Ideas Flying For Greenway Project Along The Naugatuck River In Waterbury
The Naugatuck River flows right through the center of Waterbury
Excitement during the 2nd Annual Naugatuck River Race
Hashing out plans during a greenway summit
One of the organizers of the river race, Kevin Zak, of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, addresses a pre-race gathering May 9th
An aerial map of the Naugatuck River generated lots of discussion on April 30th at Kennedy High School
During the past 50 years the spirit of Waterbury has slowly dehydrated like a grape shrivelling into a raisin. The once blustering civic spirit that forged an industrial powerhouse out of a treeless meadow has waned with economic loss, political corruption and systemic arguing.
Enter the healing power of water.
Water has the power to cleanse and nourish our souls. It also has the power to hydrate a dried raisin and make it swollen and plump again.
It was the convergence of seven streams and rivers that led the settlers to build the Mattatuck Plantation here. It was the awesome power of those rivers and streams that fired the grist mills and fueled the brass industry as the city rose to worldwide prominence. Water was the city’s biggest asset, and our ancestors acknowledged that fact when they changed the name from Mattatuck, to Waterbury. The city owns a world class water system that winds through Litchfield County, and the Water Department is the only city department that posts a profit every year.
Somewhere along the way the community lost it’s reverence for our rivers and streams and they became little more than liquid conveyor belts to move our waste and garbage south further down the Naugatuck Valley. Many city residents remember the days when the Naugatuck River was stained orange and red from industrial dyes, and the Naugatuck is one of the only documented rivers in America to actually catch fire from all the debris and pollutants clogging its arteries.
Times have changed.
The river runs clear again. The dams that blocked it for nearly 200 years are almost entirely removed, and the natural wildlife has returned. As the river healed, many area residents began a slow awakening to the extraordinary asset we had mistreated and abused for 200 years. Individuals began to kayak and paddle through Waterbury. Fisherman no longer feared eating the catch they yanked from the river. Bird watchers could see Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and a lucky few spotted a lone Bald Eagle down in the Platts Mills section of the river.
Several years ago a small group of community minded activists sought to tap into the power of the river and build a greenway along its banks. A preliminary environmental study was completed, but the cash needed to implement the dream was shorter than a politician’s memory after election day.
The missing link was political will.
All that changed last Spring when the Naugatuck River Revival Group sponsored a six mile canoe and kayak race on the river, and had the brilliant idea to invite municipal leaders from up and down the river to compete.
What could have been a ho-hum race involving 20 experienced boaters was suddenly transformed into the event of the year when Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura promised to participate. State Senator Joan Hartley and aldermen Mike Telesca, Paul Pernerewski and Paul Noguira all braved the unknown to paddle from Platts Mills to Beacon Falls. Nobody knew what lay around the next bend and there was a sense of dread and excitement as 200 boats blasted off from Waterbury’s south end.
Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura in 2008, and some of the 250 boaters in 2009
The First Selectman of Beacon Falls, Susan Cables, participated, as did Chuck Frigon, the Town Manager in Watertown, and the mayors of Ansonia and Derby. An enormous amount of publicity was generated and photographs of a drenched Michael Jarjura crossing the finish line waving to the crowd seemed to epitomize the event. Jarjura’s canoe had flipped three times and he ruined his cell phone, but he had a blast. Other participants said the event was one of the most memorable of their life.
The importance of influential politicians in the event cannot be underestimated. The race was talked about for weeks, and then suddenly $4 million dollars was reallocated from a 2005 High Priority Federal Transportation Grant and directed towards creating a 7.1 mile greenway along the Naugatuck River.
Over the summer Mayor Jarjura formed a Greenway Advisory Committee and asked many influential community leaders to serve on it. Former mayoral candidate and long-time alderman, Ron Napoli, is the chairman of the committee. Kathleen McNamara, the community development coordinator for the Waterbury Development Corporation, is the vice-chairman. McNamara has been pushing for a greenway in the city for years and has been instrumental in nurturing the project from idea, to the cusp of reality.
“This is a great project,” McNamara said. “We tried it several years ago but the timing wasn’t right. Now we have tremendous momentum and great public participation. In the past ten years this is the most excited I’ve been about any project in the city.”
And while other communities up and down the Naugatuck River try to get their own greenway projects launched, Waterbury seems to be way ahead of the curve. In addition to the $4 million that now sits in the Connecticut Department of Transportation coffers for the Waterbury greenway, the city just recently applied for an additional $11.3 million in federal funding to advance the project.
But what exactly is a greenway?
In his book Greenways For America, Charles E. Little gives several possible definitions for a greenway. First, he says it is a linear open space established along either a natural corridor, such as a riverfront, stream valley, ridgeline, or overland along a railroad right of way converted to recreational use, a canal, a scenic road, or other route.
Second, Little defines a greenway as any natural or landscaped course for pedestrian or bicycle passage. Third, an open-space connector linking parks, nature reserves, cultural features, or historic sites within populated areas.
Greenways have exploded upon the national consciousness in the past 25 years, but in his book, Little credits Frederick Law Olmstead for inventing the idea of greenways. Olmstead was born in Hartford in 1822 and designed Central Park in the heart of New York City, and ironically, it was Olmstead who also designed Fulton Park in Waterbury.
In the introduction to his book, Little states greenways are “wonderfully rich and diverse - as rich and diverse as human ingenuity and topographical opportunity can make them.”
