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October 24, 2022

CT’s riverfronts increasingly seen as major economic development opportunities

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Torrington Mayor Elinor Carbone, whose administration assembled $2.7 million for cleanup of the former Torrington Manufacturing Co. site beside the Naugatuck River, stands in front of the 60-unit, mixed-use apartment development that was built on the cleaned land.
PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Michael Zaleski, CEO of Riverfront Recapture.

As a child growing up in Torrington in the 1960s, Elinor Carbone’s mother would warn her not to play in the Naugatuck River because of the waste pumped into it by area factories.

“And she would know when we were in the river, because our white sneakers would come back orange or purple or whatever shade of contaminant was being dumped,” Carbone recalled.

Now Torrington’s mayor, Carbone is responsible for charting a new course for a city where large factories have long since shuttered, taking with them many jobs, and leaving behind enormous crumbling buildings and polluted soils requiring expensive cleanups.

Carbone was back near the banks of the Naugatuck River on Oct. 6, this time in the company of Gov. Ned Lamont and other dignitaries, celebrating the opening of a 60-unit apartment building on a riverside site that hosted the Torrington Manufacturing Co. for more than a century.

“It certainly meant a lot for me to now have this (new apartment development), which is almost exactly in the footprint of a former industry that existed here, with this beautiful view of the river,” Carbone said. “There is a bald eagle now flying in this patch of the river. Heron and geese, … I see the restoration and reclamation coming to fruition.”

Once used as open sewers for manufacturing spoils and human waste, Connecticut’s long-abused rivers have recovered much of their past allure following stricter environmental laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s, accompanied by the retreat of large-scale manufacturing from riverbanks.

As rivers have recovered, efforts to capitalize on their natural draw have also picked up steam through new recreational parks, trails and commercial development.

Last year Riverfront Recapture announced plans to transform 60 acres along the Hartford-Windsor line into parkland, with docks and kayak launches, along with 10 acres for complimentary commercial development. Planning efforts are still underway, but the 40-year-old, Hartford-based nonprofit is eyeing multifamily housing and a restaurant, maybe a brew pub.

In April, Goodwin University was awarded a $2 million state grant to help pay for construction of a 32-slip marina on the Connecticut River, part of a broader plan to spark new housing and commercial development around the riverside campus in East Hartford. Goodwin officials hope to see an approximately 150-room hotel developed just above the marina, along with student housing.

The city of Middletown, in July, unveiled an ambitious plan to transform 220 acres of dormant industrial land along the Connecticut River into attractive and educational parks, community spaces, restaurants, retail and multifamily housing. In September, a newly-formed state board tentatively approved a $12 million grant to further that vision.

In early October, Middletown picked Spectra Construction & Development to redevelop three downtown parking lots. Spectra’s plans call for a manicured public plaza over a 584-space parking garage, flanked by 19 townhouses, buildings with 258 apartment units and 38,000 square feet of retail space.

Current plans call for the eventual construction of a pedestrian bridge from the plaza over Route 9, into nearby Harbor Park on the river’s edge.

Decades in the making

Connecticut cities and towns have advanced efforts to rebuild riverside properties for decades.

And during that time rivers have become increasingly more attractive as an amenity to leverage investment, said Donald Poland, managing director and senior vice president of urban planning at East Hartford real estate advisory firm Goman+York.

Donald Poland

“Historically, prior to the rule changes in the 1970s, including the Clean Water Act, the asset of the river was a means of waste disposal,” Poland said. “Therefore, the river wasn’t attractive. It’s not a place you wanted to spend time. After the rule changes and the cleaning up of the rivers, they’ve changed as an asset. They are actually these beautiful, tranquil, picturesque environments that have an aesthetic and recreational value that attracts us to them.”

Many advocates of riverside development decry highways that run along riverbanks, cutting the resource off from residents. Route 91 in Hartford and Route 9 in Middletown are often cited as culprits. Poland notes that, at least in Hartford’s case, the city “turned its back” on the river a long time before the interstate was built in the late 1950s.

Hartford’s declining port trade “collapsed” in the 1840s with the arrival of trains, Poland said. The river was cut off from the city by a flood-control system of dikes in the 1940s.

Getting on the river

The nonprofit Riverfront Recapture Inc. launched in 1981 with backing from corporate Hartford and a mission to reunite the city with its river. The hope was to promote it as a resource for both the Capital city and neighboring East Hartford.

