Group focuses on Hodges Square for 'urban development project'

New London - The greater Hodges Square area has about 3,000 households, 26 businesses and two colleges in about 1.5 square miles. And yet many feel it has been neglected by the city.

Now, New London Landmarks is trying to change that.

Working with a $100,000 Creative Placemaking grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Landmarks has been talking to neighbors, holding workshops and sponsoring hands-on activities to put a spotlight on Hodges Square, Riverside Park, Crystal Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods.

"We're taking a look at a neighborhood that is dysfunctional and trying to change it and make it better,'' Sandra Chalk, Landmarks' executive director, said. "This is a 21st-century urban development project. It's an amazing opportunity for New London."

Northeast New London was pretty much cut off from the rest of the city during urban renewal projects of the 1960s and the construction of the twin spans of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge. The area, with three gasoline station/convenience stores in a row and dilapidated buildings and facades in need of repair, is not inviting.

"You work with what you have,'' Chalk said, pointing out that Hodges Square traditionally was a stop on historic Route 1.

Art Costa, a business consultant working with Landmarks, analyzed data from the 2011 Census and estimates that those living in the area annually spend $9 million on travel expenses and another $4 million on food.

Hodges Square is the center of the area, with 13 businesses employing 212 people, he said.

There are millions of dollars that potentially could flow through businesses there, he said, if you count the area's residents as well as the 3,000 or so people at Connecticut College and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

"What you have is a very interesting market,'' said Costa, who shared his research during a workshop Wednesday night at the Old Town Mill. "It's a set of neighborhoods with a commercial footprint. Folks are looking at this area as an urban village. A subset of the city."

The next workshop is scheduled for Feb. 13 at the Winthrop Magnet Elementary School, at a time to be determined.

Riverside Park, the city's 18-acre passive recreational park on the Thames River, also is included in the study. Last year, the Coast Guard offered the city nearly $3 million for about half the park, but residents voted against the sale. The city and a newly formed parks group have been slowly upgrading the park.

Landmarks met with residents in October to discuss the park's future, and Wednesday's meeting was to discuss the commercial possibilities in the area.

Making walkways more attractive to pedestrians and marking the bicycle path off Bailey Circle that leads to the bike lane on the Gold Star Bridge could capture new business, Chalk said.

Another way to get more focus on the area is for those who live there to define themselves, Chalk said, and form a neighborhood group that has an identity and a mission.

"Slowly, we are getting people involved,'' she said. "We're at the very beginning of what could be a grass-roots movement."

A master plan, which will be presented to City Council in the spring, would include proposed improvements and specific projects, cost estimates and other data. The city and nonprofit groups could use the information to secure other grants.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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