And in Waterbury the gears of imagination are just beginning to grind.
The Naugatuck River hugs Route 8 for several miles in Waterbury
While still in it’s conceptual stage, the multi-use greenway in Waterbury is imagined to provide a place for bikers, rollerbladers, walkers, and parents pushing their baby strollers up and down the Naugatuck River corridor. The greenway should provide entrance and exit points for kayaks and canoes. It should have educational components to interpret history and nature. It should have places for the community to gather to enjoy theater and concerts, and shops and restaurants to buy an ice cream or a beer.
The Mixmaster intersection of Route 8 and I-84
The Greenway Advisory Committee selected Alta Planning + Design from Saratoga Springs, NY, to plan a route for the greenway. The company was hired this Spring and their first step into the project was to conduct a community wide kick-off and brain storming session on April 30th at Kennedy High School where nearly 150 city residents showed up to participate.
Mayor Jarjura was the first to address the gathering and spent a few minutes talking about his participation in the 2nd Annual Naugatuck River Race being held May 9th, assuring everyone he would wear a helmet this time. “This project has the potential to alter the city,” Jarjura said. “Water is gold. If you have a waterway you have to do something to enhance the community.”
Alta’s Jeff Olson is managing the project in Waterbury and he has extraordinary experience planning and deigning similar projects around the country. Olson addressed the gathering at Kennedy High School and said the first thing he was there to do was listen to the community.
Jeff Olson of Alta Planning and Design
“We want to hear what ideas you have for the project,” Olson said, and then he broke the gathering into smaller splinter groups to work on various concepts and ideas. “I’ve done this all across the country and as you get started your community is way ahead of most communities,” Olson said. “You already have your mayor in a kayak and you have millions of dollars committed. This is fantastic.”
Starting a project with excellent digital maps, environmental studies in place, and a committed city administration gives Waterbury a big head start. Olson asked the gathering if they knew the meaning of the word Naugatuck, and several people knew it was an ancient Algonquian word for “Lone tree by the fishing place.”
As he spoke briefly about the greenway, Olson said “the Naugatuck River can become the unifying theme of this community”, and getting residents out walking, biking running and paddling “can have tremendous benefits on people’s health”.
Olson told the gathering of the importance of including public art in the project and shared a story about how England committed itself to a massive greenway project that included a spectacular amount of public art. In Waterbury there might be ways to connect to public art already in existence - the statues and monuments in downtown Waterbury, the Mattatuck Museum and Timexpo. The greenway can have little fingers or tentacles that shoot off into the community and neighborhoods to connect the city.
There was discussion during the night to try and link the greenway to the downtown UConn campus, to Municipal Stadium and to a proposed transportation center. Other ideas were to connect the greenway to Duggan School in Brooklyn, to the Huntington ballfields, to Fort Hill Cemetery, to neighborhood parks and special events. Another idea was to transform a car junk yard along the river into a park.
Designing a greenway from Waterbury city limits to Thomaston would be much easier than tackling the 7.1 mile stretch in Waterbury, through densely populated areas, factories, brownfields, abandoned bridges and beneath the mixmaster exchange where I-84 and Route 8 intersection. “If this were the Olympics,” Olson said. “The degree of difficulty with this project would be very high.”
From his experience, though, Olson said every greenway project is different. “Each one is an open book,” Olson said. “There are a lot of obstacles, but with innovation and creativity we can find solutions.”
There might be locations in Waterbury where the greenway will have to veer away from the river. There might be opportunities to build the greenway out over the river. In the end it will be Olson’s job to come back to the community and the Greenway Advisory Committee with options and estimated costs. “We’ll be looking for the best most workable solution,” Olson said. “Then it’s up to the community to decide what they want.”
And during the kick-off night at Kennedy High School the community was brimming with ideas. Some of the ideas were a sculpture park on the seven acres being donated to the city in the south end by Mimi Niederman, and to provide security along the entire greenway. Another idea was to create programs to teach city youngsters to ride bikes and to swim. Olson was excited about the idea to get Waterbury kids off computers and outside exercising. “The number of kids across the country who don’t know how to ride bikes and swim is alarming,” he said.
Mimi Niederman is donating seven acres of riverfront property in the South End of Waterbury
At the end of the evening Olson tried to summarize the event. “I was asked by the Waterbury Development Corporation to come and inspire the community. Instead it is me who has been inspired.” Olson said it is usually at the first meetings that individuals come up with pitch forks and rotten fruit to criticize the project, but in Waterbury there was absolutely no negativity.
“There are people out there opposed to this,” Olson said, “and we’ll hear from them.”
Or maybe not.
Waterbury has been so bogged down in bickering and a loss of civic pride, that maybe this project along the river will provide the healing this community so desperately needs. In Charles Little’s book about greenways he wrote “For a 100 years urban rivers have been relegated to the ugliest of urban functions - sewage disposal, heavy industrial sites and garbage disposal. Inevitably the river corridors became a kind of no man’s land, dividing cities, economically and socially - the poor on one side, the rich on the other.”
But, Little writes, times have changed. “The ugly functions have been replaced and when cities discover this the impulse is strong to establish a greenway project along the river front. And then a miracle happens. The river begins to join the people of the city together, rather than separate them. What was once an open wound begins to heal itself, and the city along with it.”