Hearst Connecticut Special Report | Part 3 of 3
Seeds of the future
in icons of the past
In search of a way forward on brownfields
By Hugh Bailey, Hearst Connecticut Media reporter
An hour after leaving picturesque Port Jefferson, N.Y., the ferry across Long Island Sound begins its approach to the postindustrial wasteland of Bridgeport Harbor.
To one side are the empty lots and abandoned piers of the city’s forgotten shipping industry. On the other is a coal-fired power plant, a relic that’s the last of its kind in Connecticut, its signature red-and-white smokestack reaching high into the skyline. From every direction, by train, car or boat, this symbol of industrial days gone by is the first sign that Bridgeport is on the horizon.
Protesters over the years have called for Harbor Station’s closure, and its useful days are likely limited. The future is bleak for coal plants.
But symbols are powerful things. It might not be what Bridgeport would choose, but the candy-striped smokestack is as close as the city has to an Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower. It’s an image of industry, but also one of pollution and retrograde solutions.
It could be a symbol of a brighter future.
The Route 8 corridor in Connecticut, with Bridgeport at its base, is defined by its industrial past. Waterbury and Torrington, Ansonia and Thomaston, Derby and Winsted: These are towns and cities largely left out of the wealth that now characterizes Connecticut.
Their history is in manufacturing - copper, brass, munitions, textiles, rubber and dozens of other products that Americans still need, but are now largely produced abroad. The industrial leftovers remain, hulking on the banks of rivers and crumbling on roadsides.
The plan, such as one exists, has always been to push out the old in hopes for something new - housing, offices or anything other than the dilapidated eyesores. Barring expensive demolition, the hope is to reconfigure the buildings for something needed today, maybe loft apartments or small-business incubators.
The cities that surround the factories have faded. Suburbs have dominated American development for a half-century - spread out and inefficient, with overlapping services and wasted money.
Postindustrial cities like Bridgeport and those up the Naugatuck Valley have acres of underutilized land that would be ideal for the kind of urban living people are increasingly seeking out, but it needs to be cleaned up. Brownfields, contaminated properties left over from the height of manufacturing, are the key to increasing density and dealing with some of our most pressing issues.
"...acres of underutilized land that would be ideal for the kind of urban living people are increasingly seeking out, but it needs to be cleaned up."
Germany’s Ruhr Valley, among the most industry-scarred regions in Europe, provides the model to not only remember the past, but capitalize on it and grow from it.
Nothing attempted or even proposed in the U.S. comes close to matching the Ruhr’s efforts to fight decay over the past half-century, where the ruins of manufacturing have been retrofitted into amenities for the future.
Power plants serve as convention centers, ironworks as tourist attractions. A mining complex, Zollverein, is a museum of industrial history. And all of it is connected with a continuous greenway along the Emscher River, one of the most polluted waterways in Europe and now undergoing an extensive cleaning.
Parks bring measurable benefits, as a boon for real estate values and for public health. They encourage development. The Ruhr, once facing the abyss, is instead enjoying a rebirth because of its foresight in turning factories into parks.
A project to turn the Route 8 corridor from Bridgeport into the Naugatuck Valley into a mini-Emscher River Park, one that could bring similar economic and community benefits, sounds outlandish. But the seeds are already there.
“Once you demonstrate what can be done, you make
believers out of people."
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti
One day in the future, where the Pequonnock River empties into Bridgeport Harbor, the red-and-white smokestack that symbolizes Connecticut’s largest city could serve as the southern anchor of a Route 8 industrial-themed park stretching north toward the Massachusetts border.
The South End of Bridgeport could form a new entry point to the state. A museum of industrial history, a Zollverein in Bridgeport, on the site of the power plant could tell the story of how the city grew from a backwater to a manufacturing behemoth.
The coal plant is a short hop from the University of Bridgeport. A concerted link between city and school is the first step, after the coal plant is decommissioned, toward a new future on the waterfront.
Greenways form the backbone of Germany’s redevelopment, linking sites of interest around the Ruhr Valley and snaking into city centers. They are becoming central in Connecticut, as well, and the plan eventually is to line the Naugatuck River from beginning to end with pedestrian-friendly pathways.
The green belt could start here at the mouth of the Pequonnock, one of the most industry-choked waterways in the state, but also a river that has an expanding greenway of its own.
In downtown Bridgeport, to the north of the harbor, the river is mostly unreachable behind the train station and bus terminal. A path linking the river to the center city would be a boon for the neighborhood’s burgeoning revival.
Up the Pequonnock is a scene of heavy manufacturing, most of it defunct. But nestled in it is Knowlton Park, a beachhead on the waterfront established through the efforts of Mayor Bill Finch to grab any access to the river available. It’s a small site and across the river from a particularly ugly old factory, but the city has plans for expansion. It’s a neighborhood in serious need of park space, and a greenway up and down the river is the way to deliver it.
Off the river just to the east, a spur could link the new greenway to the Remington Arms shot tower on Arctic Street, another icon of Bridgeport. Near what is slated to be a new train station, it’s one of the few Bridgeport factories that is hard to imagine ever facing the wrecking ball, no matter how decrepit it becomes.