Today, the organization maintains three parks on the west bank of the river, one on the east, and 11.6 miles of riverside trail — with more under development.

The nonprofit organizes rowing competitions, walking tours, a music festival and other events to magnify the draw of its parks. Riverfront Recapture said its parks hosted 744,256 visitors in 2021.

Those visitors stop for gas, visit restaurants and other amenities, pumping $2 for every $1 spent on Riverfront Recapture’s activities, said Michael Zaleski, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, citing a 2015 study by the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

“We have this majestic river, this 410-mile river that starts in Canada and ends in Long Island Sound,” Zaleski said on Oct. 9, during a short break on the first night of a three-day music festival. “Here in Hartford, in the Greater Hartford region, we have this wonderful section we are trying to enhance. And, ultimately, we see Riverfront Recapture as an economic development organization.”

The Hartbeat Music Festival was staged at the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, a signature park with landscaped decking over Interstate 91 and steep stairs leading to the river’s edge.

Zaleski said his organization, its parks and events are “an important piece of the pie” when it comes to the quality of life in the region.

“So, when a corporation is looking at recruiting people, there are people who are looking for riverwalk trails, there are people looking for rowing programs, there are people looking for opportunities to get onto the water,” Zaleski said.

Water attraction

Human attraction to rivers goes back a long way. The earliest civilizations sprang up alongside rivers, which provided water, transportation and seasonal floods that irrigated and fertilized agriculture.

There were also practical reasons Connecticut’s earliest communities have their roots near rivers. Hartford was a major shipping port for agricultural goods from the surrounding region before the advent of railroads.

This story is part of HBJ's 2022 Economic Development Series. Read more stories here.

Middletown also had its roots in shipping. The Naugatuck River and its tributaries provided mechanical power and water for a metal-working industry that would evolve and grow.

In many of Connecticut’s urban centers, past industrial use of riverside properties means that no matter how attractive the waterway has become, redevelopment won’t happen without help from the state and federal government.

The Torrington development celebrated by Mayor Carbone could only happen after a $2.7 million state- and federally-funded cleanup that drew out PCB-contaminated soil as deep as 17 feet.

In Middletown, the city has spent more than $75 million decommissioning its sewage treatment plant, buying properties and repairing a shuttered riverside restaurant building as part of its “Return to the Riverbend” plan.

Riverbend Landing.

The state’s new Community Investment Fund board has agreed to allocate $12 million to Middletown’s riverfront redevelopment efforts. It was the largest single grant among 26 recently approved by the lawmaker-led board.

But Middletown had asked for $24 million. Its grant application acknowledges the broader development plan “will take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.”

Still worth it

Despite the expense, there is no shortage of riverside redevelopment projects being pursued. Boosters often pitch these as a means to reinvigorate economies damaged by industrial decline while clearing away polluted eyesores.

In Middletown, the payoff is seen as an improved quality of life and a stronger attraction for both day-tripping tourists and potential new employers.

“Anytime we have something where people want to come and spend time, they are going to spend time in other places in our community,” said Bobbye Knoll Peterson, Middletown’s acting director of economic and community development. “If people are making use of the (riverfront parks) they are going to make use of other things in the community. They are going to go to our restaurants, they are going to grab that ice cream by the river, they are going to see an adorable shop like Amato’s (Toy and Hobby) and pop in.”

Middletown’s state grant application offered a “conservative” estimate of $300 million in private commercial and residential development accompanying its project.

Spectra, working as a general contractor, is already refinishing a building on Middletown’s Main Street into 16 apartments for another developer. Spectra President Daniel Klaynberg said that is how he learned of the city’s search for a development partner on three lots near Route 9 and Harbor Park.

Under a tentative agreement with the city, Middletown would share the estimated $35 million cost to build the new parking and plaza, Klaynberg said. Housing would be added in a second phase to follow in “a few years,” Klaynberg said, at an estimated $100 million to $120 million development cost.

Klaynberg said Spectra would have targeted Middletown for development with or without the ambitious riverfront plans. The city has a vibrant downtown and strong housing market. But the riverfront plan does add to the appeal, he said.

“I think this makes it a prime location for sure and it’s a super unique location,” Klaynberg said. “We are looking at housing. It seems like there is a market to serve.”

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