Ten years ago, not even 20-20 vision would have enabled people to visualize what they see along the Riverfront today.
Hartford was just getting reacquainted with the Connecticut River at the dawning of the new millennium. On Labor Day weekend of 1999, a landscaped plaza over I-91 reunited downtown Hartford with the river. Separated for more than 50 years by a concrete flood wall and then an elevated section of I-91, Hartford was at last reconnected to its river.
Today, the Riverfront is one of the most popular destinations in Connecticut – with more than 869,000 visitors coming to the Riverfront in 2009 for concerts, festivals, sporting events, excursion boat rides, rowing lessons, fishing, jogging or strolling on the riverwalks, picnics, mountain biking, weddings or parties at the boathouse, or simply enjoying the great outdoors – in the city.
That kind of activity was hard to imagine in 1981, when Riverfront Recapture was created to restore public access to the Connecticut River. The Riverfront then was overgrown with brush and thick vines – and virtually inaccessible.
Progress was made incrementally at first, as Riverfront Recapture worked out complicated design and permitting issues and secured funding commitments. Rebuilding I-91 at ground level made way for a plaza over the highway to restore pedestrian access to the river – a process that took 15 years.
The downtown plaza brought other physical changes to the Riverfront. Grassy terraces lead from the plaza to the river, providing seating for up to 2,500 people during performances on the Riverfront stage. A pedestrian promenade on Founders Bridge connects Hartford and East Hartford Riverfront parks. A paved, lighted riverwalk leads north into Riverside Park, home of the Greater Hartford Jaycees Community Boathouse where adults and teenagers learn to row. Along both banks of the river, visitors enjoy works of art — part of the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk and other collections. A climbing tower and high ropes elements make the Riverfront Adventure Challenge Course a lively team-building experience for corporate and youth groups alike.
The river’s seasonal flooding means the Riverfront will remain a public greenway that’s open and accessible to everyone. But developers want to be as close to the Riverfront as possible — so land near the parks has become desirable for investment. Ten years ago, Columbus Boulevard was dark and deserted at night after commuters left the parking lots that lined the east side of the street. Today, with direct access to the river, the street has come alive with the addition of the new Connecticut Science Center, the Hartford Marriott Downtown Hotel, and the Connecticut Convention Center. The Front Street District, an exciting entertainment and restaurant development, will open this summer.
And there’s much more to come. Riverfront Recapture is planning a riverwalk connection between downtown and Charter Oak Landing, with a new entrance to the Riverfront off Van Dyke that will restore the historic connection between Coltsville and the river. Hartford is moving forward with its application to make Coltsville a national park and direct pedestrian access to the river would provide an attractive amenity for park visitors. An important element in this plan is a proposed 40’-opening in the dike wall so that people would see the Riverfront destination from Van Dyke Avenue. (Riverfront Recapture is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to install a gate structure that will close before the river floods.)
Over the next ten years, it will be possible to walk along the Riverfront from Riverside Park into Windsor. Riverfront Recapture also hopes to light the facades of the magnificent Bulkeley Bridge, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008 and remains one of the most beautiful structures along the 400-mile length of the Connecticut River.
It’s impossible to have 20-20 vision about what the Riverfront will look like in 2020. But it is clear that there will be new amenities, new connections – and even more things to see and do.