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Still Rollin' On The River

Over 25 Years, Hartford's Riverfront Recapture Has Opened Doors To A Recreational Treasure

May 28, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Build a wall in front of something and eventually people will forget what is behind it. At least, that was the experience with Hartford and the Connecticut River.

After construction of the dikes in the 1940s and the highways in the late 1950s and 1960s, the city was effectively walled off from the river. And soon enough the city forgot about it. Generations of Hartford kids grew up unaware that their city was on a lovely stretch of New England's largest river.

But one day, a Travelers executive named Rory O'Neil looked out of his window and wondered why Hartford wasn't taking advantage of its riverfront location. O'Neil had come from Chicago, where the lakefront is an integral part of the city. Why not here?

One thing led to another. O'Neil, lawyer Jack Riege and others formed a nonprofit group in 1981 called Riverfront Recapture. This year, Riverfront celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Riverfront has been one of the most successful nonprofits in the state over the past quarter-century. This little band got the state and feds to lower the highway and build platforms that reconnected downtown to the river. Then they gave people reasons to go to the river by building parks and sponsoring countless events - rowing, fishing, triathlons, ropes courses, dragon boat races, fireworks, music, etc. Remember the duck race?

There's much that can be said about Riverfront Recapture; here are three things that have impressed me over the years.

Focus: Many agencies do a little of this and a little of that, and don't develop an identity or much of a purpose. Does anybody remember what the late and unlamented ONE/CHANE was supposed to be doing? Riverfront has always been focused on reconnecting the city to the river and exploiting the recreational, economic, environmental and promotional benefits. Within these parameters, much is possible.

Collaboration: Joe Marfuggi, Riverfront's president and CEO, understands that the river is a regional asset and always looks for regional partnerships. His greatest achievement in this regard is the partnership with the Metropolitan District Commission to maintain the riverfront parks and pay for Riverfront's park ranger program. The MDC partnership has been hailed as a national model for urban park management. Because of it, the parks are clean and safe. If you knew Riverside Park back when it was neither, you'd appreciate the night-and-day change.

Continuity: This is where Riverfront could be such a model, if Hartford would pay attention. Hartford has long embraced the "big bang" theory of development. Build one big thing - Constitution Plaza, the Civic Center, Adriaen's Landing - and all of our problems are solved. But cities don't work that way.

By staying in existence - O'Neil said it would be the "work of a generation" - Riverfront has had the chance to grow, evolve and develop the project. When it began, Riverfront thought it would simply be an advocacy group that would develop a master plan and hand it off to someone else to implement. But no one else stepped up, so Riverfront executed the plan.

As the pieces of the project became available, someone had to show people how to use the river. Again, Riverfront thought it would get a few pilot programs such as youth rowing underway, and then spin them off. Again, no one was interested. One official told Marfuggi that Hartford kids were only interested in basketball.

So Riverfront ran its own programs, and now each Hartford high school has a rowing team.

The things the organization is doing now weren't obvious when Mr. O'Neil was looking out his window. For example, the wonderful Jaycees Community Boathouse at Riverside Park is in demand for weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like. "We couldn't have imagined this 10 years ago," said Marfuggi, who's headed the organization since 1986 (extra credit on the final if you recall that Denise Nappier and Al Gatta preceeded him).

Looking over this summer's activities - opera, West Indian festival, bagpipe event, among others - we have more evidence of imaginative evolution.

Riverfront also continues to build. The last piece of Riverwalk North is under construction between the Bulkeley Bridge and Riverside Park. Later this year, it will be possible to walk from downtown to the park. Work continues on the south walkway, and the gateway through the dike to the Colt complex. Let's hope they keep going - to Windsor and Wethersfield on the Hartford side, to Rentschler Field and on to the rest of the greenway system on the East Hartford side.

I wish downtown development would follow the Riverfront model. Instead of building "six pillars" and stopping, the planning and development of downtown should be an ongoing enterprise.

The benefits of Riverfront's activities are immense. Marfuggi likes the stories of Hartford kids who got involved in rowing or boat-building, found themselves and went on to college and good jobs. Then there are the hundreds of millions of dollars in investments on both banks, induced by access to the river. I'm impressed by the hundreds of people who simply walk across the river on a nice day.

Things will happen in the next 25 years that aren't yet imagined, Marfuggi said. That's what makes it exciting. Happy anniversary.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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