporate a connection — possibly a pedestrian bridge — from downtown to the riverfront.

Also, the city is making improvements to Harbor Park, a smallish riverfront park just north of the proposed development site that is connected to downtown by a pedestrian tunnel. Finally, Florsheim said, there is a new tenant for the now-closed restaurant in the park.

Looking south down the Connecticut River from Middletown. Tom Condon

With the stars lining up, city officials decided to move ahead. They recently brought in a team headed by the New York architecture and urban design firm Cooper Robertson, whose portfolio of more than three dozen waterfront projects includes Battery Park City in Manhattan, Stamford’s Harbor Point and the South Boston waterfront.

There was considerable interest in the project; Cooper Robertson was selected from about 20 applicants. The river vistas, the proximity to downtown and Middletown’s location between Boston and New York were part of the appeal, said Mike Aziz, Cooper Robertson’s director of urban design.

The firm will begin a series of public meetings in the next few months. “The city is committed to listening to anyone who wants to participate,” said Aziz. The goal is to have a master plan ready in about 18 months.

The challenge, Florsheim said, is balance: how much commercial, how much residential, how much open space. He said he wants a lot of public access, the kind of place people will go “not for any particular reason, just because it is a great place to be.”

He said he is also talking to the adjacent towns of Cromwell and Haddam about extending a river walk north and south of his city, as Riverfront Recapture is doing.

The irony of a city blocking its waterfront is that the waterfront usually was the city’s reason for being where it is. Middletown is such a city — it was built around its harbor. Florsheim believes “the soul of the city is still there” and reconnecting to it “can be transformative.”

The waterfront revivals in many other cities suggest he is right. The Wharf, a major mixed-use development that stretches a mile along the Potomac River’s Washington Channel, has transformed the long-underutilized southwest waterfront of the nation’s capital.

When a 1989 earthquake badly damaged the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which blocked downtown San Francisco from its harbor, the city chose not to rebuild it but to replace it with a boulevard. This freed up more than 100 acres of land for development, which in turn triggered a strong increase in housing, jobs and commercial development.

The removal of a highway that blocked Chattanooga from its riverfront has drawn millions of dollars in investment to the riverfront and helped spur a 30% growth in he city’s population since 1990.

New England has seen a variety of waterfront revivals in recent decades, among them Burlington, Vermont’s, lakefront; Portland, Maine’s, Old Port; and the revival of mill buildings along the formerly industrial canals in Lowell, Mass.

What’s the magic that drives these projects? It may not be all that complicated. Said Mike Aziz: “People like to be near the water.”

Sally Rosenberg, of Glastonbury, closes the door at the Riverfront community boathouse after putting away the paddles. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.