New London votes to seek grants to redesign parking lot and narrow walkway gap

New London — Two projects that could change the way people get around downtown received City Council approval last week.

A plan to redesign the Eugene O'Neill Drive parking lots would give the back sides of large commercial buildings on Bank Street a second front door, which could be used for new businesses.

A long-discussed pedestrian link from downtown could get closer to neighborhoods to the south with a proposed walkers' and cyclists' pathway from Waterfront Park almost to the Shaw's Cove rail crossing.

The Office of Development and Planning (ODP) has applied for a $500,000 state Main Street Investment Fund grant that would be used to make the municipal parking lots on Eugene O'Neill Drive more appealing and accessible and to transform the portion of the street between State and Tilley streets from "a high speed thoroughfare" to a more pedestrian-friendly road.

It would decrease the number of off-street parking spaces, but officials think it would make it easier for visitors and residents to find parking in convenient locations.

The project, if approved by the state Department of Housing, would include better signage, traffic-calming measures, decorative lighting, enhanced pedestrian connections, landscaping and fencing.

"One of the overarching ideas behind the grant program is to fund public infrastructure that will leverage economic development," City Planner Harry Smith said.

Revitalized municipal lots with upgraded pedestrian connections to the surrounding commercial areas could prompt new businesses to open in buildings with back entrances on the lots, Smith said.

"We're really hoping this project, and we've seen this in other communities, will provide some of these buildings on Bank Street that back up to the lots essentially two frontages," he said.

The City Council on Monday unanimously authorized the grant application. ODP applied for, but did not receive, the same grant in 2012.

By redesigning the municipal lots and making it easier for drivers to get to them, city officials hope to "capture new visitors who may be unfamiliar with downtown's parking locations and traffic pattern."

"One common complaint is that there isn't any parking," ODP wrote in its grant application. "But the real issue is that there aren't any signs directing visitors to parking and from their cars once they are parked."

The project would include the installation of "way finding" signs to direct visitors to downtown businesses, restaurants and landmarks.

"The project will provide better signage in appropriate locations on cross streets, making parking easier to find, enabling visitors to spend more time and money in New London's restaurants, shops, art galleries and performance venues," ODP wrote in the application, "which will be key in sustaining, revitalizing and growing the city's economy."

The reconfiguration would result in a net loss of about 70 parking spaces, Smith said. Currently, there are about 240 spaces between the two lots.

The plan also calls for an artists' walkway, which would link the parking lots with Bank Street and include public artwork, to be established in the alley between the Bulkeley House Saloon and New London Ink.

The second project, which is still in its infancy, calls for a multiuse path to connect Waterfront Park and an existing path that runs along Shaw's Cove, bringing the city one step closer to connecting its northern neighborhoods and its downtown to Fort Trumbull.

The Economic Development Commission hopes to fully fund the design phase of the project through grants from National Recreational Trails Program and the PeopleForBikes Community Grant Program. The City Council on Monday voted unanimously to support the grant applications.

The path "will allow the public a non-motorized link that would provide opportunities in our urban center to enjoy water views, pursue fitness goals, showcase Connecticut waterfront, and provide venues for ... events that New London holds each year," Abel A. Donka, a member of the city's Economic Development Commission, wrote in a supplement to the grant application.

In 2003, the Connecticut Greenways Council made the 3.5-mile stretch of sidewalk between Connecticut College and City Pier an official state greenway. Waterfront Park stretches another half-mile from City Pier to Bank Street Connector.

The proposed multiuse path would be built on top of the existing hurricane barrier that runs along the Thames River between Bank Street Connector and Sparyard Street.

At Sparyard Street, the path would join the Shaw's Landing Condominium River Walk, a walking path developed in conjunction with the 2004 construction of the condominiums.

If the city is awarded the grant funding, the first phase of the project would begin next spring. Then, the city would apply for additional grant funding in 2017 to pay for the construction of the path. Construction could be completed in 2018, to coincide with the opening of the national U.S. Coast Guard Museum.

c.young@theday.com

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