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Seemingly simple changes to the plaza at the foot of State Street known as the Parade could dramatically change the way people use the downtown.
Historically, the Parade served as one of New London's most important public spaces, a piazza at the heart of its economic and cultural center. The Parade sits where the downtown, waterfront and transportation hub converge, but urban renewal efforts in the 1970s diminished its importance and function.
A redesign elevated the plaza, blocking views up State Street from Union Station and making navigation difficult for pedestrians. The adjacent Victorian-era Neptune Building was razed, and urban planners surrounded the Parade with the high concrete walls of the Water Street Parking Garage and Union Plaza office complex.
But plans unveiled last week at City Hall aim to reestablish the Parade as an inviting and important public space, simply by lowering, expanding and enhancing the now cluttered space.
The project would:
•Create a “lower Parade” where a large berm now serves as a physical and visual barrier between the transportation center and downtown. This new plaza space, sloping up from Water Street, would open pedestrian access into the Parade and downtown. It would feature a bronze whale's tail with water flowing off the fluke. Four levels of amphitheater-style seating for 300 — that would lead up to the existing “upper Parade” area, about five feet higher — also would serve as steps.
•Remove clutter from the existing “upper Parade.” The Nathan Hale Schoolhouse would be moved across Atlantic Street. The middle row of trees in a grassy area at the Parade's upper edge would be removed, and benches would be installed under the shade of the remaining trees. The plaza would be resurfaced with pavers, and more of the original base of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument would be exposed.
•Create a “Nathan Hale Plaza” for the schoolhouse and install a new bronze statue of Nathan Hale with open arms to welcome visitors. The historic structure would be placed on a permanent foundation at the southwest corner of the Water Street Parking Garage. A raised plaza would provide seating for schoolchildren and other visitors and would house sewer pump station equipment currently in a brick structure that will be razed.
•Turn the vacant land at the south side of the parking garage into open space. A pedestrian walkway between the parking garage and Parade would be removed. The new space would feature a pergola and stalls for vendors during events.
•Slow traffic. Textured pavement would be installed on lower State Street, Water Street and Atlantic Street. Sidewalk “bulb-outs” at the corner of State and Bank streets would narrow the roadway. To try and make the area safer for pedestrians, a series of raised crosswalks, including one with a traffic light, would be installed. Traffic medians in the middle of Water Street would separate lanes for through traffic and passenger drop-offs.
• Improve the Water Street Parking Garage. A glass-enclosed elevator on the southwest corner of the parking garage would attractively restore an elevator to the garage, improving handicapped access. Ramps to make the Parade handicapped-accessible would also be added.
•Promote New London with a series of bronze statues and plaques. Besides the Hale and Whale statues, a life-sized statue of an elephant seal would draw people to the entrance of Waterfront Park. Bronze plaques throughout the Parade would highlight New London's history. Signs would make it easier for visitors to navigate downtown.
“It's an exciting project. It's going to transform this area of downtown New London. It's a sea change,” said Bruce Hyde, director of the Office of Development and Planning.
This is not the city's first attempt to remake the Parade since the 1974 redesign.
A 1989 study by the Regional Urban Design Action Team of the American Institute of Architects recommended restoring the Parade and reconstructing the Neptune Building as one step in revitalizing the downtown.
Urban design firm EDAW prepared a New London Downtown Master Plan in 1999 for the New London Development Corp. That document proposed lowering the Parade, reconnecting Atlantic Street to State to restore two-way traffic, and building a five-story residential, retail and entertainment building on the site of the former Neptune Building.
A lack of funding thwarted previous proposals, but Hyde has secured all of the funding the current plan should require. More than $10 million in Parade enhancements will include just $850,000 from the city, with the rest from state and federal grants. The bronze statues and plaques will be funded separately by $1 million in state Maritime Heritage Park money.
Plans are approximately 70 percent complete, and the project will be put out to bid late this year or early next year, Hyde said. An 18-month construction period should begin next spring.
The plans met with approval from residents and city officials.
“I love the understated nature of this plan. It lets you as a visitor discover New London,” said New London Main Street CEO Penny Parsekian.
Something as simple as removing the grassy berm at the foot of the current Parade will do wonders for the downtown, Parsekian predicted.
“In a small downtown like this, with a transportation center at the bottom of the hill where you have about 2 million people passing through ferries and the train station every year, to obscure sightlines into downtown is shooting yourself in the foot,” Parsekian said. Passengers waiting for connections who now can't see what the downtown has to offer will be “enticed to explore,” she said.
City Manager Martin H. Berliner, who arrived here after planning for the Parade began, called the redesign “the next step in the life of the community.”
“It's just so inviting. It opens up this part of the community,” he said. “It creates a living space, a place that will hopefully come alive over time, both through programming and people living and recreating in the area.”