MIDDLETOWN — Over 150 residents gathered on a virtual community forum on Tuesday evening to brainstorm about the best ways to redevelop the riverfront.
The city has hired three firms to oversee the riverfront redevelopment project — the consulting firm Karp Strategies, the engineering and environmental consulting firm Langan and the architectural firm Cooper Robertson.
Mayor Ben Florsheim said that the title of the project, “Return to the Riverbend” referred to a desire to reconnect the city with the waterfront, which he referred to as its “origin and soul.”
“Over time, generation after generation … that waterfront has become more and more separated from the ways in which we conduct our daily lives,” said Florsheim. He added that, about 30 years ago, a push had begun to reverse that course.
In November 2020, voters approved a $55 million infrastructure package that included $5 million to be put toward the purchase of properties on the waterfront. In April, Middletown’s City Council voted unanimously to purchase four properties, including the 9-acre former site of Jackson Corrugated Container manufacturer, for a total of $2.55 million.
Joseph Samolis, Middletown’s director of planning, conservation and development, said that the city was also working on the redevelopment of the former Canoe Club at 80 Harbor Drive and on conducting four brownfield site assessments of properties located on the riverfront using a $300,000 grant that the city received from the Environmental Protection Agency last year.
Mike Aziz, partner and director of urban design at Cooper Robertson, said the firm would be studying the area stretching from Harbor Park to Rushford Center, and from the Riverfront to Route 9 and Silver Street – a larger area that had been considered previously. He said the firm would also be looking at the impacts of the project on Main Street, the Downtown and the North End.
Economic development versus green space
In an attendee poll, 65 percent of the people in the meeting said they wanted a riverfront that was “vibrant” and “mixed-use.” Multiple residents expressed a desire to have the riverfront feel connected with Main Street and the downtown.
“I don’t want it to feel isolated from the rest of the city and don’t want visitors to need a car to comfortably access it,” resident Laura Baum wrote in the chat.
“I imagine a block-wide overpass that flows from downtown (maybe where the current city hall is) across Route 9 to the riverfront. Having plantings, benches and vendor kiosks along the overpass will give more of a feel of continuing the city out through to the riverfront. There could even be performances on the overpass,” resident Anna Salo-Markowski wrote.
“I see a Water Taxi that uses a marina front that brings traffic into Main street cafes and Recreational Contests that allow for swimming and canoeing challenges for all ages!” wrote Nanette Fresher.
Residents were also split about whether the riverfront should be primarily a place for economic development, or whether recreational use should be prioritized.
Guy Russo, Middletown’s director of water and sewer, said he felt that the development of the riverfront should contribute to the town’s grand list, since the town would be investing a lot of money into the project.
Eugene Nocera, a Democrat and the majority leader on the town’s Common Council, said that he could imagine a larger meeting or co-working space being part of the project, one that could house art galleries or start-up companies. He referenced the Work_Space in Manchester as a possible model.
“[A] workspace is a phenomenal addition to the community, and I would love to see it by our river,” said Nocera.
Philip Pessina, a Republican and the minority leader on the town’s Common Council, reminisced about how, when he was growing up, the riverfront was the site of boating and regatta races. He said he would like to see a boat launch on the river.
“Our residents have to go to Portland to launch a boat. That does not make any sense, never has,” said Pessina.
Resident Carrie Henery said she wanted the riverfront to be “public and free” for people. Jonathan Michael added that the city should make clear from the start the desire to preserve as much public space as possible.
“There will be no shortage of private businesses that want to get involved in this down the road,” said Michael.
Climate, parking and Route 9
Several residents also said they wanted to make sure that environmental considerations were being taken into account, particularly annual flooding and the potential results of climate change. Residents also expressed concerns about parking and not wanting the riverfront to become a parking lot. One person mentioned the possibility of having a trolley travel between Wesleyan, Main Street and the waterfront.
Michael also brought up the possibility of affordable housing on the riverfront. While not all residents agreed that housing should be placed on the riverfront, multiple residents said that if any housing was built on or near the riverfront, it should be inclusive.
“I would hate to see few and only the affluent be able to live in this area,” wrote resident Lori Lodge.
Other residents expressed desires for cultural activities such as Shakespeare in the Park, places for walking and biking, rooftop restaurants, a multi-use performance space and retail businesses that would support water sports.
Florsheim said at the end of the meeting that a strong plan for the riverfront would give the community a greater influence in the state Department of Transportation’s final plans for the project to remove two signals on Route 9 near downtown Middletown.
Aziz said the firm would share plan concepts at another community workshop later in the fall. He also said that the firm will be opening a design gallery at the Main Street Market on Saturday, October 16, to provide more information on the riverfront plans