The shot tower was where Remington formed molten lead into spheres by dropping it through a copper sieve to the floor below. It’s one of the few of its kind remaining, and once repaired would form a vital cog on the trail of industry.
The Pequonnock goes underground farther north before re-emerging and entering Beardsley Park. This Frederick Law Olmsted creation, never quite the same since the construction of Route 8-25 some 40 years ago sliced it in half, could be revitalized with aa new link south to the harbor.
From here, the industrial trail would leave the Pequonnock and more closely follow the Route 8 highway, cutting through parts of Trumbull and Stratford past Beaver Dam Lake and through Roosevelt Forest. From there it would enter Shelton, a city as successful as any in Connecticut in bringing old factories back into productive use as residences.
The former Birmingham Corset factory in downtown Shelton has been retrofitted into 103 condominiums. The one-time Spongex building across the street is to become 50 loft-style condos. The process feeds on itself, gaining momentum with each new conversion.
“Once you demonstrate what can be done, you make believers out of people,” Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti said.
Shelton also marks the base of the spine of the new park - the industry-ravaged Naugatuck Valley.
“You can make a strong case for the public sector here. It’s a good use of public money because it can be leveraged significantly.”
Alan Mallach of the Brookings Institute
A plan to invest heavily in brownfields to bring life to former industrial hubs faces tremendous challenges. Cleaning them up isn’t cheap. Neither, though, is continuing to let valuable properties languish.
The American spirit of individualism applies not only to people, but to places. Each town is on its own, each city will fend for itself. If they fail, history shows they will be left behind.
“One thing about America is planning almost always takes place on the local level, as it should,” said Tim Sullivan, who leads the Connecticut brownfields program. “We don’t have a planned economy. Land use is fundamentally a local matter.”
As the Germans have discovered, more difficult than changing the land is changing people’s perceptions. Turning Bridgeport and the Valley into desirable places to live and work would take more than cleaning up factories and building new parks. It requires a new mindset. That can take years.
More states, including Connecticut, are today linking brownfield development with larger goals, like transit and waterfront access.
There’s a bright future in brownfields. With studies showing they can generate economic activity that more than pays for the cost of a cleanup, momentum for more funding could build. But it won’t be easy to sway lawmakers.
“No one is putting significant money into urban revitalization,” said Alan Mallach, of the Brookings Institute. “There’s no more public money, period.”
Were trends to shift, the logical direction comes into view. “If they are going to invest, brownfields should be a priority,” Mallach said. “You can make a strong case for the public sector here. It’s a good use of public money because it can be leveraged significantly.”
Brownfield programs have wide appeal - to developers and environmentalists, the business community and public health advocates. In Congress, brownfield bills enjoy rare bipartisan sponsorship.
Still, it has been a struggle to turn attention to seemingly abandoned cities. It’s hard to shake the idea that they were left behind for a reason and ought to stay that way.
The decline of factories and rise of cars since World War II has meant the end of traditional downtowns. The result is what’s called the edgeless city, defined by Brookings as “vast swaths of isolated buildings that are neither pedestrian-friendly, nor easily accessible by public transit, and do not lend themselves to mixed use.” This describes most of suburbia.
Development patterns have started to shift back. Downtowns, even in struggling cities like Bridgeport, are attracting new residents. Much-touted comebacks in former industrial giants like St. Louis and Cleveland are confined almost entirely to a small slice of land in the city center. In contrast to the suburbs, these downtowns offer walkability, convenience and the chance to live a life less dependent on cars.
After rising inexorably for decades, the number of miles driven in this country per capita has declined for nine straight years. The seemingly endless push into farther-out suburbs may have finally ended.
DERBY & ANSONIA
“This area is priceless.
It has tremendous natural resources in the river and wildlife, and also huge historic value. This is the area where manufacturing in Connecticut was driven for so many years.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal
A major stop on the potential Route 8 park is one of the most significant brownfield cleanups in recent years - Derby’s O’Sullivan’s Island. No longer an island, the peninsula where the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers meet has been the site of epic environmental contamination.
But it’s in better shape now, and in close proximity to downtown Derby and a number of abandoned factory buildings in need of rehabilitation. Derby was a manufacturing center that has fallen on hard times, and high unemployment rates persist up and down the Naugatuck Valley.
Just as important, Derby is the starting point of the Naugatuck River greenway, which reaches to the city’s northern border at Division Street and then up into Ansonia -- also among the most distressed municipalities in Connecticut.
The Naugatuck River runs through Ansonia’s downtown, but it’s mostly hidden from view behind massive concrete barriers erected after the devastating floods of 1955. The riverfront is dominated to the north by the sprawling Ansonia Copper and Brass complex, a series of empty brick shells where thousands of people once worked.
Its active life dates back more than a century. It is a monument to a history once ruled by manufacturing and could be the centerpiece of a new linear park honoring the past.
