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New London - The City Council on Monday narrowly approved a $925,000 appropriation to fund improvements to Riverside Park.
Council members appeared to agree on the fact the improvements were long overdue but argued about the process and timing of how and when to do the work.
The money will come from the $15 million bond authorized in 2011 for capital improvements and infrastructure projects and have negligible impact on property taxes, according to city administration.
Councilors Wade Hyslop, Erica Richardson, Efrain Dominguez and Anthony Nolan voted in favor of the funding. Councilors Michael Passero, Martin Olsen and Michael Tranchida voted against it.
The park was nearly sold to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2011, a proposal that narrowly failed at referendum and led to a grass-roots effort to save the park and the creation of the Riverside Park Conservancy.
Future improvements are expected to follow the design based on the work of the Community Research and Design Collaborative of the University of Connecticut and link the Winthrop Elementary Magnet School. The design envisioned restored stairs linking the school to the park, a pedestrian bridge near the riverbank and a pier out to the river, along with more picnic areas and activity spaces.
The park is now home to Emilie's Shady Spot, a playground built in honor of one of the Sandy Hook victims.
Passero argued that improvements to the stairway linking the school could be mostly covered with state funds if the school were to take ownership of that portion of the property. He also said he was unsatisfied with the lack of planning. He tried unsuccessfully to add several amendments that would have placed any plans before the Planning and Zoning Commission or the Parks and Recreation Commission. He also suggested a request for proposals from architects.
"Why are we appropriating $925,000 if we don't have a plan?" Passero asked.
Other councilors and residents, however, argued that it had already been long enough. Nolan added an amendment that would allow all phases of the project to come before the council for approval.
Catherine Strother, a member of the Riverside Park Conservancy and neighbor of the park, told the council to "finish the project we started. It's time we invest in New London."
Olsen said, "I don't know anybody up here that's against Riverside Park."
"We may have some differences in priorities and how to accomplish these goals," Olsen said.
In a letter to the council, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio called the project a priority that not only saves the park permanently and promises to connect to the Winthrop School, but "brings necessary investment to a neighborhood that has been long neglected during a time in which our City is working to revitalize Hodges Square and East New London."
Editor's note: This version corrects the spelling of Emilie's Shady Spot.