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New London - "What Lies Beyond the Bridges" sounds like the title of a scary movie.
But in New London it's the name of a movement to improve the north end of the city, including the land under and around the twin spans of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.
New London Landmarks, which received a $100,000 state grant last March, is sponsoring a series of workshops and discussions for Riverside Park, Hodges Square, and the neighborhoods that surround them.
Last week, Peter Miniutti, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and director of the UConn's Community Research and Design Collaborative, helped residents come up with ideas for enhancing Riverside Park.
In its heyday, Riverside Park with its sloping topography, views of the Thames River and access to the water, was a unique space, Miniutti said Saturday during a telephone interview. People were looking for an escape from city life and the park offered an idealistic connection with nature.
"It was a destination for the whole city and the region,'' he said.
Over the years, the park fell into decline with fewer people using it and the city failed to properly maintain it. Last year the Coast Guard offered the city nearly $3 million for half of the 18-acre park, but residents voted against the sale at a referendum.
Miniutti said parks like Riverside are unique and worth saving, but changes have to be made.
"Modern society wants more active recreation and parks have to adapt,'' he said. "The park needs to be reinvented."
As part of the "Creative Placemaking Project" grant, Landmarks held a workshop last week with a couple dozen people at Winthrop Magnet Elementary School.
"I was very excited and pleased with the variety of people who came to the workshop,'' said Sandra Kersten Chalk, executive director of Landmarks. "It was a general mix of people involved with the park."
Some of the ideas included closing off interior roads and opening paths for walking and biking; creating a central pavilion; and setting aside plots for community gardens.
Adventure playgrounds were also suggested, Chalk said, which means enhancing the natural setting of the park with activities, such as tire swings. Miniutti said long slides which can accommodate children and adults are also making a comeback in parks.
Whatever is done with the park, it needs to be unique and special to Riverside, Chalk said.
But one of the biggest obstacles to overcome, according to Chalk and Miniutti, is to get people to use the park. The entrance needs to be welcoming, signs are needed to direct people to the park, and once inside, trees need to be trimmed or taken down so people feel safe going there.
"Because the park is on the backside of a hill and the hill is facing north, it's not very visible for the community,'' Miniutti said. "It really is isolated."
As originally conceived, the park was mostly clear land with only a few trees. Today it is a third smaller and trees and bushes cover about 95 percent of the land.
Cutting down trees, or even trimming them so there remains a canopy for shade, could go a long way in making people feel comfortable at the park, Miniutti said.
"The park may not have a regional draw, but it clearly can serve the local community, the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, the schools and the neighborhoods,'' he said.
The project will continue Oct. 18, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Winthrop School, with a workshop about the Hodges Square business district. Art Costas and Jerry Sinnamon will lead the discussion.
On Nov. 28 from 7 to 9 p.m., Miniutti and his staff will present ideas from both workshops. The goal is to draw up plans that can be a map to create a master plan for the park and the neighborhood.