Published November 10. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Two years ago at this time, it wasn't clear whether much would be left of Riverside Park, which is on the Thames River next to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
But a new spirit was evident Saturday as volunteers spread throughout the 18-acre property near Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School to plant daffodils and rake leaves on a crisp but sunny autumn afternoon.
The volunteers, many bused over by Connecticut College, were preparing the way for construction at the riverfront park of a special playground that is to arrive in pieces Wednesday and will be assembled by members of the community in anticipation of a ribbon-cutting ceremony next Sunday.
The playground, one of 26 donated in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey as part of a project to honor victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, is the first major improvement at Riverside Park since city voters narrowly defeated an attempt to sell half the property to the Coast Guard Academy in 2011.
"We really thought the park was gone two years ago," said Ronna Stuller, a former Board of Education member who has been active in the Riverside Park Conservancy.
Stuller and others who fought sale of the park were despondent about this time in 2011, when initial tallies had supporters of the sale winning by 13 votes. But a recount a few days later showed the proposal being defeated by 19 ballots.
"We had a full week of suspense," Stuller recalled.
On Saturday, the only suspense concerned when reinforcements would arrive. But a small group of volunteers was heartened to see, minutes after the appointed 2:30 p.m. start of the cleanup, a yellow school bus trundle up with about 50 prospective Conn College students from as far away as California, Illinois and North Carolina, ready to donate their time to the park project.
Among the students were Maria Rodriguez and Yarimar Gonzalez, both of New York City, who said they were used to doing community service and knew they would be taking on a project as part of a Conn College program to introduce underrepresented groups to the nearby small liberal arts school.
"It's part of the Connecticut College admissions process," said Tracee Reiser, director of the school's Office of Volunteers for Community Service. "Some of them are going to be residents of New London for four years, so we want them to start building a connection to the community."
City resident Corina Vendetto estimated that she and her husband Wayne planted about 3,000 daffodils last year and expect to have planted a couple thousand more by the end of this year. The park is in much better shape than a few years back when residents complained that it had been essentially abandoned to drug addicts and troublemakers.
"We just really want the park to look fantastic for the ribbon-cutting," Corina Vendetto said.
Stuller said some people had wanted to move a playscape from Veterans Field to Riverside Park, but others had been pressing for a unique play area for children. And that's what the city got when Bill Lavin, a New Jersey firefighter heading the Sandy Ground Project, decided that the park would be given a playscape dubbed "Emilie's Shady Spot," in recognition of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, a Sandy Hook victim who once mentioned her love of playing under the trees.
The playscape area, next to an existing basketball court in the core of the park, already has been cleared, and a cement underlaying has been completed. Volunteers are encouraged to help out Wednesday and Thursday as the playground equipment is assembled.
"It will bring people and lots of people into the park," Stuller said.
The playscape is only one of the projects envisioned as part of the century-old park's revival. New London Landmarks, which held a series of creative placemaking workshops over the past year, helped identify some of the possibilities, with input from residents of the east New London neighborhood, but a final plan must be approved by the City Council, Stuller said.