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MDC Powers River Vision

April 23, 2006
Editorial By Courant

If you happen to take a wrong turn off I-91 in south Hartford on your way to the movies or Brainard Airport, you might find yourself stuck in an industrial wasteland. The 600-acre parcel in the city's southeast corner, squashed between a bend in the Connecticut River and I-91, hardly looks like the landscape of dreams.

But there lies the region's next Big Idea.

The folks who run the Metropolitan District Commission, providers of water and sewer service to Greater Hartford, see gold on the site where the MDC operates a wastewater treatment plant, downriver from Adriaen's Landing. There, Chuck Sheehan, the MDC's chief executive officer, and William DiBella, its chairman, envision a self-contained, energy-efficient community of industrial, commercial, retail and residential components, an answer to an economic development prayer.

In their thus-far conceptual world of soft watercolor renderings, residents walk to work, take public transportation, shop near home, take a stroll downtown along the riverfront and even keep a boat. What's more, they are smiling because in theory, they'll be paying 30 percent to 40 percent less for electricity than the going rate.

Here's why: The MDC already plans to replace its wastewater treatment plant, located next to the airstrip, with state-of-the-art clean technology as part of a major sewer replacement project. By the end of this decade, the Mid-Connecticut waste-to-energy plant, which sits on the other side of the parcel and is operated by the MDC for the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, is going to need replacing, too. That plant, which burns garbage from 70 towns, is operating over capacity already.

The MDC, which will need the cooperation of CRRA, wants to place both new plants on the spot now occupied by the wastewater treatment facility, creating a modern co-generation campus. They figure the new trash-burning facility will generate more than enough electricity to power the neighborhood and offer businesses and residents cheap energy. One day, they hope, they could burn sludge as well as trash and produce alternative fuels such as ethanol. The old CRRA plant could be retooled for recreational purposes as other cities have done.

The weavers of this environmentally intriguing tapestry are calling it Riverfront South, an independent energy community. Right now, the riverfront part is a stretch. The airport runway and a flood control dike system hide the river's charms and leave any waterfront ambience to the imagination. The MDC, say its leaders, would leave the actual development up to market forces. But their master plan suggests a clever way to construct parking garages at grade level, placing offices and residences above them at the same height as the dike, affording desirable river views.

There's much to admire in this grand idea. Its scale is bold and its potential enticing. It could bring jobs to Connecticut without contributing to urban sprawl. It could open up land suitable for corporate headquarters to a part of the city that is now uninviting. No wonder this concept has the enthusiastic support of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez.

However, there are a few troubling gaps in this vision. For one, Brainard Airport is owned and operated by the state. The MDC would have to persuade state leadership that the airport, which accommodates 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year, has outlived its usefulness.

Existing businesses that would be affected by the proposal because of new traffic ramps would have to be satisfactorily relocated. Designs for potentially more than 6 million square feet of new development would have to be compatible with the surroundings.

A chance to radically reduce energy costs, which are driving businesses from the state, is reason enough for state legislators to listen up and help the MDC put flesh on this concept. Lawmakers have been asked to pay half of the $2 million needed for planning. The MDC will put up the other half. That seems fair enough for a regional asset, a reasonable price to pay for pursuing an idea that has promise.

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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