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Opinion: Middletown Riverbend plan a model for community development in CT

This op-ed by Karp Strategies by Principal Alexandra Sutherland-Brown and Mike Aziz, Partner and Director of Urban Design at Copper Robertson, originally appeared in The Middletown Press on July 13, 2022.

Renderings for future riverfront development in Middletown. Riverbend Landing, a nature park, elevated pedestrian bridge. Photo credit: Cooper Robertson

Like every state, there are aspects of Connecticut’s cities and towns that reflect the legacy of misguided and racist urban planning policies like redlining and so-called “urban renewal.” Today, we have the opportunity to redress historic planning wrongs in one of those cities, and plan for a future that is grounded in the community’s feedback and needs.

Middletown was once a regional hub for transit and commerce that benefited from its position along the Connecticut River. For two centuries its downtown and riverfront thrived together as an organic whole until the ethic of urban renewal, catering to the needs of wealthy commuters, resulted in planners prioritizing highway access over the diverse communities of residents that were displaced in the process.

When Route 9 came crashing through Middletown in 1951 it isolated the riverfront, accelerating its decline as the industrial landscape changed and its uses became outdated. In recent decades, the 200 acres spanning the stretch of the riverfront called the “riverbend” have largely fallen into disuse, and former pillars of the local commercial infrastructure — including a large decommissioned wastewater processing plant — have become symbols of the city’s need to reinvent the waterfront to better serve current residents. Following decades of community discussions and planning efforts, the city of Middletown committed last year to complete a master plan for redeveloping this underutilized stretch of the riverfront. Released last week, the Riverbend Master Plan, which was supported with in-depth economic and environmental analysis paired with a robust engagement program, reimagines the riverfront as a vibrant, mixed-use destination that meets multiple needs of Middletown and the region.

Our team looks forward to working with the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission and Common Council to update existing land use regulations and incorporate new design guidelines for the area’s future development. The city’s vision offers a model for community development, centered around local stakeholder feedback, that seeks to reverse the impacts of historic planning decisions that severed downtown from the riverfront and contributed to inequality. The team behind the Riverbend Plan, comprising of city officials, local Chamber of Commerce leadership, riverfront advocates, urban planners and designers, approached the visioning process as an opportunity to model responsible community-economic development in Connecticut as the state confronts the adaptations necessary for long-term economic growth, such as more workforce opportunities and enabling the creation of significantly more multifamily and affordable housing. For the past 12 months our team asked residents: what do you want to see in a riverfront plan? A public design gallery was open every weekday on Main Street for people to walk in, learn about the visioning process and provide their thoughts on what the plan should look like. We collected more than 1,200 comments from hundreds of stakeholders.

People told us they want a space that feels like theirs and that’s designed to meet diverse public needs. Comments included calls for extensive public parks and open spaces, mixed-income housing development, retail with a focus on small businesses, and connective pathways to downtown Middletown.

The Riverbend Master Plan seeks to address all these priorities. It proposes a riverside district with improved pedestrian and bike access around a renewed Harbor Park; a new pedestrian bridge over Route 9, finally reconnecting the riverfront to Main Street and downtown; a plaza for community events; a 16-acre Riverbend public park; a riverfront promenade; a natural wetland park; new housing development on a large Middletown Housing Authority site; and repositioning of the decommissioned wastewater plant and new dock facilities as a cultural hub with lively restaurants, entertainment venues and shoreline walks.

This is exciting — and it’s not unprecedented. Just look at downtown Providence, R.I., Denver, or Nashville, or Brooklyn. Major metropolitan areas over the past two decades have successfully revitalized their riverfronts for tremendous public benefit. The Middletown Riverbend Plan shows how we can bring the same logic to smaller cities across the region. The future of economic development in Connecticut depends on the state’s adaptability, from a planning and policy standpoint, to the needs of its communities today. Let’s celebrate Middletown as a new precedent for how we get community development done right.

Alexandra Sutherland-Brown and Mike Aziz are on the master planning team for the recently released Middletown Riverbend plan.


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