by Mike Aziz
In towns and cities across New England, post-industrial waterfronts and other brownfield sites hold the potential to generate new recreational, economic, and environmental opportunities, while preserving the region’s deep historic legacy. But just imagining that future won’t make it real. From our experience as architects and urban designers working on waterfront projects all along the East Coast, the key to moving from vision to reality is a comprehensive master plan. This can be a daunting undertaking. What does a successful master planning process look like?
For city leaders embarking on this journey, or real estate and building industry professionals involved in the process, a new riverfront initiative in Middletown, Conn. offers a useful roadmap. Just outside the city’s downtown, roughly 200 acres of land along the Connecticut River is being reconsidered as a vibrant and accessible new district with extensive, storm-resilient open spaces and a broad mix of uses informed by community input, after decades cut off from public use by highways, industrial parks, and a wastewater plant. Here are three key takeaways from the Middletown planning process:
A Committed Local Government Sets the Stage
The City of Middletown launched its new riverfront master plan initiative in 2021, but its commitment to reimagining this district goes back decades. This longstanding interest in community-centric waterfront redevelopment sets a strong foundation for a master plan. Middletown’s current mayor, Ben Florsheim, and his team all have a deep understanding of what residents are looking for from their waterfront — from housing, to recreational space, to restaurants and commercial uses. This knowledge enabled the city to pass, with strong community support, a $50 million infrastructure bond that is now making the redevelopment process happen.
Creative and Meaningful Public Engagement is Essential
It’s impossible to develop a truly comprehensive and sustainable master plan without the local community. In Middletown, creating a plan that reflects and is inclusive of diverse voices and stakeholders was a fundamental goal, and we took it as a profound responsibility to understand the local context, including a complicated history of neighborhood displacement. But how can we reach the community members and involve them in a meaningful way? In order to engage, project teams have to be creative. Our team ran public workshops and created online surveys, but we also worked with the city to create a physical storefront on Main Street. Seven days a week, any community resident could come in and track the plan’s progress. This storefront holds a large-scale model of the development site, and there are sketches and drawings, as well interactive activities to generate feedback. Opening up the process in such an open, transparent, and inclusive way helps residents feel that their input matters and we’ve had hundreds of participants (and growing) and gained valuable insights that continue to shape the master plan’s mix of uses, densities, and design.
Project Teams Should Focus on Implementation
The ultimate goal of a master plan process must be to facilitate and guide implementation, and project teams have to think about the ultimate potential for execution at every step. Great urban design is created when municipal oversight, private interests, and community interests come together in conversation and speak the same language. Achieving this requires real rigor in the planning process, and the ability to look past ideas that aren’t grounded in market realities or in what the community will support. There are very few shortcuts in this process, and it takes time, commitment, and a strong team to be able to have difficult conversations and reach agreements that benefit everyone. In Middletown, our project team, including collaborators Karp Strategies and Langan, has worked hard to facilitate productive dialogues with the city, the public, and the development community, with the result that development RFPs are already being prepared for parts of the waterfront.
Understanding these elements of what goes into a successful master plan process will enable project teams to help New England’s cities generate incredible value from their waterfront and brownfield sites for generations to come.
Mike Aziz, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner and the director of urban design at architecture at urban design firm Cooper Robertson.