It’s a large enough space that a greenway would need to be only one component. Housing, commercial activity and office space could all be part of the plan.
Its history means the obstacles to redevelopment are severe.
“Some sites have enormous historic liability issues that could probably only be addressed by a visionary outcome,” said Arthur Bogen, an environmental planner and statewide expert on brownfields. “Is Ansonia an opportunity? It might be. But it’s got 100 years of heavy industrial use, so it’s got issues in the soil.”
The Ruhr Valley puts a priority on environmental repair, and creating an atmosphere more amenable to people and businesses moving in. If the Naugatuck Valley is to be reborn, it needs to take those steps, and it needs help to do it.
A proposal to designate the Valley a National Heritage Area, which would bring in federal dollars and promote tourism, could be a step in that direction, but would require congressional action.
Today, Ansonia is not in a position to attract the kind of development it needs for an economic rebound. The new Route 8 park could accomplish that, in much the same way economic growth has followed Emscher Park.
Tingue Dam, fish ladder and park, Naugatuck River | Seymour, Conn.
Plans are underway to extend the Naugatuck greenway northward. In Seymour, efforts to improve river access downtown are progressing, with a fish ladder around the Tingue Dam to serve as a tourist attraction.
In Waterbury, a struggling city with vast numbers of brownfields, there are ambitious proposals to link pathways into the city and around historic sites downtown. In Thomaston, the factory that saw Seth Thomas perfect the mass production of clocks still stands. Torrington and Winsted, at the end of the Route 8 expressway, have innumerable brownfields, each a part of the state’s manufacturing past.
Linking them would tie the region together and make successes transferable, rather than at the expense of neighbors. What works in Derby would help Bridgeport and Torrington.
“This area is priceless,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “It has tremendous natural resources in the river and wildlife, and also huge historic value. This is the area where manufacturing in Connecticut was driven for so many years.”
Officials in the Ruhr say they have been asked why the industrial past has taken such an outsized role in the region’s future, and the answer is simple: This is what they have. There are no mountains or coastlines, no ancient ruins or picturesque villages. The communities along Route 8 share that predicament, along with its possibilities.
AN URGENT NEED
“There’s no government entity in the world that has plans to reduce greenhouse gases by half to a third and urbanization and densification would do it. But where?
Bridgeport Mayor Finch
If urban living weren’t in demand, housing prices in New York and San Francisco wouldn’t be so exorbitant. Smaller cities like Stamford are getting to be out of reach for the middle class. Walkable communities are almost a luxury good in much of the country.
For 50 years, suburbs have gained at the expense of cities because society encouraged their growth. We built highways, subsidized homeownership over renting and redlined the inner cities, limiting investment and contributing to deepening poverty.
Changing policies would start to reverse the effect. And there is good reason, beyond people’s preferences, to head in that direction - climate change.
Barring immediate action, scientists overwhelmingly say a catastrophic rise in sea levels will be unavoidable in coming centuries. Any hope of mitigating the worst means a serious effort to cut carbon emissions. One of the most effective ways to do that is to encourage people to live in cities.
Bridgeport Mayor Finch, a relentless environmental advocate, often points out that the average Bridgeport resident is responsible for half to a third the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a suburbanite. There are a variety of reasons -- smaller homes, more mass transit, shorter commutes. Shared walls and floors cut energy costs, and less land means less runoff, which overwhelms sewer systems.
Bridgeport could be where the change starts, the anchor of a local rebirth, with downtowns again in demand up the Valley.
“There’s no government entity in the world that has plans to reduce greenhouse gases by half to a third,” Finch said, “and urbanization and densification would do it. But where? On brownfields.”
With more than 140,000 residents, Bridgeport is the state’s largest city.
“Our goal is to get Bridgeport to 250,000 people in 30 years,” Finch said. “That’s 100,000 people who have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by half to two-thirds. There’s no other plans that do that, even if you closed all the coal plants.”
Convincing Congress to take action on climate change has proven difficult to impossible. Tying it to brownfield cleanup, which has across-the-board benefits, could make it more politically viable.
More people are showing they want to live in cities. It’s becoming just as clear we need more people to live there.
Experts agree that the choices are clear. We can take a piecemeal, site-by-site approach to brownfield cleanup, which describes current U.S. policy. Or we could think big.
Bridgeport could be where the change starts, the anchor of a local rebirth, with downtowns again in demand up the Valley, changing the story of the downtrodden Route 8 corridor to one of rebirth instead of decay.
A network of greenways up and down the state’s rivers could highlight our industrial past and invite development.
It’s working in Germany.
The end of heavy industry drove our cities into decline. Its legacy could bring them new life.
Part 1: Breaking Free - Abandoned factories leave toxic legacies, discourage redevelopment
Part 3: Icons of the Past - Reimagining Connecticut's Route 8 corridor
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Bailey spent eight months exploring the challenges of cities whose long-ago reliance on heavy industry has saddled them with blighted buildings and contaminated soil.
In this multi-part series, appearing on consecutive Sundays, Bailey illuminates the problem — so prevalent in our area — and finds some surprising solutions.