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New London - On a sunny Wednesday morning, a parade of bicycles moved down Crystal Avenue toward Riverside Park. The riders, children from New London's Drop-In Learning Center, set down their bikes and ran to the edge of the park by the street, where they began digging, planting and watering.
"My parents say this place isn't safe," Stefani Yancey, 10, said.
"We're trying to make it better," 9-year-old Douglas Vasquez said.
"We're going to make it really nice so people will treat it well," Unique Ketter, 9, said. "We want to put a sign up that says, 'Please treat this well. We worked hard on it.'"
The children have spent part of their summer working to beautify a park that just two years ago almost was cut in half. Since the November 2011 referendum that defeated a proposal to sell half the park to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, organizations and individuals have volunteered time to improve the 18-acre wooded space. Their goals are to return it to its former popularity and reconnect it with the rest of the city through the larger revitalization of the northeastern neighborhood of Hodges Square.
They have a plan.
On this summer day, students and instructors were the only ones in the park. That was often not the case in the mid-20th century, when Riverside Park was frequented by families from New London and surrounding areas.
"It was my playground," Rhode Island author Charles Read said. He lived on Bolles Avenue during his teenage years. "After dark, we'd go out there and sleep out in sleeping bags. We'd go down to the beach, and when there was the pier, we used to go out and catch crabs."
The area was cut off and began to fall into disrepair when the construction of access ramps to Interstate 95 and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge began in the late 1950s.
"I'm disappointed in what happened, but it's not a dump by any means," Read said.
Nearly half of the original 33 acres were transferred to the Coast Guard Academy over the years, but when the city considered selling 9 more acres to the academy in 2009, a movement to save the park emerged.
A political action committee, Friends of Riverside, formed to save the park, which had been attracting renewed interest since 2007. Editor's note: This corrects the title in an earlier version.
"We had two basic goals: To improve the environmental conditions, and to improve how much it is utilized," said Ronna Stuller, former treasurer of the Friends of Riverside and now treasurer of the Riverside Park Conservancy. Editor's note: This corrects the titles in an earlier version."We promised that if we won, we'd create a conservancy to follow this mission."
Since the referendum, at which New London voters chose by a narrow margin not to sell, organizations and individuals have diversified their efforts and sometimes disagreed.
Some members of the Friends of Riverside Park created the Riverside Park Conservancy as promised in its campaign to save the park. They filed to become a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 2012 to be eligible for grants.
The conservancy, through a grant from the Captain Planet Foundation, helped fund the "Peace Pollinator" Butterfly Garden planted by Drop-In Learning Center students. The project has taught bicycle safety, gardening and the importance of beautification.
"In this community, peace means being able to play," said Martina Bottineli, a teacher at the Drop-In Learning Center. "We want the students to be able to come here after school as the sun is setting and have fun."
At the bottom of the park, close to the water, a new garden funded by the Veolia Foundation through New London Landmarks is sprouting. The "rain garden" is composed of water-loving plants positioned at the end of the park's uncovered stone runnels, its historic drainage system.
The Friends of Riverside, a volunteer group that maintains the organization's original mission of supporting the park, also created a garden - 2,388 daffodils planted last November. Corina Vendetto, one of the organizers, said she plans another effort this November under the name "Plant for the Future."
Volunteers have worked to improve infrastructure at the park to encourage its use. The Conservancy is using funds to install two new grills in the park and renovate the bathrooms, and Ben Toth of New London, on his own initiative, chose to map and refurbish the park's benches and picnic tables for his Eagle Scout project.
Not all are confident in a continued interest in restoring the park.
"As someone who used to live on the top of Crystal Avenue, I've seen these efforts come and go. Groups have come and gone," said Jay Levin, a lobbyist who supported the sale of the park to the Coast Guard in 2011.
But the coming addition of a playground that long had been debated among conservancy and Friends group members finally has been resolved by the donation of funds for "Emilie's Shady Spot," one of 26 memorial playgrounds to be built in honor of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Construction is scheduled to begin in September.
"It's coming at the right time," said New London firefighter Victor Spinato, who helped coordinate the project. "I believe when this Playscape comes to Riverside Park, it will be 110 percent better."
The city, the conservancy and other volunteers are trying to attract people by hosting events at the park. The Down by The Riverside Festival, first hosted before the 2011 referendum, will be held again on Sept. 7.
"It's to celebrate the volunteers, and we want to bring in people who don't usually visit the park to see what a great space it is," conservancy member Joan Sullivan-Cooper said.
Planning for the future
The park soon could have a master plan, developed by the conservancy, New London Landmarks, Thames Valley Sustainable Connections and two University of Connecticut professors. It's due to go before the City Council next month.
In 2012, Landmarks and the conservancy used a grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development Office of the Arts to host community workshops on long-term planning. The plan also pulls from studies and projects in the past decade, including ones focused on access to the waterfront.
"It concerned me that there would be too much emphasis on getting people back in the water to swim and not enough emphasis on the infrastructure," Sandra Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, said.
The first projects in the 15- to 20-year life of the plan focus on the land, she said, followed by improving access, restoring native plants, managing stormwater and realigning roads. Those goals are included in a grant application to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's National Recreation Trails Program. The $500,000 project includes converting vehicular roads into pedestrian and bicycle paths.
"The issue for this whole endeavor is going to be funding, but I believe it will all fall into place," City Council President Michael Passero said.
Several who supported the sale of the park in 2011 also said finances are the key issue. Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said he is impressed by the recent improvements but worried about the future.
"The city is struggling with their finances, so it'd be rather surprising if there was any way for them to really improve it. You'd like to think that it would be kept clean and safe," he said.
But Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who opposed selling the park in his mayoral campaign, said he will continue to support renewal of the area.
"The city doesn't have the resources to do it all at once, but we can do a little bit each year," Finizio said. "That's what is important about this master plan. It's an excellent long-term project that will have my support."
Meanwhile, volunteers not affiliated with that project continue to work. The children who worked on the "Peace Pollinator" garden will continue and are looking forward to a barbeque Friday.
"I can't wait to show my family what we've done," Ketter said.
2007 - Resident Art Costa and others form Re-New London Council, now known as Thames Valley Sustainable Connections, to improve sustainability and community-building, including at Hodges Square and Riverside Park.
2009 - Coast Guard approaches the city about selling Riverside Park.
June 2010 - Community charrette is held to discuss future of the park.
May 5, 2011 - New London Parks & Recreation Department submits five-year plan for Riverside Park to the City Council.
June 2011 - Friends of Riverside PAC forms to oppose the park's sale at referendum.
Nov. 8, 2011 - New London voters narrowly reject sale.
Dec. 23, 2011 - Riverside Park Conservancy is incorporated as a nonprofit corporation.
Sept. 19, 2012 - "Beyond the Bridges" workshop is held at Winthrop School on creating a master plan for Riverside Park, led by Peter Minuitti and funded by New London Landmarks' Creative Placemaking Project.
Sept. 7, 2013 - Third Annual Down by the Riverside Festival.
September 2013 - Peace Pollinator Butterfly Garden funded by Captain Planet Foundation through RPC and planted by students at the Drop-In Learning Center to be completed.
September 2013 - Sandy Hook Project memorial playground, "Emilie's Shady Spot," to be installed.
September 2013 - Master plan to be presented to City Council.