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But a 1970s redesign that significantly raised the plaza, created a walkway to the Water Street Parking Garage and added trees reduced the Parade's usable space, presented safety problems for pedestrians and motorists, and essentially separated lower State Street from the rest of downtown.
City leaders and residents have talked for more than a decade of restoring the Parade to its previous function and importance. That dream appeared closer than ever to reality on Wednesday, when architects, engineers and designers revealed their plans at City Hall for a more than $10 million Parade overhaul.
“This project takes what was formerly the most important public space in the city of New London and returns it to that status,” said Bruce Hyde, director of the city's Office of Development and Planning.
The work will fix safety problems and turn the Parade into an inviting, usable space for residents and visitors designed to connect the transportation center area with Waterfront Park and with downtown New London, Hyde said.
The plan will remove a grassy berm at the Water Street end of the Parade, improving sight lines for motorists making the 90-degree turn from the lower end of State Street onto Water Street, who currently cannot see pedestrians, taxis or buses before whipping around the curve.
Visitors to the city disembarking from cruise ships, trains, taxis or buses will get an inviting glimpse into downtown New London rather than a greeting from “the Great Wall of China,” Hyde said.
Removal of the berm, now virtually unusable, and demolition of a pedestrian walkway from the Parade to the Water Street Parking Garage will create a “lower Parade” area gradually sloping up from Water Street. The existing Parade, or “upper Parade,” will be regraded to gradually slope down to the lower Parade.
The two nearly flat areas, surfaced with pavers instead of concrete, will be connected by a set of four long, curving stairs, which can double during concerts and other events as amphitheater-style seating for approximately 300 people.
The middle row of trees in the grassy strip that marks the upper edge of the Parade will be removed, opening up a lawn area and leaving two lines of trees that converge as if pointing to the entrance to Union Station. A series of benches just off the sidewalk and shaded by the trees will provide intimate spaces for people to meet.
Across Atlantic Street, a currently unused grassy area at the south end of the Water Street Parking Garage will be surfaced with pavers and connected to the rest of the Parade with a new crosswalk and a set of ramps for handicapped accessibility. Inclusion of that area and the space opened up by the berm removal will almost triple the size of the Parade, Hyde said.
The Nathan Hale Schoolhouse now in the upper Parade area will be relocated roughly 100 feet to the southwest corner of the parking garage, where it will be placed on a new foundation and surrounded with outdoor space where visiting schoolchildren can sit and learn about the Revolutionary War hero. At the southeast corner of the garage, the new plaza will provide space for a pergola and stalls for vendors, whether for events or more permanent food carts. A brick pump station building will be removed and the pump station controls relocated to the parking garage.
Twenty-foot banners highlighting New London's maritime history will hang along the entire south end of the parking garage.
The basic strategy for the Parade redesign was “moving the furniture out of the center of the room,” said architect Sam Gardner, a principal of Gregg Weis & Gardner Architects of New Haven. The firm worked closely with Wilber Smith Associates of New Haven, the city's prime contractor on the redesign.
Other Parade plan components include signs to help people find their way around downtown New London and historic-style streetlights like those on upper State Street installed in the Parade area. Sidewalks will be extended at the corner of Bank and State streets to narrow the streets in order to encourage drivers to slow as they turn from Bank Street onto State Street.
Textured patches along lower State Street and Water Street will also slow cars or even encourage some to take alternative routes, said Senior Transportation Engineer Sharat K. Kalluri of Wilbur Smith Associates. New crosswalks across Water Street will indicate clearly where it is safe for pedestrians to walk, including one with a traffic signal. A raised island in front of Union Station will also separate a taxi drop-off area from other traffic.
Hyde secured funding for the approximately $10 million Parade project from eight sources, totaling $8.2 million in federal grants, $1.1 million in state grants and $850,000 in city spending.
In a separate project, $1 million in state Maritime Heritage Park funds will finance the installation in the Parade of three bronze statues and a series of bronze panels explaining New London's rich maritime history.
The lower Parade will feature a life-sized, bronze fountain of a sperm whale's tail, said Ed Krent, principal of Boston-based Krent/Paffett/Carney Inc. Water will flow off the fluke as if the whale just surfaced.
A bronze statue of Nathan Hale with open arms will welcome schoolchildren and visitors to the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse.
A bronze elephant seal — an oft-overlooked but important product of New London's maritime economy, Krent said — will welcome people to the entrance of Waterfront Park past Union Station and emit the call of a male seal when visitors draw near.
The panels, researched with the help of New London Landmarks and the New London County Historical Society, will be installed around the Parade to highlight New London's role as the East Coast's third largest whaling center as well as the city's connection to Revolutionary War-era privateering, Native Americans and the sea, the Amistad, submarine developments, and other topics.
The goal is to make the city's history accessible to the general public and “reintroduce the idea of New London as the perfect port,” Krent said.
The new maritime park area will become a starting point for walking tours, auto tours and boat tours, which Hyde said he is working to establish at City Pier to take visitors to sites like Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold Battlefield state parks and the Nautilus Museum.
In addition to the engineers and architects, groups including New London Main Street, City Center District and the Downtown New London Association were instrumental in developing the Parade Plans, along with the Parade Committee, headed by Elie Pallandre, Hyde said.
Bids for Parade project work will be solicited late this year or early next year, Hyde said, with an estimated 18 months of construction commencing next spring.