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Walking along with the visiting group from Springfield, MA, one couldn’t help but notice how “right” the scene was: A statue here, a flower bed there, a lush green lawn with meandering walkways leading people to and fro. Riverside Park, Hartford’s peaceful sanctuary tucked along the north-western bank of the Connecticut River just a short walk from the city’s downtown, is without question a remarkable sight to behold. And not just because seemingly every square foot of the park is so well tended, nor merely because of the large, beautiful boathouse that graces the park’s boat launch area.
No, what makes Riverside Park truly such a marvel to behold, instead, is the fact that for weeks on-end, each year, a good portion of this picturesque, river-level park rests submerged under the flood waters of the Connecticut River.
So speculates the Director of Park Planning and Development for a non-profit group called Riverfront Recapture, Inc. “If we had to rely on the city to maintain the parks,” said Marc A. Nicol, “they probably wouldn’t look the way they do now.”
That’s right, Nicol said “parks” – plural. That’s because Riverfront Recapture not only brings back Riverside Park each year, but also oversees the maintenance of three other nearby parks: Mortensen Park Plaza and Charter Oak Landing, both to the south of Riverside, and Great River Park, located over on the Connecticut River’s east bank in East Hartford. Connecting all of these parks is a beautifully maintained paved riverwalk that seamlessly integrates the entire riverfront park system.
To look at all the parks today, one would assume it took the concentrated and unified efforts of city and state planners decades to mastermind. But the plain, hard truth is, none of this would have come to full fruition – not the resilient Riverside Park, not the grandiose Park Plaza, nor the scenic Great River Park – without the hard-headed determination of the people at Riverfront Recapture. The organization began its crusade to redevelop the downtown riverfront back in 1981. They’ve been on a roll ever since – bringing in over $65 million in parks redevelopment funding since the 1980s.
But getting here from there certainly wasn’t easy. Like most other cities, there were those who simply failed to share in the dream. And that dream could well have died early on if not for the interest of private firms that have largely fueled the riverfront’s rebirth. Nicol pointed to two investors in particular, The Travelers Insurance and Phoenix Wealth Management, whose commitment has been vital to the park system’s success.
The dream began back in 1980 with a public seminar hosted by The Travelers. Plans were discussed there regarding the potential benefits of connecting the downtown to the little-used riverfront. Then, in 1981, the non-profit Riverfront Recapture was established to oversee the planning of riverfront redevelopment.
Through the subsequent lobbying efforts of Riverfront Recapture, the Connecticut state government stepped up to the plate in the 1980s and 1990s, providing funds to the non-profit for redeveloping the parks along the riverfront. Back in 1986, according to a timeline on the group’s Web site, excursion boat service came back to the city and the first phase of plans to develop Great River Park were implemented. Then in 1988, construction of Charter Oak Landing began. That was followed in 1990 by state approval of plans by Riverfront Recapture to create a large pedestrian promenade spanning Interstate 91, thus directly connecting the riverfront park system to downtown Hartford.
The boathouse at Riverside Park came about after a $500,000 commitment by the Greater Hartford Jaycees back in 1998. The resulting Jaycees Community Boathouse (photo above) – a two-story structure that includes a large second-story deck area – was built specifically to accommodate the annual flooding of the Connecticut River. Inside, rows of scull boats are set stacked up on racks and along the walls. Riverfront Recapture holds rowing classes for beginners there, while also renting out its second-story hall for banquets and meetings.
Private investment has been an enormous part of the Riverfront Parks success – corporate donations and sponsorships amount to about $350,000 to $400,000 per year, said Nicol, and individual donations reached over $245,000 last year, according to Riverfront Recapture’s 2008-2009 annual report. But that’s not the only source of funding that the park system receives. In addition to private sponsorships and donations, the parks are also funded through a surcharge on the surrounding community’s water bills, amounting to about $6 per household per year, according to Nicol. The group also brings in revenue from various program and event fees (Riverfront Recapture held about 80 events last year, said Nicol), boathouse storage and boat launching fees, and seasonal vendor fees.
As for expenses, there are the usual maintenance and operational expenditures. (Last year, Riverfront Recapture’s program services ran on a budget of about $2 million, according to their 2008-2009 annual report, plus an additional $1 million annually is spent on maintenance, according to Nicol.) Riverfront Recapture also spends about $200,000 a year on general liability insurance. Nicol said the organization does not carry flood insurance, which, because the parks are public land, is the responsibility of the communities in Hartford and East Hartford.
Beyond appropriate funding through the years, what most makes the riverfront park system really work so well is that all the riverfront land is managed by the same entity – Riverfront Recapture. The entire system of parks and riverwalks, combined, consists of city land, state land, and a “small piece” of private land, but unlike Springfield’s own Riverfront Park and Connecticut River Walk, there is no head scratching or bickering over who is responsible for what property. (In Springfield, the Parks Department manages the Riverfront Park land, the city owns the River Walk land, the railroad owns the land abutting the River Walk, and – for a very long time – God only knew who owned the skywalk spanning the railroad at LA Fitness.)
Originally, the idea was for Riverfront Recapture to redevelop the park land and then turn it over to the city or state for general upkeep and management. But back in 1998 an agreement was crafted that put the maintenance chores in the hands of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) while Riverfront Recapture actually managed the park system. The MDC would maintain the parks on its own dime, including providing park rangers. Riverfront Recapture would have a free hand in operating the parks. Today, according to Nicol, Riverfront Recapture manages about 100 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees, including two full-time rangers. The Riverfront Recapture staff itself currently consists of 13 full-timers, said Nicol.
