Group urges New London to fund Riverside Park improvements

New London — A local nonprofit group is pushing to revive plans that would restore a missing pedestrian access point to Riverside Park and connect the nearby elementary school.

The Riverside Park Conservancy has asked that, with some urgency, the City Council move to appropriate money for construction of a stairway from the end of Grove Street, behind Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School, into the park, along with some other improvements. It would replace an eroded set of railroad tie stairs that now pose a safety hazard and force teachers and students to use Riverside Heights, an access road without sidewalks, to access the park.

It's not the first time the issue has been raised. The Parks and Recreation Commission in November sent a letter to the council with the same request. Council members discussed the matter on Monday and called for cost estimates for the project.

Conservancy members say a simple set of concrete stairs and a handrail would cost anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000, well short of the $801,000 leftover from the $925,000 first approved by the City Council for park improvements in 2014. That money was part of a 2011 bond ordinance for infrastructure improvements.

Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture subsequently had developed an elaborate master plan for the park that included not only development of the stairway but the creation of outdoor classrooms, complete with terraced vegetable and fruit gardens, handicapped-access ramps, sensory trails and space for bird studies and tree tours.

While the $925,000 was never meant to cover the entire cost of the project, the school district retroactively had included a $1.9 million funding request to the state as part of the $28.7 million Winthrop school reconstruction project.

“I think in some people’s minds having the stairway included as part of the school project would allow the $925,000 to be spent on the rest of the park,” park conservancy member Ronna Stuller said.

But the state rejected the proposal last year and plans have been shelved ever since.

Interest in improvements to the park, which has sweeping views of the Thames River, have waxed and waned through the years.

The approval of planned improvements at the park came only after city residents in 2011 narrowly defeated a proposal to sell 9 acres of the park to the adjacent U.S. Coast Guard Academy for $2.9 million. Popularity of the park peaked during that time. In 2013 the park became home for Emilie's Shady Spot, a playground built in honor of Emilie Parker, one of the students killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

The city created the park in 1893 and, while it spanned 33 acres in 1910, it has shrunk over the years as land was transferred to the Coast Guard Academy. The park now covers about 17 acres and, like the Hodges Square area, was isolated from the rest of the city when Interstate 95 was built.

Along with construction of the stairway, the Riverside Park Conservancy is hoping some of the remainder of the funds could be used to build a pavilion where one once stood on an existing concrete pad in the park.

“The structure would be available for use by Winthrop teachers and students during school hours, and would also provide the city with an attractive new offering for event rental,” Riverside Park Conservancy Chairman Lindsey Blank said in a letter to the council.

The Parks and Recreation Commission additionally has requested that the 1.25 acres transferred to the school district to accommodate the stalled Winthrop project be returned to the city.

The council appeared to be uncomfortable with using the money without an estimate on the costs associated with the project. The request remains on the agenda for the council’s Education, Parks and Recreation Committee.

A representative from Winthrop was not available to comment on the school’s use of the park.

g.smith@theday.com

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