MIDDLETOWN — Restaurants and entertainment venues, mixed-use housing, a four-season recreational park and a pedestrian bridge that connects Main Street with the Connecticut River.
These are pieces of Middletown’s master plan for the riverfront redevelopment, which the city revealed on Saturday.
Mayor Ben Florsheim told community members that this was not a final design plan, but rather a guiding document that would be used to establish zoning regulations and to make sure that any construction or architectural plans lined up with what the community wanted.
In November 2020, voters approved a $55 million bond that included $5 million for redevelopment of properties along the waterfront. In April, the common council voted unanimously to purchase four properties along the riverfront — the old Jackson Corrugated Container manufacturer at 225 River Road, and three residential properties at 27, 35, and 41 Eastern Drive.
Since then, the city has hosted brainstorming sessions asking residents to outline what they want to see along the river; their suggestions included everything from open space to retail to a water taxi. Florsheim said that the development team had heard from about 1200 residents through the brainstorming sessions, one-on-one interviews, online surveys and other events.
The city hired the consulting firm Karp Strategies, the engineering and environmental consulting firm Langan and the architectural firm Cooper Robertson to develop the project.
Mike Aziz, partner and director of urban design with Cooper Robertson, said the conversations led to several goals that they used in the planning process, including creating a network of accessible public spaces, taking care of the environment, attracting investment to the area and creating economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities.
A key part of the plan is an elevated pedestrian bridge that would stretch about ¼ mile from Main Street across Route 9 and down to Harbor Park. The bridge would be an extension of the Riverview Terrace located between Dingwall Drive and Court Street, and would be up to 80 feet wide.
“It’s an elevated park as much as it is a bridge,” Aziz told people during a trolley tour of the waterfront.
Minority Common Council Leader Phil Pessina pointed out that the location of the bridge also had historic significance — it would run along what used to be Center Street in the downtown area, a street that was eliminated as part of an urban renewal and the construction of Route 9.
“I think it’s important that we always remember what we had,” said Pessina.
Aziz said that the State Department of Transportation supports the project. The department is currently working on a feasibility study to remove the traffic lights on the stretch of Route 9 that runs through Middletown.
The plan also includes a path that stretches along the river from Harbor Park to the proposed boat launch at Silver Street, bike lanes and improved sidewalks in the downtown, seven miles of bike paths connecting all of the public park spaces, bus service from the downtown and three transit hubs along the river.
“We heard from community members throughout the process that the connections to the river were going to be be just as important as what ended up there,” said Aziz. “The extent of the loop and its connections to the North End ensure this is going to be an equitable and fully accessible, connected waterfront.”
Walking trails, apartments, boat docks, restaurants
The plan divides 220 acres of the riverfront stretching from Harbor Park to the former Long River Village into four segments, each of which would be used for different purposes.
The “Riverside District,” which is located directly south of Main Street and across from City Hall, will include a new boathouse and upgrades to Harbor Park, including a plaza, a bike facility and a sculpture erected in memorial of the river and the city’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The city has already been making improvements to the Harbor Park area, including the redevelopment of the former Canoe Club at 80 Harbor Drive into a restaurant, brewery and cafe.
The “Sumner Brook District,” which stretches from the bend in the river to Eastern Drive, will be the site of “Riverbend Nature Park,” a four-season, 16-acre park that includes potential paddle-boat access, an ice-skating rink, playgrounds and a municipal parking garage on Walnut Street.
The plan includes redeveloping the former wastewater treatment facility into an area for restaurants and entertainment venues, or commercial space, with a docking area for boats. Potential mixed-income housing could be placed along Eastern Drive.
Larry McHugh, executive director of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, said that connecting the downtown to the waterfront was critical from a business standpoint, and that the town would need to look for both public and private investment in the new area.
“We have to look in the future to investors to come into this community for both residential and commercial uses, because that is a key to the plan. We do need commercial tax generating properties and also more employment,” said McHugh.
The proposal also plans for mixed-income housing and retail on the current Jackson Corrugated site, with the adjacent four acres of wetlands turned into a public park.
Aziz said that Karp Strategies had conducted a study that calculated the city would need an additional 1,000 units of housing over the next 20 years to keep up with demand.
“With regards to housing, we heard affordability and access to first-time home ownership was key. We also heard a strong preference for mid-rise apartments and townhomes, as opposed to single-family and high rise,” said Aziz. “We took that feedback and sized new housing areas to meet Middletown’s projected downtown needs over the next two decades.”
The plan will also open up the area of the riverfront to the south of Eastern Drive, which will include walking trails, potential mid-rise apartments, community gardens and a second docking point for boats. The southernmost part also includes a proposal for an “environmental education park” where children can come to learn about the river.
Aziz said that the group had also been in touch with Connecticut Valley Hospital, a state facility that owns a large portion of the land south of Eastern Drive, about the possibility of a greater partnership between the community and the hospital, including possibly repurposing the vacant Noble Hall Theater.
Residents and local officials expressed enthusiasm for the plan, but also concerns about the length of time it would take to implement as well as the cost.
A resident who lived in Middletown for 31 years and identified himself as “Bob” told CT Examiner that, to him, the plan seemed “more of a dream than a reality at this point.”
Bob said that although he was “excited” about the idea and hoped it would go through, he was also concerned about the cost.
“At some point it’s going to affect us as far as our taxes,” he said.
Richard Pelletier, a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, said he was “really encouraged” by this plan, particularly since the city had spent years trying to develop the waterfront.
“As long as I’ve been here, they’ve talked about riverfront renovation,” Pelletier said, adding that he felt this plan was “absolutely feasible.”
Another member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Kellin Atherton, said that he was concerned about the possibility of the riverfront becoming too commercialized at the expense of natural space. He said that the biggest desire he’d heard from the Middletown residents was the ability to get down to the waterfront and “go for a nice walk.”
Resident Edgar Hettrich told CT Examiner that he felt Middletown has done a good job of repurposing its old buildings. He said he thought the project was doable, but anticipated it would take a long time.
“[You’re] always impatient for that sort of thing,” said Hettrich, who has lived in Middletown since 1981.
A “generation” of waiting
Aziz told CT Examiner he wasn’t sure how long it would take to roll out the project. One of the challenges is that the area includes multiple former industrial sites that have to be cleaned up before new construction can move forward. Florshiem said that the city was using a $300,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assess how much clean-up the sites would require.
Florsheim said he expected the cost of cleaning up the industrial sites to be “in the millions” and said the city would need to apply for funding to get the sites cleaned up. But he said he was encouraged by the fact that the EPA often gives grants for studies to the same municipalities where it also plans to fund the clean-up.
“These are prime developable and community use spaces,” Florsheim said.
Aziz also said that although the firm calculated that commercial and residential ventures on the waterfront would be viable investments for private developers, he said that they don’t have any cost estimates for developing the areas. He said it would depend on the extent of the contamination in the former industrial sites.
The next step for the city will be to make changes to the zoning regulations for the riverfront area. The city is also in the process of reviewing applications for the former Arcade site, which includes 3.5 acres along Dingwall Drive behind the police station.
Florsheim said the city would continue to seek out community input as the process continues, possibly holding meetings a few times a year to give updates on the progress of the project.
“I think that for many, many years, for a generation, people have been waiting to see shovels go in the ground,” said Florsheim. “People have been waiting to see the action that has been talked about for so long.”