Meanwhile, not everything is red wine and roses at the Hartford riverfront, Nicol admits. There are homeless persons who frequent the parks. But, said Nicol, they have not been a problem and no visitors have reported any issues with them. Crime does happen, too, of course, but it has been a minor issue, Nicol said, with perhaps one or two serious crimes (muggings, assaults) a year. The riverfront park system is open 24-hours a day to pedestrians, closing at night only to vehicular traffic, so it would be impossible to police and prevent all crimes there. (What also aids in least the perception of safety is that local fire departments and law enforcement personnel use Riverside Park’s facilities for training and drill sessions. Just seeing the uniformed personnel there, said Nicol, is reassuring to visitors.)
The Riverfront Parks system today is still a work in progress. The Riverwalk going south from Mortensen Riverfront Plaza to Charter Oak Landing is currently being built, and, according to the Recapture Web site, is “the most complicated piece due to its existing site conditions and limitations.” The southern stretch of the Riverwalk will need to accommodate vehicle traffic, the site reports, including service vehicles bringing supplies for the Riverfront Plaza riverboats. This new portion of the Riverwalk will also include a new park entrance.
Hartford’s ambitious plan to revitalize metropolitan life doesn’t end with the re-establishment of a vibrant riverfront. Scattered throughout the Riverfront Parks, sculptures are set in place that give visitors a hint of what the rest of the city has to offer. Collectively called the “Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk,” these sculptures add a cultural, museum-like feel to the park system that is missing in many other municipal parks. And once visitors cross over the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza into downtown Hartford, the attractions get no less appealing. Starting with the newly-built Connecticut Science Center and the nearby Connecticut Convention Center, arts and culture enthusiasts can go on to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Amistad Center for Art & Culture (located inside the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art), the Mark Twain House, and check out the host of other art displays located throughout the downtown. The Greater Hartford Arts Council also puts on a number of events, including forums and festivals.
Hartford’s Riverfront Park system and overall plan to mesh its arts community into its parks (including East Hartford’s Great River Park) is rather grandiose when compared to what the City of Springfield could probably ever devise on a similar scale. (Hartford is, after all, the capital of Connecticut.) But their design goals should serve as an example of what can be accomplished when leaders and activists aim for long-term results rather than dwelling on existing or short-term problems or obstacles. Riverfront Recapture redeveloped the riverfront by taking on one small project after another, but all the while they looked to the overall park system as their ultimate goal. They had the long-term vision and commitment from both the business community and local and state governments to see all the separate projects through, with the end result being an entire system of beautifully maintained parks along the Hartford riverfront.
Looking to Hartford’s accomplishments as being what the “richest” can do, then looking at what smaller Pittsfield, MA, has been able to accomplish on a tighter budget with their “Creative Pittsfield” program over a much smaller time scale (click here to read what they’ve been up to), one would assume that Springfield’s plan for revitalizing its downtown should be somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, for the past few decades, now, this has not been the case. Springfield seems stuck in the “build restaurants and nightclubs” mode, with the thought apparently being that bringing in more restaurants and nightclubs will revitalize the rest of the downtown. But Pittsfield has already shown that Springfield has actually got it in reverse: The city should be revitalizing its downtown park system, arts, and cultural attractions first, which will then attract more “supporting” businesses like restaurants, coffee shops and the like. Springfield’s leaders have historically been allowing a few imperious restaurant and nightclub owners to dictate the infrastructure of the downtown. But really, it should be the city designing the infrastructure, with businesses filling in the space. Hartford, like Pittsfield, also seems to “get it” – their Mortensen Riverfront Plaza wasn’t built to provide easier access to restaurants and nightclubs. Instead, it connects the parks directly to downtown Hartford, with immediate access the Science Center, and, coming soon, a skywalk extension from the Plaza to the Connecticut Convention Center. All the other things – restaurants and nightclubs included – just naturally fill in and around these projects.
Springfield has a bit of a way to travel before it can say its downtown rivals that of other, similar-sized cities. But the road need not be as difficult as it has been in the past. The city’s Riverfront Park and extended River Walk land are both vastly under-utilized. The idea that Interstate 91 chokes off the park from the rest of the city is only a pessimist’s excuse to continue the years-long neglect. Hartford’s Riverfront Park system is identically separated from the city’s downtown by I-91, but city planners and activists there did not allow that to be a permanent obstacle. The highway need not be an obstacle in Springfield, either. And if city planners can overcome the highway, then the railroad can be similarly dealt with.
The City of Springfield has smart, dedicated officials both in the Parks Department and the Office of Planning and Economic Development. Through the years, the weakest link in the redevelopment chain has been a lack of long-term vision from the city’s elected officials. If Springfield’s downtown and riverfront are ever going to look anything near like that of Hartford’s, then that historical trait will have to come to an end.
The city’s future is depending on it.
- MORE PHOTOS OF HARTFORD’S RIVERSIDE PARKS
- Riverside Park (Hartford)
- Charter Oak Landing
- Mortensen Riverfront Plaza
- Great River Park (East Hartford)
- Cultural Pittfield (Pittsfield Arts & Culture Department)
- Springfield Office of Planning and Economic Development
- Springfield Parks Department
- Connecticut River Walk (Springfield)