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July 4, 2022

Riverfront Recapture eyes multiuse park, arts venue, commercial development for Hartford waterfront property

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Riverfront Recapture President and CEO Michael Zaleski (right) with TheaterWorks Artistic Producing Director Rob Ruggiero standing in the 60 acres of open waterfront space Riverfront Recapture purchased last year.
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What to do with the 60 acres of open waterfront space on the Hartford-Windsor border that Riverfront Recapture acquired last year?

The private, nonprofit organization is planning a riverwalk, the transformation of a 10-acre cove for recreational use, and setting aside another 10 acres for possible commercial development.

It’s also eyeing an outdoor performance space.

Last summer scores of masked theatergoers parked their cars on a dusty lot, just off I-91, then walked on a dirt path along a stretch of woods and meadow until they reached a clearing near the Connecticut River.

When they arrived, they sat on canvas folding chairs, donned headphones, spritzed complimentary bug spray and watched an ad-hoc outdoor production of “Walden,” put on by TheaterWorks Hartford, the company’s first show in front of a live audience since the pandemic began.

TheaterWorks put on an unique outdoor production of ‘Walden’ last year in open waterfront space on the Hartford-Windsor line now owned by Riverfront Recapture.

Both TheaterWorks and Riverfront Recapture partnered in the project, which was a learning experience for both organizations. TheaterWorks saw an opportunity to engage its audience in a new experience, while Riverfront Recapture wanted to see if its newly-acquired property was viable as a public performance space.

“We learned that it is possible to produce in that raw space,” said Michael Zaleski, president and CEO of Riverfront Recapture, which reported $4.9 million in revenue in fiscal 2021, according to its annual report. “As we continue to develop the space into a brand new park, we’re now interested in figuring out how we can build the infrastructure to continue to produce all sorts of artistic offerings. I think this is going to be a great space for summertime theater, for music and dance and other types of cultural offerings. There’s nothing better than being down by the water, for a sense of calm and creativity that you don’t get anywhere else.”

However, the site is far from ready for an encore production.

What’s most needed to continue outdoor shows is access to electricity to provide lighting and sound, said Rob Ruggiero, artistic producing director of TheaterWorks Hartford. His theater’s performance last year had to use a generator for its power needs.

“Parking, however, was not a problem at all,” Ruggiero said.

Zaleski said the parcel, which was previously privately owned, suffered from illegal dumping “and a variety of other not so great things over the years.”

Cleaning up the property is a major part of the plan to transform the contaminated area into a new park.

“We have a six- to 18-month plan that will allow for the 60 acres to be cleaned,” said Zaleski. “Part of that project is the digging of the 10-acre cove so we can have the silt to assist in the irradiation.”

Property remediation will take place later this year and into 2023, and the new riverwalk is expected to break ground next year, he said.

“Creation of the cove will allow us another opportunity to connect people with the Connecticut River,” he said. It will allow for water sports apart from the river, which he notes has strong currents and surges that make it problematic for activities for younger people.

When it announced its purchase of the 60 acres last year, Riverfront Recapture said it planned to install at the cove a paddle sports and outdoor center that will offer rowing, kayaking, canoeing, dragon boating and stand-up paddle boarding.

Development options

Zaleski said 100% of the recently-acquired property is in the flood plane, limiting what can be built, but that won’t always be the case.

The plan is to dig up hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of uncontaminated silt out of the cove and use that material to clean and raise 10 acres out of the flood plain.

“That 10 acres then can be used for mixed-use housing, restaurants, brew pubs, or a variety of different options,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to develop something there, which would be complementary to the park.”

He also said that any revenue generated from the new development parcel would fund park maintenance.

“We’re awaiting the results of a commercial analysis for what could go there,” he said.

A total of $3 million has already been raised for the remediation of the property and construction of the riverwalk. Included in that total is a $500,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant and $1.2 million from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s Brownfield Remediation Program.

An additional $1 million will be sought “to enhance the riverwalk experience and make it a unique destination for visitors to learn about the Connecticut River,” Zaleski said. “That campaign will go public soon.”

The new park will have an even larger environmental footprint. Zaleski said there’s an additional roughly 20 acres of state property — known as the Windsor Meadows State Park — adjacent to the 60 acres that Riverfront Recapture hopes to manage through an agreement with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Community tours are now taking place for civic input on the new park, which will inform plans as they move forward. The park’s formal design will follow. It will take two to three years to build the park, if all goes according to plan, Zaleski said.

“Our goal is to thoughtfully develop this space,” he said. “But we’re not going to rush things. We’re going to let the process unfold.”

The park does not yet have a name; Zaleski said naming rights could offer a fundraising opportunity to support the project.

Meantime, thanks to last year’s pilot program with TheaterWorks, “some sort of [arts] venue” is now envisioned for the park, Zaleski said.

“What we learned from that experience is that people are interested in seeing creative arts and cultural events in an unusual and outdoor space,” he said.

Ruggiero said he thinks the area’s arts community will also do its part.

“A collective vision among arts organizations would make something happen much faster,” he said. “What we learned last year is that with a vision, passion and a great partnership, amazing things can happen.”

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