Concerted effort to make city more inviting

The Thames River view from some Bank Streeet buildings that are part of an ongoing architectural study. The downtown and Fort Trumbull were part of the discussion at a recent forum hosted by New London Landmarks.
The Thames River view from some Bank Streeet buildings that are part of an ongoing architectural study. The downtown and Fort Trumbull were part of the discussion at a recent forum hosted by New London Landmarks. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

When Riverbank Construction starts building the first of 103 units of housing in Fort Trumbull in May, other development won't be far behind, according to the Renaissance City Development Association.

"We are at the tipping point,'' Frank McLaughlin, project manager for RDCA, said during a recent development forum at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center. "When people see we are actually developing at Fort Trumbull, other people will be interested in developing there, too."

He said a hotel could be built at Fort Trumbull, an indoor water park or a museum. There is talk of a boat storage facility and a seven-story parking garage, he said.

The 13-year-old Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan earmarked a parcel for a Coast Guard museum, but since that time, there has been talk about locating the museum somewhere downtown.

"We don't have to jump out the window,'' McLaughlin said. Another museum could be built in Fort Trumbull, maybe an extension of the Smithsonian museums, he said.

"We could become a mecca of museums,'' said McLaughlin, pointing out that the region would be home to the Coast Guard, Nautilus and Mystic Seaport museums.

McLaughlin was one of a dozen people, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spoke at the all-day forum "Visions & Plans: New London 2013 & Beyond," hosted by New London Landmarks.

Malloy, who was in Norwich at a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut breakfast that same day, stopped by the New London gathering to cheer on the city's attempts to improve itself.

The state has no funds to help redevelop the city, he told the group of about 35. But he did pledge his support.

"I absolutely love New London," Malloy said. "I think there are great opportunities here. You have a fan and a supporter in me."

Malloy said years of government policies have contributed to the decline of urban areas, but newer programs - such as education reform - also will help improve smaller cities with urban issues, like New London, Groton and Norwich.

"We made them (cities) more expensive to live in, with not very good schools and higher crime rates, and then we were surprised when no wanted to live here,'' he said.

He told the group that addressing education and crime problems, and then focusing on New London's proximity to the water and its historic past, could go a long way in boosting the city's profile.

"If we straighten out some urban-related issues and build on our strengths, advertise appropriately, we will see more people who want to visit here and will want to live here,'' he said.

The forum also featured presentations from groups with various plans for the city, including the Fort Trumbull housing project; an architectural study of three buildings at State and Bank streets downtown; and proposed upgrades to the downtown municipal parking lot off Eugene O'Neill Drive.

Also speaking was Brian Kent of Kent + Frost Landscape Architects of Mystic, who talked about the city's Creative Placemaking program, which is trying to find ways to make better use of existing spaces.

The group is focusing on Riverside Park and Hodges Square, an area they refer to as northeast New London. The section of town was virtually separated from the rest of the city when the twin spans of the Gold Star Bridge were built more than 40 years ago.

Working with the landscape architecture department at the University of Connecticut, the placemaking group is compiling a report with suggestions that include expanding sidewalks and making streets more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, putting up signs and improving the facades of existing buildings.

At the forum, Bud Bray, who said he has walked or biked more of the city over the past 40 years than anyone else in the room, took exception to all the groups trying to gentrify New London and squeeze out those already living here. Residents who live in and around Hodges Square, he said, are isolated and neglected by the city because they are poor.

But Sandra Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, took exception to Bray's comments.

"We're talking about revitalizing and reconnecting, not about gentrifying,'' Chalk said. "We are trying to make downtown more accessible and not isolate people.

"What's wrong with trying to make it look nice,'' she asked.

K.EDGECOMB@THEDAY.COM

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